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Who will save us from boarding-house Britain? Our state is like a penny-pinching landlady

(Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures/ Getty)

(Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures/ Getty)


October 9, 2023   6 mins

Perhaps the Conservative Party Conference would better have been cancelled: after all, no one in the country, not least those on stage making pronouncements about the party’s future policies, has the slightest belief that any of those policies will ever be enacted. It was all a provincial pantomime, where the Conservatives pretended to be radical rightwing insurgents, and their adversaries, pretending to be aghast, enjoyed booing them.

But even if the Tories possessed a record of passing legislation in, rather than directly against their own interests, the party has a vanishingly small prospect of winning the next election. The Conservatives turned a blitzkrieg electoral victory into a grinding war of attrition through their own incompetence, so that the enemy, whose capture of vast swathes of the country now looks fated, has already won the war by default. There are no electoral wunderwaffen on the horizon, as the leadership moves phantom armies across the map: but we must all endure a final grim winter of this ill-fated campaign before Labour’s red flag is planted on our ruinous parliament building.

Wartime analogies are not inapt: it is an odd characteristic of the national temperament that the best British novels of Second World War, and the immediate postwar period looking back to it, concern unsatisfying jobs in Whitehall, and frustrated engagement with the dysfunctional engine of the British state. Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, the wartime sections of Powell’s Dance To the Music of Time sequence, the despondently cuckolded civil servants of both Greene’s End of the Affair and Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls From the Air, even the disenchanted civil servant of Nineteen-Eighty-Four: all convey a certain repulsion at British governance borne of sudden experience of how the sausage is actually made. For those outside the Westminster bubble, but away from the front, Europe’s great and bloody convulsion was experienced primarily as something akin to Houellebecq’s accurate prediction of the world after Covid: “the same, just a bit worse.”

There is something of our moment, also, in the writer Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude, set in the grim midwar winter of 1943. For its spinster protagonist Miss Roach, the war is encountered “in its character of petty pilferer” first of all, making long accustomed goods increasingly unobtainable “while at the same time
 gradually removing means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room from the trains.” For Miss Roach, “it was, actually, the gradualness and unobtrusiveness of this process which served to make it so hateful. The war, which had begun by making dramatic and drastic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer, incessantly pilfering. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look round without finding something else gone or going.”

Miss Roach is condemned to live in the shabby-genteel oppressiveness of a provincial boarding house, the Rosamund Tea Rooms, “this dead-and-alive house, of this dead-and-alive street, of this dead-and-alive little town.” As the biographer Michael Holroyd observes, Hamilton’s “macabre imagination” and bitter lived experience converts the boarding house  “into something between an asylum and a torture chamber”. Beset by petty rules, the arbitrary dictatorship of the elderly and its debilitating “orgy of ennui”, the Rosamund Tea Rooms could be a stand in for modern Britain, and the downwardly mobile Miss Roach a British millennial: “She was only thirty-nine, but she might have been taken for forty-five. She had given up ‘hope’ years ago. She had never actually had any ‘hope’. Like so many of her kind — the hopeless — she was too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and so sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel.”

It is surprising in our era of housing crisis, that the boarding house has not yet returned. Perhaps it will, or perhaps the HMO, its successor for today’s era of pinched and straitened middle-class circumstances, has taken up its purgatorial role. The HMO has not yet made its literary mark, but if material conditions as well as ideological currents influence our culture, perhaps it already shapes our times. Like our plummeting birthrates, could the inquisitorial suspicion, the nosy backbiting that defines millennial culture (around which an entire culture war has developed) derive as much from the enforced proximity gifted by inadequate housing as from indoctrination by progressive teachers? But it would not be in Conservative interests to highlight another of their own failures if so. Yet our current oppressive cultural atmosphere, characterised by dissident rightists as the culture of the “longhouse,” could just as well be termed, in Britain, the politics of the boarding house. We are all trapped together, by circumstances beyond our control and among people from whom we are increasingly estranged, in a stifling ennui seemingly impossible to shift.

