London Diary: Britain's joyless New Year

Britain faces a joyless New Year amid a wave of wage-driven strikes that have effectively shut down large swathes of public services

Nurses and supporters march down Whitehall in London after a day of strike action over pay 
and work conditions, 20 Dec. 2022
Nurses and supporters march down Whitehall in London after a day of strike action over pay and work conditions, 20 Dec. 2022

Hasan Suroor

Britain’s joyless New Year

Britain faces a joyless New Year amid a wave of wage-driven strikes that have effectively shut down large swathes of public services from health and transport to postal and airport operations. For the first time in more than 100 years, nurses are taking part in a national strike.

It’s the first big test of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s leadership as he struggles to deal with Britain’s worst industrial unrest since the 1980s. And it comes just when Sunak had started to get to grips with the economic mess left behind by Liz Truss.

The bad news for him is that the public is largely supportive of workers’ action, especially those of nurses; his party is trailing behind the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls; and though he is widely respected for his personal integrity, his affluent lifestyle is a sticking point with ordinary people facing a crippling cost of living crisis. Some see him to be out of touch with common people’s concerns.

At the same time, Sunak is under pressure from his party hardliners to take a tough stand against strikers whose action, apart from disrupting normal life, is likely to hit the economy when it’s already on the brink. Will he able to tough it out?

Goodbye, chicken tikka masala

Last week, the inventor of chicken tikka masala, UK-based restaurateur Ali Ahmed Aslam, passed away and has since been mourned widely. Not many may be aware though that his invention long ceased to be Britain’s ‘national dish’ amid an explosion of popularity of international cuisine, especially Mediterranean and East Indian dishes.

The truth is that it was never really Britain’s national dish. It was an artificial construct concocted at the turn of the millennium by the then ruling New Labour Party to highlight British multiculturalism.

It was the then foreign secretary, late Robin Cook, who arbitrarily declared ‘CTM’ as the country’s ‘national dish’ without producing any evidence for his claim. Indeed, nobody wanted to find out. So keen was the political establishment to advertise the idea of Cool Britannia—open to all cultures and influences.

This is what Cook said in a speech in London on 21 April 2001 as his boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair, flirted with BritishIndian businessmen like the Hindujas and the Mittals, who donated generously to the party to buy influence in Downing Street: “Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish...and a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy,” he said.

Since then, CTM has lost its novelty, overshadowed by kimchi, tofu and seafood. And, more sophisticated Indian dishes than CTM.

Third World Britain?

So serious is Britain’s deepening cost of living crisis that nearly three quarters of school teachers are washing clothes, buying uniforms and stationery for their pupils to help them overcome the crisis.

A survey by Education Support, a charity that helps teachers with their wellbeing, suggested that more than a quarter of teachers had prepared food for pupils who did not have any. Two-fifths had bought them vital school and homework supplies such as pens, paper or bags. One in eight respondents said they had cleaned children’s clothes when they were dirty and one in ten had bought pupils part of their school uniform.

This has added to the stressful conditions in which they work causing many to quit.

“Heads are facing an unprecedented recruitment and retention crisis, which is having wide-ranging implications for their own well-being,” said Evelyn Forde, chairwoman of the commission and herself a head teacher. She said that at her school, staff were leaving because “they have decided enough is enough”.

Parliamentary sex-pests

A spate of allegations of harassment, sexual assault and even rape against British MPs has irreparably damaged British parliament’s reputation. Once revered as home to democracy, it’s now regarded as a den of licentiousness and immorality. A survey by Hansard Society, a parliamentary think-tank, showed that 63 per cent of respondents felt the British system of government is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful.

Altogether six MPs are currently suspended from their parties because of claims relating to sexual misconduct, a tally described as “disgraceful” and “alarming”.

‘What is particularly galling is that those MPs against whom allegations have been made cannot be named before charges. In earlier days, the press was free to name suspects and detail allegations until a charge was laid,’ wrote one commentator.

Transparency International UK, which tracks political corruption, has expressed concern over the erosion of public trust in politics which, it said, has ‘hit record lows after a series of political scandals that have severely dented public trust in politics’. It called for an overhaul of the current rules.

And, lastly, Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things, A Suitable Boy, A House for Mr Biswas and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance are among the 50 best books of the past 100 years selected by The Sunday Times

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