‘We need to wake up’: what authors wish for Britain as a new chapter begins

Tessa Hadley

Decency, integrity and competence – those plain things – are what we need

What a pleasure it was to put my X in a box for Labour on Thursday, in a church hall round the corner from where I live in Cardiff. I love the ordinary shabbiness of the polling stations, the desultory chat of the volunteers, the old-fashioned solidities of paper and stubby pencil on a string, the slow stream of people taking time out of their day to do their civic duty. I actually like the sensation, at such a moment, of being a mere tiny cog in a great machine: it’s a salutary reminder, and there’s a kind of poetry in it. It’s not just your own righteousness that counts, and your own political certainties – there are all these unknown others with their different ideas. An election isn’t a recipe for wish fulfilment; it’s a recipe for all the accommodations and compromises and frustrations of living together.

And then – what a joy to see the exit polls at 10pm on Thursday night, wake at 3am and then 5am to check my phone, to turn on the television on Friday morning and watch Starmer go into No 10. What a turnaround, something solid and sane happening in Britain, amid so much that’s volatile and fearful globally. In the old days, certain words – integrity, decency, morality in public life – seemed to have been co-opted by the right, when the right was pious and stuffy. Now, at the end of this 14-year carnival of fools, with their careless entitlement and travesty faux-performances of Great Britishness, those words have been washed clean. Decency and integrity and competence and dedication to the good of the whole country – those plain things – are what we need. We’re thirsty for them.

It’s worth imagining with sympathy, just for a moment, what power means for those individuals we’ve just entrusted with our future. Imagine the level of hostile scrutiny from every direction. Imagine having issues coming across your desk one after another, day after day, to which there are no simple right answers: however you play it, you’re going to outrage somebody. And if you’re not just in politics for yourself, then you’re going to feel a huge burden of responsibility: what you choose has to work. What if the apparently virtuous decision you make actually tanks the economy, makes people poorer? What if audacity means you compromise something essential, hurt someone vulnerable? But what if your timidity means a precious opportunity wasted? I’m grateful someone else is willing to do it.

And then there’s art. I believed Keir Starmer when I heard him on the radio in March, talking about the fundamental importance of the arts in our individual and collective lives. Let’s hope that in the mix of everything this new government has to undertake, there’s a real commitment to restoring the centrality of the arts in schools, to reopening our libraries, to supporting arts venues, to opening opportunities for young creatives, to the thriving of the humanities in our universities. Let’s hope for an ambition to make the best in our culture available for everyone. We are whole human beings and we need food for our souls as well as food on the table. That would be a sweet sea change, from the philistinism of the government we’ve had for the last 14 years.

Max Porter

Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

We need to act like members of a global community, not the bumbling racist uncle

Oh God, novelists opining on politics. I prefer experts. Plenty of experts across the political spectrum can demonstrate how thoroughly broken this country is, how our democracy, infrastructure and systems have been violated, how cruel, stupid, callous and corrupt the Tories have been, how bombastically disastrous Brexit is and was always going to be, how Labour appear to no longer be Labour, how worrying their majority is, how terrifying the rise of Reform is, how urgently we need actual reform, how shameful is our past and our present on the international stage, and so on. The economic failures. The moral failures. We aren’t short of good expert analysis on how this is a failed state.

But here’s my tuppence: My overriding feeling observing the various catastrophes unfolding here and around the world is one of heartbreak that the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest, and that the moral imperative of avoiding that is nowhere on anyone’s agenda.

I think the dishonesty that has characterised this past decade in Westminster is a poison that has utterly corroded our society. I think this normalisation of lying has opened the doors to extremism and interference, and fundamentally broken the contract between elected politicians and those who elect them, and that’s very dangerous.

We have to address the obvious fact that the tabloid presses and billionaire-owned newspapers are a weapon being used for harm. They are a great sickness in this land and we cannot progress while their stranglehold is upon our politicians, our imaginations, our vocabularies of nationhood, our understanding of the world and our place in it. It’s a huge collective mistake that we still worship this bigoted, jingoistic old throwback of a god. We shouldn’t need to be from Liverpool to boycott the Sun. Overnight we could clean the collective waters.

There’s a weird entitled haze upon us, nourished by exceptionalism and some kind of island-specific conservatism, but we need to snap out of it. Politicians need to quit playing thinktank games with 50-year-old prerogatives and get on with the world we now live in.

There’s a collective denial that the chaotic and antiquated Westminster model is broken and this infantilises the whole country. We need to wake up and deal with the facts of climate crisis and mass migration as members of a global community rather than a bumbling old racist uncle in the corner. We need collaborative, progressive, imaginative politics, not a room full of financially and morally jeopardised people booing and hissing at each other. Get some experts in charge. Historians. Economists. Scientists. Reform the Commons. Reform the civil service. Reform the electoral system.

