Britain’s police and firefighters, repeatedly hailed as heroes in recent months for facing down extremists and rushing into burning buildings, have become the symbol of a new anti-austerity drive in the country.
Their exploits are adding to the pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to ease seven years of belt-tightening after a disastrous election that cost the government its majority in Parliament and led to calls for her to step down. Over the past few days, key ministers have broken with government policy on the issue amid a change in public mood.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn made emergency services the focus of a march on Parliament last weekend when demonstrators called for an end to the 1 percent cap on pay increases for public employees. With the inflation rate now at 2.9 percent, the cap means the spending power of government workers is shrinking.
Speaking before the march, the head of the national firefighters union said the government’s spending policies and deregulation contributed to the June 14 inferno at Grenfell Tower in west London that killed at least 80 people. More than 11,000 firefighting jobs have been eliminated, and fire stations are being closed and fire engines taken out of service because of the budget cuts, said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.
“This was not an act of God,” Wrack told Sky News, speaking of the Grenfell Tower disaster. “It was a horrific fire, but the failings that led to it happening on that scale are the result of political decisions, a series of decisions that were taken over many years. That includes the deregulation of building control within local authorities, privatization of building control, the destruction and decimation of fire and rescue service safety inspections, the complete obsession with deregulation.”
Grenfell Tower is only the most recent tragedy to put Britain’s emergency workers in the news.
On May 22, paramedics rushed to Manchester Arena when a suicide bomber blew himself up after a pop concert, killing 22 people and injuring 116 others. Doctors and nurses worked through the night to treat the wounded, and police launched an around-the-clock investigation to find any accomplices.
Less than two weeks later, three men crashed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge, then rampaged through nearby Borough Market slashing and stabbing revelers in bars and restaurants. Eight people died, but the death toll would have been higher if a police officer hadn’t confronted the attackers with nothing but his baton, delaying them until armed officers shot them dead just eight minutes after the attack began.
Then there was Grenfell Tower, a 24-story public housing project that was engulfed in flames after a refrigerator fire quickly spread through the building. Police officers held their riot shields overhead to protect firefighters from falling debris as they rushed into the inferno to rescue trapped residents.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron imposed the cap as part of his plan to control spending after the deficit ballooned during the global financial crisis. His successor, May, has continued austerity, saying it will result in a stronger economy that creates jobs and lifts people out of poverty.
Treasury chief Philip Hammond is standing by the policy, saying Conservative-led governments have reduced the deficit by two-thirds while increasing employment and maintaining economic growth. But he said the cuts must continue because the government is still spending more than it takes in and the national debt stands at 1.7 trillion pounds ($2.2 trillion), or the equivalent of 62,000 pounds ($80,140) for every person in Britain.
“Our policy on public sector pay has always been designed to strike the right balance between being fair to our public servants, and fair to those who pay for them,” he said Monday. “That approach has not changed; and we continually assess that.”
The starting salary for a trainee firefighter is 22,017 pounds ($28,500), though higher rates apply for overtime.
If the U.S. is any guide, the Conservatives may have a hard time maintaining the cap. After the Sept. 11 attacks, police and firefighters were hailed as heroes risking their lives to protect Americans, and government officials found it difficult to reject demands for higher pay.
In Britain, the emergency workers’ own stories are being used to make the case for higher pay.
Constable Wayne Marques conducted a series of interviews describing how he held off a “wolf pack” of attackers near London Bridge with his baton, even after he was stabbed in the head.
Outside Grenfell Tower, among the floral tributes, firefighters who battled the blaze left T-shirts bearing handwritten messages seeking forgiveness from those they were unable to save.
“We promise we gave our all, and we wish we had more to give,” read the message on one shirt. “Sorry.”