There are times when any writer using the English language has to defer to William Shakespeare, and when it comes to summarising the year the UK had in 2023, there is no better way to express it than calling it a year full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This year has been a year of nothing – or at least nothing good – getting done, but in the most grating and exhausting way possible.
Rishi Sunak has no achievements for the year to point towards: at the start of 2023 he made his five pledges, of which four remain unfulfilled. The fifth – to halve inflation – has been achieved, but with UK inflation stubbornly higher than all of its comparable economies. Sunak has staked his premiership on the Rwanda scheme and has made no concrete progress towards getting a first flight of anyone except the home secretary and accompanying lobby hacks over there. Last week he and the Tory “five families” kicked the can down the road.
His efforts to stymie migration has left us with record immigration and a few desperate asylum seekers left adrift on the Bibby Stockholm barge, where first they had to fend off the legionella bacteria, and where now one resident has reportedly died by suicide.
Where Sunak’s inaction isn’t immediately tragic it is still woeful. Sunak eased the brakes on the UK’s net zero commitments, delaying some of the timetable and shifting the UK from being a leader on climate to just another country running with the pack – even as record temperatures around the world led to wildfires and heat deaths.
His signature announcement at Tory conference was to cancel the country’s biggest infrastructure project, HS2, and replace it with a list of policies drawn up during an hour’s googling, several of which turned out already to have been built.
Rishi Sunak can’t get anything done, but is determined to stand in the way of anyone else who might do it, potentially running down the clock to as late as 2025. Waiting For Godot, the archetypical play about waiting for a hoped-on event that never happens, lasts around two-and-a-half hours. Rishi is trying to style it out for nearly two-and-a-half years. We may all go nearly as mad as Beckett’s characters in that time.
Labour, too, ends the year more-or-less where it began it: ahead in the polls and trying not to do anything that might disrupt that. If people are looking for a clear alternative, for some kind of white-hot change, they will not find it in the Labour Party – or at least not yet.
The energy Starmer and his team is trying to give off is essentially that they would do a better job than the Conservatives in terms of competence, but trying to force them to disagree publicly with any particular policy is like nailing treacle to the wall. It is steady as she goes all the way.
That might make sense politically, but it makes things tougher for those who are paying attention to the country. Nothing might have changed, but that doesn’t stop things getting worse – as the Titanic thundered towards the iceberg, nothing changed as it failed to turn away. That did nothing to soften the impact once it hit.
UK public services are finally hitting the point at which they can no longer absorb the cuts and neglect of the last 13 years. NHS waits are all but off the charts versus even five years ago, let alone 2010. Wide-scale council bankruptcies are all but inevitable.
Homelessness is on the rise, not least because the government is relentlessly adding to it by processing the asylum seeker backlog. Those who are found to be genuine refugees – in other words, those who have legitimately been persecuted and have a right under international law to shelter – are rewarded by being turfed out of their temporary accommodation and losing the meagre support they had.
They gain the right to work, but no immediate access to it – meaning families suddenly find themselves homeless and dependent on local councils and charities, who have no extra funding. Once a collapse starts, each failing system overloads the next, causing a cascade that is hard to reverse.
That’s just the UK. As 2023 draws to a close, we are in a world where Donald Trump is all but certain to be the Republican candidate for president in 2024, and is the favourite to retake the White House. COP28 has achieved nothing, and an oil-rich autocracy has secured the hosting rights for COP29. Funding for Ukraine’s ongoing resistance against Russia’s invasion is in jeopardy from Trump and House Republicans in America and from Putin’s best friend in Europe, Hungarian premier Viktor Orban, in the EU.
Israel is devastating Gaza at immense cost of civilian life and no-one has a clue if they have any exit plan, no-one has any real plan to stop them, and no-one has any plan for peace – not least because neither Hamas nor Netanyahu’s far-right government actually wants peace. The horror serves the needs of both, at a terrible price for the people they supposedly represent.
All of which is to say it has been a tough year, with few glimmers of light. The midwinter is supposed to be bleak, of course, but it does feel like this year has dramatically overshot on that front.
The one good thing about a crisis point is that it forces action – it is when the addict hits rock bottom that they (when they have support) can start a road to recovery. It’s when the problem cannot be ignored or denied that action happens. Where there is hope – and we certainly need hope – it has to come from this. We can’t deny the problems any more. Now, we need to act.