I remember, but can't confirm, Jim Callaghan in opposition taunting the then Conservative Government with the metaphor: 'The sky is black with the wings of chickens coming home to roost'. There was an irony in the comment, as during his Prime Ministerial career he suffered from a similar darkness. In fact, during the 1970s, the UK economy was severely affected by strikes, the 'winter of discontent'. I too suffered as a junior doctor and then a young consultant through that period of high taxation, with two years of a pay freeze at the point I achieved the princely annual consultant's salary of £4,500 pa.
We shared in the general misery of poor pay, long hours and high taxation, perhaps helped by an understanding of the derivation of two quotations, which both came from books I had studied at school, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
and Shakespeare's Richard III
. The latter at least foresaw a glorious summer ahead, no matter how dubious the methods Shakespeare attributed to him in achieving it.
The metaphor of birds returning to their nests is usually attributed to Robert Southey in a poem written in 1810 but the oldest source is probably Chaucer in The Persones
, one in the Canterbury Tales
with which I was unfamiliar. It is the last tale in the book and the only one in prose. However, I find it was written around 1373, over a decade before Chaucer started to compile the whole book. It takes the form of an extremely long sermon of 1,100 lines, and the quotation appears in a section on the deadly sins in relation to anger and cursing: 'And ofte tyme swich cursings wrongfully retorneth again to him that curseth, as a brid that retorneth again to his owene nest'.
It seems to be in their nature for political parties to make pledges that they have no realistic hope of achieving but that tempt people to vote for them. They rarely explain the difficulties that lie ahead and, when they encounter them, the difficulties become excuses – Harold Macmillan's 'events' – that have interrupted their smooth retention of power and caused the inevitable failure of their ambitions. But it must be rare, in my experience unique, for two such dramatic events as we are witnessing now to afflict two parties of government simultaneously. The apparent disarray of both the Conservatives and SNP, and the current season of discontent are attributable to the same reason – the return of the birds to their nests, the solemn curses they have pledged.
There are important similarities in the mechanisms behind this apparent decline in the two parties, despite their obvious philosophical differences. The two most important concern belief, both in an unproven and probably unprovable hypothesis, and in the mechanism to achieve its objective. These are items of faith, not fact.
For the Conservatives, it is faith in the free market and its ability to bring prosperity to all, whereas for the Nationalists it is faith that freedom from alliance with England will have a similar effect in our country. The Conservative curse is on the public sector, which it sees as inefficient and overly bureaucratic, and has led inter alia both to Brexit and to underfunding and increasing privatisation of health and social care. The Nationalist curse has led to paranoia, secrecy and suspicion of doubters, to the point of concealment of financial problems and internal turmoil. Truly, both governments need to reflect seriously on their responsibility for the present season of their discontent.
Of course, events have been the trigger – Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine with its effect on fuel and food costs most notably – but these have simply brought to light the underlying malaise in the UK of a deteriorating and underappreciated public sector and have amplified the adverse consequences of English nationalism. It is the public sector that provides the infrastructure on which regulated enterprise can build and prosper. The public need the security provided by good communications, education, health and social care, defence, basic nutrition and accommodation, all the issues addressed in 1945-50.
To me, the most distressing aspect of this season of discontent has been seeing some trainee doctors in England abandoning their patients and going on strike, encouraged by their trade union. However justified, this cannot be ethical unless appropriate arrangements for cover are made. In some cases, it is indeed justified, as conditions of work have deteriorated and for the first two or three years salaries are too low to cover their reasonable expenses. These trainees start on £29,384 in the first year, increasing up to £58,398 pa as they become more experienced, with additions for overtime.
I am aware that there is similar discontent among young Scottish doctors but sincerely hope that they use their intelligence and powers of persuasion to convince our government to look seriously at their working conditions and salaries, and come to a rational settlement taking account of what can be afforded.
As I have argued before, a percentage increase in salary across the board increases the wealth gap; an increase should be graduated in favour of the lowest paid and a 35% rise for someone earning £40,000/50,000 would seem excessive to most. But working conditions are even more important, and young doctors are not looked after as were previous generations, including mine. We had accommodation and meals provided (cost deducted from our salaries) and there was a camaraderie that has disappeared. Although we earned less than the NHS porters and telephonists to start with, we knew that a great career was ahead with wonderful opportunities to do good. Some migrated for better conditions and were replaced by immigrants from poorer countries, but most of us and our Indo-Pakistani colleagues stuck it out for 40 years and the NHS survived.
This problem of the NHS doctors (and nurses and carers who have a stronger case) is widespread across UK society. The pay of young doctors has been compared dishonestly to that of workers in coffee shops. I should point out that coffee shops and their like in the commercial sector are full of young graduates, usually in the arts, scraping a living.
Inflation, a consequence of government mismanagement, causes everyone save the rich to feel the pinch. The present discontent affects mostly the public sector because neo-liberal policies since 1980 have constrained conditions in it and forced much of its activity into the private sector where profits and a bonus culture benefit mostly those at the top rather than being redistributed to support the overall structure. Thus do the taxes of everyone enrich the rich.
In times like these, it is easy to become as depressed as the economy. But we have been through them before and it is important to be positive, so I return to our quotations. Most birds do indeed return to their nests and rear their young – with common effort and optimism, most economic failures can be righted. Winter is always followed by summer, occasionally glorious but always warmer.
Elections loom and we are lucky soon to have opportunities to vote for change in both the UK and Scotland. It will be interesting to hear what the other parties have to say about how they will address the pressing problems of climate change, inequity and restructuring of the economy that they will inevitably inherit. And maybe they could come up with a plan for more autonomy for the countries and even regions of the UK.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own