DEmpty stations, scarce subways, canceled medical appointments and untraceable ambulances. Not since the Thatcher years had the UK seen a wave of strikes on such a scale that the reference to a new “winter of discontent”, a term of Shakespeare’s inspiration, denoting the massive strikes of 1978-1979, is ubiquitous. . More than 1 million British workers in total are to stop work before the end of the year, in a strike that started on December 12 to meet pay demands, in the face of inflation, which has been high in November at 10.7% above a year (6.2) % in France).
As well as railway workers, postmen, customs officers, baggage handlers, there are National Health Service (NHS) nurses – on strike for the first time since they were organized – and are likely to be waiting for junior doctors and teachers in January. The conflict, fueled by the accelerated stagnation between prices and wages, is part of a context marked by more than a decade of drastic austerity under Conservative governments, which has eroded incomes, particularly those of public servants. Over the past two years alone, their purchasing power has fallen by 7.7%.
If the scale of the movement and the firmness of the government evoke the era of the Iron Lady, the context is very different. Rishi Sunak’s government is in a situation of great political weakness, after the series of scandals and crises that marked the end of the Boris Johnson era, the country is suffering from a significant labor shortage (133,000 vacancies, including 47,000 for nurses in the NHS alone ), the statement is rather benevolent towards the strikers, and the Covid experience has popularized state intervention.
The most unequal country in Western Europe
To the deep movement of anger among the British, especially known for their endurance and their slime, Rishi Sunak opposes firmness. He refuses to give in to demands for pay, agitates the threat of an army intervention to replace the ambulance drivers and a bill to impose a minimum service in transport. He is trying to create public opinion against strikers accused of organizing “chaos when Christmas approaches.
As Britain, which has become the most unequal country in Western Europe, sinks into recession, 3 million Britons struggle to pay their energy bills and food banks proliferate, the London government appears to be anchored on an ideology that advocates a minimal state, tends to make the disadvantaged responsible for their fate and to favor the haves, while proving powerless to limit the impact of inflation.
The British Conservatives are also prisoners of their miraculous but chimerical promises about Brexit. Instead of the prosperity, sovereignty and international expansion they claimed to bring by breaking with their neighbors, they reaped only the slowdown in their exports, the depreciation of the British pound, the worst growth forecasts for countries developed outside of Russia and diplomatic isolation . To the immediate need to engage in serious negotiations aimed at breaking the deadlock of a social conflict where the dignity and purchasing power of many Britons are at stake, is added the need to seek a project capable of giving back to these last of the prospects and a place on the European continent.