Hwhen Boris Johnson ended his vacation? It’s hard to say. He never committed to the government, even during national emergencies, as revealed by his serial absence from Cobra meetings at the start of the pandemic. Now, as several national crises converge, he seems to have completely given up. But his detachment is not just a pathology. It is also a doctrine. Absence is what party donors have paid for.
Whether physically present or not, recent prime ministers and their governments have not prepared us for any of the great challenges we face. They have turned a blind eye because the water companies have not commissioned new reservoirs since their privatization in 1989, and have leaked astonishing volumes of that precious commodity we call treated drinking water – 2, 4 billion liters per day according to current estimates. It’s a carelessness so great that it looks like a metaphor. Instead of forcing them to stop these leaks, the government has let these corporations pump the rivers dry: the living world, as always, is the buffer that must absorb failure and greed.
The government is so determined to abstain from decision-making that it cannot even institute a ban on garden hoses: it must feebly ask the water companies to do so. Most, keen to ensure their metered customers use as much as possible, have so far declined. Companies have not been forced to upgrade their treatment plants either. The combination of overexploitation and sewage dumping is devastating. The water in the Higher levels of some of our chalk streams – remarkable ecosystems which are almost unique to England – now only consists of waste water outlets and road runoff. During this long period of lack of regulation, privatized water companies paid £72 billion in dividends to their shareholders’ accounts.
Similarly, David Cameron has decommissioned the government’s home energy efficiency program in the name of ‘cutting the green crap’. The number of detached lofts each year in the UK has risen from 1.6 million to 126,000 year on year. By 2021, the number had fallen to 32,000. Boris Johnson claimed he would reverse that trend, but his green homes grant was a total fiasco: so poorly designed it was doomed. Partly for this reason, a startling proportion of the population – more than half according to one estimate – could be plunged into fuel poverty this winter. Now Liz Truss, the Tory’s leading leadership candidate, has pledged to scrap green levies that fund energy efficiency and renewable electricity.
In Italy, on the other hand, the government pays citizens 110% of the costs of all the energy improvements they carry out. Germany has allocated €56.3bn (£47.6bn) for building renovations. Finland has equipped 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 chosen sides.
Energy bills, coupled with punishing rents, rising inflation and stagnant wages and benefits, could mean real hardship for millions without effective action. But neither the government nor the two leadership candidates are offering significant help. They also have nothing to say about the collapse that awaits the NHS this winter if, as seems likely, another Covid-19 surge coincides with the underfunding crisis. The only public services not facing a major deficit are defense (whose budget Truss intends to increase significantly) and roads. There is a reason the government spends so much on roads while throttling the rest of the public sector: they are one of the few public services used by the very wealthy.
It’s not just that this shell of a government, and those who seek to take it over, have no answers. It’s because their ideology prohibits answers. To them, due diligence is an abomination. Ten years ago next month, Liz Truss launched Britannia Unchained, a semi-literate polemic that blamed everything wrong in the UK on “a shrunken work ethic and a culture of apologies”. Of its four co-authors, three – Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab – are leaders in the current government (the fourth, Chris Skidmore, MP, seems to have had a damascened conversion and is now campaigning to stop climate breakdown).
They attributed the inequalities and the lack of social mobility in this country not to the patrimonial spiral of wealth accumulation and the resulting rentier economy, but to “laziness”. Citing no significant evidence, they argued that “once they enter the workplace, Britons are among the worst idlers in the world”.
They celebrated what they called “black market buccaneers” who in other countries have created “a place of lawlessness” where demand can be instantly met by supply. This, Truss and his co-authors insisted, is “the purest level of entrepreneurship, untouched by law, regulation, or taxation.” Their glorification of anarchy joined their section on free ports, whose development in this country supports both Truss and Sunak. Freeports are areas with weak democracy in which a near absence of regulation attracts money laundering by terrorists and organized crime, tax evasion, corruption, smuggling, counterfeiting and drug trafficking. In other words, they’re pretty close to the “places of lawlessness” that Truss and the others admire.
They have now had ample opportunity during their years in government to test this doctrine of absence. The result is impending stagflation and an anticipated recession that is likely to be deeper than that faced by a comparable economy. It turns out that inequality and loss of social mobility are not, as they claim, the result of Britons’ ‘mindset, perception and culture’, but of failed policies. . Who knew? Unmoved by the experience, Truss and Sunak intend only to move further away from effective governance. Everything that goes wrong in a nation first goes wrong in the minds of those who dominate it.
When governments are contractually unable to solve the problems of their people, there is only one option: play us against each other. This process is well underway: the purpose of the culture wars is to distract us from inequality. But it will go much further. Truss and Sunak compete to promise ever greater retaliation to those who seek refuge from murderous regimes. Last week, Truss promised to legislate against “militant” trade unionists and environmentalists, as if Johnson’s new laws weren’t draconian enough.
The more corrupt and less representative the government becomes, the longer must be its list of enemies and the more extreme the rhetoric with which it denounces them. As our crises escalate, as the government absents itself from public office, violence increasingly bubbles to the surface. This is how a country falls apart.