Once a mighty empire, Britain sees millions struggling simply to live

Britain is the world’s sixth-largest economy, a top-tier industrialized power that still sees itself as a cradle of the postwar welfare state. But its stagnant economy has likely just entered what the Bank of England says could be the longest recession and sharpest drop in living standards on record, and it’s the only G-7 nation whose GDP is still lower than before the pandemic. Britain once compared itself to giants like France and Germany; today many of its metrics more closely resemble Eastern Europe’s weaker economies.

The financial calamity enveloping the U.K. is so widespread that there are few escaping its pull.

One in six British households are on social security checks, and almost a third of British kids live in poverty, government figures show. One in 4 are facing financial difficulty or are already mired in it, and almost 1 in 10 have missed paying bills, according to the Financial Conduct Authority regulator.

This nationwide crisis is driven by spiraling food and energy prices, plummeting wages and crumbling public services. Coupled with months of industrial strikes that have often crippled institutions from the railroads to the courthouses, Britain in 2022 is a place where, for millions of people, everything feels like it’s broken — and is about to get worse this winter.

In the 12 months to March this year, 2.1 million emergency food packages were distributed by a growing network of more than 2,000 food banks — an increase of some 1 million from 2014-15, according to the coordinating charity, the Trussell Trust.

Prime ministers Johnson, Truss and Sunak did not trigger this crisis; the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have caused inflation and supply-chain nightmares in the United States and elsewhere, too. But critics say the Conservatives’ 12 years in power — a decade of austerity policies followed by Brexit — have weakened the U.K. and made it particularly ill-prepared to deal with shocks.

During her brief 49 days in office, Truss attempted to reverse this malaise with a menu of hard-line free-marketeer tax cuts that spooked markets and spelled her downfall. Now, Sunak has announced a dramatic volte-face from his predecessor: a suite of tax rises and budget cuts to try to staunch the bleeding. (The Conservative Party did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)

“I don’t doubt for one minute that people are going to die from malnourishment and hypothermia this winter,” said Helen Greatorex, the no-nonsense CEO of Citizens Advice North Lancashire, a charity that advises people in crisis and often refers them to the food bank in Morecambe. “That’s just how bad things have become.”

Few places illustrate this crisis as starkly as parts of Morecambe, a former bustling seaside town nestled on England’s northwest coast 200 miles from London, which today contains some of the country’s most deprived streets in terms of jobs, wages and education.

Dusty and Allison

Here and across the country, millions of working families with cars and mortgages are struggling to stay afloat; teachers worry more about feeding students than educating them; and proud but desperate people are taking extreme action simply to stay alive — let alone with dignity.

Among them is Thomas, whose story isn’t rare. He is on public benefits for a range of physical and mental health issues, from diabetes to post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the armed forces.

But rising costs mean these benefits no longer cover the basics. Thomas paints a bleak picture.

“There’s no end in sight,” he said. “Nothing is going to get better for me. I’ve got nothing to look forward to.”

Poverty is closely linked to an increase in mental and physical health problems, according to the Centre for Mental Health charity. Story after story in Morecambe bears this out.

Across town, in a top-floor apartment in a converted house, aspiring journalist Allison Tyson was wrapped in a thick coat and scarf, going through her meals for the next few days: eight sachets of store-brand instant soup costing 90 pence (around $1).

“They’ll last me for about three days,” Tyson, 44, said as she spread out the silver packets on the stovetop of her kitchenette. “I just can’t afford” any more.

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