Prison state Britain

Rishi Sunak’s clumsy, bad-faith attempt to evade scrutiny of a budgetary decision that would make his already staggeringly wealthy family even richer is yet more evidence that Britain is not the sort of place where everyone is equal before the law and treated the same no matter what their background.

In fact, Britain is just the opposite – a semi-feudal, oligarchical society where the poor are continually surveilled and audited, and the rich can do pretty much what they want and needn’t worry about getting caught. While Sunak can glibly shrug off the latest breach of parliamentary code and face no further action, hundreds of thousands of people are sanctioned every year for breaching the conditions of their benefits claims, however trivially. It seems unlikely that these breaches would be dismissed because they were ‘inadvertent’ or because the claimants were ‘confused’.

Britain’s ‘one rule for them’ culture was nowhere better evidenced than in the lockdown ‘partygate’ scandal, where government and Conservative Party officials repeatedly held boozy parties despite a ban, at the time, on almost all gatherings. While the police gleefully broke up family picnics and used drone-surveillance to intimidate people into compliance – over-using and abusing new and old powers and filling their boots on over-zealous and intrusive interventions – they also happily stood sentry outside the doors of Downing Street while, inside, the people who made the rules drunkenly broke them.

Of course, lockdown wasn’t only about partying and having fun. The Conservative Party also saw in the pandemic an opportunity to redistribute dizzying amounts of money from the state (your money, methodically subtracted from your hard-earned pay!) to wealthy friends and donors. Having relaxed procurement laws, the government proceeded to award contracts worth £881 million to individuals who had donated a total of £8.2 million to the Conservative Party in recent years. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. In the first year of the pandemic, government contracts worth some £18 billion were outsourced to the private sector. A New York Times analysis of $22 billion worth of contracts found that half had been awarded to ‘companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy’.

Firms expert in producing or procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS were overlooked in favour of companies set up overnight, with no grander purpose than to syphon money from the state and enrich private individuals. According to the New York Times, fashion designers, pest controllers and jewellers were among those who won supplier contracts. Chums of ministers were offered lucrative deals on the basis of texts and WhatsApp messages. PPE Medpro, a company set up on 12 May 2020, had received more than £200 million of government Covid contracts by the end of June 2020 after Conservative peer Michelle Mone recommended it to ministers. The Guardian later reported that Mone and family made £29 million from the profits of the venture though she declared no financial interest in the company.

PPE Medpro was one of the companies put into a ‘VIP lane’ of preferred suppliers based on political connections (recommendations from ministers, donations to the Conservative Party). Knowing the right people got you into the ‘VIP lane’. Knowing what you were doing or being good at it got you nowhere. As a result of this, much of the equipment supplied to the NHS was, in the end, unusable, including £122 million worth of surgical gowns supplied by PPE Medpro. The Department of Health is estimated to have spent around £15 billion on unused personal protective equipment, Covid tests and vaccines (luckily for us it is only spending on schools and hospitals that ‘bankrupts the economy’). To date, none of those involved in this mass redistribution of wealth has been held to account.

For the rich, purchasing influence over UK institutions is easy – almost as easy as making more money (money makes money, after all) – and relatively cheap. Facilitating or guaranteeing a loan for the PM evidently does you no harm when it comes to getting a fancy job running the BBC or the British Council. Honours are routinely doled out to political donors and in-kind supporters, sympathetic media chums and political friends willing to keep inconvenient knowledge to themselves or to use their parliamentary vote to keep a pal in power. London, meanwhile, has become a kind of global centre for money laundering and reputation washing. British elites have been all too happy to allow oligarchs, particularly Russians, to buy influence and respectability in British society, provided the money kept flowing (as it continues to). Dirty money, often linked indirectly to Putin, has flooded the capital, where armies of property agents, lawyers and others have lined up to spend the cash and protect the interests of kleptocrats, frequently using Britian’s pro-wealth libel laws to intimidate journalists and neuter opposition. While the papers fulminate about ‘small boats’ in the English Channel, permanent residency is for sale to the very wealthy. And, of course, the money kleptocrats spend buys more than just property. It gives them influence, access to the law, the ability to shape opinion and soften their image (by buying football clubs, for example), and access to private places and institutions off limits to the average Brit: the hunting estates, the prestigious private schools, the private members’ clubs, the select gatherings and celebrity-stuffed ‘charitable’ functions. You can even buy a game of tennis with the Prime Minister.

The British elite has found a new role in the world. Oliver Bullough describes Britain as the ‘butler to the world’, but I prefer Cory Doctorow’s description of Britain’s fawning, wealth-addled elites as ‘forelock-tugging Renfields’ willing to ‘buy you a Mayfair mansion under cover of a numbered company, sue your critics into silence, funnel your money into an anonymous Channel Islands account’. Meanwhile, the vampires they serve, flatter and admire drain and diminish everything with which they come into contact, boosting their fortunes at the expense of the commons. As with Dracula, the veneer of sophistication and affability, the suffocating faux nobility, is just a front for the most ruthless sort of violence and exploitation imaginable.

