Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Human history, according to some historians and philosophers, is driven by an innately
progressive force, be that [a] god in society, the random, ever-increasing cleverness of
human beings or, as social Darwinists would argue, a direction-driven social evolution
mysteriously equivalent to natural selection in biological inheritance. But just take a look at the twenty-first century: reality only seems to prove the falsehood of these notions.
Despite initial optimism (remember the Dome?!), the century began portentously with 9/11, swiftly followed by punitive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, themselves in turn precipitating more terrorism, only to be followed by catastrophe of a different sort, the collapse of banking systems around the globe. The century’s first decade saw nothing but waves of militaristic action and economic chaos, none of them progressive in any positive sense. And so it has continued.
In the UK, the eviscerating force of austerity is contributing to this global, societal regression in its own, inimitable, way. The welfare state, conceived initially in the dark days of the second world war, is crumbling. Its progenitors, William Beveridge (the economist whose brainchild it was) and Clement Attlee (the prime minister who was daring enough to introduce it) would be appalled to see the damage wrought in this new century.
Beveridge’s five giants of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness (the enemies that the welfare state was designed to overthrow) are now clawing their way back into the ascendant. Under austerity, public spending is now seen as an evil rather than a good and, month by month, reports are published evidencing the collapse of one form of welfare provision or social regulation after another.
Huge swathes of workers face impoverishment as they find themselves forced into reliance on the gig-economy and other dead-end forms of pseudo employment. Universal credit (supposedly intended to ‘make work pay’) is condemning more and more people, in work or not, into debilitating debt. Other welfare benefits have been frozen and disabled people are stripped of their benefits for ‘not being disabled enough’ despite their patent inability to walk, see or make decisions.
Councils are barely able to build ‘affordable’ housing anymore and there has been a reversal in a fifty-year trend towards home ownership. Instead we see the return of pricey private sector renting and a dramatic rise in the number of homeless people, often sleeping on the streets in penury. Families are too often at the mercy of ruthless slum landlords, forced to live in cramped, damp accommodation, materially and intellectually impoverished. When families break down, children are taken into care and moved from one residential home or foster home to another, often miles away from their place of origin, directly because local- based public provision has been scaled down through lack of funding.
In education, the scale of decline is much the same: budgets are pinched, the quality of
education reduced. Increasing numbers of children, excluded from schools which are no
longer able to cope, are kept isolated in remedial facilities, or worse still, left to roam the
streets, ignored, untutored and neglected.
The NHS, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the welfare state, tritely named but popularly
esteemed, is on the point of collapse. Mental health services, regularly given rhetorical
priority by ministers, are underfunded and neglected. Primary care is collapsing and more and more services are being outsourced to an expensive private sector which sees profit as its main reason for being in business. Waiting times, treatment and outcome rates for cancer and other serious conditions continue to deteriorate in comparison with those in other countries.
Turn to ‘crime and punishment’ and the story of decline and failure is the same. Police
officer numbers have been slashed, criminal offences once recorded are no longer
investigated. Probation services, whose aim is to prevent or rehabilitate, have deteriorated to a point where they cause more harm than good to the offenders for whom they are responsible, while reports by government prison inspectors warn that jails across the country are at the point of exploding into violence. Huge financial cuts mean that behaviour management and prisoner education have become forgotten ambitions. New generations of damaged individuals are disgorged back into the community, a greater threat now than before to both themselves and others.
And now we are faced with Brexit, the outcome of disastrous political miscalculation,
prompted wholly by internal party political conflict, rather than by any concern for the
wellbeing of citizens, a process which is about to lead to further political, social and
economic chaos. Pro-Brexit politicians speak blithely (and, sadly, persuasively) of “taking
back control” without a thought of its consequences. While Brexit may not be the cause of the austerity which the UK has been experiencing, it certainly has not prevented it. As the date for departure from the European Union approaches, the chaos simply grows, while hope declines in direct proportion to our realisation of the scale of the oncoming disaster.