Last week, the BBC reported that Northern Ireland had become the country with the longest peace-time period without a government ever. I’d forgotten why the power sharing executive had even collapsed 590 days previously, so I looked it up. It was over a mismanaged renewable energy scheme. In an era of Trump’s lies, the fiasco over Brexit and the opposition in Westminster being gridlocked in a row over anti-Semitism, this seemed like an old-fashioned, almost quaint, example of democratic accountability.
It feels like the bar for political accountability has been raised, with democracy caught in its own trap. In the US, many of President Trump’s closest associates are caught up in legal wranglings over wrongdoings far more widespread than Bill Clinton’s lie over his affair, yet with the current legislative arithmetic he is apparently unimpeachable. In Westminster, both main parties are deeply divided, with the rebellions playing chicken over who will go first on either side and break up their parties.
The Westminster government is utterly consumed by Brexit, weighed down by the responsibility of finding some way through this - or even just by surviving week to week. It feels like we are increasingly Brexit blind to anything else. Other issues, which in less chaotic times might have dominated weeks of debate, have been seemingly tolerated. Councils collapsing? Bad luck. The botched introduction of a whole new welfare system in Universal Credit? Teething problems. Crossrail delays? Almost inevitable.
But Brexit blindness is a Westminster ailment. When we relocated the HuffPost UK newsroom to Birmingham in July, we went out and asked people what they cared about, what they wanted to read more about. Not one person mentioned Brexit spontaneously. In a focus group about news I watched last week, when the subject of Brexit came up the entire room groaned. “Get on with it,” was the main message. Beyond Westminster, selective deafness to all things Brexit is the more common ailment.
What did people want to talk about? In the heart of Birmingham, the number one issue was homelessness, a visibly growing problem for the city. People wanted to talk about the NHS, jobs, their kids’ schools. In the real world, the change to the benefits system with the rollout of Universal Credit is among the more important things.
Many of these problems have roots in the previous government’s austerity programme and in recent weeks there has been a crescendo of consequences of the coalition’s 2010 policy of aggressively reducing national spending.The coalition government, led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, made limited protections to health and education, meaning that cuts were deepest for council spending, public sector pay and welfare.
Yet Westminster, blinded by Brexit, treats austerity and its effects as old news. The policy forced councils to cut back on service after service, starting with “non-essentials”. But now the cuts risk extending to the unthinkable: children’s services, the heart of the welfare state, protecting the most vulnerable in society. Northampton council has gone bust and the National Audit Office warns others will follow. The true consequences of those deep cuts to national spending are still only beginning to become clear.
Learning from our conversations in Birmingham, and what our readers want to read more about, this week HuffPost UK is focusing on reporting the enduring impacts of that 2010 policy, told through the experiences of people at the sharp end. Austerity Bites will document what happened to the people whose benefits were cut, how police practice has changed with fewer numbers in the ranks, and the impact on individual towns as council services have been reduced.
We will examine library closures, cuts to drug rehab, and the stories of the increasing numbers of people now living in tents in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. We will remind people that the central promise of austerity, that it would result in a wealthier and deficit-free nation, has not been achieved.
Brexit matters and will be the story in the next few months as the deal is hashed out, and the seven months still to go before our official leaving date. But we wanted to take a moment to remember the other things happening in Britain today – and to hold the politicians to account for them.
Polly Curtis is editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK