Britain’s current winter crisis seems to be unfolding on many fronts at once - one is the collapse of several small energy suppliers. A friend of mine who lives in a large apartment on a fixed income finds his monthly tariff is likely to go up by £100 a month. Incensed by this, and much else, he called the Conservative Party’s Edinburgh HQ and asked to be put through to the membership secretary. “Would you describe yourselves as the governing party?” he asked. “Well yes, we are the governing party,” was the answer. “Why don’t you govern then?” he snapped and put the phone down.
I am not condoning taking out one’s spleen on officials, but it was a relatively mild outburst. My friend is not alone in fearing that the UK Government has lost control.
The most serious crisis is in the health service. (I wrote an article about this for the Sunday National at the weekend). Britain, especially Scotland, has an aging population. Without immigrants, we struggle to find the vital workforce that provides the first brick in the wall of socialised medicine - home care.
If there are no home care workers available, the elderly and vulnerable are much more likely to end up in need of an ambulance. We have ambulances queueing up outside hospitals, unable to unload patients. The Scottish Government has called in the military to support the ambulance service.
Hospitals are filling up with old people who can’t be discharged. Care homes have empty beds but they can’t accept more patients because they don’t have enough staff. Since Brexit, all who remain have had to pick up heavier burdens and as winter starts to bite, they are struggling.
Scotland doesn’t control its own immigration policy. We are particularly dependent on our EU citizens. Many of them are staying, but we couldn’t afford to lose those who left as a result of the hostile environment and red tape Brexit has created. We will not forget that Scotland didn't vote for Brexit and that we were dragged out of Europe against our democratically expressed wishes.
I have already touched on the energy crisis. Energy prices have gone up all over the world. Leaving the EU’s internal energy market may be a small factor. So is the UK’s over-reliance on gas for heating homes. But the main reason for the UK’s vulnerability appears to be an ideological commitment to the idea of the free market. But it is only an idea - a price cap for domestic consumers means that each one has become hugely loss-making for the energy companies to supply. Many surviving energy companies have turned off all marketing efforts and they are resisting the Government’s demands that they pay the bills for rescuing failed company’s customers. Another aspect of the crisis is that businesses - such as care homes - aren’t protected by the cap. So it is a mess. The Government will probably have to perform another U-turn and provide subsidies to energy companies.
A third crisis front is the broken supply chains. The petrol crisis seems to be easing. No doubt it was exacerbated by panic buying. But the messed-up supply chains is a deeper issue. One reason for the issue around haulage is that cabotage is very limited since Brexit. This means British drivers now have to move almost all of the goods in and out of and around the country whereas the country was once part of an EU-wide network. EU hauliers don’t want to work outside the single market because of extra paperwork, different standards and uncertainty. That is a big factor in the sudden shortage of drivers in the UK.
The Government has again postponed imposing full import checks on goods coming in from Europe. That is because they don’t want to add more delay and cost for Britons getting the things we have grown accustomed to. One effect of this is that exports are much more impacted than imports by Brexit - in the long term that may have knock-on effects on the UK’s balance of payments, GDP, inflation and the value of sterling.
The shortage of seasonal workers is impacting farmers and growers - food is being wasted, fruit left to rot on bushes, milk is being thrown away. Meat processing plants are short of staff, pigs can’t be slaughtered. It is a reversal of the ‘milk lakes’ and ‘butter mountains’ that used to exorcise Britain’s right-wing media who don’t believe food producers should be subsidised. Environmental standards are being lowered, companies are being allowed to discharge sewage into English rivers because of a lack of water treatment chemicals, the Government had to step in to subsidise CO2 production, partly because it could no longer import supplies from EU firms who chose to prioritise other clients.
The UK Government is posturing over wage increases - selling it as a great Brexit benefit for working people. But inflation is heading for 4%. If that stays high it will mean everyone on a fixed income - people who work for the public sector, savers, retired people - will be worse off. Nurses in Scotland were offered a 3% pay rise - if it isn’t adjusted for inflation it will be a real-terms pay cut.
Universal credit, which goes to the poorest in society, families surviving on low wages, people who can’t work, is about to be cut. The UK Government argues that when that happens and the furlough scheme ends, people will be more likely to take jobs as home care workers or assistants in care homes. But many people in receipt of UC are already working - including for example, people with childcare responsibilities who work shifts in care homes. Others can’t work due to disability. Many will be soon be unable to afford food and heating.
It is a risky policy - yet another risk by a Government that seems to be courting chaos. Take back control was the slogan - the practice is very different.