Broken Britain!

Protest against privatization of the NHS in the UK, February 25, 2023. Credit – People Health Dispatch

This is a cry often heard and written or spoken about on our home ground. No doubt its reverberations are being felt abroad as well, but first how does it look from an insider`s perspective? Currently it is the spectre of a spate of strikes across the nation that is the stuff of daily news here. These are happening in a wide range of public services, affecting diverse sections of the population in one way or another.  Nurses, school teachers, emergency service providers (ambulance drivers, paramedics, call handlers, care workers), doctors and other hospital staff, railway workers, bus drivers, university lecturers, civil servants in certain departments, postal workers, and even firefighters – these are the ones that come readily to mind but there are or have been others as well, such as in the travel and leisure business involving airport and airline workers, and the list is growing.

These strikes are not coordinated or centrally organised, in the sense of a national shutdown lasting days on end as used to be the case in the 1960s and `70s, when Britain was habitually described as `the sick man of Europe`.  Now each trade union responsible for the strikes has to hold a ballot and follow a strict statutory protocol to ensure a majority vote, an expensive exercise in itself, before announcing the timetable for the strike action and carrying it out. This is industrial democracy in action, having been thrust upon the country`s workforce by the Thatcher administration in the wake of the miners` strikes of the 1980s, since streamlined by successive conservative governments and which may yet be further tightened to put more obstacles in the process.

And it is not as if all these strikers are doing it for fun or no good reason.  They in fact lose pay for the day or days off work while on strike and are paid a bare minimum `strike pittance` by their union out of its reserves. They want publicity and sympathy for their cause.  In general, the strikers` main grievance is about pay, jobs, and terms and conditions of employment.  One of the main complaints of nurses and doctors is that, due to austerity and other policy measures having an adverse effect on recruitment and training, there is an acute shortage of them, thereby putting greater burdens on those who are in situ in terms of extra duties and extended time shifts.  They also have financial worries; many of them depend on charity `food banks`, a fate that is becoming increasingly common among other classes of people on low wages as well as those who are living on state benefits.  Workers in other fields have similar concerns. 

All these people have seen a steady deterioration in their standards of living, because their earnings have fallen below the levels they were at 10+ years ago.  But more than that, right now, it is the rising cost of living that is driving the momentum for strikes across the board. Whatever pay increases, if any, may be offered are deemed not to be keeping pace with the rate of inflation. The oft-repeated mantra that the impact of the war in Ukraine and the hike in global energy prices are to be blamed for this does not wash with the general public, because they know that the underlying causes are much deeper, to do with the management of the economy and political ideology or infighting. This however remains an unfolding saga and there can be final word on it yet.

So much for strikes! More broadly, recalling what I wrote in Issue 3, 2016 (`What Now`), one can only reiterate that the country is in a continuing state of decline on a variety of fronts. What I had observed then is doubly true and its manifestations are far and wide now. The following passage is worth quoting in some detail:

`The rot [that] had begun some years ago … is … too stark to ignore. It cuts across most areas of our daily lives. Long established civil institutions and structures are being eroded. There has been a scaling down of public and social services, and of the welfare state itself. Public toilets … have more or less disappeared.  Public libraries are being shut down, though fortunately many of them are being taken over by local community groups and run by dedicated volunteers. Schools and colleges are increasingly being taken out of … local authority control and turned into profit-making academies.  Higher educational establishments are also under attack … marketization of universities [is damaging their] academic excellence and independence`… and a lot more in that vein!’

Take the above as updated and the reality, alas, is much worse.

The Brits like to claim to be top or world class in this and that – an imperial hangover that is hard to shake off – but some of these claims turn out to be empty boasts.  Greater London`s road and transport infrastructure, for example, can hardly be compared to that of cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok (Third World?), or Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo.  Their networks of speedy urban highways, integrated transit systems stretching into the suburbs, canals and waterways, and wide roads with dedicated cycle lanes and uncluttered sidewalks – all these are far superior to anything that London has to offer.  Our daily experience is one of constant traffic diversions, slowdowns, lightening or longer lasting roadworks, potholed or poorly maintained streets and pavements and overall frustration.  Of course, this must happen in other major conurbations too, but by any yardstick we are lagging behind. 

Then there is our beloved NHS (National Health Service), which is forever flaunted as the best in the world. It certainly has a pride of place in our national self-image, undoubtedly because it is free at the point of use and can be accessed by the citizenry at large at all levels, but it remains in a perpetual state of crisis, especially during winter months.  The repeated strike actions of nurses and other medical personnel described above are only a part of the story. There are long delays in ambulance call outs and transfers of patients into hospitals once they get there because of severe pressures on the accident and emergency services, compounded by a shortfall in the number of available bed spaces, and congestion in the transit pipeline, because elderly treated patients cannot be sent home (for lack of aftercare accommodation and support services) to make room for incoming new ones, thus creating a blockage!

At the primary care (family GP) level, again the problem is to do with numbers: too few professionals to look after too many patients – a massive disparity in the supply and demand ratio.  There are long waiting periods for face-to-face appointments with doctors, but to their credit GP practices have developed other forms of contact: by telephone and online video consultations and electronic communications. Also, on the positive side, the NHS has certainly coped extremely well with the Covid crisis of the last three years, through a successful countrywide programme of vaccinations, treatments, follow-ups etc.

But how does Britain do in comparison with other developed economies?  Yes, we are rightly proud of our NHS but they have better functioning systems of healthcare elsewhere – in Germany, Canada, France and the Scandinavian countries, with a better framework of social and welfare services for their ageing populations.

And then, in addition to all that is described above, there is the British police, who are also regularly touted as the (or one of the) best in the world, but their record and reputation in recent years have suffered so grievously that they can hardly merit that appraisal (see also my piece `Justice on Trial` in AwaaZ Issue 2, 2019.)  

This, however, is only a partial snapshot of the country at the present moment. But despite everything, it has not come to a standstill.  Our refuse does get collected, our post is delivered, our supermarkets and shops are well stocked, our transport services are operating, even with occasional stoppages, hospital appointments are kept and routine procedures are carried out – and so the population is on the whole well served in all these and other respects that matter.  A foreign visitor would be impressed with how well the country seems to be doing.  We are said to be going through a Winter of Discontent, but it is nothing like what it was during 1978-79 that I remember so well. Better times lie ahead? That remains to be seen.

© 27.02.23


  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. He is the author of ‘Empire’s Child’. See also