Broke Britain

Great Britain led the world on the back of hefty financial gains accruing to the nation from its twin pursuits — namely industrialisation and colonisation — for two centuries. Having created and retained a position as the centre of the world for long, with the vast spread of an empire where the Sun never set, its discomfiture started mainly with World War II, the independence countries such as India and others started gaining from the empire thereafter, and the rise of the United States as the top economic and military superpower. Still, to the great credit of the British, they managed to stand counted as a superpower in the comity of nations for seven more decades. The Brits still try to hold their head high. But, signs of wear and tear are all too clear, and a report in the British media this week is fresh proof the nation is headed for difficult days.

More than 14million people in the UK now live in poverty — and this in a nation of 64million — meaning, about one in six Brits are living in want or on government support. Austerity and spiralling housing costs have pushed a further 4,00,000 children and 3,00,000 pensioners into poverty over the past 4 years, as estimated by a charity’s report. According to Joseph Roundtree Foundation (JRF), the classification of poverty is classed as less than 60 per cent of average income. The report comes as the social mobility czar Allan Milburn resigned along with his fellow board members, saying there was ‘little hope’ of fixing the problem because the government was fixated on Brexit.

While conceding that large numbers of immigrants (and some refugees) flowing in from African and other nations in recent decades have changed the complexion and character of the nation, fact is also that several factors have worked to the nation’s disadvantage, seriously affecting its economic well-being. To quote the JRF report again, higher food and energy bills, housing costs along with a four-year freeze on tax credits and working age benefits have all contributed to this economic downtrend.

The Iraq war that came soon after the turn of the century, led by the US and participated in by allies such as the UK under an over-enthusiastic Tony Blair as Prime Minister, bled the nation. Blair was eventually shunted out of power and the Labour faced humiliating defeats, giving a new lease of life to the Conservatives. The Brexit, gradual exit of the UK from the European Union (EU) decided without much thought in a 2016 referendum, is unveiling a set of new problems for the nation. Not the least of them is a major economic setback. Past the Margaret Thatcher era of the 1980s, good governance remained a far cry; and the small gains that Tony Blair as a towering leader made was washed away too in the Iraq War imbroglio.

The UK’s continued association with its former colonies, be they in Africa or Asia or elsewhere, kept the nation and its economy in good stead. Its association with the United States helped it retain its clout as a military power. That power, in turn, was used by the nation to make money and fill its exchequer by way of offering military support to small nations and drawing in huge sums as protection money. London for long sustained its image as the financial capital of the world, with major international banking institutions having their base in that historic city. It offered jobs in thousands. Today, much of these employments have dried out as a result of outsourcing to countries where cheaper and educated labour is available without corresponding strictly implemented conditions of labour and wages laws. Another source of income for the UK was the thriving higher education sector that earned its name from the likes of Oxford and Cambridge and drew large numbers of students from around the world. With new centres of global learning springing up, Singapore being a bright example, higher education is no more a British-only enclave. Such incomes for the UK are set to progressively reduce. It is also no secret that London, the centrepiece of urban UK, is losing its sheen as a top world-class city. Its infrastructure is ageing and money flow dwindling.

Out of all this mess, what resonates most are the words of the Chief Executive of JRF, Campbell Robb who recently said: “Political choices, wage stagnation and economic uncertainty means that hundreds of thousands more people are struggling to make ends meet.”

Robb’s words may sound ominous to Indians who understand the dark path this country is now being forced to follow. It is time Indian policymakers understood the situation prevailing across the globe and acted wisely.

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