It has been particularly cold in London this week. We have spoken for some time now about the looming winter of discontent across Europe. But there is something about a snap change in weather that sharpens our instincts and brings the world into focus. Only now that we can see our breath in the air has the reality of the situation felt concrete.
The mundane is all more expensive: grocery lists, electricity bills, a round of drinks for friends on a Friday night. As inflation bolts from the stable, the UK faces a deluge of strikes through December and into the colder, darker and gloomier January, without even the aid of Christmas lights to soften the blow. The Conservative government clings on to the hope that strikers will lose public favour sooner rather than later. They shouldn’t count on it.
The atmosphere is weary. And that seems a greater driving force behind the spate of industrial action than anything else. It is hard to escape the sense that all of this is underpinned by a toxic combination: politics feels increasingly detached from the daily needs of the electorate, but nevertheless overbearingly conspicuous in the public conversation.
One idea crops up again and again. Is Britain a country where essential services even work any more? Sending post this December seems a gamble, plenty won’t be able to get the train out of London back to their families for Christmas day owing to strikes, calling an ambulance in some areas is like playing the highest stakes lottery.
How bleak. But perhaps it is just the cold snap. Amid all this weariness there is a perfectly clear sense that this is not a long-term unresolvable situation, that Britain is not condemned to irreversible decline, no matter how many wish it were so. There is plenty of cause for optimism and, in spite of the climate, the streets of London are busier than ever with music and chatter.
Of course narratives of Britain’s fall from grace are addictive to many. But all that does is entrench despondency and blockade viable routes to sunnier uplands. There is an alternative for the country – one not beleaguered by unhappy workers, beset by economic woes, or in the hands of a party far past its expiration date.
The Conservative Party – whatever its long-held merits or failings – has accrued too much baggage over the past 12 years to resolve the problems Britain is facing. The route to political survival for Rishi Sunak is to re-energise the economy, but he has none of the capital or influence among his own ranks to do so. And that is precisely thanks to the resilience of Tory euroscepticism.
It is deeply unfashionable in much of UK political discourse to talk about Brexit any longer. It is done, just the details need teasing through. It was eclipsed by the urgency of the pandemic, and then the war in Ukraine. It was an abstract, spiritual project. Those who dwell too much on the spreadsheet-of-it-all are simply misunderstanding the soul of the mission. Data is no match for romantic ideas of emancipation. And, besides, what could Sunak do about it now?
So goes the argument, at least. It is certainly lively. But it is also exactly the impediment to lifting the dark shadow over the country. Because we cannot meaningfully talk about this so-called winter of discontent without thinking for a second that some of the malaise may have been caused by Westminster’s handling of Brexit.
Brexit has added almost £6 billion to UK food bills in the two years up to the end of 2021. The shortage of care workers is in no small part thanks to a slowdown in EU immigration. The impact on trade is so profound that only those obsessed with the mysticism of Brexit could ignore it. Obviously it is not possible to wreck your relationship with a powerful trade bloc next door and not suffer the consequences. But such dissent would not be tolerated by the legion of Brexit purists.
But the fallacy becomes clearer day by day: if the government stays firm and removes tired EU bureaucracy Britain could have that low-cost agile economy it desires, growing its exports competitively... if only it had a market to trade with.
It is clear that the Conservative Party has scuppered itself and is now caught deep in this quagmire. The irony, of course, is that its sacred cow – a pure Brexit – will become the ultimate source of its undoing, at least in the medium term.
“What’s the best way to get to Dublin?” so asked the tourist to the peasant in the old adage. “Well I wouldn’t start from here,” he replied.
The UK is beset by chaos – frozen and stagnant. It is not an undoable knot. But Sunak is not the right place to start.