Our state, after all, looks increasingly like Hamilton’s penny-pinching landlady, Mrs. Payne, “who had put a stop to electricity on the landings simply by taking all the bulbs out – thus succouring her hard-pressed country, the spirit of the black-out generally, and her own pecuniary resources.” Our political discourse, increasingly repellant in almost every aspect, is stuck at the level of the elderly tyrants, the pub bores and tiresome pontificators who dominate the shared living quarters in Hamilton’s fiction like “the president in Hell”: like poor Miss Roach, we are doomed to listen to their vapid self-regarding pronouncements every single day. With the simple pleasures of life vanishing, and puritanical new restrictions enforced, our public realm increasingly reflects Hamilton’s “endless snubbing and nagging of war, its lecturing and admonitions.” But then Hamilton’s literary intentions, for all that he aimed to capture the lived experience of his class, were always directed towards a portrait of the British state and character, parodied in his little-read 1939 satire Moribundia as a “stagnant society, one that is lacking vitality and possibly nearing its end,” ruled by the static ideology of “Unchange,” with “a deathly fear and hatred of innovation, of an overturning of their system, behind all their nauseatingly idealistic postures and utterances.”

There is something depressingly current in Hamilton’s depiction of his era, when world historical events, the rise and fall of empires, were experienced first and foremost as sharply declining living standards, a gnawing atmosphere of privation and neglect, and of being increasingly nagged by petty, seemingly arbitrary rules. We areourselves doomed to live in history: the 2008 financial crash, Covid, the war in Ukraine were each epoch-defining global events that beset us in short order, each of which demanded a grand response by the British state which either never came, or instead came in the most self-defeating and immiserating way.

By choosing austerity over investment, the Cameron government weakened the British state ahead of the crises to come; when Covid came, Johnson promised the sacrifices demanded for the greater good necessitated a wartime response, which in the end came only in petty restrictions, growing debt and some expensive meal vouchers; the economic effects of the war in Ukraine, similarly, have sharply driven down living standards, without any meaningful government strategy or investment to alleviate them, let alone transmute crisis into opportunity. And there is more to come: both the international situation and Britain’s social and economic prospects are worsening. We are asked to endure ever more, without a path or plan to victory. New privations are announced like grand national projects, while grand national projects are cancelled, as unaffordable or simply beyond the nation’s capacity. The only laws the government can pass are for censorship; its only remaining talking points are to condemn the future rationing proposals, fictional or otherwise, of their successors. Promised a humming war economy, we got rationing and restrictions, with neither guns nor butter at the end.

How will this end? What was new about this year’s Conservative conference is the perception that none of it matters, at all. It was merely a ruling party unconvincingly going through the motions of governance, in a country going through the motions of democracy: all a provincial purgatory of sorts, the turbid backwash of world-historical events outside our control.

The Labour Party will enter government with a mandate for total change, and the future stability of the British political system will depend on its capacity to deliver it. On housing, Labour’s bold announced housebuilding commitments begin to address the scale of the problem, offering hope of major reform. Yet Starmer’s timid jettisoning of the grander prospects for reform risks settling for mere tinkering around the edges of dysfunction, and new petty rules with new state functionaries to enforce them. No longer the engine of grand national projects, much the same disenchantment could be applied to Parliament itself, whose restoration costs will apparently total ÂŁ22bn: is it worth saving? Perhaps it would be better to let it crumble into the Thames, the breeding ground of crows, as a romantic monument to a lost civilisation. For any other purpose, without a bold commitment to reform, its time is running out. As polling for Onward shows, “six in ten Gen Z’ers support the idea of running the UK with a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections’, compared to only 29 per cent of over-55s. Focus groups suggest this is borne out of apathy: ‘what has democracy done for us?’, they ask with a shrug.” It is difficult to see that the events in store for us, or the state’s response to them, will re-enchant British voters with their decrepit political system.

No wonder that for the young, the talk is no longer of reform but escape. For the fictional Miss Roach, release from her purgatory came through an unexpected inheritance, allowing her to return to Blitz-ravaged London, where for all the risk, “You had to square up to the war. The horror and despondence of the Rosamund Tea Rooms resided in just the fact that it was not squaring up to it [but was] in its petty boarding-house lassitude almost insensible of it.” The miserable conditions of ration Britain were likewise dispelled by the postwar economic boom, but without a concerted effort, without reformist ambition and grandeur, there will be no such unexpected prosperity in our future.

Today’s historic shift of global wealth and power will require a titanic effort to maintain our current lacklustre level of prosperity, let alone achieve the far greater wealth Britain should aspire to. As the rival parties’ regional pantomimes show, there is still no squaring up to reality in our grim national boarding house.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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John Dellingby
John Dellingby
9 months ago

A depressing, but increasingly accurate portrayal of life in modern Britain for many. The cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 in its entirety as well as the default cancellation of the Old Oak Common to Euston part of the line shows where we are. The fact that we, the country who bought mass railway transit to the planet, can’t even build a new line is the height of embarrassing.

