The national emergency alert on 23 April was well timed. Many poor families with sick members have “a life-threatening emergency nearby”. We have reached a point where our public services are on the verge of collapse. We have become accustomed to the employed needing foodbanks. More widely, more insidiously, our political culture has become debased.
In the last five years, the Conservative Party has made two frightful choices of leader: Johnson and Truss. One after the other, they took forward the impoverishment of several million people placing the UK below other European countries by most economic indicators. Stark inequalities prevail, from health to housing to educational achievement.
We now have a Prime Minister who lacks a personal electoral mandate. Polls suggest that most people in the UK have no confidence in their Government. Or more worryingly, their lack of confidence extends to politics itself and to all politicians as agents of social harmony, justice and wellbeing. If Sunak has any concern for democracy and Britain’s future, he must call a general election no later than this Autumn. Here is a short list of the reasons why.
We are getting sicker and poorer. Our National Health Service is in intended decline. Speaking on a recent Andrew Marr show Sir Michael Marmot declared forthrightly: “If you had the hypothesis that the government was seeking to destroy the National Health Service....all the data that we’re seeing are consistent with that hypothesis” (a hypothesis he also described as “a sort of malicious undermining” of the NHS). Marmot is a distinguished Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. He has been an adviser to the Director-General of the World Health Organisation and this year was made Companion of Honour by King Charles. What might be the motivation for undermining Britain’s flagship institution?
Well space is being created for a developing market in healthcare. As the publicly funded service deteriorates, as waiting lists lengthen, as staff vacancies grow, those with money can, and do, ‘go private’. Current evidence suggests that we are heading for a second-rate NHS for the majority and private practice for those with the money to buy it. Private good, public poor, as the ideology goes. Look at dental treatment and social care to see where this takes us. As Sir John Major said in June 2016: “the NHS is as safe with them as a pet hamster is with a hungry python”.
Conservative governments have failed to take adequate action to curb rising levels of obesity, ignoring both the link between poverty and ill health and the crushing demand diabetes alone will make on the NHS. Implementation of legislation that would ban the advertising of food with high sugar, salt and fat content before the 9pm watershed, and two for the price of one offers, has repeatedly been delayed. The food processing industry and supermarkets are free to encourage increased consumption and thus profit. Such delays placate the Conservative Party’s libertarian faction favouring the private sector whilst rejecting government responsibility for the public good.
The government is refusing to address the crisis in our schools. Primary school class sizes are the largest in forty years. Schools are in budgetary crisis and in several fields of study unable to recruit teachers, not least in mathematics. It is typical of the Conservative practice of governing by unfulfilled announcement that in the continuing lack of maths teachers and of the salaries which might attract maths graduates into teaching, Rishi Sunak should now be sharing his daydream of maths for everyone up to the age of 18. But for parents if you have the money, there are always the public schools, or private schools or tutoring, to make up for any inadequacies in the underfunded State sector.
Democracy itself is being weakened. Major institutions that balance and inform legislative power, the judiciary and the law, the civil service, and the Churches, with the support of the right-wing Press are either ignored or directly attacked. The first steps towards US-style voter suppression are being taken. On the spurious grounds of voter identity fraud, for which there is no evidence, at the local elections this May voters will be required to produce a visual identity document. A travel pass will permit an old person to vote but not a young one. The old are more likely to vote Tory than the young.
Respect for human rights, a pillar of democracy, is diminishing. The civil right of citizens to vote is an expression of inalienable human rights defined in the European Convention of Human Rights - which the parliamentary Conservative Party wants the ability to contravene. There is also an assault on human rights and human dignity in the treatment of asylum seekers and economic migrants. Having made a shambles of our immigration procedures – we do not provide adequate channels for asylum seekers to enter the country legally - contrary to refugee conventions we criminalise those who arrive by non-regulated means of entry. The backlog in assessing asylum applications is as much the result of intention as incompetence. This hostile environment intended as a vote-winning policy in marginal seats is another step towards populist authoritarianism.
Government has a cavalier attitude towards food security. British farmers currently provide about half our food needs. Here is Liz Webster, chair of Save British Farming: “The Conservatives with their BREXIT messed up our trade. This also impacted our labour supply because it ended freedom of movement. It also removed the cap and food subsidies”. Informed comment from a sector that on the whole foolishly supported BREXIT. The Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, was booed at this February’s NFU (National Farmers Union) conference. Minette Batters, NFU President, attributed food supply-chain problems to BREXIT. It was refreshing to hear the truth. British farming has been blighted.
Finally, we come to the genuinely existential crisis which threatens everyone and to which farming contributes: climate change. The Government has given itself permission to defy COP agreements including the spirit of COP26 held under British chairmanship. It has repeatedly caved in to lobbying by the fossil fuel companies including granting new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. As a result internationally agreed targets for reducing carbon emissions in the UK, Net-Zero by 2050, will be impossible to achieve.
The Government is generating flurries of announcements to hide that it is treading water. After 13 years, Tory rule has run its course. It is tired. It lacks talent. The Prime Minister’s judgement of who should be appointed to his Cabinet looks increasingly questionable. Scandal follows scandal. Senior Government Ministers follow each other onto the back benches. The vocabulary of politics, increasingly influenced by social media, swings from schoolboy jibes to dog-whistles to misinformation that fact-checkers can reveal as such in minutes.
As a university lecturer in Nigeria, I learned a lot about corruption and heard many pithy expressions. Commenting on their own politicians Nigerians often said: “they no savvy shame”. Words that perfectly fit 13 years of Tory rule. The May local elections will give some indication of whether the public agrees. But most likely, despite predictable losses it will remain Party first, country second. We may well have to wait until the last moment, in the autumn or winter of next year, before the Tories finally savvy shame.
See TheArticle 27/04/2023