Artillery Row

The failing state we’re in

Backlog Britain needs urgent reform

From backlog Britain in January to blackout Britain in December, the government appears to be speedrunning economic development in reverse. The allegation that the UK is becoming an “emerging market country” is untrue; “emerging” implies a degree of forward motion and optimism that simply is not present. 

The core problems are longstanding. I’ve written before about Britain’s lost decade of economic growth, the fact that wages in 2022 are lower than they were in 2008 and set to fall further, that economic policy in Britain resembled a process of managed decline — a view I subsequently retracted on the grounds that relatively little about it seemed managed. The sequence of crises we face now, from soaring energy prices, collapsing NHS provision, water shortages, high housing costs, the effective decriminalisation of burglary and theft, the collapse of the court system — I could continue, but you get the picture. 

Each and every one of these crises is attributable in part to poor governance. Their severity may be determined by factors largely outside of Downing Street’s control — the unwinding of demand suppressed by the pandemic, and the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine —  but the conditions were created through years of poor decisions.

The criminal justice system does not deserve the name

The NHS is not struggling because Vladimir Putin has unleashed a dastardly plot to destabilise it. We are now in a situation where demand for ambulances is so high that armed police are being sent to deal with heart attacks while patients wait over an hour in London. Patients suffering from strokes, treatable if seen quickly, are arriving to hospitals late. They will suffer irreversible damage as a result. Once at hospitals, ambulances wait outside for space to offload patients. For non-emergency cases, the waiting lists for treatment are at record highs. And all of this is a continuation of pre-existing problems. Reports from 2017 argue about how to address a trend which had already existed for five years. But when the government’s policy agenda is determined by headlines, and some problems are considerably easier to fix, the simplest thing to do with hard problems is kick the can down the road until a crisis eventually forces you to address it. 

The proximate cause of Britain’s energy crisis is the sudden shortage of gas supplies from Russia driving up prices across the continent. This does not mean that the problem would not be significantly eased if different policy decisions had been made. In 2010, Nick Clegg declared new a nuclear plant wouldn’t “come on stream until 2021-2022, so it’s just not even an answer”. In 2015, Amber Rudd complained that the UK’s energy system meant “no form of power generation … can be built without government intervention”. This observation was not addressed. In 2017, the government shut down its largest storage facility in order to save £750 million over ten years. In 2021, offshore wind farms and interconnectors were denied planning permission because they might harm local views.

In 2022, the government is planning to implement South African style “load shedding” — organised blackouts. This is where endless, relentless short-termism governed by “poll of the week” priorities gets you; it’s easier to shut down chunks of the country a few years on than to face an angry letter from a small cluster of NIMBYs.

Decadence and decline are closely associated

The criminal justice system does not deserve the name. The Metropolitan Police solved 271 thefts from vehicles last year, out of a total of 55,000. In eight out of every ten neighbourhoods affected by thefts, the police have failed to solve a single incident in the last three years. Less than 7 per cent of burglaries end up in criminal charges. And of course an arrest and charges may take a very long time to result in punishment: there are 58,000 outstanding criminal cases in the crown courts, with the average lag between crime and verdict almost 15 months. For rape cases, it’s now over two years. As a prospective criminal, you’d have to like those odds. 

To be fair, some action is being taken to address this. The government is proud to have put 10,000 police officers on the streets, and plans to deliver an extra 10,000. Once achieved, this will have reversed the cuts implemented by — well, least said, soonest mended. Again, there is no long term plan. 

At least nobody could have foreseen water shortages developing. It’s not as if the government has repeatedly told us that they’re likely to be more frequent as the climate changes. There is therefore no reason to be surprised that the last reservoir constructed in the UK was built in 1992, or that Ofwat has been denying permission for further construction.

Decadence and decline are closely associated. We associate decadence with gilt and debauchery, but indulgence can come in many forms. One of these is simply eating the seed corn; living off the efforts of your predecessors, consuming capital, slowly running the country down without replacing what is lost. At least the fall of Rome involved good parties.

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