What a disastrous time for the UK! First, the down-grading of public services due to the Government’s austerity programme, then the tragedy of Brexit, and now the ongoing mismanagement of Covid-19. How have we got into such a state? A huge number of people live in poverty with insecure employment and housing, the justice system is creaking at the seams, school and hospital buildings are falling apart and local councils have been stripped of their powers. We have turned our backs on our European neighbours, cast adrift into the dangerous seas of cut-throat global trade and we languish at the bottom of the Covid deaths league table. What a state to enter a crucial stage of confronting probably the most dangerous threat of all – global warming.
These are complicated issues. It’s tempting to look for villains to blame, but it’s more important to find the underlying reasons why we find ourselves in such a horrible situation. Boris and Dominic would be near the top of the list of villains, with their uncaring, gung-ho politicking. But deeper, institutional factors, some the consequence of our national history, or at least the way we tell it to ourselves, are more significant. A proud and unrealistic sense of who we are and our place in the world is doing us untold harm.
Domestically, a corrosive inequality exists, not just in wealth, although that is an important part of it, but in terms of privilege. An outdated class system lies at the heart of it. Status and power still belong, predominantly, to far too small a section of society, mostly privately educated white men who assume their birthright is the right to rule. There is a sad lack of understanding about the reality of life for the many people who live and work outside the circle of the privileged. The elite cultivate the friendship of the rich and they make use of their considerable political instincts to maintain their position. A successful tactic has been the promotion of Britishness and British values, which they claim to embody, as better than anything anyone else has to offer.
Linked to this is the legacy of Empire. Boosted by resilience and victory in two world wars, the notion that we represent the pinnacle of civilization has been encouraged. After all, we possess the “Mother of Parliaments”, we were the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and we once ruled a quarter of the world’s population. No doubt this gives us British much to be proud of, but also much of which to be ashamed – wealth derived from the cruel use of superior military hardware and the use of slave labour among the worst examples. There is, and really never has been, any room for any feelings of superiority or self-satisfaction. If the response to Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we have a great deal to learn from others.
So what is to be done? Only radical measures are likely to overcome such fundamental problems, and that won’t happen in a hurry. Powerful vested interests are naturally resistant to change. Might Covid-19 be the kind of crisis that makes change possible? Anyway, my suggestions would include reforming the House of Lords (so it’s no longer full of lords), abolishing the honours system, reducing the scale and expense of the monarchy, taking privileges away from private schools, taxing wealth and strengthening local Government. If we were able to do at least some of these things, our political life would be healthier and we would be better able to avoid the failures that have dogged our national life in recent years.