By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro
Put on the radio or TV in the UK nowadays and all you hear about is how to save energy, save on your shopping basket or save on buying presents for loved one this festive season, with families everywhere struggling to make ends meet. The cost-of-living crisis has been hitting Britain hard in comparison to other developed nations, dampening the spirits of the people as another hard year that has been, to say the least, very eventful draws to a close.
These end-of-year festivities have not been challenged by COVID-19, or even the flu (yet). But for the first time in four decades, most British people have been feeling the economic crunch — be it the result of Brexit, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or, above all, the Conservative Party’s 12-year reign of austerity and mismanagement of state and society.
This festive season, many families are struggling to heat their homes and feed their children due to inflation, high energy prices and the rising cost of food and everything else. Some have decided not to send Christmas cards, not to buy presents, as is the tradition, or maybe to miss out on visiting friends and family.
Even those who are feeling the pinch less are unlikely to have their greeting cards and gifts reach their destination on time due to strikes by postal and transportation workers. And even if you want to fly to escape all this, border force workers are striking over poor pay as well. In Britain this year, even falling ill is not advisable due to the striking NHS nurses and ambulance drivers. And one should not forget that the NHS has been suffering from backlogs for even the simplest of medical procedures due to shortages of doctors and nurses.
Staying at home this year seems the better option, as Britain is in the midst of an economic recession, which comes on the back of a breakdown in trust in the Tory leadership after a year that has seen three prime ministers and four chancellors.
Traditionally, Conservative governments have been unsympathetic toward public sector workers and have favored a shrinking state, lower taxes and less investment in the public sector for the benefit of individual and corporate private enterprise. But all that has unraveled, as the country has been caught lately with inflation ballooning above 10 percent, which has come after years of real-term wage decline as a result of austerity.
Before inflation hit the UK, the pandemic had laid bare the impact of reduced investment and funding for the National Health Service and other publicly funded sectors. The striking nurses have seen their income stagnate, if not fall in real terms, since 2010. Overall, the NHS has received less in capital investment over the past decade than the health services of many European countries, as well as the US and Canada. Since COVID-19, though more nurses and doctors have been recruited, bed capacity at hospitals remains low, with occupants slow to be discharged due to a lack of adequate care homes and other social and community secondary care. Once seen as the jewel in the crown of all public services, the NHS is now treating 12 percent fewer people than before the pandemic, with waiting lists for medical attention breaking all records.
The Tory government would like people to see the striking train drivers and nurses as troublemakers and not the victims of the policy choices of the ruling government. Many experts have pointed to the government as the sole author of the trouble it has been facing and have held it responsible for the error of squeezing the NHS and other public sectors as they obsessed about tax cuts, freezing fuel duties and starving local council budgets. All that denied the Treasury vital ammunition and room for maneuver. Then came Brexit, which is shaving some £100 billion ($121 billion) off the UK’s gross domestic product and has caused the loss of more than £30 billion in tax revenue. Instead of Brexit opportunities increasing the funding for the NHS, as per the false promises made by those campaigning to “Take back control” by leaving the EU, it and other sectors are receiving billions less now compared to before.
Any crisis that hits a nation usually offers opportunities within it to reform and renew. But a political arena bent on toxic manipulation, the half-truths of Boris Johnson and the adventurist fairy-tale economics of Liz Truss after him, then the twists and turns by the current government, which refuses to meet in good faith with the strikers to find a solution, means this Christmas season and other festivities are likely to be dampened by the worries and anxieties felt in every British household. Short of establishing renewed trust in our public life and public services, which this government does not think is a priority, the country should unfortunately brace itself for more trouble ahead.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.