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Stormy sky over House of Commons.

Britain is not as broken as everyone seems to think

According to many politicians and commentators, the UK is in a very sorry state. Ahead of the general election expected this year, Labour leader Keir Starmer has pledged to “fix broken Britain”.

He has spoken of his vow to “usher in a decade of national renewal”, claiming that “the economy is broken, the health service is broken, and public services are broken”. “There’s a lot of mess to fix,” he added.

It’s very similar to the promise former prime minister David Cameron made back in 2010. Then leader of the opposition, Cameron assured voters that he was the man to fix a country badly in need of repair.

So the “broken Britain” mantra continues, voiced, it seems, by whichever political party is seeking to return to government.

But this idea of a broken Britain needs to be challenged. It is far too easy for politicians to suggest that the country is on its knees when there is evidence to suggest something quite different. Despite its problems, Britain is not as broken as some would like us to believe.

The UK economy, for example, is not broken. True, it has not been growing rapidly, but the same holds for a range of similar countries.

And many of the challenges facing the UK’s economy are outside the control of this country’s government, such as the impact of war and climate change.

Recent figures show that in the first quarter of 2024, UK GDP grew by 0.6% compared to 0.3% in the EU and 0.4% in the US.

Inflation is still high but continues to fall, and interest rate cuts are expected later this year. Average wages, excluding bonuses, were 6% higher in the three months to February 2024 compared to the year before (or 2.1% higher when adjusted for inflation). Unemployment rates are around half those of France.

In terms of core public services, there are areas where the UK is doing well. The UK’s retirement income system, for example, benefits from a “triple lock” system which means the state pension increases each April in line with either inflation or average wages or by 2.5% – whichever is highest.

One outcome of this is that the UK is ranked tenth in an annual global pension index, which measures the generosity and sustainability of pension provision. The top three spots are currently held by the Netherlands, Iceland and Denmark, but the UK was still ahead of the likes of Germany (19th) and France (25th).

In education the UK compares favourably too. Across the OECD countries, 14.7% of adults aged 18-24 are not in education, employment or training, but for the UK this figure is 11.8%. Spending on schools, colleges and universities as a percentage of GDP by the UK (6.3%) is one of the highest.

In terms of the quality of education received, the OECD reviews attainment focusing on reading ability, skills in maths and science, with the UK scoring higher than the US, Germany and France.

A broken record

All of this is not to deny the hardship many have faced over the last decade or so. The cost of living has seen household incomes squeezed and waiting lists for hospital treatments are long. There are numerous aspects of British life in 2024 that could – and should – be improved.

But no country is perfectly governed. And a comparative analysis of the UK with other countries does challenge the blanket statement that Britain is broken – a phrase intended to raise doubts and to undermine.

Sign pointing left to 'doom' and right to 'gloom'.
Signs of uncertainty. Pinon Road/Shutterstock

It reminds me of recent research on megaprojects which highlights how the powerful engage in “structural gaslighting”, using rhetoric intended “to sow doubt or confusion”. This study suggests that this is something which manipulates communities and works against rationality.

A similar process was identified in the debate around global warming, which was frequently distorted by politicians and commentators who were able to raise doubts about the science in a way that did not require supporting evidence.

One of the problems with the political rhetoric of “broken Britain” is that it influences business and consumer decisions which then have an effect on economic performance. Research suggests that uncertainty discourages valuable investment.

So perhaps it is time to set aside repetitive talk of broken Britain and develop a more evidence-based and responsible form of politics. For it may be that British political discourse is broken, rather than Britain itself.

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