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Analysis | Britain’s Summer of Discontent Is a Tale of Bad Planning

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Joseph told Pharaoh to use his seven years of plenty to prepare for the lean times to come. In Aesop’s fable, the grasshopper danced away the summer while the industrious ant prepared for a harsh winter.

Western leaders don’t lack for good advice from the classics, but clearly they don’t always take it. 

During the golden era that followed the end of the Cold War, prosperity founded on globalization and “nice” growth (non-inflationary, consistently expansionary) was treated as if it would last forever. Investment in national resilience was ignored. The pandemic, a hostile China and the war in Ukraine have shown that the fruits of the long peace were squandered.

Now the UK is grumbling through “a summer of discontent.” Inflation is running at 9.4% while energy costs in Britain have soared 57%, with more hikes due in October. Public-sector unions naturally want pay rises to match spiraling prices and have been flexing their muscles. The railway network is being brought to a standstill by strikes.

Had political leaders bit the bullet during the good times and enforced realistic staffing levels and flexible working, then higher wages for railway workers might make sense. But in the good years, no government was prepared to expend the political capital. The unions thus force drivers on London Underground railways designed to be driverless. Today most passengers also purchase their tickets from machines not ticket offices, yet the unions have successfully insisted that the latter stay open.   

There is a wider unease about the government’s capacity to deliver. In a moment of remarkable candor, Michael Gove, one of the most experienced Cabinet ministers until he fell out with Boris Johnson, recently told a think tank: “There are some core functions — giving you your passport, giving your driving licenses — which are simply, at the moment, not functioning.” 

Even if you have a passport, leaving the country is no picnic. Dover, the main seaport for car journeys to continental Europe, has seen long queues for passport checks. Try to escape by plane and you will find that airlines have canceled many flights for lack of staff, many of whom were imprudently dismissed during the pandemic. Short-termism has become part of the national character.

A penny-wise policy of restricting the number of hospital beds was also shown to be pound-foolish during Covid, and the health system has been in crisis ever since. A nearly seven-million strong waiting list for treatment has built up. But don’t expect to get to hospital in a hurry, even if you suffer a heart attack. The average waiting time for an ambulance is 52 minutes — that’s 30 minutes more than is mandated. Appointments with general practitioners are also hard to get. A free National Health Service is all very well, but only if you can use it.

Passport delays, transport bottlenecks and government paralysis can be fixed, but some structural reforms are well overdue.

A mile from where I live in Islington, north London, a water main has burst, flooding the streets. Billions of gallons are wasted this way every year. My local privatized water company Thames Water urges me to be “a hot spot hero,” by taking care to save “every drop” of water. A drought has been officially declared, hosepipe bans have been imposed and talk of rationing is rife — even as Britain has been getting more rainfall by the year. A modest proposal: Can’t they just fix the pipes? 

No new reservoirs have been dug despite a rising population. The Environment Agency opposed the last one because it was “not needed.” The regulatory agency for water, OFWAT, has allowed investment levels in the industry to fall despite record profits. 

Furthermore, a “winter of discontent” lies ahead. Cornwall Insight, an energy consultancy, projects the energy price cap to increase from £1,971 to £4,427 ($5,366.85) next April. Will the lights go out? Bloomberg’s scoop this week about government contingency planning for power blackouts has deepened the gathering gloom — not since the 1970s has there been talk of a three-day week and rationing.

If only past governments listened to expert advice about investing in an energy mix that included nuclear power and domestic gas as well as renewables. But an obstructive planning regime invited delay, and the political class as ever found strong short-term electoral incentives to put off hard choices. 

Meanwhile, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak continue their ill-tempered contest for the leadership of the Conservative party and the country, while the rest of the government takes a long holiday. Their talk of tax cuts and handouts is crowd-pleasing. But with a general election due within two years, which of them is brave enough to plan for a wider time horizon? Whether big state or small, we all just want one that works. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion



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