With tens of millions facing severe hardship, if not outright destitution, this winter, Britain today resembles nothing so much as a tinderbox awaiting a spark. Everywhere you look, the landscape is one of ever-worsening neglect and decay: real wages plummeting at record rates, the health service on its knees, beaches and beauty spots encrusted in shit. After more than four decades of Thatcherite hegemony, both major Westminster parties in its thrall, the end result is a society held together (but only just) with gaffer tape.
The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, or Ofgem — one of many useless government agencies captured by the industries they’re supposed to regulate — added to the misery last week with its latest energy price cap hike. From October 1, the price cap (if we can still call it that) will rise to £3,549 a year for the average household dual-fuel bill. Forecasts for next year are even bleaker: one, from market consultancy firm Auxilione, predicted that bills would hit £5,632 a year from January, before climbing even further to £7,700 from April.
The debate of recent weeks about the rights and wrongs of refusing to pay your energy bill seems almost quaint now. The reality is that, with prices at these levels, people simply won’t be paying regardless of any niceties; Citizens Advice has estimated that from January, 13 million — equivalent to nearly one in four UK households — will be unable to afford their energy. The 4 million largely poorer households on prepayment meters, which very often serve to trap people in fuel poverty, face energy costs of £714 a month by January.
A recent University of York study makes the severity of the deprivation currently facing working people brutally clear. It warns that by the New Year, two-thirds of UK households — a mind-boggling 45 million people — will find themselves in fuel poverty, including more than 80 percent of large families, lone parents, and pensioner couples. Fuel poverty on this scale threatens to have disastrous effects on health, overwhelming a National Health Service already buckling under the strain; health service bosses have warned of an impending “humanitarian crisis.”
Many businesses, too — lacking even the paltry protection of Ofgem’s household energy price cap — look likely to go to the wall, threatening to unleash a wave of job losses. One survey found that 70 percent of pubs are not expected to survive the winter, with some pubs reporting fivefold increases in energy bills. The prospect of living in a Britain without nearly three-quarters of its pubs is bad on its own, but worse considering they are among the few surviving community hubs in many areas, not to mention the prospect of their staffs being put out of work.
With Europe staring down the barrel of a continent-wide energy crisis, French president Emmanuel Macron last week declared an end to the “age of abundance,” sending cosseted British pundits — who, needless to say, have no intention of sacrificing anything — into raptures. But for some, the age of abundance is only just getting started. UK energy producers, for example, are expected to rake in excess profits worth an eye-watering £170 billion over the next two years alone, while ordinary people are plunged into penury.
Amid all this, much has been made of government lethargy. Of course, you’d expect a Tory leadership contest to be a carnival of reaction — and it hasn’t disappointed on that front — but such has been the obsession with culture-war fixations that the stark realities of the mounting crisis have barely intruded on proceedings. Liz Truss, who looks likely to win at a canter, has had nothing to offer beyond lame Thatcherite cosplay and mindless waffle about tax cuts — which would, it just so happens, primarily benefit the top 1 percent.
Truss and her allies are, however, reportedly planning to ramp up North Sea gas drilling. Not only does this again demonstrate how beholden to climate denialism the Tory Party still is — particularly abhorrent now, with 33 million displaced by the floods in Pakistan — but it would do little to make energy more affordable for consumers, as prices are still set by the global market. It would, however, enable energy firms to add to their astronomical profits. (By pure coincidence, oil and gas producers are among the Tories’ most generous donors.)
In any case, this is yet more of the short-termism that has left Britain especially susceptible to the current crisis. For more than four decades, the country’s social infrastructure has been neglected and basic improvements not made, in large part because of neoliberal dogma; politicians conned themselves, and the public, into believing that the market would provide everything (and that anything it didn’t provide wasn’t worth having). Any notion that there might be an overriding public interest was sneered and scoffed at.
As a result of this ideology, which spanned the mainstream political spectrum at Westminster, successive governments have dragged their heels about transitioning to renewable energy until it’s very nearly too late, while Britain’s housing stock is the draftiest in Europe (public investment in home insulation went off a cliff under the Tory–Lib Dem coalition government and has not recovered since). The current crisis simply lays bare this dereliction of duty; neoliberal chickens, it seems, are again coming home to roost.
With Tories and Labour rightists alike having closed ranks to crush any alternative, the mounting popular anger has no political party outlet. Keir Starmer’s Labour has taken flight from anything that looks like either industrial militancy or political radicalism, shunning energy renationalization — supported by nearly half of Tory voters — to reassure Britain’s oligarchy that he won’t do anything to upset it. No wonder, then, that the initiative to lead the pushback has fallen entirely to trade unions and extra-parliamentary movements.
Due to the defeats of previous decades, the ranks of the trade union movement remain much depleted compared to what they once were. But the upsurge in strike action, with more to come, is testament to the outrage and desperation millions are feeling. Extraordinarily, an opinion poll found that 29 percent — nearly a third — of people, including half of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, felt riots would be a justified response. With hindsight, perhaps the Tories knew more than they were letting on when they preemptively clamped down on protest.
Surely, at some point, the government will be forced to finally face reality and take more drastic measures to shield consumers and firms from rocketing energy prices, at least to curb the profiteering of fossil fuel firms. But energy prices are set to surge within weeks, and the pressure is already unbearable for many. Millions might be unable to heat their homes over the next few months, but unless more support is forthcoming as a matter of great urgency, those in power could be looking at a hot winter nonetheless.