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First They Came for the Students, Then They Came for the BBC

This morning my wife and I listened to BBC Radio’s “Today” program—required fare for members of the media looking to tap the nation’s pulse via broadcasts from Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior politicians. Two historians, in what was clearly a pre-recorded program, were discussing Churchill's bleak mood after the fall of France and prior to his making one of his most historic speeches to the House of Commons in June 1940. The speech was rousing both for Britons and for Americans, to whom it was also addressed. We then heard a recording: ”If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will say this was their finest hour.”

By this point my wife and I had realized that there was no unfolding national calamity. The BBC had not been blown off the air by a terrorist bomb or subject to a massive power outage in central London. In fact, BBC journalists had gone on a 48-hour strike, forcing many programs like “Today” off the air, to be replaced by prerecorded filler shows, like the one we were listening to.

The BBC has been severely hit by the U.K. government’s recently announced austerity program, which is making the biggest cuts to public spending here in 60 years. Along with “Today,” the BBC World Service—ironically, a last surviving vestige of Churchill's beloved empire—will also face cuts. The World Service has long been funded by the U.K. Foreign Office, and broadcasts in dozens of languages to millions of listeners across the globe. As its funding is withdrawn, the head of the World Service said this week, 300 journalists could lose their jobs, and several language services be cut.

The BBC is hardly alone in all this. Many government departments will be trimming budgets by 15 percent or more, with only education and health being ring fenced to some degree. This week there was also a strike by the London underground rail workers, and my part of town resembled a university campus, with shoals of cyclists weaving between traffic and pavements thronged with people marching to work. 

This is not yet France, nor Greece. No barricades or Molotov cocktails here. But there is a weary mood of national belt-tightening and not a little uncertainty. The full impact of the cuts is not yet clear to most people, and the economic news is confusing to say the least. One of Britain’s largest banks, the Bank of Scotland, 84 percent of which has been owned by the British taxpayer since the banking crisis, just announced losses for the most recent quarter of more than 1 billion pounds, having reported profits of roughly the same amount for the previous quarter. The explanation for this strange reversal is frankly baffling to most folk, and doesn’t inspire confidence. RBS has blamed changes to the “fair value” of its debt, and stressed that highly volatile accounting charges are obscuring its underlying health. Whatever.

The bad news is spreading by word of mouth. A good friend who is head teacher at a state secondary school says she and her colleagues are convinced the government will soon announce a reduction in their state pension provision. Another acquaintance, a judge in Europe’s largest criminal court complex, in East London, confides that fellow judges are concerned the courts will not be able to function if they have to make the cuts in personnel set forth in the government’s austerity package.

Also this week, British parents learned that the cost of university education, which has been heavily state subsidized, could triple within three years, while new banking requirements for larger down payments by first time homebuyers will also mean our educated offspring, like many of their American counterparts, may be living at home longer, as they work to pay off student loans. This week, thousands of students and teachers marched to protest education cuts, clashing with police outside conservative party headquarters near the Houses of Parliament.

Even in Downing Street, thrift is the order of the day. An intimate friend of the prime minister’s wife tells us that while her husband was away, Samantha Cameron recently entertained some women at the Downing street flat with a home cooked curry, and discussed ways in which she wanted to cut back, including making less use of her official drivers.

We have of course been here before, and several times. I recall doing my school homework by candlelight in the 1970’s, during the three day workweek, with attendant power cuts, brought in by the then Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath in his battles with striking miners and other unions.

After World War II, Britain had universal rationing and the nation really did pull together, rich and poor alike, or so our collective memory would have it. Today, I suspect, is different in two ways: Everyone knows cuts will have to be made but many are suspicious that they will not be borne equally. And, looking back—as far back even as Churchill's era—most here recall a history marked by steady increases in prosperity for most of the population. Very few now are confident in predicting that for their children's future. 

But hardship is relative. I met up with an Athens-based Greek friend recently for lunch (no food rationing here yet). A shrewd and wealthy businessman who went to school here in London and later to Harvard, he told me Athens is only getting worse. It isn’t just rubbish not being collected and transit strikes. There is, he claimed, a growing criminal underworld feeding on the economic crisis there. He was not going to sell his parents flat in London, but keep it as a bolthole in case he needed to bring his wife and children there for safety reasons. Putting Britain’s troubles into perspective, it became clear that, for him at least, London is still a haven.