The Elizabeth line isn’t the only thing breaking down...

The shutdown of the £18bn train line – which saw hundreds of rush-hour commuters trapped for hours in dark and freezing carriages, and without a loo – has become another high-profile casualty of the country’s degradation under the Conservatives, writes Sean O’Grady

Friday 08 December 2023 17:05 GMT
<p>The presence of James Blunt and Rachel Riley on board an Elizabeth line train that was stuck in the cold and dark wasn’t enough to lift passengers’ spirits</p>

The presence of James Blunt and Rachel Riley on board an Elizabeth line train that was stuck in the cold and dark wasn’t enough to lift passengers’ spirits

I’m fortunate, on the whole, that I don’t have to use London’s Elizabeth line much these days, because this newest part of the capital’s public transport network is fast becoming as unreliable as the ones that date back to the Victorian era.

I say “on the whole” because, reportedly, the latest stoppage, lasting several hours, led to an outbreak of our famous Blitz spirit – the comradeship and talent for improvisation that got Britons through the bombings during the Second World War. Had I been on the ill-fated train, I’d have witnessed my fellow passengers, from all walks of life, getting through the ordeal with grim gallows humour and the installation of a makeshift loo in a corner.

After back-up power failed, the carriages became freezing cold and dark. Less cheerfully, passengers become anxious at the lack of announcements about what was going on, and there have been suggestions of “sexual touching”. The presence of James Blunt and Rachel Riley on board wasn’t quite enough to lift the spirits. They really needed Gracie Fields.

I always assumed that when trains get irreparably stuck, kindly staff would get the doors open and walk people carefully to safety, but for some reason this seems not to have happened here. The overhead power lines had been damaged and that, so it seems, was that. And so it is that what was known as Crossrail, this most prestigious of new infrastructure investments, named after and opened by the Queen only in May 2022, has degenerated into squalor. One can only imagine what her late majesty would make of it, and the rest of our decaying realm.

Without getting stuck in hyperbole, it does seem like nothing works any more. A day in the life of a British family might include the early morning rush to get a GP appointment; the school run clogged by cars; concrete classrooms crumbling; shortages and empty shelves at the supermarkets, complete with rampant inflation; fuel and council tax bills that only go one way; hours wasted on telephone consumer help lines or “talking” in circles with bots online; long waits for hospital treatment; and trains that never even show up. Not to mention the visible decay and incompetence of government and the impending bankruptcy of local authorities.

The Covid inquiry hasn’t exactly been a showcase of how well the UK has been run in its hour of crisis. There are too many high-profile symbols of failure: the cancellation of HS2; the £300m Rwanda plan that hasn’t seen a single migrant removed, let alone deterred; and, of course, Brexit, which promised “control” but brought the opposite.

Trust in the police has eroded. Our civic society and political dialogue has been coarsened and grown more violent. We’ve had plenty of riots, strikes and protests in our rumbustious past, and with a communal or racial dimension, fuelled by social media, it feels more widespread and routine. An anxious society has become more prone to conspiracy theories, like a national neurosis. Nihilism is in the air, and much scapegoating. The housing shortage is casually blamed on demonised immigrants.

Such a mood of national malaise occurs every so often and is often confused and inchoate – but always bad for the governing party. Some of us can certainly remember it at the end of the Seventies, a decade also scarred by stagnant living standards, industrial strife, an upsurge in racism, terrorism, and a sense that the nation was ungovernable and in a state of terminal decline. A more moderate sense of relative decline was also noted as Britain entered the 1960s, when the loss of empire and international rivals overtaking the UK in prosperity and power became keenly felt.

Rightly or wrongly – and problems can be exaggerated and concertina into a depressing narrative – such a depressed outlook leads to a national yearning for change, primarily expressed in politics, but also culturally. We are in such a mood now, and there is nothing that the Sunak administration can do or say that will dispel it.

The question now is not whether, at the near end of a Tory government that took power 13 years ago, it can reverse decline, but whether Labour can do so over its next term of office. Will our standard of living improve? Our public services be restored? Will the Elizabeth line ever run normally?

If Starmer and his colleagues also fail to deliver, the mood will turn angrier by the end of another decade of decline.

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