The Observer’s take on inequality in the UK | Observer Editorial
Britain has become a better country to live in by nearly every measure in the 70 years since the Queen came to the throne. We are a wealthier nation, with lower levels of absolute poverty and higher life expectancies. Many more can afford to enrich their lives with international travel. In the 1950s, few people owned televisions or refrigerators; today, technology they could only dream of has become a permanent feature for the vast majority. Women’s participation in the labor market has more than doubled and Britain is a far less racist country today than it was then.
But the national mood is different from 20 years ago during the Golden Jubilee, or even the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. In the early 2000s, Britain finally seemed on an upward trajectory after the recession of the 1990s. There was an air of confident optimism, fueled by sustained growth accompanied by much-needed reinvestment in public services, a thriving creative industry that exported British culture around the world, and the introduction of minimum wages and more generous social regulations, especially for pensioners. and for families with children. Peace was achieved in Northern Ireland and power was devolved to Scotland and Wales. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, even declared the end of the “boom and bust”.
It took a step back to understand how premature it was. First, there was the financial crisis of 2008 which reverberated around the world and triggered more than a decade of stagnant living standards for young people and low-income people; then, a referendum vote to leave the EU that sucked up all the political energy for five years, leaving little for anything else; and a pandemic that has claimed the lives of thousands of Britons and driven the national debt to levels not seen since the 1960s. Global oil shocks and war in Ukraine have driven inflation to historic highs this year .
Each of these crises has elicited a political response well below what the country deserves. Conservative chancellors used the financial crisis as justification to cut financial support for low-income families with children, even as they handed out costly tax cuts that disproportionately benefited wealthier families. Winning the Brexit referendum has only empowered Conservative party ideologues, who have spent years campaigning for an uneasy economic and political break with the EU that jeopardizes Ireland’s political stability. of the North and will increase regional disparities within a country. which already has some of the worst levels of geographic inequality among rich countries. Boris Johnson has made serious and deadly mistakes in his handling of the pandemic, while undermining public trust in democracy by breaking laws he himself introduced to protect lives during a national emergency.
The product of all of this is that the optimism of 20 years ago has been replaced by unhealthy levels of cynicism in our ruling class; the feeling that things will continue to improve has been overshadowed by the gloom of stagnation. This is the first generation of young people who seem to be worse off than their parents. Britain’s housing crisis means many people in their 30s will never own a home, leaving them insecure and at the expense of a private rental. But our reliance on growth fueled by consumer debt and made possible by rising house prices means that no politician has dared to implement the effective solutions to the housing crisis that would right this intergenerational wrong.
A decade of underinvestment in public services means waiting times in the NHS are at record lows, with those who can afford it turning to the private sector to access timely care. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that unacceptable waits for ambulances in England are putting lives at risk. A shortage of NHS dentists means some people are resorting to having their own teeth extracted to ease their pain. Rates of mental health disorders have fallen from one in nine children to one in six over the past five years, but services are in crisis, with many children being turned away for treatment because they are not sick enough. Politicians have dodged the tough questions of how to fund decent care for the elderly in a society with an aging population and in which the elderly are kept unnecessarily languishing in hospital wards for weeks or even months because there is no there’s nowhere to dump them.
Meanwhile, child poverty rates are rising after a decade of welfare cuts that have left parents dependent on food banks and charity to ensure their children are warm and well fed. The rule of law has been undermined by cuts to frontline policing and court delays, meaning some crime victims are waiting more than two years for their cases to come to court.
That life in Britain today is much better, on average, than it was in 1952 does not mean that citizens should shut up and shut up. The past decade has brought challenges on a scale not seen since the Second World War, but the UK is a wealthy country better equipped than ever to meet them, if only our leaders were up to the task. Britain in 2022 is a country that has never been so desperately in need of political renewal.