Back in Sweden – and how good it is to be in a country where everything still works! My medical practice in Hull doesn’t. Taken over recently by a ‘Group’, with its phone centre in Wales or somewhere, I found it impossible to get even an internet appointment with a doctor. Over here I got one in a few minutes; and very helpful she was. Don’t let anyone tell you that Britain’s free NHS is the best in the world. It may have been once; and if it were properly funded now, allowed to take its pre-Brexit EU medical staff back, and not being subtly prepared for privatisation and profit, it might be again. Nowadays the Swedish healthcare system – almost cost-free for patients – outshines it glaringly.
It seems to be the same with everything. At Manchester Airport they closed all the restaurants and bars at 6 p.m. (my flight took off at 8), so I had to exist on a packet of crisps. Maybe the persistence of Covid was to blame for this – bar staff falling ill, etc. – but at Arlanda they were still working. Being here now is like returning to civilisation after living in a city bombed by the Russians. Well, not quite; and I’m aware that my complaints are pretty petty compared with what they’re suffering in Ukraine. (They would probably be grateful for a packet of crisps.) But the contrast really is striking. I feel I’m back to normality. Britain is anything but ‘normal’ just now.
Its politics, of course, is so abnormal as to make you wonder if it isn’t just being put on as a ‘show’. The government front bench is full of showmen (and women) whom BT Barnum would surely have immediately signed up if he had been around now. Boris the fat clown, Jacob the thin one, Priti the evil witch, Nigel the frog in the background…. it would go down a treat in a circus. And does, I have to admit, with me; I find myself watching ‘Parliament TV’ in fascination whenever something like ‘Partygate’ is programmed. It’s Kajsa, accustomed as she is to a soberer kind of politics, who has suggested to me that the whole thing might be intended as ‘entertainment’, rather than as serious debate. And her view of British politics appears – from the limited sample of my Swedish friends – to be fairly typical here, and probably in the EU as a whole.
Which brings me on to my final and more general point. Do Boris and his government care? They must be aware of the ridicule into which they have dragged the nation whose reputation in the world they profess to value. Most political leaders would like themselves and their countries to be ‘respected’ abroad: that is, either admired (Sweden) or feared (Putin’s Russia). Being ignored (most other countries) isn’t the worst of alternatives; but being portrayed as a pathetic joke of a place must surely be. Johnson counters this with meaningless airy boasts – ‘global’ Britain, excelling at just about everything – but he can’t believe much of it, and must know that no-one outside the country, and indeed his own constituency of voters, is fooled. Again: does this matter to him, as for a ‘patriot’ it surely should? Or is he prepared yet to take on the Millwall mantra: ‘everyone hates us and we don’t care’? There’s a certain element of pride, even dignity, about that. But are Boris – and the rest of us – ready for it?