The Observer view on inequality in the UK | Observer editorial
Britain has become a better country in which to live on almost every measure in the 70 years since the Queen succeeded to the throne. We are a wealthier nation, with lower levels of absolute poverty and higher life expectancies. Many more can afford to enrich their lives with international travel. In the 1950s, few people owned televisions or fridges; today, technology of which they could only have dreamed has become a permanent feature for the vast majority. Women’s participation in the workforce has more than doubled and Britain is today a far less racist country than it was then.
But the national mood is different from 20 years ago at the golden jubilee, or even the diamond jubilee in 2012. In the early 2000s, Britain appeared at last to be on an upwards trajectory after the recession of the 1990s. There was an air of confident optimism, fuelled by buoyant growth accompanied by much-needed reinvestment in public services, a blooming creative industry that exported British culture around the world and the establishment of the minimum wage and a more generous welfare settlement, especially for pensioners and for families with children. Peace was achieved in Northern Ireland and power devolved to Scotland and Wales. The chancellor, Gordon Brown, even declared the end of “boom and bust”.
It has taken the benefit of hindsight to understand just how premature that was. First, there was the 2008 financial crisis that reverberated around the globe and set in train more than a decade of stagnating living standards for young people and those on low incomes; then, a referendum vote to leave the EU that sucked in all political energy for five years, leaving little for anything else; and a pandemic that claimed the lives of thousands of Britons and sent the national debt soaring to levels not seen since the 1960s. Global oil shocks and the war in Ukraine have sent inflation soaring to historic levels this year.
Each of these crises has been met with a political response that has fallen far short of what the country deserves. Conservative chancellors used the financial crisis as a justification for cutting back financial support for low-income families with children, even as they delivered expensive tax cuts that disproportionately benefited better-off families. Winning the Brexit referendum only delivered more power to ideologues within the Conservative party, who spent years agitating for a hard economic, as well as political, break with the EU that jeopardises the political stability of Northern Ireland and will drive up regional disparities in a country that already has some of the worst levels of geographic inequality among wealthy nations. Boris Johnson made serious and deadly errors in his handling of the pandemic, while undermining public trust in democracy by breaking laws he himself introduced to protect lives during a national emergency.
The product of all this is that the optimism of 20 years ago has been replaced with unhealthy levels of cynicism in our governing class; a sense things will continue to improve has been edged out by the gloom of stagnation. This is the first generation of young people who look set to be worse off than their parents. Britain’s housing crisis means that many people in their 30s will never own a home, leaving them consigned to the insecurity and expense of privately renting. But our addiction to growth fuelled by consumer debt and enabled by rising house prices means no politician has dared implement the effective solutions to the housing crisis that would right this intergenerational wrong.
A decade of underinvestment in public services means that waiting times in the NHS are at record levels, with those who can afford it resorting to going private in order to access timely care. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that unacceptable waits for ambulances in England are putting lives at risk. A shortage of NHS dentists means some people are resorting to pulling out their own teeth to alleviate their pain. Rates of mental health disorders have increased from one in nine to one in six children in the last five years, but services are in crisis, with many children rejected for treatment because they do not qualify as ill enough. Politicians have dodged the difficult questions about how to fund decent older care in a society with an ageing population and in which older people are unnecessarily kept languishing in hospital wards for weeks or even months because there is nowhere to discharge them to.
Meanwhile, rates of child poverty are increasing after a decade of welfare cuts have left parents reliant on food banks and charity in order to ensure their children are warm and well fed. The rule of law has been undermined by cuts to frontline policing and court delays mean some crime victims are waiting more than two years for their case to reach court.
That life in Britain today is far better, on average, than it was in 1952 does not mean citizens should put up and shut up. The last decade has brought challenges of a scale not seen since the Second World War, but the UK is a wealthy country better equipped than ever to meet them, if only our leadership were equal to the task. Britain in 2022 is a country that has never been more desperately in need of political renewal.