There are people who sail happily through life without much thought for the future, simply responding to the next event that they encounter and never quite understanding why they keep repeating the same mistakes. Few people like that end up as prime minister. Boris Johnson has.
When someone receives a vote of no confidence from over 40% of those who have worked most closely with them, it takes a phenomenal capacity for self-belief to attempt to simply carry on as if nothing of any importance has happened. Rarely has such self-belief been so totally unjustified by events.
Which would be a huge problem for the country at the best of times. Unfortunately, what’s being encountered right now makes this a very long way from being the best of times for the majority of people.
Cost-of-living crisis collides with multiple environmental crises
Food prices have begun to rise and some products such as cooking oil are already proving hard to find on supermarket shelves. It only takes a quick glance at the figures for agricultural production to realise that a prolonged war in Ukraine is going to have a significant impact on food supply that will raise the prices of key staples such as bread and pasta. Many commentators think the war in Ukraine will be long and slow and is likely to impact on more than one harvest.
On top of that, there is a mounting crisis caused by multiple environmental emergencies striking at the same time. The climate has already become increasingly unstable, yet the global plan is to carry on making that worse until 2050.
Diets are moving in the wrong direction so that there is increasing global demand for animal products such as meat and cheese that require grain to be fed to animals instead of directly to people. Over-use of pesticides is making them increasingly ineffective. On top of that, many of our most valued crops are being grown from a very narrow selection of varieties that make them vulnerable to disease. For example, plantations of the Cavendish variety of bananas are being attacked by Panama disease, and every plant is genetically identical so there is no diversity that might resist its spread.
Britain’s situation is made worse by this hard Brexit
Even without the war in Ukraine, food prices risked heading upwards and the peculiarities of Britain’s approach to Brexit has further impacted on our food security. The price rises we are currently suffering and the gaps on supermarket shelves are highly likely to get worse. People are going to find it increasingly difficult to put food on the table. As always this will mean wealthy people simply spend a little more on a relatively fringe part of their expenditure, whilst people who are less well-off will be horribly exposed.
Any temporary supply difficulties will be made worse by a just-in-time supply chain that stretches around the world and supermarkets that have taught us to ignore locally produced seasonal crops in favour of imports.
There are few problems that could be more direct, horrible and immediate for most ordinary people than a fear that they won’t be able to feed themselves or their children. So, we might reasonably expect any responsible government to be putting huge amounts of energy into thinking up plans to ensure this doesn’t happen or that the impact is ameliorated as much as possible.
Government’s food strategy ignores expert advice
Instead, it is issuing a White Paper on food that ignores the advice of its own experts and replaces it with platitudes written by industry lobbyists. It is a White Paper that does nothing to tackle food poverty, nothing meaningful to change and improve diets, nothing that will make just-in-time food delivery systems more secure, and nothing that will make food production systems more environmentally sensitive.
Instead of offering effective long-term solutions, or even meaningful short-term assistance, Johnson has taken to trying to fix the cost-of-living crisis by making speeches about how it is wrong for workers to ask for pay rises. Apparently, it is irresponsible of working people to tell their employer that their wages are no longer enough to buy groceries because of inflation. Johnson thinks it is more responsible for them to tell their children that they can’t afford to provide food for them tonight.
An inflationary spiral is a very dangerous thing. If prices go up, then wages go up, then prices go up again – we are heading into some very dangerous territory. Most reasonable people don’t expect all the pain of trying to stop it to be absorbed by teachers, nurses and zero-hours contract staff. They expect the government to think ahead and head off problems before they become acute.
A cold and hungry winter beckons
When it comes to energy prices this is a government that ignored all advice to get serious about insulating homes and making sure every school, office, supermarket and warehouse was fitted with solar panels and heat exchange units. Still to this day it is refusing to explore this solution and is focusing on subsidising consumption. A policy that can never work as it simply pays people to carry on buying and so pushes the prices up.
Now that we are entering an equally bad if not worse food problem, the government is demonstrating an equal lack of forethought with its food strategy. Its only real plan appears to be to stumble on from crisis to crisis and to hope that something turns up.
The narrow cabal that has gathered around Johnson is busy telling everyone who will listen that he is the man to get us out of our difficulties and to take the Conservatives forward to another glorious election victory. The rest of us are entitled to worry that the only thing he is taking us forward to is a cold and a hungry winter.
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