It isn’t all bad. Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar, after all, and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, a wonderful film about the effects of austerity on poor people, won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year. When the sun deigns in its wintery way to penetrate London’s polluted sky and alight on the stretch of the river Thames near my home, I remember that this is still where I want to live. However, we’re treated daily to policy announcements so paranoid and mean-spirited, you’d think we inhabited some hellhole. Your country and mine are potentially (were we to distribute our wealth more wisely) rich and fortunate beyond imagining, and we’re told by the UN that famine and starvation and homelessness are on a scale unknown since the end of the Second World War.
Our current prime minister, Theresa May, reminded her own Tory party in 2002 that they should endeavour to lose their reputation for being “the nasty party.” Yet here she is, glorying in our divorce from Europe, sacking her party’s veteran “big beast,” Michael Heseltine, for backing a move to allow Parliament a “meaningful” vote on the outcome of negotiations to leave Europe. (Every one of the remaining countries in the European Union will have such a vote.) Worse is her government’s determination to persist with her predecessor’s austerity programme, with its savage funding cuts to Local Authorities, the providers of most social services across the country. Schools are shedding courses and teachers, and class sizes are growing. The National Health Service is regarded as dangerously unable to cope even by those who work in it. There is a frightening growth of violence and chaos in prisons. All due to a lack of resources. May has bought a lot of new clothes, but she refuses to engage with anything but Brexit.
Meanwhile, George Osborne, the architect of the austerity programme when he was David Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, is now a backbench MP, for which he is paid £75,000 a year. Not a huge salary, though it’s more than double that of the average U.K. worker. He tops it up with £650,000 for a fourday-a-month job in an investment institution and has just been made editor of the London Evening Standard. “We’re all in this together,” he was given to telling us as he slashed the remnants of the welfare state.
More winsomely, May expresses her concern for those who are “just about managing,” known as JAMs, for short, though she has done nothing to ease their lot. Well, you Americans have a billionaire to sort out your inequality difficulties, so perhaps you don’t need me to tell you about ours.
Our most disheartening moment, in fact, has been the government’s recent backtracking on a proposal to accept a few thousand unaccompanied child refugees. The proposal was the work of Lord Dubs, a Labour peer, who came here at the age of 6 in 1938 as one of the Jewish children rescued from the Nazis in what was known as the Kindertransport. The Dubs proposal was a modest one, given that there are at least 90,000 refugee children still stranded in camps in Europe and the Middle East. Yet now the government has announced that it will accept no more than the 350 who are already here. Accepting more might encourage the others, and we can’t have that. What’s happened to those “British values” we insist that foreign visitors learn by heart if they hope to live among us?
We have had destructive rightwing regimes before, but I can’t remember a time when there was so little resistance or criticism coming from the Left. I’ve supported Jeremy Corbyn until now, though he’s been lukewarm about opposing Brexit, and he put his foot in it by insisting that Labour MPs vote with the government to trigger the exit. If Labour’s lethargy, confusion and sulking predate his leadership, it is his unwillingness to collaborate with the remnants of the Liberal Democrats, or the Scottish Nationalists or the one (excellent) Green MP, that seem symptomatic of the times. Not only greed and callousness, but a new chauvinism, an authorized suspicion of the rest of the world, even just of other people, rules the waves. And the fact that something similar has happened in America and in India and in many parts of Europe is anything but a consolation.