The Steep Decline of the British Economy

'You Can See Desperation in their Eyes'

The LDV plant, only a kilometer down the road, stopped producing trucks in mid-December. There are no buyers anymore for the brand-new fleet of white panel vans parked outside. LDV has already laid off 95 workers. With the plant idle, hundreds more are waiting at home, still collecting their wages.

Akhtiar, 31, his hair slicked back with gel, has dark rings under his eyes. Part of his job is to make sure that the unemployed receive their unemployment checks. The situation in Washwood Heath has been so bad for the last three months that Akhtiar and his colleagues have been working on cases every day until 7 p.m., and they recently began coming in on Saturdays.

More and more people are losing their jobs, and more and more are coming to see Akhtiar. "You can see the desperation in their eyes," he says. "They realize that things are different now, and that they won't get new jobs after only a few weeks."

Unemployment is rising rapidly -- by 20 percent between October and December of last year alone -- in the West Midlands region surrounding Birmingham, the home of the British auto industry. Hardly any carmakers with plants in the region -- Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Honda -- are operating at full capacity these days, and hardly any carmaker is still in British hands. Thousands of jobs have been cut, and tens of thousands of workers are working reduced hours or have been furloughed temporarily.

The British welfare state, its reach narrowed by a succession of reforms, only offers about £60 ($85) a week in unemployment benefits left to those who have been laid off. The unemployed are often forced to give up their apartments or houses, because many are deeply in debt and can no longer afford to make their monthly mortgage payments. Someone in Great Britain loses their home once every seven minutes.

Akhtiar says that he is furious over the economic crisis. The bankers who drove the country to economic ruin, he says, were able to have their companies nationalized and yet they received bonuses of millions of pounds in taxpayer money. He says that many of his clients are also furious with the bankers, and that someone needs to take responsibility and pay for what has happened. But he doesn't know who that should be.

Akhtiar raises an important point: Whose fault is it, exactly?

Nothing but Bad News

A shabby pizzeria in London's Mayfair neighborhood, where only a few tourists might have been seen a few months ago, is filled with bankers today. Their Blackberries are on the tables in front of them, just as they used to be when they served as status symbols, as evidence that these bankers were having lunch at the center of the world. But there is one difference: Their conversations, once loud and pretentious, are now whispered.

David L. speaks quietly, even when he asks for a glass of tap water with his pizza. He still has a job, he says, because he took his customers' £200 million ($284 million) out of the market just in time, in the summer of 2007, when the first tremors began to make their way through the global financial system.

The fact that he still has his job is the one bit of good news David L. has to report. The other is that World War III hasn't broken out yet. Otherwise, he says, he has nothing but bad news.

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