World News

03.22.13

What a Sad Little Empire Britain Has Become

Already choked by austerity, Britain released its 2013 budget this week to howls of outrage. Janine di Giovanni talks to the struggling citizens of dreary, depressed London.

Cyprus may be falling to pieces. Greece, Spain, and Portugal may be going down the tubes, too. But England is not far behind.

The embattled George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is probably the most loathed man in Britain today—next to Tony Blair, who celebrated the anniversary of his greatest mistake, the invasion of Iraq, earlier this week. Osborne released his dreaded 2013 budget on Wednesday (the ludicrously named United Nations “International Day of Happiness”), calling it a plan for “those who aspire.”

Aspire to what? London today is a grim shadow of itself, one of the most expensive cities in the world. The kingdom’s economy, ravaged by austerity, has stalled—according to The Economist, “It needs structural reform; looser money and more infrastructure spending.” Single mothers, average earners, small businesses, and job seekers are really struggling.

The Guardian called Osborne’s budget “populist…aimed to please swing voters.” The Times said “Osborne is wrong to tell us we are an aspiring nation. We know what a mess we are in, and we want a budget for a desperation nation.” The Daily Mail called it a “fumbling government.”

No surprises there.

Households are squeezed dry because of the financial crisis. The aisles of Waitrose, let alone Marks & Spencer’s food section, are disturbingly quiet. Taking a taxi practically requires taking out a mortgage. Cool restaurants along Portobello Road are gone, replaced by restaurants affordable only for bankers and foreigners.

Store assistants get you into a headlock when you enter the door to buy things, then actually haggle the price like they’re in a Tunisian souk. In one of Ledbury Road’s smartest boutiques, a salesgirl actually reduced a Burberry coat by 40 percent to get me to buy it. It was not on sale.  Roads, railways, bridges—and let’s not get started on the poor National Health Service—are suffering. The pound is falling. Spending power is limited due to meager wages and inflation.

Everyone is waiting for Armageddon.

“It can’t get much worse,” one genteel Cambridge graduate who recently applied for housing benefits (the equivalent of a welfare benefit) complained to me. In the early 1990s, he said, Britain saw recessions, but nothing to equal this.

Even humor, the usual respite of the British, seems to be flagging in the wake of an unusually grey winter. The recession is killing not just the industry but also the formidable British spirit.

“It’s a time of great, great austerity,” a political advisor to one of Britain’s cabinet ministers told me, sounding like Churchill in Britain’s darkest hour.

Even humor, the usual respite of the British, seems to be flagging.

Osborne says he plans to reduce the deficit. What the hell does that mean? The beer tax got reduced by a penny on a pint. Is that aspiring? The youth of Britain cannot aspire, because there is no work to aspire to.

And boy, did the youth react to this budget, lending Osborne a heavy dose of snark on Twitter—the social-media network that the chancellor, perhaps not so wisely, has just joined. But even prior to Budget Day, the Right Honorable George Osborne MP, Prime Minister David Cameron's right-hand man, was not particularly well-liked.

Why? It’s hard to say. It might be because of Osborne’s wealthy lifestyle. Like Cameron, he was loaded before politics (a field that doesn’t make you rich in the U.K.) and privileged, too. Thus, he has no clue what it means to aspire. His life is pretty standard upper-middle class stuff. He has a beautiful, intelligent wife, Frances, a former banker, who like Samantha Cameron is a sort of toff (British slang for aristo). She writes books about her toff ancestors.

On top of his wealth and privilege, Osbourne is annoyingly driven. No slacker moments here. Like Dave Cam and Michael Gove, he knew early on that he wanted to be part of the Downing Street crowd. As young guys in their early 30s in Notting Hill, they weren’t just partying: they were plotting.

And yet, he’s kind of soulful, George, and tries to be a man of the people. He Twitters. He used to get his morning cappuccino at Ottolenghi, the Notting Hill institution that sells brownies for about six pounds—like everyone else. He goes to the Hay Literary Festival, where his family has a huge organic farm nearby.

But he still gets dissed. Mercilessly. Who can forget that hilarious moment when he got booed at the Paralympics back in September? I kind of love that YouTube moment. Instead of running for the hills, he grinned—literally—and bore the humiliation like a true Englishman.

I am not sure Osborne, guilty of what the Financial Times calls “shrewd politics but dismal economics,” is the one to yank Britain out of this crisis. But for the moment, he’s all we have. Secretaries of the treasury are never popular. Who likes guys who take away even more of your cash?  Last week in Paris, a friend I was dining with nearly got up and slugged Pierre Moscovici, the minister of finance here in France for “ruining my life!”

As for George, anyone who laughs in the moment of thousands of “boos” hurled at him can’t be that bad.