Britain is already in the throes of a deep slump – what happens when zero growth bites? † John Harris

fAway from the busy anniversary rush, I spent the May semi-annual holiday taking a long sponsored walk in Cumbria with my two children. I deliberately took myself out of the news, yet memories of politics and the state of the country were sometimes inevitable.

In the busy town of Keswick, I discovered that the cash-strapped council had closed the local swimming pool. There were also clear signs of a post-Brexit labor shortage in the hospitality industry. And when we finally started our journey back home, the inevitable happened: our first train was delayed in Crewe due to a “mechanical problem”, and on the second part of the journey, the collision of hordes of weekend travelers with a measly number of carriages meant that whole families squatted in hallways. Here was yet another proof of what all the flags and wacky parades couldn’t cover: a country in the throes of an ever-deepening malaise, where life seems to regularly hit the buffers, to the sound of that very British apology: “Sorry about the any inconvenience.”

As excitement mounts around two upcoming midterm elections, in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, this is all too easily forgotten. Until now, the government’s popularity has been almost exclusively due to the character of Boris Johnson and the horrors of Partygate. But it is clear that there is much more that frustrates and angers people: particularly rampant inflation and a crisis in the NHS that has manifested itself in sometimes deadly long waits for ambulances, imploding emergency departments and the near inability for many people to see a doctor or dentist. Outside of London, public transport is too often erratic and expensive. Another aspect of our current national condition is rather overlooked and focuses on what more than a decade of austerity has meant to the most basic aspects of people’s immediate environment: parks, recreation centers, roads.

If some of these things point to an ongoing story of underfunded services and austerity, then a lot of other things are changing. After the 2008 crash, the mounting problem of wage flattening was virtually ironed out by access to seemingly endless credit and the availability of cheap basic necessities sold at stable prices. In many places, this model came down to people working in stores to earn money to spend in other stores and borrowing to bridge any gaps. It is now over, thanks not only to rising prices and the prospect of further interest rate hikes, but also to fundamental changes in the labor market. A new economy is tied around automation, online consumerism, and working from home: If you’re not one of the lucky few whose days are spent in Zoom meetings, you might have to adapt to a new life as a warehouse worker or delivery person.

For millions of people, this all adds up to the worst possible combination of change and continuity: their livelihoods and immediate environment are in flux, but a state hacked back like this since 2010 is of little help. Meanwhile, Brexit is merging with the effects of the war in Ukraine to make things even more difficult. Late last week, the OECD forecast that economic growth in the UK is about to grind to a halt, with this country likely to record numbers that will make it the worst-performing member of the G20 behind Russia. A crucial factor is our relatively high inflation and the link with our departure from the EU. On Thursday, the Financial Times drew attention to “an imbalance between UK consumer spending levels and companies’ ability to deliver, partly due to additional trade barriers associated with Brexit”. In other words, leaving the internal market and the customs union will have very serious consequences, not least for the government’s tax revenues and therefore for public expenditure. In all likelihood, at least in the coming year, our problems will only get worse.

I am old enough to remember one of the most protracted periods of this country’s collapse, stretching from the mid-1970s to the 1980s, with strikes, shortages, the rise of Thatcherism, riots and much more. Lake. My memories are a little less dramatic: cafe tables were always sticky, adults talked endlessly about ways to somehow avoid all the daily hardships, and the public sector reeked of cheap laundry detergent and decay (in my high school, many of the classes took place in rickety portable buildings so close to a railroad track that when a train passed, the teacher had to pause). There are plenty of parts of the country where that vibe has never gone away. But what makes the present moment so politically important is that a modern version of it is reaching even the more affluent parts of the UK. In any mid-sized British city, the spectacle will be about the same: empty retail units, charity shops, chain stores where a bare minimum of staff endlessly coach people on how to use self-service tills, neglected public spaces and a latent fear aimed at schools and hospitals. To put the blindingly obvious, this is not what people were promised by their politicians, nor what they expected to face when they left the misery of the pandemic behind.

As evidenced by their increasingly desperate policy ideas, Boris Johnson and his colleagues have no idea how to respond to such a complex tangle of problems. But for Keir Starmer and the PvdA, the crisis feeling of 2022 is also fraught with danger. Until now, instead of offering any cure for the malaise, Starmer has tended to look like its umpteenth embodiment: a nervous, hesitant presence, seemingly as confused as anyone else, and without any story about where we are. , how we are here and what needs to be done now. If Johnson is impeached sooner or later, there may still be room for another senior conservative to claim they have an answer. That devout Tory freemarketer, Liz Truss, may have another chance to submit to even more of what got us into this mess. Another Tory pretender — Jeremy Hunt, for example — might influence to be a little more compassionate and centrist, but does about the same.

While old certainties are crumbling, both everyday life and party politics lack a coherent, credible, half-optimistic story about the future, uttered by someone people think they can trust. The popular view of politicians is perhaps too cynical to allow such views to run wild; perhaps Westminster’s talent pool is now so dry that anyone trying to inspire us will sound unfriendly and unconvincing. Perhaps those in leadership positions are now so steeped in abstractions and clichés that they fail to frame their offerings in terms of people’s everyday experiences. But remember the famous proposition of the great Welsh writer and thinker Raymond Williams: that being radical “makes hope possible, rather than despair persuasive”. At such a turning point is exactly what the slump of 2022 demands.

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