UK: the Uncaring Kingdom

‘If you say so’ by Anthea Bareham based on original artwork by MissLunaRosa12 via Wikimedia

I have used this definition several times in the last few weeks, triggered by the government’s policy towards ‘Boat People’, the Rwanda policy, refusal to take appropriate action in respect of Afghans, the treatment of the Windrush people, and so on. Spending a few weeks in Spain (which is by no means a perfect country) has highlighted the many areas in which the UK compares unfavourably when it comes to care and compassion. Consideration of some of these areas might highlight the factors which have changed our country for the worse over the last decade or so. The decline has caused so many people I know in the UK to voice opinions such as “I can’t feel proud of our country”, or “This is not the country I grew up in”. Similarly, many Brits living or holidaying in Spain say “I don’t ever want to go back to the UK”; or ”It shocks me to see the state of things when I go back to the UK!”

But is the UK really an Uncaring Kingdom?

Open door – closed door?

The UK is now notorious for its abuse of those it has been happy to exploit … the Windrush generation is a case in point. In April 2018 it was admitted that these British citizens had been wrongly classed as illegal immigrants. A compensation scheme was set up but, to this day, there are still delays and serious problems with it. More recently, a similar attitude has characterised the treatment of many of the Afghans who assisted British forces in their country, and who were brought to the UK to escape from probable reprisals from the Taliban, who took over when the British departed. Many were left behind, and some of those who were brought to the UK are still being treated badly … begging the question whether the UK really is a welcoming, safe haven.

Even more recently, we have seen the atrocious way in which the government treated NHS staff who happen to originate from Sudan, where the latest crisis erupted in April 2023. We witnessed the spectacle of a Sudanese doctor, who had gone to Sudan for Eid, refused access to an evacuation flight because he didn’t have a UK passport. The same sort of problem has confronted at least 24 other NHS doctors. So, it’s OK when government needs to plug the gaps in the understaffed NHS with Sudanese doctors, but a different matter when it comes to treating them as one would a British citizen. It has even been suggested that the Home Office is being ‘unashamedly racist’ towards Sudanese refugees – because that’s what they are deemed to be under these circumstances.

NY Times and a nurse’s question for Stephen Barclay

One might almost come to the conclusion that the government considers NHS staff, along with so many other public servants, as mere pawns to provide (barely) acceptable levels of staffing. Clap them during the pandemic for the sake of your public image, but deny them a fair wage. The starving of public services resulting from the austerity programme of Conservative governments has led to a situation where experienced nurses are on Universal Credit and using food banks. To add insult to injury, the UK is sucking in nurses from developing countries like Ghana. It seems immoral to deprive such a country of the nurses it desperately needs – and has trained – rather than pay British nurses a decent salary.

Repelling boarders

One gets the strong impression that our government just doesn’t care about ordinary people and the things which affect their lives. During the Easter holidays British school groups were held up at passport control at Dover owing to the tightening of border controls, such that some coaches actually gave up and went home. The same niggardly approach to borders is deterring foreign school students from visiting London, prompting the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, to call on the government to relax post-Brexit visa rules. Recently, a young Spanish waitress told me that her sister went to Oxford on a school exchange, receiving a British girl into their family in Spain … but that this wouldn’t be possible in future because of the increased post-Brexit restrictions. It seems the UK is determined to turn itself into an isolated nation, denying young people the opportunity to travel to our near neighbours … at least as far as ‘ordinary’ people are concerned.

The tightening of rules affects adults as well, of course. The 90/180-day limit on the time UK citizens can spend in the EU restricts flexibility; if you happen to own a property in the EU and use up that ‘allowance’ you wouldn’t be able to return to your property to sort out a break-in, fire or flood … or squatters (this last being an increasing phenomenon in Spain). Overstay your time and return to the EU and you won’t be allowed in, just as you won’t be allowed in if your passport was issued more than 10 years ago, even if it is currently still valid. Hmm … I wonder who has actually lost their freedom of movement?

Brexit is … NOT working!

Of course, the loss of freedom of movement has had a huge impact on the industries reliant on imported labour – notably hospitality, construction and farming. So many relevant bodies recognise this, notably the House of Lords European Affairs committee … but not the government, which either doesn’t listen or doesn’t care. Even worse is the future of many major British industries as they confront new restrictions on selling their products in Europe. Whilst the CE mark is recognised throughout the world … will British products bearing the UKCA mark ever inspire the same confidence in our go-it-alone status?

