The Decline and Fall of the British State

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Part the First

This article was published in the Sunday Island on February 19, 2023

There is a certain class of Sri Lankan citizen who believes that their country would be better if still ruled by the British as part of its benevolent Empire.  This is pure fantasy because the Empire was never benevolent and there would be no chance of Britain ruling again in any of its former colonies. Today Britain cannot govern itself but retains its imperial arrogance in trying to tell the rest of the world how to conduct itself. The UK’s persistent  criticisms of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC while ignoring its own  misdeeds in recent times is an example of this arrogant impudence. I will not here go into the bungled invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the atrocities committed by British troops and the shambolic withdrawal.

I have dealt at length elsewhere with the appalling barbarity of the British, civilians, women as well as men, as well as military and police, in Kenya.

Declining Years

I took an interest in UK and US politics from my early teens and later got an Honours degree in American Studies.  I noticed even in the early 60s a vogue for writings about the decline of Britain. There was much lamentation about poor productivity, idle and obstructive workers, poor management, failing exports. Britain was much weakened by the effort put in to win the war against the Nazis and there was much resentment when the West German and Japanese economies began to do rather well while Britain agonized over poor GDP and balance of trade deficits and national debts.

The war would not have been won without the Empire but the country was so weakened by the war that it could no longer afford to run an empire. British troops, including young boys conscripted under National Service (luckily I was too young to enjoy that treat) continued to fight bloody colonial wars in Malaya and Cyprus, as well as helping the Americans out in Korea.  I missed the opportunity of joining the Glorious Glosters and winning a Victoria Cross like James Carne at the Imjin River.

Harold Wilson has not been given enough credit for keeping Britain out of Vietnam. The UK realised that it had to grant independence throughout the Empire. The Empire became the Commonwealth. Britain’s first colony, Ireland, became independent in 1922 and refused to join the Commonwealth. (It has still not joined, although other countries’ colonies such as Rwanda and Mozambique have. Ireland has also not joined NATO but has long been an enthusiastic member of the EU.)  Ireland formally became a republic in 1949, the same year that Ceylon became independent.

Good things happened such as the foundation of the National Health Service and the Welfare State but right wing critics saw these institutions as part of Britain’s problem rather than a glorious achievement. Those views have become stronger today.

Britain still tried to punch above its weight. The year 1956 is seen as a symbolic marker of Britain’s decline. Sir Anthony Eden was a weak but arrogant prime minister. When Colonel Nasser took over the Suez Canal,  Eden, expecting American support, sent in British troops to take it back. Egypt had not been officially a British colony, but it was one of those countries, Argentina was another, where Britain exerted undue influence. British intervention in Suez went very badly and the nation’s reputation never recovered.

The  IMF recently forecast that the  UK GDP would  shrink by 0.6 % over the course of this year, making it the only country in the G7 to fall into recession. This compared with 1.2 % growth in Canada, 1 % in the US and Japan, 0.9 % in France, 0.1 % in Italy and 0 % in Germany. Even Russia’s heavily sanctioned economy is expected to expand by 1 % this year.

Industrial Relations

Popular culture, with films like I’m All Right Jack, portrayed the British worker as an obstructive layabout ready to down tools at the slightest excuse. The Callaghan Labour government lost power to Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979 because of the Winter of Discontent with local authority workers among those going on strike leaving corpses piled up in morgues and rubbish filling the streets. I remember going to see Robert Altman’s film A Wedding at a Manchester cinema and experiencing a large rat  running across my foot.

Today’s deputy prime minister (he could be gone by the time this is published) contributed to a book, Britannia Unchained, which carried on the theme of lazy British workers. Former short-lived pm Liz Truss also contributed to the book.

Look who is striking today. Nurses  and medical staff were applauded during the worst days of the pandemic but the government continues to cut their pay and will not even talk to them. Sunak’s contribution to the debate is to rehearse the old canard of the Labour Party being in hock to union paymasters.

The Office for National Statistics confirms that  2022 was the worst period of strike action since 1989 – with 850,000 working days lost in December alone. 4.1 million working days were lost to strikes in 1989. 

Sad Decline of the NHS

I spent most of 2022 in the UK and saw and experienced for myself the difficulties people are have dealing with the NHS. Rather than try to describe the problems myself. I will rely on the BMA (British Medical Association). On their website they list the following:

Chronic understaffing – Staff shortages have been growing in the NHS for years. This has been driven by inadequate workforce planning and lack of government accountability – including insufficient funding and infrastructure to train enough new doctors. This is exacerbated by poor retention. Demoralised staff do not want to stay.

Declining wellbeing – Excessive workloads are normalised by continuously requiring overstretched staff to fill gaps that should not exist. The physical and emotional toll includes rising prevalence of stress, fatigue, burnout as well as suffering mental health and wellbeing through chronic stress

Growing pressure on general practice – Stagnation in the growth of the GP workforce has meant the average number of patients per FTE (full-time equivalent) GP has increased by 15% since 2015. This puts increasing clinical and administrative burden on them and other practice staff.

Insufficient funding – Recent funding injections have been on the back of below-average growth in the health budget in recent years so the system never catches up.

Deteriorating fabric – After years of insufficient capital spending, parts of the NHS estate are increasingly unfit for purpose. The cost of bringing deteriorating assets back to suitable working order (known as the maintenance backlog) rises each year.

Shortage of beds -The number of general and acute beds available in English hospitals has been rapidly falling since 2010. The UK now has one of the lowest number of beds per head in Europe, an insufficient critical care capacity that has been exposed by the pandemic.

Long waits and waiting lists for patients – In recent years, patients have been waiting longer for emergency, routine and cancer treatment. The NHS has been increasingly struggling to treat patients within safe operational standards.

More about this and other self-inflicted wounds next week.