For the UK, 2022 has been the year of self-harm

2023 needs to be the year of fixing the damage

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Years ago, the BBC invented a stunning satirical TV programme called That Was The Week That Was. It poked fun at politicians embroiled in the news and current events. Right now we need a revival called “That Was The Year That Was", because 2022 will go down in the history books as one of the most significant in post-war British history, a year so peculiar that it is almost beyond satire.

The year began with a British economy demonstrably weakened by Brexit, but nobody wanted to mention the B-word in polite company. Government ministers and Brexit-supporting British newspapers pretended problems with the economy, labour shortages and queues at ports were caused by the coronavirus or bureaucratic difficulties. Brexit could not be mentioned in government circles because the then prime minister Boris Johnson liked to pretend, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Brexit was “done”.

Mr Johnson was also planning another term as prime minister. He permitted an expensive redecoration of his accommodation in Downing Street. The posh-person’s fashion magazine Tatler commented that there might be an inquiry into how all this redecoration was funded because “as Tatler revealed in our April 2021 issue, the Prime Minister and his then fiancee, Carrie Symonds (now Johnson), transformed their four-bedroom home from Theresa May’s ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ into a high-society haven, with Mrs Johnson drawing inspiration from one of smart set’s most loved designers, Lulu Lytle”. (Tatler 10.2.2022)

Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson outside 10 Downing Street, London, before leaving for Balmoral for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II to formally resign as Prime Minister, on September 6. PA Wire

The idea that middle-class John Lewis furniture would be considered a “nightmare” by the Johnsons in their expensively transformed “high-society haven” in Downing Street might give a clue to how out of touch the Conservative leadership had become this year. It was just one early sign about how our world was changing – and not for the better. The war in Ukraine dislocated trade, food supplies and the world economy.

It pushed up energy prices, as we all know, reminding us how interconnected the world is, and how fragile peace may be. Freak weather in 2022 was – unfortunately – no longer regarded as freakish. The new normal meant highly unusual 40°C temperatures in the UK, water shortages and other signs that climate change was unavoidable.

There was real public sadness about the passing of Queen Elizabeth and considerable pride in the seamless succession of King Charles III. But when historians pore over the events of 2022, they might decide it was really the Year of British Self-Harm.

That burst into public view when the Conservative party’s uncivil war finally ejected Mr Johnson from his “high-society haven". About 60 government ministers resigned and we ended up with not just two but three prime ministers as summer turned to autumn.

Mr Johnson’s immediate successor, Liz Truss, and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, gave economic historians a series of events that will be taught for generations as a warning of what governments should never do. Their disastrous budget destroyed in one day the Conservative’s self-image as the party of sound money and fiscal prudence.

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng at a construction site for a medical innovation campus in Birmingham. PA Wire

British inflation in 2022 was to reach limits not seen since the 1970s. Interest rates soared. The cost of living crisis meant strikes hit so many sectors of the British workforce it is difficult to keep track.

By the end of 2022, nurses, some teachers, ambulance drivers, railway workers, bus and London Underground services, Border Force, airport baggage handlers and others have been on strike. And so, 2022 has been a sobering, and at times, shocking year but perhaps one important change in British public life should be welcomed.

It was also the year in which a clear majority of British people accept that Brexit was a mistake. Our third prime minister this year, Rishi Sunak, shrewdly avoids the deceptive boosterism of Mr Johnson, who used to say Brexit was like “having our cake and eating it”. Behind the scenes for Mr Sunak, Brexit has become damage limitation. He appears desperate to avoid the Johnson-era bureaucratic tangles and pointless arguments with France and the rest of the EU.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talks with Nato Troops at the Tapa Military base, in Tapa, Estonia on December 19. AFP

The rump of hardline Conservative party Brexiters, however, remain a problem. Their complaint that Brexit would be wonderful if it was in some way “done properly" sounds like those sad old Marxists, the Trotskyite grey-beards who claim that communism would also be popular if it, too “was done right".

Perhaps Mr Sunak’s realism will, in 2023, bring an end to the self-harm of 2022, including the damage to Britain’s self-image for competence, stability and lack of corruption in public life. That damage is apparent everywhere. This week, the Nuffield Foundation, the health think tank, reported that since the Brexit vote the number of EU nurses and health visitors working in the UK has dropped by 30 per cent. The number of EU dentists has halved.

If 2022 was the year of recognising self-harm, 2023 needs to be the year of at least trying to fix it. As the 1990s cult film once put it, Reality Bites.

Published: December 21, 2022, 9:00 AM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 9:21 AM