West Country Voices has often covered the plight of small and medium businesses, but mega-multinational companies also have problems with investing in the UK. The giant car-maker, Stellantis, reported that Brexit may force it to close its UK factory. The company produces a huge range of vehicles, including Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroen, and Fiat. Their boss says there will be “significant job losses” if Brexit isn’t renegotiated. We need to remember that every job lost will have been lost as the result of a deliberate decision by the Tories. They were warned again and again, so often indeed for it to be impossible for them not to know this would happen. Now, the construction and aerospace industries are also asking Rishi Sunak to improve the post-Brexit trade rules.

It gets worse: Paul Waugh suggests, in i-news:

 “Post-Brexit Britain will get squashed by the US and EU unless we get real on industrial strategy”.

 He goes on to write:

“When Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is pulling in billions of dollars of investment, and the EU is using its own huge clout to do the same, it seems surreal that Britain will be trying to attract a new battery gigafactory by whispering its case.”

The government is basing a large part of its industrial strategy on the making of batteries for electric cars … but then, earlier this year, the key player in this plan, Britishvolt, collapsed. What we are talking about here is the future prosperity, or otherwise, of the UK and its citizens. As a result of Brexit, many of them will not be working! Does the government care?

Racing ahead … at the rear?

Much has been said and written about Horizon Europe, Erasmus and other examples of EU cooperation at university and scientific research level, and of the UK being in grave danger of being left behind on so many fronts. In other areas of science and technology the UK is lagging far behind other neighbouring countries. The installation of large-scale solar farms has a long way to go to catch up with some EU countries, as has the installation of solar panels above carparks, which has been a feature of IKEA in Málaga for many years. And while a solar farm in Dorset is, at last, being used to power green hydrogen, both Germany and Spain have been running hydrogen-powered trains for many years.

Meanwhile, UK families have been struggling with the cost of living, notably energy prices, which are still outrageous considering the huge dividends being paid to shareholders in energy companies. All this against the background of the huge decline in raw energy prices. And then there is the Brexit effect

As for that other, even more essential commodity, water, it beggars belief how anybody can justify shareholder dividends being prioritised over the obligation to provide customers with clean water … and not just from their taps! It does indeed stink.

At my grandchildren’s favourite beach…

Through the looking glass … or under the microscope

So, how do others see us? Do we care? It almost seems that UK Plc does not! After several years of Boris Johnson making the UK a laughing-stock, there is still interest in his antics, past and present, which do the UK no credit. There was, very recently, considerable focus in Spanish TV news on the Richard Sharp affair, also mentioning the “then anticipated”verdict on Johnson’s lying to parliament about lockdown parties. El Mundo publishes articles regularly on Johnson and his antics, such as one, two months or so ago, called: ‘Boris Johnson: “Soy el Führer y estoy destinado a tener el control”’ (I am the Fuhrer and I am destined to have control). A few weeks later much attention was given to the coronation of course … more about that later.

Back to the Spanish village in which we were fortunate enough to have spent the last few weeks, and where the contrasts with the UK are stark – and not just the climate. In fact, after a long early heatwave for the last couple of weeks we spent there, the weather was more akin to that of Devon – cool and wet, the rain being much-needed for the fruit trees cultivated on the hillsides. While there, we experienced a general sense of well-being, generated by a few images and impressions which contrast starkly with recent experience of life ‘back home’. Let’s just describe a handful of these.

Motoring ahead … or left behind?

When in Devon, we have to travel repeatedly along certain roads. Between Totnes and Newton Abbot one has to dodge the many potholes caused by the road surface de-laminating, it has become a local joke: “No, Officer, I haven’t been drinking, I was just swerving to avoid the potholes!”. Indeed, as you drive around the 8-mile-long chicane of craters, you can quickly tell whether the drivers behind you are local or not. If they follow you from the start, they are obviously local. If it takes a mile or so of jolting before they follow your jinking around, they are observant visitors who just needed time to realise the reason for your erratic driving and trust you as their guide through the ‘minefield’! It almost reminds one of government chicanery and the evasiveness practised by ministers when confronted with unpalatable questions.

