The week begins – a week where, it would not be too melodramatic to suggest, the future of the UK could head in such stupendously different directions depending on the outcome of the election on Thursday, that it would end up being two different countries. And in one case it could literally mean it ends up being two different countries, with a third piece handed over, or back, depending on your viewpoint, to another country.
In this very short series of blogs I’ve tried to examine the various parties’ views on the environment and their commitments to change things in that regard. It’s fair to say that the environment – or rather climate change – has figured very significantly in this election campaign. Most significantly we’ve had a bidding war between the parties as to who can come up with the most ambitious net zero carbon timetable. One spin off of this has been the “tree rush” with parties vying with each other to come up with the most unrealistic tree planting target. Although I haven’t discussed them we have also seen Labour publish a “plan for nature” and the Greens also commissioned a New Deal for Nature. I might come back to these, but Mark Avery has looked at them both if you want some analysis. Friends of the Earth has awarded Labour the prize for the “greenest” manifesto, which has irked the Greens. As to whether the various parties have donned green clothing in a cynical attempt to capture current interest in the environment… I will probably return to that question another time.
Looking at the campaign more widely, it has been characterised by dirty tricks, which is where I started this series, but also perhaps of greater concern, a lack of accountability on the part of the Tories and Boris Johnson in particular. He has avoided scrutiny by the public and the media. When he has appeared it’s always been on his own terms – carefully stage managed events so as to avoid difficult questions – either about his own character or his policies. In recent days he’s taken to cancelling public events on some transparently unbelievable excuse. He’s just not turning up. The media has to take some responsibility for this – especially the BBC which is at least supposed to be impartial. Most of the media of course supports Johnson so why would they bother trying to hold him to account? Far from it, some amplifying the toxic world of the extreme right in their quest to paint Corbyn as a dangerous extremist at the heart of a hard left conspiracy.
Channel 4 empty chaired (or ice-sculptured) him for the climate debate, but the really big no show was the Andrew Neil interview. Now regular readers will know my views of Neil but even I accept he is the big beast of political interviewing in this country. Never mind that he was Johnson’s former boss at the Spectator, or shares a lot of political views with him – in fact I’d suggest Neil is considerably further to the right than Johnson – in as much as Johnson has any cogent political positions on anything.
As well as Johnson avoiding public scrutiny the Tory manifesto is remarkably thin on any details of policies or spending. Any semblance of a plan peters out towards the end of 2020 and I think this is deliberate. Because if Johnson gets in then we will be heading to a no deal crash out Brexit this time next year (leaving Northern Ireland half in and half out of the EU). All experts and the EU have said that there isn’t an ice sculpture’s chance in hell of concluding a Free Trade Agreement with the EU within 12 months, especially one where we are not aligning the “level playing field” on workers rights, the environment, etc. Conversely we know the USA is ready to start negotiating their FTA with us on day one. And they will come in very hard, on all the things they have been fighting the EU on for the last several decades ie demanding we allow in their food – chlorinated chicken, hormone beef & pork, GMO crops, which the EU banned. And charging more for medicines the NHS buys.
Couple that with the fact that the USA has just broken the World Trade Organisation dispute settlement mechanism. This means that trade wars, which of course Donal Trump loves, will no longer easily be negotiated into peace agreements. And that means the likelihood of the UK being drawn into a heated up trade war between the US and the EU will increase dramatically. The vote on Thursday could literally move us from one geopolitical sphere into another one – and Orwell’s vision of the UK as Airstrip One will be made flesh.
What can we expect then if Johnson does get in with a reasonable majority – say something between 20 and 70?
Forgive me if I indulge in a bit of speculation.
Obviously Brexit will proceed as he plans. After a year of further tumult we crash out without an EU trade deal, on 31st December 2020. This alone will drive a bulldozer through Johnson’s avowed spending plans – forget more money for the NHS – those 40 hospitals – or was it six refurbished ones? No one will remember the details by then. The Universal Credit roll-out will throw tens of thousands of the poorest and most vulnerable in society onto the edge or, or over the edge into homelessness. What will be done with them all? Perhaps a return to the workhouse is on the cards.
Naturally Scotland will push ever harder for independence – who knows, perhaps even a militant group might pop up, given the level of suffering Brexit will impose on this country which voted so overwhelmingly against it. Northern Ireland is far more likely to slip back into the dark days of the troubles, as both sides find they have been shafted by Johnson’s Brexit agreement.
Priti Patel will be free to fulfil her destiny as the most extreme Home Secretary in decades – rounding up immigrants (illegal, legal, what does it matter?), dumping them in detention camps. You know the score. Anyone wanting to use “public” services like schools and hospitals will need to show proof of status. New privatised police units will be seen regularly patrolling wealthy neighbourhoods (those that aren’t already gated and fenced), while sink estates descend into low level urban warfare, helped by a relaxation in the gun laws (you think the NRA won’t have a big say in the US trade agreement???). Capital punishment will return – and anyone who thinks they will be able to camp out for a few weeks on a bridge over the Thames will discover that right to protest was criminalised alongside trespass. You really won’t want to end up in the new mega-prisons, where gangs effectively enforce discipline.
Is there anything else left to privatise? Yes of course there is. Local Council services – those few that are still in the hands of the public sector, will be outsourced. And as Council budgets continue to be squeezed tighter and tighter, anything that can be charged for will be charged for, so only the prosperous will be able to afford them. Want your streets cleaned? You’ll have to pay for it. Adult social care? Only available privately. Sorry.
The cliff edge will also approach for UK farmers.A double whammy of reduced subsidies and cheap imports will do for many farms. Those that can survive will intensify their management, squeezing every last ounce (yes Imperial Measurements Are Back!) of crop or unit of livestock from their land. Once free from the EU the shackles of Red Tape can be thrown off and there won’t be any staff to check on compliance of whatever paper thin regulations are put in place to replace them anyway. Where farmers have gone to the wall (eg the sheep industry long propped up by subsidies and tariff walls) land will be bought up cheap for heavily subsidised commercial conifer forestry. What were once denuded hills will become bright conifer green plantations. Still – climate action! Maybe a few Lynx will find sanctuary in them, as with the death of the sheep industry, the single voice opposing their return goes quiet.
Cheap food of questionable safety will be allowed in under a zero tariff regime, but there won’t be any food safety officers around to check whether it’s safe or not, so outbreaks of food poisoning will go unreported or will spread out of control. And as Johnson morphs into our very own version of Viktor Orban, anyone trying to bring these things to the attention of the public will find their funding has been cut and a brick through their window for starters.
If I paint a rather dark picture of what the future holds, please accept my apology. And of course I could be completely wrong. Let’s hope so.