While the rich boost their fortunes and dominate every aspect of public life in Britain, what of the rest of us? Despite FTSE bosses taking home an average £530,000 extra last year, we are once again asked  by government to tighten our belts and take a real-terms pay cut. While tax-avoidance is normalized among the super-wealthy, the less well-off are expected to choose between eating enough and heating their homes. There are no special accommodations for us. We all have to make sacrifices, we are frequently told, but, in reality, it is the poor that make the ‘tough decisions’ politicians like to talk about but in fact pass on to others. Benefits and wages have been cut or frozen, in some cases for longer than a decade, yet rents and house prices continue to rise, along with the cost of living. A coalition of organisations, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Trussell Trust and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, was prompted to write a letter to the Prime Minster, saying that ‘despite living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there are people in the UK unable to afford the essentials we all need to get by, such as food, household bills and essential travel costs’:

Every day, we see people unable to afford enough food because their incomes are simply too low. We hear heart-breaking stories from people who are forced to miss hospital appointments because they can’t afford the bus fare, from people who are missing or reducing their medication because they can’t afford the prescription, or from people with diabetes who risk serious complications from going without food. Many conditions people present with, like asthma, are exacerbated by the poor state of their home, which should be a place of safety, which they cannot afford to maintain or even heat properly. Many of the people we help and care for say the stress and anxiety of getting behind on bills is taking a serious toll on their mental wellbeing.

Everywhere you look you see a society in steep and perhaps terminal decline. The privatisation of public services in Britain made some people obscenely rich, but it has been calamitous for the country, ushering an era of unfettered profiteering and dividend stripping rather than cutting costs and boosting efficiency, as we were promised. Private water companies make huge profits and pay massive dividends to their shareholders, while basic infrastructure is neglected and unspeakable amounts of sewage are pumped into our waterways, now as a matter of routine rather than exceptionally. The UK is the worst-served western country when it comes to public transport, yet providers are heavily subsidised while charging some of the highest fares in Europe. Privatisation, by pretty much any measure, has failed, yet so stuck are our leaders in their worship of the market and their belief that the private sector should run everything that the further privatisation of the health service now seems inevitable, whichever of the two main parties is in power.

The reproduction of disadvantage and inequality, not to mention other forms of discrimination and prejudice, is embedded in the structures around us, though we are so used to this we barely notice it. Education funding is skewed to benefit the already-wealthy. A kind of education apartheid is in place. The rich send their children to different schools, unaffordable to most, while the elite universities are dominated by young people with a private education. As if the benefits of wealth were not enough, these people can expect to have on average three times as much spent on their education as state school kids. For those at the truly elite schools the gap is wider still. Many state schools are struggling financially and academically, battered by real-terms cuts and rising costs, and overwhelmed with the demands of an overbearing, high-stakes accountability regime. Head teachers have warned that many schools in England will be in deficit by the start of the next school year. Yet, during the pandemic, when cash-strapped state schools looked to the government for support, ministers made sure it was only private schools that could benefit from £157 million in government-subsidised loans.

Rather than reduce the enormous and growing funding and facilities gap between state schools and private schools, the government prefers to pretend that the superiority of private schools is not about resources and that somehow a bit of their lustre can be passed on through charitable endeavours such as the establishment of the so-called ‘Eton of the north’ which aims ‘to give world-class education to “ordinary” youngsters’ (yes, even your ‘ordinary’ children can become special!). After all, they tell us, you don’t solve a problem by ‘throwing money at it’ and, of course, spending that improves the lives of working people is the bad sort of spending (as opposed to the reckless syphoning off of billions of pounds to super rich friends so they can buy another yacht = good spending). Like other Conservative initiatives to boost state school performance, such interventions are deliberately piecemeal, their ‘success’ achieved through some form of selection which, in the end, lowers achievement overall and makes it more difficult for poorer kids to do well. Selection after all means that someone’s education is better than someone else’s, and competition demands that we have losers as well as winners, which, of course, is why Tories like it so much. We should ask ourselves whether such terms – core to the Conservative philosophy – really have a place in education. If inclusion matters at all, then education is one area in which we simply cannot afford not to be generous.

Working-class children are trapped in a system that considers their thwarted potential a price worth paying for reproducing privilege and ensuring that a rounded education, and the opportunities that stem from that, are the preserve of the wealthy. While the children of the wealthy get a decent education, make lots of connections, and get endless opportunities to try new things and, importantly, fail and try again, education for less advantaged children is a high-stakes, high-pressure business, with failure at any stage likely to prove insurmountable. Little wonder that mental health referrals among children and young people are at a record high. For those working-class kids who do well, their experience of higher education is likely to be quite different to that of their better-off peers. They are much more likely, for example, to take a course with a vocational focus and to attend an institution specialising in such courses. They will have to work to fund their studies. And they will leave with higher debts and the prospect of spending much of their adult life paying them off. Not only is higher education in England among the most expensive in the world, but its funding system has been designed in such a way that it costs poorer students more than it does richer ones who do not need to take out a loan to pay their fees.