By contrast, substantial work had just finished on one of our favourite sections of mountain road in Spain for cycling. Tons of rock had been shifted, the road widened, a billiard-table surface laid, and fresh white lines painted. Indeed, the white lines had been refreshed for many miles on the adjoining mountain roads. We noticed recently that the roadside litter was being cleared up – for the second time in two months! By contrast, on recent journeys in the UK we have been shocked at the amount of roadside litter, as have other Brits who have visited the UK recently.

We were also impressed by other local construction projects: around our village alone, two new bridges to improve access for the local ‘agricultores’ to get to their land across the valley; the new parking area designed to welcome tourists and visitors to the village; the regular painting of walls and railings to maintain the attractiveness of the village; the regular street cleaning. In each of these last two activities, the work is allocated to local people who are otherwise unemployed, to ensure fair sharing out of the opportunity to work … and the self-respect that goes with it.

Give unto others …

The same spirit of encouraging altruism can be seen in the system whereby Spanish citizens filling in their tax returns are encouraged to tick a box allocating part of their tax dues to a charity. This ensures that these donations go for the purposes for which they are given. The British are renowned for their generosity, but it is left to charities to spend a large amount of their income on advertising, and on the salaries paid to executives to dream up schemes to increase donations.

Of course, given the current economic problems faced by every country, many people have come to rely on food banks and, like a UK relative of ours, a Spanish friend has worked as a volunteer in a food bank. However, it is a sad reflection on the priorities in the UK, and the way it treats public servants, that nurses and teachers and even some doctors are having to use food banks, and that some even qualify for Universal Credit. Yet the government, rather than treat its public servants appropriately, recruits doctors and nurses from developing countries which can ill afford to lose people with these skills. Recently our newspaper front pages have announced that the government wishes to fill vacant teaching posts in shortage subjects – maths, sciences and modern languages – by recruiting teachers from other countries and paying them £10,000 more, which seems tin-eared in the middle of a wage dispute for our own teachers.

Funny old thing, in 2011 the Cameron government did the same thing, only then the recruitment campaign was targeted at EU countries, whilst this time EU countries are conspicuous by their absence. Might this be another example of the anti-EU racism which characterises Brexit and this government? In Spain public servants are respected and many villages have plaques commemorating teachers and nurses who have contributed so much to their communities. Deserved recognition, rather than the contempt the UK Government so often dishes out to its public servants. Worthy of note also is the recognition of the value of women in society, as seen in a plaque in a village near ‘ours’.

Plaques commemorating altruistic individuals

Never too old

Something which never fails to impress us is the way the elderly and handicapped are treated in our Spanish village. When we sit having a coffee in the main square, we see a succession of very old villagers being taken out for a walk by their ‘cuidadoras’ (carers). This is of obvious benefit, not just for their physical health, but also for their mental wellbeing, helping to stave off dementia. Yes, the kind weather helps, but I wonder whether my mother would have ended up bedbound and with advancing dementia if she had had such provision years ago. Among the regular ‘cuidadoras’ are a couple of Moroccan women who live in the village with their husbands, who work on the land. Whilst there is slight resentment of these migrants, as seen in the shift to the right in the local elections recently, there is a fair level of integration and acceptance.

Crowning glory

To sum up, we have witnessed and experienced a general sense of wellbeing during our two months in Spain, compared to a sense of unease we observe in the UK. I don’t like to run the UK down, after all, it is my native land, where I was brought up, educated and worked for over 40 years; where most of my family and friends live, and where I have enjoyed most of my life (though somewhat less so since 2016). Besides, so many others are exposing the problems far better than I can, such as Chris Gray in his Brexit Blog.

Whatever ills, injustices and infamy blight Blighty, we have a unique national asset to keep us happy, and shield us from the nasty stuff. Whatever one thinks of an elderly man starting his new job officially at 74, an age when most of us have retired from long and fulfilling careers; or of his new elderly queen; or of that other member of the royal family who, perforce, hasto be displayed on the front page of every populist rag (especially when things are so obviously not right with our country) … whatever one thinks, everything is OK: the UK is a caring kingdom … just not caring about the right things and the right people!