Doug Marr: What needs doing to repair broken Britain?

Bob Dylan can be relied on to come up with words that fit any occasion. Everything is Broken, for example, written in 1989, offers a fitting anthem for 2022 Britain: “Broken hands on broken ploughs; Broken treaties; Broken vows; Broken pipes; Broken tools; People bending broken rules.”

You don’t have to be a one of Mr Johnson’s gloomsters or doomsters to apply the words to his legacy. True, one of his predecessors, David Cameron, banged on about “Broken Britain” and how it could be fixed through the “Big Society”. That relied on people doing something for nothing; as far removed from Tory moral and economic values as you can get.

In 2011, the year of serious rioting in England, Mr Cameron wasn’t alone in believing something had gone far wrong. A YouGov survey at the time suggested 74% of us believed Britain was broken and social problems had worsened over the previous ten or 20 years. The trouble was Mr Cameron blamed the wrong people for what he deemed social vandalism. Through his privileged eyes, it was down to “troubled families” and a workless, benefit-dependent culture. Mr Cameron has always suffered from an irony bypass. He saw no connection between a broken, unjust society and greedy bankers costing the country billions, asset strippers running profitable businesses into the ground, millionaire employers making off with pension funds and sweat shop conditions for increasing numbers of workers in the gig economy.

Hard to believe, but things have gone downhill on Mr Johnson’s watch. Dylan’s words about broken treaties, broken vows and people bending broken rules encapsulate Mr Johnson’s premiership. The social contract is seriously broken, possibly beyond repair. The concept that some individual freedoms are given up in return for security and fairness, has been distorted. The shredded contract now preserves and enhances the position and wealth of the already rich and powerful.

For example, the Tory cronies who enjoyed a very good pandemic. Fortunes were made and salted away through the supply of overpriced PPE, some of which was of questionable quality and effectiveness. Unsurprisingly, glacial progress has been made in clawing back those ill-gotten gains. Major oil companies resisted the socially-just case for a levy on their bloated profits. Yet, through the distorting mirror that is the new social contract, it’s the train drivers, health workers and teachers who are holding the country to ransom. The weakest and poorest in society are likely to be in work but still rely on benefits to support their families. The coming winter will see more of the hard pressed facing the eat-or-heat dilemma.

It’s laughable that one of Mr Sunak’s leadership campaign slogans was “Reunite the Country”, when he has been a major player in extending division and unfairness. The self-inflicted wounds of Brexit are far from healed and the economy is a basket case. The frontrunners in the Tory leadership contest are unlikely to make Scottish, Welsh and Irish concerns a top priority. Most Tory MPs and English voters couldn’t care less about Scotland. While Labour wishes to maintain the integrity of the UK, its leader has a tin ear when it comes to hearing and taking on board the aspirations of around half of Scotland’s voters.

It’s not only our politics that are broken. Accessing healthcare at GP and hospital levels has become a medical obstacle course. Interminable delays for appointments, ambulances and treatment are costing lives. Our transport systems are among the most dysfunctional in Europe. Public services deteriorate year on year.

Yet, the contenders for leadership of the Conservative party don’t have two original ideas to rub together. Make Brexit work, unbudgeted tax cuts for the well-to-do and revisiting Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies. Is that the best they can do? Are they so deluded and naïve that they believe trotting out the same old failed mantras will deliver a different or better result?

Give me strength. We can only hope that the total failure of leadership and example bottomed out with Mr Johnson. His premiership was surely the nadir of standards in public life and office. North and south of the border we need political leaders of integrity who are role models and are self-aware, not self-serving. Otherwise, everything, including political life, will remain broken and increasingly irreparable.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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