“Your government?! What a joke that is!” That was the sniggering reaction earlier this afternoon, albeit not in so many words, from our Danish neighbours in the Spanish village where we are spending a few weeks. OK, so it’s human nature to find it easier to recognise other people’s problems than to acknowledge our own, but the UK really is a joke at the moment … except that for us Brits the economic and social crisis being ignored by our politicians is no bloody joke! This view was reinforced to me last evening when I spoke to a number of resident Brits at a local international event: the consensus was that they all deplore Brexit, and what is currently happening ‘back home’, to the extent that most avoid travelling back to the YUK except when absolutely necessary!
So often, even though we are only too aware of the problems that confront us every day, we fail to recognise their true significance, being too close to them to view them from a wider perspective. However, those outside are in a better position to judge us and our predicament objectively. Hence it will be interesting to evaluate our situation as seen in this article which appeared a week ago in the Spanish online paper El Mundo under the headline: “La crisis de precios desata el verano del descontento en Reino Unido: pobreza energética y clubs de comida para la clase media” (“the cost of living crisis unleashes the summer of discontent in the UK: energy poverty and food clubs for the middle classes”).
Considering that Spain and most Spanish people are among the biggest fans of the British and the UK, this article has added poignancy. It gives a view of various popular aspects of what the Spanish consider ‘typically English’ (the distinction between ‘English’ and ‘British’ is lost on most Spaniards!). It serves to illustrate the puzzlement of Spanish citizens as to how we Brits have allowed ourselves to descend into this slough of despond … to add to the self-destruction we brought on ourselves with the Brexit Referendum. The article is in fact one of a series of articles called La vida sin Rusia (Life without Russia), exploring the impact of the behaviour of Russia today on various countries around the world. More of that later …
Firstly, the article covers statistics relating to some of the problems facing us:
- The average British household will suffer a loss in its purchasing power, resulting in some having to decide between eating or heating next winter.
- A kilo of butter costs as much as £10.
- Filling your car’s petrol tank costs £100.
- Electricity and heating will cost you as much as £3,244 a year.
- More and more people face the dilemma of choosing whether to eat or pay the bills.
Conclusion? “Es el momento de exigir respuestas a los políticos” (“Now is the time to demand answers from the politicians”). Bloody right, but bear in mind that this is a SPANISH newspaper saying so, not the Daily Fail, the Fun, the Torygraph or the Daily Ex(crement)press! Proud to be British???!!!
The article goes on to contrast the way that all the focus in the UK media is on the race to succeed Boris Johnson, while millions of Brits are already feeling the ‘doble acecho’ (double ambush) of food poverty and energy poverty before winter has arrived. Spanish readers are told that the average household in the UK will experience a loss of 3,058 euros in their purchasing power this year, according to no less a body than the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEPR), which attributes half of this fall to the war in Ukraine.
We read that inflation has already reached 9.4 per cent and it is feared that it might be as much as 12 per cent in the autumn: the Bank of England is heralding a recession. Interestingly, El Mundo describes the rail strikes and the fuel price protest convoys as ‘malestar social’ (social unease); the summer of discontent is further characterised by ‘bread and butter clubs’, set up to relieve the burden being endured by citizens during this, the greatest ‘squeeze’ since World War Two.
Under the English heading ‘Go slow’, the article suggests that French protestors in high-vis waistcoats and Canadian freedom convoys have inspired the protest convoys of drivers protesting against fuel prices on motorways around the country. As one of the demonstrators is reported as saying: “Es una vergüenza que estemos pagando la gasolina más cara de Europa” (“It is a disgrace that we are paying the most for fuel in Europe). The RAC majors on this in its current online magazine. Spanish readers are told how the police arrested dozens of demonstrators for driving at less than 30 mph in the ‘Go Slow’ protests … which will inevitably seem to them rather harsh for such an obviously justified demonstration of indignation; as the protestors insist, this is the only peaceful way of pressurising the Government and the multinationals. The Spanish readers must also be surprised to learn that the UK has been notoriously lenient on Shell, BP and Centrica in particular, considering their huge windfall profits.
By contrast, the Spanish government gives motorists a 15 per cent discount on the price of fuel at the pump, and Repsol, the biggest fuel company, gives an extra 5 per cent. What a contrast. Now, which of the two governments cares most about its citizens? It is a similar picture in most EU countries.
Pobreza energética – energy poverty
“¿Calentarse o comer?”. (“Heat or eat?”). El Mundo identifies this as the dilemma which millions of Brits fear they will have to face this winter with the increase in energy bills up to 3,800 euros (about £3,400). As we Brits already know, since this article was published “Ofgem, el organismo regulador de la energía” is already predicting an even higher price ‘cap’ (that’s a joke if ever there was one!), in spite of what the paper describes as “el clamor popular por las insuficientes medidas de ayuda del Gobierno” (“the public outcry at the government’s inadequate assistance measures”).
The Spanish reader is then told that electricity and gas bills are the greatest factors in the UK cost of living crisis, with The Times, stating that they swallow up 25 per cent of the income of a family of more than four with limited finances. It is interesting to note the recent report that UK customers of EDF pay twice the price for electricity compared to the price paid by French customers. Richard Neudegg, analyst at Unswitch.com, states that urgent measures will be needed at the end of the summer; consumers face an extremely difficult winter, and people’s efforts to save will not be enough. The article describes how, against the background of a turbulent summer in politics, Boris Johnson was told of the case of Elsie, a 77-year-old pensioner who only ate once a day and spent hours travelling with her free bus-pass to keep warm, because her pension didn’t give her enough to pay for heating. What a sorry image for the Spanish to be presented with, of a country they have hitherto admired so much!
