Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What is wrong with Britain?

I have been here in the UK since almost 2 years, and I have enjoyed the country and the people. But this generally positive attitude is not shared by everybody: in today's news one of the main stories was about the fact that more Brits than ever emigrate from their country and settle somewhere else in the world. (e.g. article in Times Online).

There is speculation about the reasons, and I can contribute a few, based on my own experiences during these 2 years here:

  • The weather. Last year it was actually quite nice, with a warm summer, not much rain, so that there was even a danger of drought in the South of England. But this year the summer did not deserve its name: lots of rain, in fact record rainfall since the beginning of weather recordings, and low temperatures. Warm days here in Leeds were about 20 deg C, not warmer. Not a single day was above 25 deg C, at least I cannot remember one. But for me, the weather would not be a reason to move. There can be bad weather anywhere. And most of the time I sit in my office anyway and would miss whatever weather is outside.

  • The food. Well, there can be some examples of bad food, for example those sausages which have less then 50 % meat in them - they taste as if a sock had been dumped in liquid fat (not that I would know how such a sock would taste...). But in general, the bad reputation of British food is somewhat wrong. Sure, in general the British do not take food very important, it just has to fulfill the purpose of getting something to eat ("crub"). Therefore, not too great care has been placed in the preparation of foods in the past. But the wave of cooking shows has also reached the UK - there is almost no evening where there is not a program on TV about someone cooking something (Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, ...). And I have eaten here quite well. What is actually excellent here are the local produce: from vegetables to milk and meat, everything is available at an excellent quality. The milk here has a delicious nutty taste (esp. the Jersey milk), you can get youghurt in which the only listed ingredient is milk (none of that stabiliser stuff), the meat can be fried without letting out half of its volume in water. Strawberries have a very intensive aroma and taste. Especially when I compare these items with things in the US, then the higher quality of the goods here is quite evident. The only problem is that here (in Leeds) are very few fresh fruit and vegetables, compared with California. And a strange thing: much of vegetables comes from far away, beans from Kenia, salad from South Africa. I wonder if these things could not be grown locally here, to avoid the expensive and polluting air transport, and the food in Africa could go to their local people - much of Africa is in famine, and I have a very bad conscience in eating away their food.

  • The living expenses. They are high indeed. Prices of many things here in the UK cost in Pounds what they cost in the US in $ - but one pound is worth 2 $. This makes everything double as expensive as in the US. Restaurants appear even 3-4 times more expensive than in the US. But salaries are lower. So overall, the life quality here in the UK is lower, in quite measurable terms. Direct taxes on income are actually not that high, appear to me quite reasonable. But there are high taxes on many other things: the usual 20% VAT, a high tax on alcohol imports, on gasoline. These are not much different across Europe, they only appear high when considered from a viewpoint of a US American. But what is quite amazing is a masochistic attitude of a part of society (mainly the "intellectuals") of gladly accepting higher taxes: higher tax to fund the NHS? Yes, gladly! Road pricing? Yes, the tax on gasoline is not high enough. More tax on flights? Yes, flying is bad for the environment, and that is why poor people should not be allowed to fly. Quite amazing, how a part of the public blindly trusts the government to spend the revenues from these tax proposals on actually purpose-full spending - but what really happens: with the generated tax revenue, more Euro-fighters will be bought.

  • The health service. UK has made an intersting experiment, in establishing a nationalised health service, with free health care for everyone: the National Health Service (NHS). Financed is the whole thing from taxes. Now in principle this sounds excellent, compared to the US where many people have no health care at all, because they cannot afford insurance. But in practise, the system does not work: everyday there is a news report about some NHS deficiency: drugs are not prescribed to patients because they are too expensive. Treatment is only done when the disease is at a worse stage. Operations are available only after a waiting time of months, sometimes years. Cancer patients in the UK have the worst survival chances of whole Europe, because NMR scans are delayed, the cancer grows, and the early recognition fails completely due to waiting lists for all the procedures. Everybody has to register with a "General Practicioner" (GP), a doctor in the neighborhood. Patients cannot freely choose their doctor, based on his/her reputation, but have to go to whoever is closest to their home. A specialist can only be seen after referal from a GP - like in those infamous HMOs in the US. Dentists are not allowed to treat more patients than the "plan" provides for - even if they have capacity and would work overtime, they have to send patients away, while these patients have to be on a waiting list for a dentist appointment. The whole system stinks. It is totally ruled by state planning, a relict from a time of socialist experiments. There is no incentive for doctors to work hard, to be good, as they get their patients allocation from a central plan. There is no accountability, as money comes from the state budget - and is at the discretion of the government to spend it. Of course, the government needs a lot of money for their military adventures in the world, so there is nothing left for the health of their citizens. I avoid getting sick, and I do not look forward to the day when I eventually would fall into the hands of the NHS butchers. I would rather pay myself for individual private treatment than to rely on anything from that health service. This is really a reason to emigrate, considering that there are very sucessful health service models in Europe, such as in France or Germany.

