Europe - Issue 47 - Magazine | Monocle

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View from London

Britain seems to have bounced from one crisis to the next recently. So what next?
By Steve Bloomfield

Britain has experienced crises before. World wars aside, we have had financial problems (going cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout in 1976); leadership problems (from the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 to PM Edward Heath’s struggles to keep the lights on in 1974); and huge social unrest (the 1981 riots, the miners’ strike in 1984 and the poll tax riots in 1990). But there is something about the drip-drip of disaster layered upon catastrophe since 2008 that has created a sense of unease in Britain; a sense that we are in the midst of a deep malaise.

It is worth listing the scandals that have struck the various strands of the British establishment over the past three years. First the bankers, the men who made London a financial capital of the world and whose taxes helped to pay for the Labour government’s social programmes, crashed the country’s economic system. Through a mixture of greed, ignorance and criminality, Britain’s banks were brought to the brink, saved only by the generosity of the taxpayer.

Then the expenses scandal rocked our trust in politicians. Around half of all MPs were forced to pay back money and five parliamentarians even ended up in jail.

Phone hacking not only destroyed one of the country’s most influential newspapers but also lifted the lid on corruption within London’s Metropolitan Police Service (mps). In the fallout, Britain’s two most senior policemen, MPS commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and head of counter terrorism John Yates were forced to resign.

And then in August we had the riots. For almost 48 hours the police lost control of the streets. It wasn’t isolated – while it began with a reaction to the shooting of a black man in London’s Tottenham district, it spread across the capital and to other cities including Liverpool, Manchester and even semi-rural Gloucester.

Following each crisis inquiries have been launched; judges have been appointed; reports will be written. But such is the wide-ranging nature of the scandals that even the most hard-hitting report, the most coruscating criticism, the most hand-wringing apology from those responsible, is unlikely to quell the unease.

If the banking inquiry is anything to go by, even the reports are unlikely to be that tough. Sir John Vickers, former chief economist at the Bank of England, suggested some piecemeal changes that even several prominent bankers said were unlikely to make a big difference.

But while the banking scandal may have had the biggest immediate effect – we’re skint, as Chancellor George Osborne likes to remind us – it’s the expenses scandal that has had the greatest long-term damage. It was the all-encompassing nature of the fiddling: every major party implicated, no senior politician left on the moral high ground. There are no clean hands.

Britain is stuck in a state of flux. And no one knows how we can get out.

Three ways for Britain to bounce back:

  1. Prioritise growth, not debt: Austerity isn’t working – neither economically nor for the country’s reputation.
  2. It’s time for mayors: London is the only UK city with a mayor; a new generation of high-profile local leaders could begin to restore faith in politics.
  3. Don’t screw up the Olympics: Successful sporting events deliver “feel good factor”. London needs a Barcelona-style Olympics.

Fun in the sun


Sun, sea and seafood. In the midst of the worst recession in decades, Portugal’s new Conservative government wants to capitalise on the country’s natural added value by attracting wealthy retirees from the countries of northern Europe often attracted to Spain or the US.

“I would like Portugal to become a true Florida of Europe,” says Alvaro Santos Pereira, the new minister of economy and public works. Dubbed “Reforma ao sol” (“Retirement in the sun”), Pereira hopes to attract 100,000 European retirees, each bringing their pensions with them. “This would help us balance our external deficit and fight our excessive external debt,” he claims.

Election watch



Type: Parliamentary
Date: 23 October
Candidates: The largest of the 12 parties currently represented in parliament is the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Their major opposition is the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPS).
Issues: The SVP’s hard line on immigration and the management of the soaring franc.

Monocle comment: Switzerland has prided itself on a political climate of moderate pluralism. Recently, however, its politics, especially on immigration, have become nastier and more partisan. This could create considerable turbulence.

Police state


Among all the post Soviet states, Belarus has by far the largest number of law enforcement staff. With 1,442 officers per 100,000 people, the dictatorship has two times the average of the other 15 countries.

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