huhwhile Boris Johnson ended his vacation? It is difficult to estimate. He was never committed to government, even during national emergencies, as his serial absence from Cobra rallies at the start of the pandemic revealed. Now, as several national crises converge, he seems to be giving up altogether. But his aloofness is not just a pathology. It is also a leather. Absence is what the party donors paid for.
Whether we are physically present or not, recent prime ministers and their governments have prepared us for none of the major problems we face. They’ve looked the other way when the water companies haven’t commissioned new reservoirs since they were privatized in 1989, and have taken astonishing amounts of that precious commodity we call purified drinking water – 2.4 billion liters a day by current estimates. let it leak. It’s a carelessness so grand it feels like a metaphor. Instead of forcing them to stop these leaks, the government has allowed these companies to drain the rivers: the living world is, as always, the buffer to absorb failure and greed.
The government is so determined to stay out of the decision-making process that it can’t even impose a garden hose ban: it has to weakly ask the water companies to do so. Most, who have an interest in ensuring their metered customers use as much as possible, have so far refused. The companies are also not obliged to modernize their sewage treatment plants. The combination of over-abstraction and wastewater discharge is devastating. The water in the Upper ranges some of our chalk streams – remarkable ecosystems almost unique to England – now consist of nothing but sewer outflow and road exit. During this long period of absence from regulation, the privatized water companies have funneled £72 billion in dividends into the accounts of their shareholders.
Similarly, David Cameron dismantled the government’s energy efficiency program in the name of “getting rid of the green junk”. The number of lofts insulated each year in the UK fell from 1.6 million to 126,000 from one year to the next. By 2021, the number had fallen to 32,000. Boris Johnson claimed he would reverse this trend, but his green house grant was a total fiasco: so poorly designed it was doomed to fail. Partly as a result of this, an astonishing proportion of the population — more than half by one estimate — could be pushed into fuel poverty this winter. Now Liz Truss, the leading candidate for Tory leadership, has pledged to do away with green taxes on energy efficiency and renewable electricity.
In Italy, on the other hand, the government pays people 110% of the cost of all energy improvements in their homes. Germany has allocated €56.3 billion (£47.6 billion) to renovate buildings. Finland has fitted a third of its homes with heat pumps. We face a choice not only between fossil fuel profits or a habitable planet, but also between fossil fuel profits and habitable homes. Johnson, Truss and Rishi Sunak have sided with them.
Energy bills, coupled with punitive rents, rising inflation and stagnant wages and benefits could lead to actual poverty for millions without effective action. But neither the government nor the two leadership candidates are offering any meaningful help. Nor do they have anything to say about the collapse that awaits the NHS this winter if, as seems likely, another wave of Covid-19 coincides with the underfunding crisis. The only public services that aren’t in a major shortfall are defense (whose budget Truss wants to significantly increase) and roads. There’s a reason the government spends so much on roads while strangling the rest of the public sector: they are among the few public services used by the very wealthy.
It’s not just that this shell of a government, and those who want to take it over, have no answers. It is that their ideology forbids answers. For them, the duty of care is an abomination. Ten years ago next month, Liz Truss launched Britannia Unchained, a semi-literate polemic that shifted the blame for everything that went wrong in the UK to “a diminished work ethic and a culture of excuses”. Of her four co-authors, three – Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab – are frontrunners in the current government (the fourth, Chris Skidmore MP, appears to have undergone a damascene conversion and is now campaigning to stop climate degradation).
They blame the inequality and lack of social mobility in this country not on the patrimonial spiral of wealth accumulation and the ensuing rentier economy, but on ‘laziness’. Without citing any meaningful evidence, they claimed that “once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst loafers in the world”.
They celebrated what they called the “black market buccaneers,” who in other countries have created “a lawless place” where demand can be immediately met by supply. This, Truss and her co-authors emphasized, is “the purest level of entrepreneurship, untouched by law, regulation or tax.” Their glorification of lawlessness bordered on their section on free ports, the development of which in this country supports both Truss and Sunak. Freeports are areas of low democracy in which a near-lack of regulation attracts terrorist money laundering and organized crime, tax evasion, corruption, smuggling, counterfeiting and drug trafficking. In other words, they get pretty close to the “lawless places” that Truss and the others admire.
They have now had ample opportunity, through their years in government, to test this doctrine of absence. The result is looming stagflation and an expected recession likely to be deeper than a comparable economy. It turns out that inequality and the loss of social mobility are not, as they claimed, the result of the ‘mindset, perception and culture’ of the British people, but of policy failures. Who knows? Uncombed by experience, both Truss and Sunak only plan to further distance themselves from effective governance. Everything that goes wrong in a nation goes wrong first in the minds of those who dominate it.
If governments are contractually incapable of solving their people’s problems, there is only one option left: turn us against each other. This process is well underway: the purpose of culture wars is to distract us from inequality. But it will go much further. Truss and Sunak battle to promise ever-greater retribution to those seeking protection from murderous regimes. Last week, Truss promised to pass laws against “militant” union members and environmental protesters, as if Johnson’s new laws weren’t sufficiently draconian.
The more corrupt and less representative the government becomes, the longer its list of enemies must be, and the more extreme the rhetoric with which it denounces them. As our crises escalate, as the government withdraws from public service, violence bubbles ever closer to the surface. That’s how a country falls apart.