Almost as an aside to this week’s tense parliamentary antics – which included Mr Johnson losing his majority and a vote that would mean a no-deal exit from the EU become less likely – Sajid Javid, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced his party were ‘turning the page on austerity.’ This page should not only be turned, it should ripped out, crumpled and chucked.
Mr Javid promised more money for the ‘people’s priorities’ (this cabinet must all read from the same populist term sheet) — education, health and police – and promised an ‘infrastructure revolution,’ as well as a greater purse for the armed forces and public social care schemes. He also stated that there would be no cuts for any government department next year. Given that this spending budget does not consider any foreseeable Brexit affects, it’s hard to see how this explosion of hypothetical spending has any weight to it at all– given, too, the little matter of a pending general election. Nevertheless, it’s good to hear that the conservatives now view their old chum, austerity, as a washed-up has-been of the political past – not capable of accruing any political traction with the voter it once was famed for.
Austerity was always an ideological choice sold to voters in a neatly packaged fictional story. The Conservatives told voters that Labour’s spending had run up the bill, causing the financial crash, and ‘hard choices’ (i.e. cuts) would have to be made. The conventional wisdom, touted by the likes of George Osbourne, assuredly said that because of a borrowing deficit, Britain would have to ‘tighten it’s belt’ and that these hard cuts to public services were a necessity. ‘You can see in Greece an example of a country that didn’t face up to its problems, and that is the fate that I want to avoid,” Osborne, in 2010, told the BBC in an interview. Britain was never in an analogous state to Greece. Gordon Brown, the preceding PM to the coalition government, actually warded off recession in 2008/09 and implemented a successful government investment recovery program, which, at the time, Osborne said he would match ‘penny for penny’.
Notice that, in this Osborne story, there was not one mention of bankers, mortgage backed securities, fraud or government bailouts. It was an invented story that functioned to condense something complex into something simple; it would also serve to construe the financial crash into a tool that would mould the Conservative’s natural propensity for government cuts into an idea more palatable to the electorate. With this story, the Conservatives no-longer had the uphill battle of convincing Britain that more market and less NHS was better, as now they could say, if we did not leash our public spending, economic Armageddon would ensue. In a stroke of political genius in conjunction with bold-faced lying, the Conservatives made the choice of government cuts about national survival, rather than about their preferences to unleash a more market driven economy. George Osborne, for instance, laughably spoke about a ‘loss of sovereignty’ if he could not garner further market support with cuts.
This fictional story and, in particular, the policies enacted to remedy the dramatized economic unrest, have caused ‘great misery,’ according to Philip Alston, a UN poverty expert. Mr Alston, in a UN report investigating extreme poverty, concluded that cuts to public services sanctioned in 2010 have caused ‘tragic social consequences.’
‘Much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos,” Mr. Alston surmised. ‘A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.’
The report unleashed a stonking criticism of the Conservative government’s austerity policies; outlining the fact that an increased percentage of younger as well as elder people were living in absolute poverty –- defined as critical deprivation of fundamental human requirements, including food, hygienic drinking water, bathing facilities, shelter, education, information and health. Inequality, obvious to all who dwell in the UK, has also spiked. Which has meant any growth in the economy has only enriched the wealthy, leaving those without capital just as they were before: struggling to construct a meaningful life with what little they have. Austerity, then, has receded any form of community support and has left people with unmet basic needs.
The volitional choice to impose austerity on an already struggling people cannot be compartmentalised away from any relation to the Brexit vote. They are intimately related: when people claw for survival, they turn their backs on high-order values, focusing their remaining material and cognitive resources on their ‘own.’ Austerity hasn’t just ‘left people behind,’ a common analysis of why the working class voted for Brexit, it has deliberately held people back.
Mr Javid’s promise for more public spending, as well as the implicit admission that austerity hasn’t worked, is welcome, it’s just 10 years to late.