Britain’s summer of discontent

Instead of looking forward with hope, Britain is looking back in anger, as it gets ready to vote on July 4

Updated - June 13, 2024 12:21 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘For all the international angst, the problems are domestic’

‘For all the international angst, the problems are domestic’ | Photo Credit: AFP

In the end, Rishi Sunak called the much-anticipated general election six months early, announcing the decision in the pouring rain. The image of the soaking Prime Minister captured the sense of gloom that infects Britain today. The ruling Conservatives appear to have given up — to the extent that one quarter of Tory Members of Parliament, including serving cabinet Ministers, are not standing for re-election.

Labour, currently polling comfortably ahead, seems to both know the scale of the challenge it will face in inheriting a stalled economy, a creaking social contract and a fractured polity, and to know that it does not have any real solutions as yet to these problems. Neither party, nor any other groups, can offer any optimism. Instead of looking forward with hope, Britain is looking back, in anger.

Self-inflicted despair

Yes, Britain’s economy is anaemic; and the international security landscape uncertain; and, yes, a global malaise of hopelessness (evident in elections from Russia, to India, to South Africa to the United States) has spread to the United Kingdom. Even so, the despair in Britain is largely self-inflicted.

The country is still coming to terms with its own goal of Brexit — a move that neither solved the ‘problem’ of growing net migration nor provided the promised economic bonanza of numerous trade deals that would unleash its economy. There is no money to pay for a properly functioning National Health Service (NHS) and social care; a competitive and competent education sector; and also help mitigate a cost-of-living crisis that is causing almost three per cent of the population to rely to some extent on food banks (a statistic that has almost doubled in five years).

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The Conservatives, having governed for 14 years, has only itself to blame for its current unpopularity. As the problems mounted, the party descended into chaos. In this Parliament alone (elected in 2019), it has been through three Prime Ministers, four Chancellors of the Exchequer, four Foreign Secretaries and five changes of Home Secretary. It is not hoping for another term.

In 1997, Labour swept the polls after 18 years in the wilderness with a campaign song that promised ‘Things can only get better’. This time, there is no optimism — either in song, or logo, or campaign promises. ‘Stop the [Tory] chaos’ is unlikely to inspire much of anything, least of all hope. In contrast, Labour in 1997 offered change tinged with optimism. There was aspiration in the air. Tony Blair prepared the ground for the election by relentlessly focusing on ‘education, education, education’.

The problems are domestic

Of course, Britain in the late 1990s was in a different place — the Cold War was over, the economy was strong and ‘Cool Britannia’ ruled the cultural waves. The U.K. was outward looking and confident. In contrast, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is campaigning as the U.K. exits a shallow recession and is still bitterly divided over Brexit and immigration. Internationally, tensions with Russia and differences with China are privileging discussions on defence, but without any money to increase defence spending. And the war in Gaza is fuelling domestic tensions as Britain’s support for Israel is deepening social rifts amid accusations and counter accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, of hypocrisy and of disregarding international humanitarian obligations.

Yet, for all the international angst, the problems are domestic. People worry about the economy, an overburdened NHS, and public services, all of which are affected by migration and Brexit. On these issues, there is very little to distinguish Labour from Conservative. Both parties pledge to ‘protect the NHS’ but cannot find ways to fix it. The Conservatives insist the economic outlook is improving though household bills are yet to reflect this. Labour is wooing business but cannot reassure families. However, it is on Brexit that the greatest convergence lies — and not to Labour’s benefit.

More people now regret Brexit than support it. Yet, Mr. Starmer, having campaigned (twice) to remain in the European Union, has now categorically ruled out any return to a common market with Europe or free movement of people. Voting Labour will still return the hardest Conservative line on Brexit, despite the damage it is doing to the economy. And Mr. Starmer chooses this approach not because he cannot see the opportunity costs of Brexit, but because the rhetoric on migration has become so toxic that he will not risk sounding soft on it.

The scandals

It is telling that as the election approaches, there are two scandals dominating the news: one on the miscarriage of justice at the Post Office where hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly convicted of theft despite the Post Office leadership knowing a new software might be causing the discrepancy in accounts. The second concerns infected blood that was given to thousands of patients even after the NHS and civil servants knew of the dangers. Both cases span Labour and Conservative governments. And, in both cases, there was obfuscation, denial and dismissal by the state, including politicians and the civil service.

The new government will face a compensation bill of over £10 billion for these cases. But more than that, it will face an electorate that has seen how governments have played politics with their lives. On such rocky ground does hope wither.

Priyanjali Malik is an author and commentator

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