Today, Britain is facing its worst economic and political crisis since Labour came to power in 1997.
There are whispers that the title of the BBC’s popular satirical show Have I Got News for You? is likely to be changed to Have I Got Bad News for You? to chime with the current sullen mood in Britain as the country braces itself for a summer of discontent plagued by deepening economic uncertainties, threats of industrial action, a crisis of political leadership and mounting social problems.
No, actually I made that one up. But, come to think of it, it would not be a bad idea. For today, Britain is facing its worst economic and political crisis since Labour came to power in 1997 ending years of Tory incompetence. Economic and political difficulties apart, the country is sitting on a mountain of social ills such as a rise in family breakdowns (for every three marriages, there are two divorces); a spurt in knife-crime with London dubbed the “knife capital” of Europe; increasing alcoholism, especially among the young; and an alarming growth of “yob” culture.‘Broken Britain’
Tories have started calling it “Broken Britain” and even published a 600-page document setting out ideas to fix it when they come to power. A lot of it, of course, is Tory propaganda but when the economy is not doing well — or is doing as badly as the British economy is doing at the moment — and the government is seen floundering, people are inclined to believe the worst. No wonder, the mood is unremittingly gloomy. It is no longer fun even to be a tabloid journalist, thanks to a string of judgments against Britain’s thriving kiss-and-tell journalism.
The view that Britain never had it so bad may be as exaggerated as Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous boast in 1957 that most Britons had “never had it so good” but even the government doesn’t deny that the situation is pretty serious though it is loathe to accepting responsibility. So, how bad are things, really?Grinding to a halt
First, the economy. After a decade of uninterrupted boom marked (as Prime Minister Gordon Brown never tires of reminding us) by high growth, low inflation, near-full employment, unprecedented investment in public services and high consumer spending, the economy is about to go bust with growth virtually grinding to a halt while prices are rising amid raging inflation. Workers are being laid off, financial institutions are in the grip of a crisis of confidence because of a debilitating credit crunch and the housing market is down in the dumps.
Officially, it is not recession yet but to most people it already looks like one as they struggle to cope with the declining purchasing power and the prospect of losing their jobs. “Fears of recession grow as Britons stop spending and sales suffer their biggest slump for 22 years” said a headline in The Times as a Guardian/ICM poll showed that some 80 per cent of Britons believed the country was heading for recession. As a result, 60 per cent are trying to spend less, especially on food, clothes and fuel. “Overall, 72 per cent say they are spending less on clothes; 71 per cent on food; 70 per cent on driving and petrol; 70 per cent on [utility] bills; and 68 per cent on big household items such as furniture,” The Guardian said.
This is confirmed by official retail figures which point to a sharp downturn in consumer spending with most people cutting back severely on their weekly shopping. Economists say the consumer spending is set to decline further in coming months. The Bank of England has warned of more difficult days ahead and it is now widely acknowledged that things are going to get worse before they get better with a recovery not likely to start for another two years. Things are so bad that the government is reported to be toying with the idea of relaxing its much-touted “golden rule” on limiting public borrowing to 40 per cent of the national income.
The irony is that all this is happening under the watch of a man who, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer for 10 years, claimed credit for restoring economic stability and lost no opportunity to declare that the era of “boom and bust,” associated with the Tories, was over. Mr. Brown says it is all down to the global economic crisis but critics, including his own party MPs, retort that it is only partly true.
The government has been accused of waking up late to the crisis and not doing enough to protect the poor from its impact. Its handling of the crisis in financial institutions has also been widely criticised and there is a widespread sense that, for all his professed understanding of the economy, Mr. Brown appears all at sea.Impact on party ratings
Inevitably, all this is having an impact on Labour’s political fortunes with the party’s ratings plummeting to their worst since the 1980s when, under the leadership of Michael Foot, it was driven into political oblivion. Under Mr. Brown’s 13-month leadership, the party has been stumbling from one crisis to another making him one of the most unpopular Labour Prime Ministers in recent memory and prompting calls for a change. The latest political catastrophe to befall the party has been the loss of one of its safest parliamentary seats in a by-election in Glasgow East in Mr. Brown’s native Scotland. This is the third consecutive by-election that the Labour has lost in recent months, in addition to losing the London mayoralty to the Tories. The by-election defeat at the hands of a rejuvenated Scottish National Party has been described as a “political earthquake” and has led to demands for Mr. Brown to go. ‘Working class backlash’
Glasgow East is one of Scotland’s poorest areas where people have traditionally regarded Labour as a natural ally but increasingly feel let down by its policies. Many see, in the result, the makings of a “working class backlash” against Labour and, according to observers, a similar swing against the party in a general election could see Mr. Brown and most of his Cabinet Ministers lose their seats. “We can’t dismiss this loss as just what happens to governments in their third terms. We are in trouble,” one Minister said amid speculation of a possible challenge to Mr. Brown’s leadership at the party’s annual conference in September.
But clearly the message is not getting through . Within hours of losing the election, Mr. Brown’s message to party activists was: “Have confidence that not only do we have the right policies but that when the time comes we will be able to persuade the British people.” It had echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s arrogance and complacency when, in the face of a similar crisis, she pompously declared that the “Lady is not for turning.” And remember what happened to her?
Finally, a word about the anguish in the media following a landmark judgment which, if it were to become a precedent, could drive many British newspapers out of business. The judgment arose from a case brought against the News of the World by the Formula One boss Max Mosley over allegations that he organised a “Nazi-themed orgy” with hired call girls. Mr. Mosley, son of the 1930s Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, was alleged by the newspaper to have played the roles of a concentration camp guard and an inmate during the alleged orgy. The News of the World, whose report was based on the kiss-and-tell account of one of the call girls who attended the party, claimed that it was in public interest to expose Mr. Mosley’s private life.
The judge however ruled that public defence could not be routinely cited as an argument to invade individual privacy. The paper, he said, had not been able to prove that the party had a “Nazi” theme and mocked the Holocaust victims. And as for the sado-masochistic orgy, any sexual activity on private property between consenting adults — however distasteful or immoral it might seem — was nobody else’s business. “It is not for journalists to undermine human rights … merely on grounds of taste or moral disapproval,” the judge ruled, awarding £60,000 to Mr. Mosley in damages.
This latest legal salvo against what often goes on in the name of investigative journalism in Britain has sent the Fleet Street into a tailspin. And there is much nervous hand-wringing with editors complaining that courts are sacrificing press freedom to protect the privacy of the rich and the famous. But the bad news is that most ordinary people believe the media have brought it upon themselves by converting free speech into a licence to print anything.
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