Ha ha, now I am truly the mad hippy my critics in the rightwing press have always described, but perhaps some compassionate magical thinking isn’t such an insane suggestion given where the alternatives have landed us. (I vote Green, by the way, and always have done.)

Michael Magee

Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Labour has not articulated even a vaguely progressive vision of society

Let’s be clear. The past 14 years of Tory government have been catastrophic for the north of Ireland. The healthcare system is broken. More than a quarter of the population is languishing on hospital waiting lists. Three times as many people died due to delays in emergency departments in 2022 as did during the worst year of the Troubles.

Cancer patients have been made particularly vulnerable, with only 30% of people in the north ­beginning treatment within the 62-day target. As a result, we’re seeing huge numbers of late presentations with metastatic cancer [cancer that has spread to other parts of the body] where no primary ­cancer can be identified. I know people who died because of this. Lots of people do.

And that’s not to mention the profound impact Tory austerity has had on education, housing, welfare and the broader public sector.

Bear in mind we barely had the chance to dust ourselves off after 30 years of conflict before the Tories were elected in 2010 – and I know we tend to harp on about this, but it’s no coincidence that this region – this statelet, if that’s what you want to call it – has been the most acutely affected by their policies. Ours is a deeply traumatised society. Somewhere around half of the population ­suffers from some form of PTSD, yet our mental health and social care services are in a state of almost total collapse. The result? More ­people have lost their lives to suicide since the signing of the Good Friday agreement than were killed during the entire course of the conflict.

You would think I would be jumping for joy at the prospect of a Labour government. But the thought of having our budget dictated to us from Westminster by a political party that has done nothing to articulate even a vaguely progressive vision of society and has in fact suppressed all elements within the party who have attempted to do so – particularly when it comes to left-leaning people of colour – has left me feeling a bit sceptical. Promises have been made and broken enough times during Starmer’s leadership for me to genuinely wonder if his pledge to repeal the Troubles legacy act will be fulfilled.

It wouldn’t be the first time a British prime minister made false promises, the most recent being a Tory Brexit deal that led to the three-year collapse of the political institutions at Stormont which, unsurprisingly, deepened and further exasperated an already criminally underfunded public sector, and had massive political and social ramifications across society in the north of Ireland.

There’s also Starmer’s position on the ongoing genocide in Gaza to contend with, and his ­reactionary comments last week about trans women not having the right to access women’s spaces, and the idea of the Labour party as a socially ­liberal alternative quickly falls away. OK, Labour aren’t the Tories, and they certainly aren’t the most recent incarnation of that peculiar bunch of sociopaths hanging around Downing Street like a bad case of whooping cough, but is that the bar now? Is that all we can hope for?

Mohsin Hamid

Photograph: Christopher Lane/The Observer

The nation’s decline has been astonishing. Will people accept the necessary change?

I arrived in London from New York in the summer of 2001, expecting to stay only a year. But I ended up staying almost a decade. I found post-9/11 London more appealing. The British press was more open and less prone to self-censorship. The immigration system seemed clearer and more inviting. The roads, the airports, even the tube – all were generally well maintained. The tuition for my wife’s master’s degree was but a fraction of that in the US.

And the NHS was a marvel. My wife and I were amazed to leave hospital with our newborn child but without ever receiving a bill. Yes, taxes were high in London, but not higher than in New York. And what we got for our taxes was incredible.

Britain’s participation in the Iraq invasion was a rude shock. But I was not alone in being horrified. Millions of my fellow Britons joined me in protesting. This was, though I did not know it then, the beginning of the end of Labour’s run in power. A cruelly wrong foreign policy that signalled an increasingly error-prone and shifty moral compass.

Only months after I left London for Lahore, the Tories began their 14 years of misrule. When I visit now, the decline is astonishing. The airports, the trains, the roads – all are in a state of disrepair. The economy is a shambles. London no longer feels, economically, like a peer to New York. The NHS is on the verge of collapse. Friends fly from Britain to Pakistan for medical and dental treatments.

And friends in Pakistan choose to send their children to Canada and Australia for university rather than to an immigration-hostile UK. The sense of Britain as a pragmatic place, not prone to hysterical ideological fantasies, has been ripped to shreds.

I am relieved as I write this because the foulest series of British governments in living memory has at last come to an end. But I am at best only cautiously optimistic. Starmer’s position on the obliteration of Gaza is to my mind indefensible, and recalls the worst foreign policy impulses of Tony Blair.

But my caution runs even deeper. Britain’s once-exceptional public services were built on a foundation of growth. To restore that growth will require at least three things: recognising that immigrants are vital, rebuilding close ties with Britain’s nearest neighbours in Europe, and accepting that high house prices are the enemy of working people.

Singapore-on-Thames has, thank heavens, been consigned to history. But can Britons be persuaded to love immigrants, closer ties to Europe, and lower house prices? If they can’t, then Britons don’t understand why they once had it so good, back at the turn of the millennium. And if they don’t understand, it will perhaps be a long time before they have it so good again.

The Guardian