  • The crime. Statistic tells that violent crime has gone down. I am not sure how these statistics are being manipulated, but my overall impression is that crime is up. Especially the type of crime: excessive senseless violence by youth gangs. There are strict gun laws here - no private person is allowed to own a gun. But gun crime is on the rise - shootings appear on the rise in every large city. So these folks can get their hands on a gun somehow - seems to me that the gun laws have failed. The senseless violence seems to be unique to the UK. In the US, criminals are interested in money and in getting their booty. As long as a victim hands over the wallet, there is a good chance of survival. Here in the UK, violence is committed just for the fun of it. "Happy Slapping" has been invented here: gangs beat victims and record it on a cell phone. People who interfere when they see acts of vandalism get killed. Some parts of society are completely out of control, and it seems to get worse. A stable with little piglets is vandalized, the piglets slaughtered all over the place. Gardens are devastated and vandalised. I myself have been a victim of crime 3 times in these 2 years - and never in my whole life before anywhere. Sure, these were "just harmless" property crimes, but annoying nevertheless, and they cost me monetary damage. I can understand when people flee from this criminal climate - no place in the UK seems to be safe from the jobs in their hoodies.

So what is wrong with Britain, that these bad trends are not stopped? In my view, one of the reasons for things going so wrong is actually something that I have admired: the British "coolness". This seems to be an attitude which cannot be brought into rage, accepting everything that happens as something that cannot be changed. I often have encountered the sentence "this is just one of those things...". Well, this is exactly the attitude that accepts all of those things as something that cannot be changed. It seems to paralyse the country into a stagnating downward spiral. There are endless discussions, many people make suggestions, but nothing is actually done. But action is necessary. Otherwise the emigration stream will increase more, and those who leave are usually the more capable, more active elements of society.

I still enjoy living in Britain, with its beautiful countryside, its historic sites, its cultural achievements, and its open and tolerant society. But eventually these above issues need to be addressed - I want to see some action, some attempts on improving the health system and reducing crime.


Michael said...

Interesting to read your outsider's view of Britain. As a former Drighlington resident I would say there are several reasons why I left Britain:
1. Class system and regional/parochial attitudes make for less social mobility. If I wanted to do my journalist work in the UK I would need to live in London - no thanks. I also don't like feeling as if I am a second class citizen to other people.

2. Crime and security: The amount of petty crime and the number of louts/chavs or whatever they are called really amazes me.

3. Cost of living - horrendous, I don't know how people survive.

4. General negative feelings towards success.

5. A government system that only seems to support bureaucracy and vested interests regardless of whether it is Conservative (monopolies) or New Labour.

6. Dumbed down tabloid/celebrity culture.

7. Terrible education system: I'm glad my kids are growing up in Australia where they are encouraged to play fair, play sport and take an interest in things outside TV.

Having said all that, there are many things I miss about the UK: the countryside, the pubs and the history. You can't have everything.

Reinhold Behringer said...

Hi Michael,
thanks for your well-written and considerate reply, with a few additional items that you pointed out!

You are right, one cannot have everything perfect, and each country / region has its advantages and disadvantages.

Some of the "bad" things could be changed, if there would be a sufficient determination, as some of these things are man-made. I think it is important to create a public awareness, then there might be some hope for improvement.

Greetings to "down-under" from Leeds!