Sleepwalking to America

As the UK prepares to distance itself from one continent, it may get closer to another.  My book (nearly all gone, so please get in touch if you’d like a copy) argues that this country’s housing policy is following the disastrous footsteps of the US, but it feels like our fates are entwined in many other ways.  While Brexit remains uncertain, it seems likely this country will look more across the Atlantic than the Channel for its socio-economic and political  future.  Some Tories are actively pursuing this wish-fulfilment.  Liam Fox has talked about leaving the EU being an opportunity to “supercharge” the “special relationship”.

I sometimes feel it necessary to offer the disclaimer that I’m not anti-America.  The numerous times I’ve visited have been some of the happiest and most enriching of my life.  But some of those experiences have confirmed the many troubled aspects of US society.  For years, returning to the UK was to be reminded of the differences between the two nations.  I was sure our housing policies were converging, but overall, the legacy of the Welfare State protected the UK from the worst-excesses of Americanisation.  No longer.

The UK is mirroring the US across a range of social issues.  Our health service is being privatised by stealth, primary and secondary education is increasingly stratified, students in higher education are saddled with massive debt, trade union membership is falling as casual employment spreads, more workers are now long-distance, high-cost commuters, populist, racist and far-right politics are on the rise, as is deadly urban violence.  Each of these factors disproportionately affects people with lower incomes and darker skin.  As a result, our social fabric is fraying and tearing, producing the kind of  isolated individualism that’s a sad feature of US society.

This shift isn’t accidental.  As Liam Fox’s words confirm, there are people who hold the US as the highest form of capitalism.  They share the ruthless, devil take the hindmost ideology that is the worst aspect of America (although, in my experience, most Americans don’t live that way).  They want to open every aspect of our lives to corporate profit seekers and reduce social services to discretionary charity.

But the morphing doesn’t end there, or with chlorinated chicken.  In the week that Bernie Sanders launched his campaign to become president in 2020, some elements in the Democratic Party raised the spectre of anti-semitism.  As with the UK Labour Party, this shouldn’t be be entirely dismissed, but it should also be directly related to the rise of a left-wing challenge to the political establishment.

Perhaps the most troubling and telling aspect of UK-US twinning is the increased use of prescription drugs.  This form of self-medication has been at epidemic proportions in the US for decades, but the UK is catching-up.  There are many reasons for this, not least the pernicious role of big-pharma.  At a time of high political anxiety, it’s understandable that people seek solace in all kinds of ways.  But the soporific effects could hasten our journey to America.

For a partial antidote, the Homes for All campaign is organising a special conference looking at the toxic link between bad housing and bad health.  All welcome.  Speakers will include Guardian columnist Dawn Foster and the event will be opened by Raquel Rolnik, former UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, with whom I have a bit of fondly remembered history.  Above all though, it’s about widening the campaign for homes – and a society – that don’t make us sick.


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