Rarely, in recent times, has the refrain in the bleak midwinter resonated more. My grandparents used to recall the long freezing winter of 1947, when food rationing was still in force and wartime deprivation remained a grim reality as the worst they experienced. I can, just, remember the winter of discontent, being read bedtime stories by candle light and uncollected rubbish piled high in the streets. We were well used to hospitals buckling under pressure – the NHS was collapsing back then too. Later, Arthur Scargill took the miners out on a huge strike. Inflation was well into double figures. In the City of London, the finance sector was a boutique business for a select few who wore bowler hats to work.
The world has changed a great deal since then and many of our everyday experiences now bear little resemblance to what they were then. Today if the Wi-Fi goes down, or Elon Musk does something to Twitter, or from poolside the Duke and Duchess of Sussex issue yet another rumble of discontent, it’s a headline for a twenty-four hour news cycle often short of a serious event to cover. Yet somehow that familiar line from the popular carol seems to sum up the prevailing mood.
There is no doubt that, as 2022 moves towards its close, a post-covid Brexited Britain is a weary grumbling place. So far, Brexit has not yet unleashed a huge hitherto constrained force of dynamic commercial and economic energy. Neither has it led so far to a star shell burst of artistic or literary outpouring. Two years of pandemic laid waste to the economy and put much of everyday life on hold. It is extraordinary to think this is the first normal Christmas for three years.
On top of this we now have the challenges of a huge financial reckoning. A judgement by the markets on the political handling of the economy and an economic response by each one of us about how and where we spend depending on our circumstance and confidence.
That many public sector workers feel the need to express their discontent by strikes is, perhaps, as unsurprising as it is unwelcome to the rest of us. When people feel ignored, underpaid and overworked they are likely to resort to the only means they are left with, the withdrawal of their labour, but it is a 20thC response to a 21stC problem. It is always the young, vulnerable and the elderly who suffer the greatest when vital public services are disrupted. You defeat a government at the ballot box not on a picket line. Striking is not the way forward.
For both the government and the opposition, the strikes present opportunities as well as challenges. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Kier Starmer can afford to give in to all the strikers demands. No Prime Minister or would be Prime Minister can afford to ignore the example of Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan. There can only be one government and one head of it. So bending a knee to trade union bosses would be politically disastrous for either of them.
For the Prime Minister, who radiates reasonableness as much as mulled wine conjures up the smell of the festive season, he can probably already see a way through. Make an offer of pay in line with the independent bodies recommendations, be willing to talk, but don’t budge an inch. Let the unions disrupt Christmas and annoy everyone. Some strikers will, indeed have, settled. Others will. Then see where we are in the new year. It must be odds on that the strikes will, given time, fizzle out. The fundamental challenge of what to do with some key public services, especially the NHS, will remain acute. Real reform is necessary and urgent.
For Keir Starmer, it is a fine line he has to walk. He needs every vote he can attract. He needs every point in his enormous polling lead to build up that necessary sense of momentum and confidence in victory. The boundary changes and Lib Dem activity (they may be out of sight but they are there working away) mean the way seats might fall remains more uncertain than the headline numbers suggest. Starmer also knows that, while Sunak might not be mounting a Barnum & Bailey show like his two immediate predecessors, he is the most disciplined and focussed occupant of No 10 we have had since 2010.
Next year we will see the splendid and moving spectacle of the coronation. It will be a powerful reminder of the strength and history of our islands. Of the many ups and downs we have faced together. With this new start, and the death of Prince Philip and now the Queen, both symbolic passings of that great wartime generation, it is perhaps time, with similar respect and reverence, to lay to rest one other great sentiment as we formally start the new reign. That is Winston Churchill’s idea that our finest hour was in 1940. On 18 June, 1940, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, he said: “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
It is not to disrespect or detract from what Churchill said to suggest we need our best days and our finest hours ahead of us. We need to aim for greater achievements and successes and to build on the work and sacrifice of those who have gone before, not to be simply content with wallowing in reflected glory.
For a Britain in need of political and economic rebuilding this then should be the vision: that we – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are stronger pulling together than allowing ourselves to be pulled apart, that outside the EU we will have the confidence to rebuild our relationship with our European neighbours while trading around the world, that we can reform and refresh our schools, health and civil services in ways that inspire confidence, that we can respect each other whilst strengthening the bonds of our society. In other words we can look forward to a new series of finest hours as we bring new energy to the continual task of improving our country. Let 2023 be the start of a new “finest hour”.