Unfortunately everything we were once pioneers or world leaders at is seemingly beyond our means or a joke. Whether that be our universities, Police, infrastructure, public broadcasting, our political system or even public welfare. We can’t even stop people coming in by dinghy despite a 23 mile barrier of sea. I wish I could say this was an outsiders doing, but as a Nationalist Spanish General stated during one siege in their civil war during the 1930’s, their fifth column was already inside the city. The UK is in the exact same position as those defenders now.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
9 months ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Absolutely. A couple of years ago, I went home to York to visit my family and took the Transpennine Express from Manchester to York. It was an utter nightmare, the worst train journey I’ve ever had anywhere in the world. I stumbled out the train in search of the bus to Hull and passed what – in my teenage years – was the Railtrack building.
Standing in the drizzle waiting for the bus and attempting to process the dismal rail experience, I happened to look up and see a plaque on the side of the building which informed me of how York used to be the very epicentre of rail innovation.
As moments go, this was quite unmatched in terms of pathos and tragedy. Not even turning my head to look at the Minster and the city walls could cheer me up after that!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I had a similar experience only last night! Took the train to visit some friends in Blackpool, standing room only from Preston onwards.
The return train i was booked on was cancelled, but the 22.22 from Blackpool was still viable – until it was cancelled with less than 30 minutes notice, potentially leaving me (in my 60s) stranded. Very luckily, and by the skin of my teeth, i managed to google a journey that ended up with a bus caught with 30 seconds to spare in Bolton, still an hour from home. At least i made it into my own bed instead of total desolation. How can they do this to people?
As a postscript, i received an email this morning offering me a ÂŁ4 refund, not even half the cost of the return journey.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I flat out refuse to go on British public transport on trips home these days apart from local buses which are still OK.
It’s unreliable, expensive and often a complete nightmare. No thanks. I fly into Leeds Bradford (also completely outdated not to mention chav central) and try and cadge a lift.

RM Parker
RM Parker
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Sad to hear the transpennine continues to set the record for worst train “service” in the country. I’ve had far preferable rail journeys in Peru and early-noughties Bulgaria. Trying to get from Manchester to visit my parents in Hull was invariably a purgatory, endurable only thanks to the pull of family ties


Linda M Brown
Linda M Brown
9 months ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

We no longer have political leaders, we have people in we’re who take surveys before deciding on any policy.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
9 months ago

This piece, suffused with gloom, actually boils down to a plea for more government expenditure, i.e. yet more government borrowing; It cuts no ice with me.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Borrowing is fine when it’s used for investment. It only becomes a problem when it’s used for the day to day running of the country

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

That old canard … too easy to redefine current account expenditure as investment … too easy to cook that particular book.
Any business owner will tell you cash flow is king – if you’ve spent the cash on investment & can’t pay this weeks wages you will go bust – however worthy that investment was

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
9 months ago

As polling for Onward shows, “six in ten Gen Z’ers support the idea of running the UK with a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections’, compared to only 29 per cent of over-55s. Focus groups suggest this is borne out of apathy: ‘what has democracy done for us?’, they ask with a shrug.”
My partner and I are elder millennials and we also find ourselves having discussions where we dare to toy with the thought of life under that kind of strong leader. For us – brought up in a world where democracy was still delivering and the West was still firmly in the geopolitical driving seat – even saying this in the privacy of our own four walls feels naughty and dangerous somehow. But we’re just so sick of the current state of politics that other, risky ideas are starting to appeal.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I can relate. I’ve started sarcastically remarking to the centrists in my life (online and in the real world) on what a fine job the parties and institutions in question have done on things like standard of living, economy, health, housing etc. I just can’t take their views seriously anymore after them being dominant for 30 odd years with this as the result.

Lilly A
Lilly A
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Would you welcome a Putin or a Kim Jong? Or an Ayatollah Khameini?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago
Reply to  Lilly A

Willie Nelson!

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
9 months ago

Screaming Lord Sutch and his Monster Raving Loony Party!

Chris Carter
Chris Carter
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

“That kind of strong leader”
Ay, there’s the rub…exactly what kind of strong leader?

Robbie K
Robbie K
9 months ago

Oh dear, did someone steal Aris’s chocolate digestives? We’re not unique in the current set of economic circumstances, it’s a global phase and no doubt we’ll all emerge from it soon enough.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

“Soon enough”. I was saying that thirty years ago.

