Ye Merrie Shitland
Nothing is more damning about England in 2022 than the fact it must resort to medieval practices to get itself out of the shit.
Here’s an idea for a TV show. People on a small island are dropping like flies for no obvious reason. They are a disparate bunch. Many are old and unwell, but some are young and fit. It takes all the investigative powers of the softly spoken Detective Inspector in the long coat to find a common link between the victims: all had visited a beach recently and had been poisoned by sewage. I know the producers will have strong opinions about the name of this series, but I’m sold on Shitland.
Unlike most of the whodunnits on TV, the viewer knows who did it from the off. In this true crime show, the country’s beaches are so overrun with sewage that bathers are being warned not to go into the sea, and any exposure results in gastric flu, and even Hepatitis. That’s because water companies have been flushing raw sewage into our rivers and into our seas for so long, and without any redress, that the country is quite literally in the shit.
Doctors say you can tell a lot from a stool. I have no medical background, but I would wager that the stools floating in the toilet pan that used to pass for our coastal waters indicate the country is in poor health, whatever the colour or consistency of these turds. England — sorry, Shitland — is sick.
While on a forty-year bender where the only thing mattered was getting loaded, the country sold off anything of value to fund its partying. It passed on a telephone company to a mate in the pub. It punted an entire train network and bus routes, flogged its gas and electricity providers and gave away its water boards for the price of a pint. The country was told these assets were safe in private ownership and that shareholders and customers would benefit alike.
In the case of the water companies, it seems we were lied to. While they have paid £72 billion in dividends since the 1990s, total capital expenditure by the 10 biggest water and sewage monopolies declined by 15% over the same time. Which means that 250,000 litres of water are now lost every ten seconds in England and Wales due to leaks. Between 2002 and 2018, Scottish Water, which remains in public ownership, invested 35% more per household in infrastructure than English water companies. Not one new reservoir has been built in England in 30 years. The O2 was built in only three years, for heaven’s sake.
Even given the venality of the privatised water companies, the shit we now find ourselves in clearly speaks to wider problems. Separated from our latest trading partner, with no comparative deals to compensate, ghosted by the USA because we are hell-bent on destroying the Good Friday agreement to mollify a few unionist politicians, the country has lost political sway in a world where it once proudly took centre stage.
Its economy is the worst among developed countries. Its army runs on gaffer tape, tea and memories of past glory. Its weather lurches between scorching heat and floods. If you are elderly and you fall and break your pelvis, you may spend 15 hours waiting for an ambulance under a shelter fashioned from your grandchildren’s goal post and some golfing umbrellas, while it may take up to 12 hours for you to be seen once you get to hospital.
The country is desperate for the sort of reliable governance that it was once its byword around the world. Voters cry out for the type of leadership that would fix all these issues, let alone sort out the poo problem. But Westminster seems unable to address even the latter, given the likely next prime minister oversaw massive cuts to budgets assigned to water cleanliness — including money assigned to the surveillance of water companies dumping sewage — while she was a minister with oversight for the Environment Agency. At the time, she claimed “there are ways we can make savings as a department” and suggested the better use of technology could compensate.
Ah, the sweet smell of efficiency. Our future prime minister has strong opinions on the subject. She believes the country’s piss poor productivity can be explained by the fact that its people are lazy — not because recent governments have underfunded education, failed to adhere to any long-term industrial strategy, or invested in national infrastructure, even when borrowing costs were at a historic low.
It’s not just her. Her government operates out of a nineteenth-century building so close to total collapse that it has its own well-documented sewage problems. Indeed, it could be that our politicians’ inaction on the subject of sewage can be explained by the fact that they have got used to the smell of it at their place of work. They simply don't notice the shit they are in. In which case, perhaps we do need to toughen up, roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. Presumably, like Jamal jumping into the shit in Slumdog Millionaire.
Only a year ago, the current prime minister (do keep up!) said the country would not return to “the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity.” It’s a line still trotted out by dead-eyed government press officers when confronted by pleas from sectors as varied as farming and hospitality for more immigrant labour so they can stay in business. They are told they must look to their own for help and that the British vote to take back control. Which is rich given we can't control our own effluent.
As more and more stories of shitty beaches have appeared on front pages, some mid-level Dr Mabuse at the Cabinet Office must have noticed that the government’s ‘bootstrap’ productivity strategy aligns well with its wall-banging stance on immigration and, with a little twist of reality, knows that it can also be made to look environmentally sound. He will also have considered that brown beaches do not win votes and that English sand packed with holidaymakers unable to afford parking at an airport, let alone a flight, ‘levels up’ in a way that a Tuscan villa does not. Clean water is suitably popular to capture the interest of the red wall and traditional blue electorates alike. It provides a convenient war on woke excrement.
The policy that will no doubt emerge from such insight may offer some comfort for the owners of small businesses currently going to the wall over energy bills that have increased tenfold. Such a policy might even help workers unsatisfied with below-inflation pay rises worry less about making ends meet, as a result. And our beaches may become cleaner, also.
For while they may not be the highly-paid skilled jobs originally promised for our shiny post-Brexit future, the monumental task of cleaning up all the shit we are now in looks like providing a second source of income for those that need it.
Why be forced to wee in a bottle during 12-hour shifts in an Amazon warehouse when there is shit to be shovelled on our beaches? Faced with another rise in the cost of university tuition fees, what English student wouldn't instead look to a career in faeces management? Who wouldn't want to supplement a meagre pension by netting turds at the weekend?
Forget graphene, hydrogen or AI. For a country in so much shit, it is supremely fitting that the technology which promises the most immediate means of boosting national productivity is the humble bucket and spade.
It speaks volumes that, while the country’s traditional farmers slowly go bankrupt as their crops go unpicked and the cost of fertilizer goes through the roof, any future they might have will be as ‘gong farmers’ instead, reinstating the medieval role of those who collected ‘night waste.’ Or shit.
We recently had a plague, there are rats everywhere, and a new Great Fire of London is surely only days away, the result of months of drought and a disposable BBQ that wasn’t, in fact, disposed of correctly in a layby off the A13. In the absence of the water companies clearing up after themselves, a regulatory authority forcing them to fix pipes, and a government that is even interested in the subject, nothing is more damning about England’s potential for the future than the fact that, in 2022, it seems the country must return to medieval practices to get out of the shit it finds itself in.