Welcome to Broken Britain 2023 and a new ‘Winter of Discontent’

Matthew Gwyther

I was walking on the South Bank of the Thames in central London one evening last week with my black pug. A young man pushing a pram containing his sleeping 3-week-old daughter stopped to admire Percy – an infrequent occurrence, as he’s pug-ugly. The chap said he was taking a breather from caring for his wife, who was in St. Thomas’ Hospital nearby.
On New Year’s Eve, he said, his eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife had fallen down the stairs of their home, badly breaking her leg. He called for an ambulance, but none arrived. Nor was one promised to arrive. So he packed his wife, now in agony, into the car and drove her to the hospital. The baby was delivered by emergency Caesarean section, and shortly afterward the mother’s leg was pinned and plated back together in a lengthy operation.
Ambulance service in England – already abysmal, with record-long wait times reported for December – has been further hampered by striking ambulance drivers, twice in December and once in January, with several more stoppages planned for February and March. As I sit here writing on Wednesday, my 13-year-old daughter is upstairs mindlessly scrolling through TikTok – her schoolteachers went on strike. Train drivers, too. During the past few weeks, industrial action has been taken by bus drivers, National Highways workers, Royal Mail staff, driving test examiners and staff at the Rural Payments Agency.
Keen exponents of the spreadsheet have produced monthly documents showing which services will be strike-struck, to give those hoping to live a normal life some chance to plan ahead. Welcome to Broken Britain 2023.
We’re in quite a mess at the moment. It takes me back to a previous era. I’m old enough to recall what was known as the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-1979, when famously even the Liverpool gravediggers downed spades, and the bodies piled up in mortuaries. Leicester Square, buried under mounds of uncollected rubbish, was dubbed “Fester Square.” This followed hard on the heels of the mid-1970s coal miners’ strikes; amid the resulting power cuts, I recall, I did my homework by candlelight.
Today, the lights are still on – a record 87 percent of electricity on the British grid came from renewables and nuclear energy on Dec. 30 – but something is amiss and deeply unhappy in the national psyche. Tuesday was the third anniversary of formal Brexit, when we cut our remaining ties with the European Union. A bright new future was promised by earnest Brexiteers, free from the antidemocratic bonds and red tape of European bureaucracy. But widespread gloom has been the result, with the areas that voted for Brexit, in particular, doing worse than they were three years ago.
We are teetering on the edge of a recession, and the International Monetary Fund says our medium-term economic prospects are the worst of any advanced country it surveys – even worse than Russia’s. There is precious little “Dunkirk spirit” about the place. After the knockabout comedy of Boris Johnson’s premiership, we had a brief and weird interlude of Liz Truss and her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, which alarmed financial markets so much the pound and bond markets nosedived. The cost of that excursion has been estimated at 30 billion pounds. With Rishi Sunak now in charge, a fresh round of Conservative fumbling has begun.
Slightly world-weary folk like me, who wouldn’t mind a bit of simple managerial, political competence, are chided for a “declinist narrative.” We’re denounced when we point out that, for Britain, it has been a long, slow slide downhill since 1914; when we quote former US secretary of state Dean Acheson’s line in 1962 that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”; when we dare to suggest that Britain’s former semidetached E.U. niche – without the euro as a common currency but with all the open-border trade advantages – meant we enjoyed the best of both worlds.
Britain was lifted from the malaise of the 1970s by Margaret Thatcher. But we pushed that Sturm und Drang button once, and one doubts whether it’s available (or desirable) a second time. “Where there is error, may we bring truth,” Thatcher announced on her entry to 10 Downing Street in 1979, quoting Saint Francis of Assisi. She decidedly did not quote Winston Churchill’s “In victory, magnanimity.” Thatcher was brave and resolute, but she was not magnanimous. She won famous victories, but showed no grace to the defeated. She delighted in rubbing their noses in it. As a result, she failed to create harmony out of discord. A bit of harmony, a collective pulling ourselves out of this fug, wouldn’t go amiss at the moment.
Washington Post