There is no doubt that the ongoing cuts to key public services are having a profound impact on the lives of many, but especially the most vulnerable in society. This is particularly the case in respect of local authorities. Those in England lost 27% of their spending power between 2010/11 and 2015/16 in real terms. Some services, such as planning and ‘supporting people’ (discretionary social care with a preventative or enabling focus), have seen cumulative cuts to the order of 45%. This is significant because it means that the short-term help that would prevent families from slipping into long-term decline is no longer available.
For example, Marion and Chris, both in their 70s, were guardians of their two young grandchildren for five years. Both children have serious learning disabilities, but, despite these challenges, the children thrived in their care. That is until Chris died very suddenly this year after a short illness.
The impact on the children has been profound. They changed almost overnight from happy, carefree children to displaying extreme and dangerous behaviours. Marion is struggling to cope. It is clear that, at a minimum, a targeted intervention linked to bereavement counselling and respite care for their grandmother are urgently required. However, despite repeated requests, no support has been forthcoming. There have been only veiled threats from social workers that, if she is not coping, the children may need a permanent placement elsewhere.
Of course, Marion’s family is just one example of the reality behind the statistics. Hers is, of course, not an isolated case. Chronic underfunding in NHS services has impacted on mental health services, with Children and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) being at the bottom of the pile of priorities in funding. The need to intervene with children’s problems early in their presentation, rather than when issues escalate to a point of real emergency, is well recognised. Active intervention in child mental health issues also reduces the risk of chronic conditions developing in later adult life.
There is no doubt that the legacies of the Thatcher ideology, which argued that there is no such thing as society, have fuelled the austerity agenda and provided the justification for policies that have directly contributed to the destruction of families and people’s lives.
According to the Thatcher world view, there was no such thing as society. There were only families who cared for each other and individuals who participated in markets. Any problems were the problems of individuals, not society.
Despite the fact that Thatcher attempted to qualify this statement in her autobiography, the view of small government contributed to the dismantling of social supports in the UK and left families like Marion’s potentially destroyed.
The consequences of decades of neglect have been translated into the term “Broken Britain” and is now widely used by people both on the left and the right of politics.
The problem is that this term has now provided layers of acceptability and inevitability to situations that would once have been seen as beyond the pale.
Waiting five hours for an ambulance when you fall and break your hip, swimming in effluent, sending children to school in crumbling buildings are all now seen as examples of “Broken Britain.” The phrase seems to assuage the anger.
It is also the smokescreen being used by the Labour Party as a reason not to commit to any radical change. “Britain is so broken,” they assert. “We cannot make any promises without knowing the scale of the damage.”
The dangers are real because decades of a world shaped by the dangerous and false ideology of Thatcher have left the waters rising all around us and the forests on fire. The glimmer of hope in all this is that society, however it is defined, has come together in communities across the UK to attempt to plaster over the cracks, in foodbanks, sports clubs and in schools.
But the problem, in the end, isn’t with society or the social fabric. It’s with the Government. The Conservatives have never cared about the lives of ordinary people. The statements from Starmer’s Labour Party appear to offer little hope for the sort of change necessary to stop the decline that will save the lives of another generation. Until governments realise that their main duty is not one of ensuring the maintenance of the capitalist system and accept that the lives of all people, like Marion and her grandchildren, are paramount, the term “Broken Britain” will remain part of the lexicon of English vocabulary. The consequences of this happening for everyone, but particularly the most vulnerable, are profound.