This sounds utterly perverse, but it is like so much of British life, full of unnecessary traps, barriers, and deterrents, pointless and self-defeating penny-counting that results in the worst of all possible worlds for the poorest and least advantaged. As such, it is probably good preparation for an adult life likely to be bounded by debt and low pay, surveilled at work and discriminated against when it comes to progression, with little prospect of anything resembling retirement at the end of it – the modern-day equivalent of indentured servitude. At least, before Brexit, there was the prospect of getting out and building a life elsewhere in Europe (as millions did), but that door too now has closed, with a symbolic crash applauded by some and mourned by others. Britain’s policy perspective has become more insular as the country has become more difficult to get in and out of. We are an outlier, in many respects. A stagnating, low-pay state where wages have all but stopped growing, in contrast to our nearest neighbours, and the proportion of GDP spent on state pension is lower than most comparable countries. Public transport and energy bills are among the most expensive in Europe, despite public subsidies and the supposed efficiencies of the market, while our education system performs poorly in comparison with other advanced countries. The health service is chronically underfunded, at levels well below the EU average. Our coastal and inland waterways are almost all polluted thanks to agricultural run-off and the release of untreated sewage. And while the country could be said to be wealthy – indeed, among the wealthiest in the world  by some measures – that wealth is so unevenly distributed that more than 4 million children – one in every three – live in poverty and millions of people depend on charitable food parcels.

Britain has come to resemble a sort of prison state, where the ruling class visit colonial rule on the one remaining bit of empire they still control. While the privileged dominate every important institution, from politics to the media, the rest are surveilled, means-tested, loaded with debt, lied to and denied access to basic services. Elite institutions aside, the school and university curricula have narrowed. There are fewer working people studying arts and humanities subjects or making a career for themselves in the creative arts. Language learning is on the decline. Opportunities for working class people have reduced across the board, while the wealthy have tightened their grip not only on the country’s resources but on the means of social reproduction. Not surprisingly, their wealth and authority are scarcely challenged. When you live your life one negative performance appraisal away from losing pretty much everything, you don’t tend to go out of your way to make a fuss. And, for the most part, we don’t. People everywhere are getting on with it, often leading grimly unsatisfying lives without hope of anything better. For many, this is as good as it gets. And isn’t it just as bad elsewhere? Germany is struggling, isn’t it, and the Scandinavian countries aren’t doing too well either. There have been a spate of stories in the kleptocrat-run press about how bad things are in Germany, including this one by Rupert Murdoch’s own Renfield, Andrew Neil. Things are far from perfect in Germany, of course, in large part to do with its energy transition, but the country as a whole is in much better shape that the UK – its health service works, people are well-paid, pensions are good, transport cheaper and more efficient, and so on and so on. Germany remains a wealthy country, Britain is a poor country in which some very rich people live. But, of course, this isn’t the point of such articles. They are not really about Germany and the writers have little serious to say on the subject. The point, rather, is to get readers to believe that however bad things are here, they are just as bad, or worse, elsewhere.

While everyone I suppose would agree that times are hard and things could be better, we have largely bought into the government’s big lie that we just can’t afford to do anything about it. Many people believe that the global financial crisis was caused by Gordon Brown spending too much on schools and libraries (or, in the slightly more sophisticated version, that we were not prepared for the crash because public spending had risen to the point of putting the economic health of the nation in danger). I suppose if you can sell this to the public you can sell anything. People really do believe that Liam Byrne’s ill-advised note to his successor as chief secretary to the Treasury was a formal handover of accounts rather than an idiotic joke. The thing is, the politicians making such claims know full well that they are not true or at least represent a serious distortion of reality. It doesn’t matter and they do not care. The point is to cement in the public imagination the idea that political choices such as austerity are not really choices at all, but necessities visited on us by circumstances. But, of course, they are choices, and they inflict real harms on people and communities, and if you told people they were in fact motivated by an ideological desire to reduce the size of the state they would not swallow it. In the short term these strategies have been successful for the government (and bad for the opposition), but they have also contributed to the creation of a culture of quietism and hopelessness, underscored by misplaced anger, deliberately stoked by politicians who would rather we did not think too hard about the real causes of our distress and reserved our resentment for the most vulnerable people on the planet. Arresting Britain’s national decline depends on our successfully challenging this and giving people real hope of something better. But as the next general election looms and both parties look to strengthen their appeal to reform-averse, right-leaning voters, people whose politics veer between angry ethnic nationalism and a silly, flag-waving sentimentality about a mythic past, change seems further away than ever.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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