Leader: Britain’s public realm is in unmistakable decay after years of unending cuts

Rough sleeping and child poverty are rising, while the NHS and schools struggle.

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Nearly a decade has passed since the Conservatives first declared an age of austerity. Punitive cuts to public spending were justified on the grounds that the state could do “more with less” and that the government was “crowding out” the private sector.

When Britain’s current budget deficit was recently eliminated – two years later than promised – the former chancellor George Osborne declared victory: “We got there in the end – a remarkable national effort.” Yet he did not mention the cost at which this hollow aim was achieved.

After years of unending cuts, Britain’s public realm is in unmistakable decay. Rough sleeping, which fell by three-quarters under the last Labour government, has risen by 169 per cent since 2010. The NHS has been forced to cancel operations and even urgent surgery as it struggles to meet ever greater demand, despite its headline budget being protected. In education, “ring-fencing” has been woefully inadequate in preventing schools from running deficits, and some have resorted to asking parents to provide essentials they can no longer afford such as stationery and books. Relative child poverty has increased for three consecutive years and now stands at 4.1 million, or 30 per cent of children. Nearly 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres and 478 libraries are estimated to have closed since 2010. Potholed roads and uncollected bins are evidence of the scale of austerity borne by councils (real-terms funding for local authorities has been cut by 49 per cent since David Cameron took office as prime minister).

Conservatives traditionally recognised the value of intermediate institutions in promoting social cohesion and preserving what Edmund Burke described as a contract “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. But a more arid and doctrinaire conservatism has neglected such wisdom. 

In this week’s New Statesman, Jason Cowley reports on the distress and outrage caused by the sudden closure of a local doctors’ surgery, Osler House, in Harlow, Essex. The 3,000 locals affected, including his 89-year-old aunt, were given no advance warning and were advised to register in areas inaccessible to the elderly. Over the coming weeks, we will publish a series of articles on the reality of “Crumbling Britain” and the human cost of austerity. In an age when local journalism is in remorseless decline, it has never been more important to tell such stories.

For Britain, the sixth largest economy in the world, severe austerity has always been a choice, rather than a necessity. National governments have a duty to manage the public finances responsibly. However, as economic evidence shows, the best long-term means of debt reduction is productive investment, not politically driven cuts. Government borrowing, it is said, will “burden” younger generations. Yet austerity has enfeebled the collective institutions that they depend on and that their forebears strove to build.

Britain’s economic and social divisions are the root of its political polarisation. The Brexit vote was not merely an expression of antipathy towards the European Union but a symptom of far greater discontent. Should the government continue to preside over a new era of private affluence and public squalor, the United Kingdom will become a yet more troubled and divided country. 

Enoch Powell’s revenge

Before speaking to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham on 20 April 1968, Enoch Powell told a friend: “I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket.”

This was an understatement. The “Rivers of Blood” speech – named after its allusion to a foaming River Tiber in Virgil’s Aeneid – provoked Powell’s swift ejection from the shadow cabinet. It is no wonder that the BBC’s decision to re-create the speech on 14 April caused such anger, because Powell’s rhetorical flourishes, such as the relaying of lurid and unsubstantiated anecdotes about immigrants, have been copied by today’s agitators such as the Ukip MEP Nigel Farage. 

And, as Nick Pearce and Michael Kenny argue in this week’s New Statesman, Powellite tropes about sovereignty have now entered the political mainstream. His scepticism over Europe, and his creation of the figure of an “anti-establishment” politician, helped bring about the conditions for Brexit. You could call him the first true Eurosceptic. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge