Britain’s summer of discontent is a story of poor planning

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Joseph told Pharaoh to use his seven years of plenty to prepare for the hard times ahead. In Aesop’s fable, the grasshopper danced through the summer while the industrious ant prepared for a harsh winter.

Western leaders have no shortage of good advice from the classics, but it’s clear they don’t always follow it.

During the golden age following the end of the Cold War, prosperity based on globalization and “beautiful” growth (non-inflationary, constantly expansionary) was treated as if it would last forever. Investment in national resilience has been ignored. The pandemic, a hostile China and the war in Ukraine have shown that the fruits of the long peace have been wasted.

Now the UK is grumbling for “a summer of discontent”. Inflation stands at 9.4% while energy costs in Britain soared 57%, with further hikes expected in October. Public sector unions understandably want wage increases to match the price spiral and have flexed their muscles. The railway network is paralyzed by strikes.

If political leaders had bitten the bullet during the good times and imposed realistic staffing levels and flexible working, then higher wages for railroad workers might make sense. But in good years, no government was willing to spend political capital. Unions are forcing drivers on the London Underground railways designed to be driverless. Today, most passengers also buy their tickets from vending machines and not from ticket offices, but the unions have managed to ensure that the latter remain open.

There is broader unease about the government’s ability to deliver on its promises. In a moment of remarkable candor, Michael Gove, one of the Cabinet’s most experienced ministers until his falling out with Boris Johnson, recently told a think tank: ‘There are certain core functions – giving you your passport , give your driver’s license – which are simply, at the moment, not working.

Even if you have a passport, leaving the country is no picnic. Dover, the main seaport for car journeys to mainland Europe, has seen long queues for passport checks. Try to escape by plane and you will find that airlines have canceled many flights due to lack of staff, many of whom have been recklessly laid off during the pandemic. Short-termism has become part of the national character.

A policy of restricting the number of hospital beds also proved foolish during Covid, and the healthcare system has been in crisis ever since. A waiting list of nearly seven million people for treatment has accumulated. But don’t expect to rush to the hospital, even if you have a heart attack. The average wait time for an ambulance is 52 minutes, 30 minutes longer than expected. Appointments with general practitioners are also difficult to obtain. A free national health service is great, but only if you can use it.

Passport delays, transportation bottlenecks and government paralysis can be resolved, but some structural reforms are long overdue.

A mile from my home in Islington, north London, a water main burst, flooding the streets. Billions of gallons are wasted every year. My privatized local water company, Thames Water, urges me to be a ‘hot spot hero’, taking care to conserve ‘every drop’ of water. A drought has been officially declared, watering bans have been imposed and talks of rationing are rife – even as Britain receives more rainfall each year. A modest proposal: can’t they just fix the pipes?

No new reservoirs were dug despite a growing population. The Environment Agency objected to the latest because it was “unnecessary”. The water regulator, OFWAT, has let investment levels in the industry fall despite record profits.

Moreover, a “winter of discontent” is coming. Cornwall Insight, an energy consultancy, expects the energy price cap to drop from £1,971 to £4,427 ($5,366.85) next April. Will the lights go out? Bloomberg’s scoop this week on the government’s contingency planning for power outages added to the growing gloom – since the 1970s there has been no talk of a three-day week and rationing.

If only previous governments would listen to expert advice on investing in an energy mix that includes nuclear and cooking gas as well as renewables. But an obstructive planning regime invited postponement, and the political class, as always, found strong short-term electoral incentives to put off tough choices.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak continue their bad-tempered fight for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the country, while the rest of the government takes a long vacation. Their speech on tax cuts and donations pleases the crowd. But with a general election slated for two years from now, which of them is brave enough to plan for a larger time horizon? Whether it’s a big or a small state, we all want one that works.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

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