ALLEN MORRIS-YATES
ALLEN MORRIS-YATES
9 months ago

Miss Roach stuck in a boarding house with uncongenial folk and bored witless, probably depressed. Meanwhile many people in most of Europe, west and east, and a good part of Asia are subjected to the most appalling treatment imaginable. She had the capacity and opportunity to be useful, and to share that meaningful existence with others, but seemingly lacked the wit or courage to act. Dear God, can’t we just stop whining and get on with it! (Apologies in advance, I haven’t read the book, just going on the prĂ©cis provided; so my argument really is with the author of the article.)

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

An enjoyable read, but Mr Roussinos is being uncharacteristically naive about the purpose of conference policy pronouncements, He dismisses them as a “pantomime” because none can be implemented before the election. With the general election next year, the role of such polcy pronouncements is to give their canvassers something to say on the doorstep. E.g., unless the punter votes Tory, there is no prospect of Rwanda and every prospect of hyperwoke. The pantomime pronouncements are not going to win an election, but might save a few marginal seats for the Tories.
The WWII novels that Mr Roussinos quotes from are a bit selective. E.g., Mary Wesley’s Camomile Lawn gives the impression that WWII was just a catalyst for sexual liberation.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago

Labour a mandate for major change???? Aris come on! They do not want change! Labour seek a mandate simply to restore fully the authority of the ruling 30 Year Progressive State. They are for continuity in the way we govern..just a cleaner status quo ante, exorcising the failed counter revolution of 2016. Actual power is wielded by a permanent unelected hostile (dreadful,) Public Sector/Blob, the new EU and HR laws and vast devolved Regulatory Quangocracy – not our weedy systemically emasculated national Parliament. The peoples Brexit revolt and the Fake Wetwoke 13 Year Tories must be seen as an just an irritant or blip. If 1997 was our 1918 Moment, recent history is the 1920 Civil War. The EU/Blair Revolution wins. The Tories have not challenged or even dented the System, nor its new State ideologies like DEI and Net Zero. Boris with his Bailout socialism welfarism high tax and entitlement culture actually boosted the Progressive Order. Labour are still the Party of vindictive petty class war, the propertocrat Blob, union thugs, the broken bloated NHS, mass immigration….the grisly failed status quo merrily adopted by the idiot Fake Tories. Labour just offers a Business As Usual agenda, promising an acceleration of our immiseration and decline. The only change would be to the seating plan in the Palace of Westminster talking shop.

Caroline Foulger
Caroline Foulger
9 months ago

It’s an interesting conundrum that there are millions of people in the world who would give their right arm to reside in the UK.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
9 months ago

Aris Roussinos. Not absolutely wrong about absolutely everything, but damn does he try.

Last edited 9 months ago by Mike Doyle
Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

And just think despite everything there are still millions of people who will go out and vote for this lot, and think our dire state has got nothing to do with austerity, Brexit and 13 years of complete fantasy and incompetence – it’s all the fault of ‘the boats’, the woke blob, trans activists, and lefty lawyers. (I’m being unfair to Scotland where there are vanishingly small numbers of Tories.)

Daniel Ryan
Daniel Ryan
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

another tiresome straw-man conservative voter you have built up there

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I think after the events of this weekend, the only redemptive thing this country has done since voting to leave the EU (an organisation we were ill suited for membership of), was to crush Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. When I see how he and those who supported him excuse or glorify in the murders and abductions of civilians, I think we dodged a bomb, rather than a bullet.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Even after a fall in the share of the vote in 2019, Tory vote in Scotland was 25%. Hardly ‘vanishingly small’ is it?

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

The question is how many millions will be won over by the Ersatz Iron Lady Rachel and her speech today. Slick and commanding at first look. But actually a deeply contradictory almost crazy Eton Mess – lots of tory soundbite and sugary icky leftie instinct. So Labour want to unlock 50bn… from private sector! Capitalists are now their chosen engine of growth. But hang on – Ed’s Net Zero is a degrowth strategy! Factories are nasty stinky things. Will she really overturn all the EU friendly regulations & laws that have crushed growth for 2 decades? Didnt Labour just vote in Lords to back the crazed Development Nutrient Laws? How can she engineer a boom in housebuilding to a target of 70%,? I am not sure a bigger minimum wage, more equality acts (i.e more Birminghams), Red Angela giving our nasty striking unions yet more powers to strike, the huge cheers given to attacks on the Overseas Rich, Non Doms and private schools will convince investors that her party is truly committed to wealth creation and the massive de-regulation and scaling back of the State required.