London's attempts to politicise the strikes are unlikely to end well

Voters across the UK are struggling to make ends meet. The least the government can do is treat them with respect

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In a world seemingly imagined by Nadhim Zahawi, chairman of Britain’s governing Conservative party, Vladimir Putin sits glumly at his preposterously long table in the Kremlin.

The news from London is bleak. Just as Mr Zahawi had urged, British nurses have accepted a pay offer they regard as desultory, thus sending a “clear message” to the Russian President that his "warmongering", and "weaponising of energy supply", are doomed to failure.

Mr Putin realises the game is up. His “special military operation” – or, as others see it, invasion of neighbouring sovereign territory – must end forthwith, whatever the damage to personal and national pride.

The reality, of course, is different. The nurses’ pay dispute remains unresolved and theirs is among numerous actual or imminent strikes by public sector workers in areas including health, transport, postal services, and education, threatening Britain with a Christmas and New Year of chaos. And beyond a smug chortle, Mr Putin probably couldn’t care less.

Most politicians occasionally make crass comments. But an intelligent and professionally successful man, born in Baghdad of Kurdish parentage, Mr Zahawi might well regret the rush of blood that caused him to link nurses’ pay to Mr Putin’s war.

It is true that he no longer holds an especially high rank but is some way down the cabinet pecking order from chancellor of the exchequer or education secretary, posts held by him in the recent past. But even as a “minister without portfolio”, he still carries weight.

The belief – however impulsively expressed and however long it lasted – that he could get away with such a grotesque comparison illustrates a gulf that today divides Britain in the most acrimonious way.

On one side, the one Mr Zahawi hoped he was addressing, are those who accuse strikers of casually inflicting untold misery in pursuit of greedy pay demands.

In Britain, the spirit of mutual dislike and distrust has its own subtexts

And on the other, we find ordinary people, not all militant lefties and some doubtless holding conservative views, who feel pushed to the limits of endurance. For them, and their sympathisers, the cost of living crisis has not been caused solely by the “global headwinds” British ministers like to cite, but also reflect failed government policies. Employees in the public sector are faring worst of all; it is a source of national shame that some on the frontlines of saving life and caring for the sick should be reduced to using charitable food banks.

The split is resonant of the rift caused by the 2016 Brexit referendum that led to withdrawal from the EU but also left about one half of the country at loggerheads with the other.

Brexit apart, Britain is not alone in experiencing bitter social disharmony. France lives more or less continuously with the likelihood that some single-interest group might decide that its grievance justifies strikes and blockades, which make daily life impossible for everyone else. Trust the French to come up with a culinary rationale, as activists do: “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

In Britain, the spirit of mutual dislike and distrust has its own subtexts.

For the right, politicians and their supporters sense the country is under siege. They argue that militants pretending to represent workers’ interests are, in truth, motivated by a desire to exploit frustrations to hasten the collapse of the government, maybe of capitalism itself.

But on the left and often in central political ground, many support or at least understand the strikes, whatever personal inconvenience they cause. When unions resist real-term pay cuts and demands for job losses in the name of modernisation, they see the point.

Rishi Sunak’s UK government purports to be detached from the negotiating process, citing the supposedly independent pay review boards that decide what nurses and some other public sector workers should be offered.

It is an open secret, however, that the heavy hand of government influences those decisions as well as the bargaining between managements and, for example, rail workers. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly tried to have it both ways, telling the BBC it was not for ministers to interfere in talks on nurses’ pay but also that they had a duty to act as “good custodians of the public purse”.

Mr Cleverly likes to recall that his mother was a National Health Service (NHS) midwife all her working life. He should, therefore, realise how torn nurses (including midwives) feel when contemplating unprecedented walk-outs.

In this context, it is scarcely surprising that Pat Cullen, general secretary of the UK’s Royal College of Nursing, should describe Mr Zahawi’s suggestion that nurses were somehow behaving unpatriotically, playing into Mr Putin’s hands, as “a new low for this government”. It is not so long ago that ministers were keen to be filmed clapping hands for the same NHS staff for their tireless efforts and devotion to duty during the Covid-19 pandemic. On Thursday, nurses will be on picket lines instead of the wards as their first strike is staged.

Mr Sunak’s cabinet can fairly claim to be struggling with monumental budgetary problems. The financial mess he inherited was in no small part a consequence of the calamitous policies of his short-lived predecessor Liz Truss, a mix of tax-cutting and borrowing he had previously depicted as dangerous fairytale economics.

It might also be reasonable to suspect political motives on the part of the more left-wing union leaders and to ask how the Labour opposition would fund inflation-matching pay rises if in power.

What the new Prime Minister must do, all the same, is to persuade voters battered by soaring food, housing and energy costs that they are being treated with consideration and respect.

The awkward truth is that this will not be achieved by appearing to demonise working people, many of them performing vital public service functions, and boasting about tougher anti-union legislation.

Ministers sent into broadcasting studios to stick up for government actions could make a useful start by recognising that no striker relishes the loss of pay that goes with taking industrial action; most just feel at their wits’ end, undervalued as well as underpaid.

Mr Sunak, still feeling his way after becoming Britain’s first prime minister of Asian origin, might choose to gamble on the public losing patience with disruption and putting all blame on the unions.

But if the gamble fails, a winter of roaring discontent could seal the fate of an unpopular government.

Published: December 15, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 8:55 AM