You may have guessed that the roots of the word 'crumb', meaning a small particle, lie among ancient northern European tongues (with the insertion of what is quaintly called a parasitic letter b). Thus to crumble is to break into small particles, either actively or passively. The offensive term 'a crumbly' was once used by thoughtless young doctors to describe people like me, aged and host to numerous troublesome disabilities, who from the 1960s became the reason for the foundation of the geriatric specialty but who now are the bread and butter of pretty well all doctors. And who does not like bread and butter, the latter preventing the former from crumbling?
Making cement ranks with steel manufacture and driving motor vehicles as one of the most energy-intensive activities in the UK. Mix it with bits of stone and you get a rather crumbly building concretion, unsurprisingly called concrete. You can strengthen this by putting iron rods through it or by putting in fibrous matter to hold it together. From early in the 20th century, asbestos was used for this purpose, with tragic effects on tens of thousands of workers. And now another disaster appears to have hit the concrete industry.
Aerated concrete was invented in the 1920s in Sweden as a lightweight alternative, for use primarily in building. It is full of air bubbles and is therefore significantly less strong and durable than standard concrete and also requires strengthening by iron rods. The bubbles not only weaken it but also provide a reservoir for water ingress and invite dissolved carbon dioxide in the air to acidify the concrete and corrode the iron rods. It could be said to be pre-programmed to self-destruct and crumble.
This may not have been worried about by those who unwittingly used the material in the building boom in the UK from the 1950s to the 1990s. The dangers of collapse of planks of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) used in flat roofs were apparently only generally realised in the 1990s, and it was estimated that RAAC became unstable after about 30 years on average. Now it is known that it is present in many buildings and in some of these its failure could be dangerous to life and limb. The cry is out for engineers to inspect these structures and shore up or replace those deemed unsafe.
The history of technology, as of medicine and all other applications of scientific discovery, is full of examples of harmful consequences. In fact, it is hard to think of one new technology that has not eventually done some damage to humanity or the planet in its (mis)application (I can only think of one so far). So the present worries about RAAC should come as no surprise and I don't think it is fair to blame any single political party for using it. It was a cheap solution to a big problem and served its purpose for some decades, but now the political issue is one of management. I'm afraid the cost of this will fall on all of us through our taxes.
The crumbling of RAAC makes a nice metaphor for our current politics, if you go along with me in understanding that everything crumbles and fails in the end. For over 40 years now, we in the UK have participated as experimental subjects in the testing of an economic concept sometimes called neo-liberalism, a free market in which wealth goes to the successful and enterprising but then mysteriously trickles down to the less so. We have willingly transferred the potential wealth of our energy-rich minerals into the pockets of financiers and lawyers in London and various islands. In our bid to free industry from red tape and government interference we have sold off many of our assets to rich foreigners, some of whom have even been buying up slices of the NHS in England.
In the UK, we have cut ourselves off from our biggest market, and in Scotland we have wasted years trying to repeat the error. Alongside this we have neglected to pay the real cost of energy usage, failing to account for air pollution and climate change.
We have endured a form of austerity which hit the poorest hardest and which prevented expenditure on maintenance of buildings and socially good institutions such as universal education, the NHS and care of the elderly. The money saved has made more millionaires than ever before and we have developed a large underclass of the poor and homeless, including increasing numbers of students, as our public structures decline. The Reagan/Thatcher trickle-down experiment has patently failed in both our countries and 13 or so years of Tory and SNP government have come to an indecisive and crumbling end.
History has many examples of the right person turning up at the right time. Churchill did it repeatedly: in 1905 when he switched to the Liberals, in 1917 with his tanks and aeroplanes and in 1940. Lloyd George did it once in 1916 with conscription and rearmament in 1917, and Attlee did it in 1945. All three made mistakes at times and went through periods of public dislike, but they all had strategic minds and a determination to make a better world for their fellows.
As I see the big picture, dominated by increasing inequity and climate catastrophe and leading to collapse of civilisation (already affecting parts of Europe, USA and Africa), I wonder if any of our leaders really do. And, if they do, what is their strategy? Getting elected is but a tactic, a means to an end – what is the big strategic policy that addresses these overriding issues?
Concrete structures need to be monitored and steps may have to be taken to prevent deterioration. Engines need to be serviced. Sometimes they must be replaced. The same is true of political theory. The twin concepts of trickle-down economics and Brexit-style nationalism have been discredited, tested almost to destruction. The time has come for their planks to be removed and replaced, and this will take courage and an ability to speak truth to us voters. In my life, I have only seen three such. Since then our leaders, male and female, have proved only able to supervise decline and undo the good work of their predecessors; if one does not appear soon, I fear for the future of humanity.
The opportunity is there to be taken, but the cracks are very evident in our structures and it doesn't take an engineer to see them. The crumbling of the UK must be halted and we could show the world how to do it.
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