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Britain has been betrayed

Our country’s fortunes aren’t falling — they were pushed

Artillery Row

It is tempting to start any column on the state of the country by saying something like “The United Kingdom is in crisis”.

But the word “crisis” implies an acute problem. Whilst there are certainly plenty of those, such talk risks skating over how much of the current mess is rooted in a much deeper and longer-standing malaise.

The crunch in global oil and gas prices, precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is a crisis. But the short-sighted penny-pinching which saw us shutter our offshore gas storage facility, thus leaving us brutally exposed to the vagaries of the international markets, was an unforced error entirely of politicians’ own making.

Nor was it Vladimir Putin who shuttered most of the West’s military-industrial capacity to such an extent that we could probably not supply a high-intensity conflict for more than a week or two.

Likewise, the housing crisis has been on Whitehall’s radar since at least the mid-Noughties. It has now metastasized into an all-consuming social disaster, with negative consequences ranging from the vast to the very specific. Yet government after government has ducked the question.

A golden opportunity for far-reaching change is being squandered

All of this and more adds up to the brutal fact that Britain is falling behind its neighbours economically and is on track to become, relatively speaking, a poor country.

If this litany of challenges ought to serve as a call to arms, it doesn’t seem to be one the political class is inclined to heed (or perhaps is even capable of heeding). Nowhere on the horizon, let alone in the Cabinet, does there seem to be a politician with the resolve or the programme to tackle any of these issues.

The Conservatives have a huge majority but no idea what to do with it. A golden opportunity to effect far-reaching structural change is being squandered on every front.

The schools revolution, having petered out since Michael Gove left the brief, is now being “rationalised” by the Department for Education. Meanwhile Downing Street strategists are reheating the row over grammar schools, without any clear plan for what their new policy will actually be.

Most of the urgently-needed planning reforms have been scrapped; so too have important infrastructure projects, especially on the railways. Ministers rail against “woke waste” in the NHS but refuse to do anything about the New Labour legislation which mandates public sector organisations to create the jobs they’re complaining about.

There has been no meaningful action to try and ameliorate New Labour’s over-expansion of higher education, which sees young people racking up huge debts to get what would, a generation ago, simply not have been graduate jobs.

Levelling up remains a slogan without a programme. The Cabinet can’t even agree on a coherent strategy for defending the Union. Landmark legislation such as the UK Internal Market Act, passed with great effort and much controversy, sits barely-used on the statute book.

We shouldn’t pretend Boris is the snake who ruined Eden

All of this could, perhaps, be explained away as simply what happens when a government has been in office for twelve years — that’s nearly as long as New Labour got — and is finally running out of steam.

But it’s not as if Labour under Sir Keir Starmer is exactly brimming over with energy or answers. We know they’ll try to unpick parts of the current Brexit settlement and spend even more money, but the Opposition seem to have as little to say as the Tories about major structural reform.

To some Hiroo Onodas still fighting the last war, all this merely proves the folly of leaving the EU. But the harsh truth missed by many who pine for the golden age before Anno 2016 is that we weren’t prospering as a member either. Had we been, there might not have been a democratic majority to leave in the first place.

I don’t intend, by taking in the broad sweep of the problem, to let the Prime Minister off the hook. His best hope for a useful premiership was as patron to subordinates who had clear ideas for reforming one area of policy: Dominic Cummings on the Civil Service, Oliver Lewis on the Union and so on. 

Yet he hasn’t managed to retain any key people in such roles. Even measured against the uninspiring standard for British governments, his drifts along seemingly without purpose, generating much heat and little light.

But we shouldn’t fool ourselves by pretending that he’s somehow the snake who ruined Eden. He’s just a cartoonishly heavy-handed example of the disconnect between the rigmarole of our rulers and the challenges of our time.

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