Dole queues became symbolic of unemployment in the 1930s. They epitomised what subsequent generations sought to avoid. That’s not surprising: images resonate in a way that think tank analysis and select committee reports do not.
One picture that has dominated attention this week is hundreds queuing in Bristol to register for an NHS dentist. Most dentist surgeries (83 per cent) are not taking NHS patients, meaning more people either resort to DIY treatment or fall back on the private sector. Large areas of the country cannot access a dentist within 24 hours (only 23 per cent can, compared with 67 per cent in Ukraine). Meanwhile, almost a quarter of five-year-olds have tooth decay. Could the long line of patient Bristolians come to represent the degradation of public services in the 2010s and 2020s?
The government’s swift announcement of a £200m “dental recovery plan” shows No 10 thought the images had the potential to become a totemic moment, a crystallisation of the sense that the Conservatives had left public services in a worse state than they found them. And that isn’t wrong: the think tank reports reinforce the symbols. The Institute for Government has found that all public services, except schools, were performing worse on the eve of the pandemic than when the Tories came into office. Failures have been particularly acute in those services without ring-fenced funding.
It’s not only public services that have suffered: infrastructure projects have become undeliverable and black holes for funding. The symbol of HS2 being cancelled by a prime minister in Manchester still rattles northern leaders. That image was expanded on by a report this week from MPs which said that without the northern section, the remaining London-Birmingham high-speed line won’t add much value for what it has cost. The question of whether Northern Powerhouse Rail – a high-speed route between the north-west and north-east – will be built remains unanswered. A new report from the Boston Consultancy Group found that infrastructure in Britain costs more and takes longer to build than in other countries. It lays the blame at the planning stage and an endemic aversion to risk.
And this is the evidence from a single week. Whether the queue in Bristol captures the public imagination is probably beside the point: most people already know that the state is not functioning as it should.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.
[See also: What Peter Mandelson’s return means for Labour]