Pobreza alimentaria – food poverty
“Pese a ser el sexto país más rico del mundo, el Reino Unido tiene una de las tasas de pobreza alimentaria más altas de Europa.” (“In spite of being the sixth richest country in the world, the UK has one of the highest rates of food poverty in Europe”). Reading this article confronts the British reader with some uncomfortable home truths. To the many Spaniards who, over recent decades, have viewed the UK as something of an icon, it must seem that our halo has slipped, and we no longer deserve our place on that pedestal. The statistics quoted state that 7.3 million adults (one in ten of the population), and 2.6 million children have experienced serious difficulties in obtaining food, and a million Brits spend at least a day without eating … and these statistics come from the Food Foundation. They also state that more than two million habitually use food banks, whose numbers have doubled since Cameron’s era of austerity. They also state that price rises in supermarkets have made some basic food products unaffordable to many: skimmed milk has increased by 29 per cent, in a year, butter 21 per cent, flour 19 per cent, and olive oil 18 per cent.
Pan y mantequilla (bread and butter)
El Mundo goes on to describe the burgeoning in Manchester of so-called “clubs del pan y la mantequilla”, (TBBT, ‘The Bread and Butter Thing’ according to El Mundo). “La idea es cubrir el bache de la crisis alimentaria y los precios de los supermercados”, (“the idea is to cover the ‘pothole’ of the food crisis and supermarket prices”) explains the founder and CEO Mark Game, whose aim during the pandemic was to reduce the weekly shopping basket up to five times, from £35 to £7.50. The difference with food banks is that there is no need to show that you are in a grave economic situation to be a member. Game explains that they feed their members with supermarket over-stock, ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables, products in damaged packaging, and things which are beyond their sell-by date but which can still be eaten. Thus, they fulfil a social and ecological purpose at the same time, using up 100 tons of food a week.
There are already 70 clubs working, especially in the north of the country, with 400 volunteers distributing food, and 1,700 new members each month. “We don’t come because we are poor, but because we find it harder and harder to get our budget to last through the month”; this is stated by Jeremy Burton, a schoolteacher who collects his basket regularly each week at St Peter’s Church. “We have a feeling of solidarity: you realise that there are people who have to choose between eating or paying their bills.”
‘Fish and chips’
El Mundo then turns its attention to that iconic British delicacy: fish and chips. Corresponding to what a friend who runs a fish and chip shop told me a few weeks ago, cod has gone up by 75 per cent, sunflower oil by 60 per cent, and flour by 40 per cent. He described the difficulty of meeting the expectations of customers, when his profit margins would be wiped out if he kept to the same portion sizes and prices; the continuity of supply of fish is also now very erratic. El Mundo quotes Andrew Crook, president of the National Fish Friers Federation as having raised the alarm that as many as a third of the over 1,200 fish and chip shops could disappear. Indeed, we have lost one of the two in our town, and our mobile fishmonger from Brixham, who calls every Wednesday, has had to increase his prices steadily over recent months.
Specifically, Crook says that he has himself had to raise portion prices four times so far this year, currently charging about 10 euros (£8.60). He points out that takeaway food places, which used to be the cheapest, can no longer hide the price rises. Of course, economic sanctions imposed on Russia have given rise to price increases of white fish from the Barents Sea.
Yes, even the cheeseburger! McDonald’s used to be able to advertise its 99 pence cheeseburgers on London bus-stops. That price remained sacrosanct for 14 years, through pandemics and financial crises, but the impact of the war in Ukraine has created irresistible inflationary pressures. Alistair Macrow, executive director for McDonald’s in the UK, told El Mundo: “Este verano vamos a tener que añadir de 10 a 20 peniques a los productos más afectados por la inflación”, (“This summer we’re going to have to add between 10 and 20 pence to the products most affected by inflation). Hence, the cheeseburger has risen in price to 1,42 euros (£1.19) to the shock and horror of the loyal customers of the 1,300 establishments of this chain in the UK.
Should we be Russian to conclusions?
OK, the El Mundo article we have been exploring is just one of several articles under the umbrella heading ‘La vida sin Rusia’ (‘Life without Russia’). El Mundo has chosen to focus on a handful of iconic aspects of the British way of life that many Spaniards have admired … in a sense washing our dirty linen in public in the Spanish press. However, there is an underlying sense in this article of perplexity: why on earth have the British allowed things to get this bad, whilst focussing so much attention on – basically – Tory party squabbles and how they are impacting on national leadership? In fact, there is and has been a scandalous lack of leadership in this developing national crisis.
There is, of course, a considerable irony here: the Tory-Russian connection, as described in a recent article of mine, also quoting the Spanish press. The Tories, both individually and collectively, have for many years, and even in the very recent past, been excessively willing to accept Russian money in exchange for turning a blind eye to the development of London as a money-laundering centre for ill-gotten Russian money, allowing Russians (among others) to skew the property market by pouring money into UK real estate. One could go on. When the outgoing PM has as one of his best friends the son of a former KGB agent, even giving him a peerage, we have to ask ourselves whether we could in part blame the Tory party and its government for having been too indulgent towards Putin and his cronies.
Result: Putin committing the outrages he is perpetrating on Ukraine, which are affecting the economy of the whole world, including the effects being felt by ordinary working people in the UK. This seems a valid conclusion, unless you are willing to turn an indulgent blind eye to what is bleeding obvious to many of us!