• Cruel and False Economies

    Last year, October’s spending review ushered in a sense of disbelief akin to a thing like freefall: Doomsday had apparently come early for so many in the public sector, for so many of the inner city poor. If there had been any question about it before, now it was only too clear. The crunch had bitten deep, the shit had hit the fan and the government were, maybe if only for the space of a few days, seemingly made only too credible to many by the strength of something like conviction, something that passed for it, something sufficient to make people mistake it for genuine force of feeling. Though to their way of thinking, Cameron and IDS probably still believe that they are right, as for them to be right equates with a dismantling of the state, where the deficit may be unfortunate but dovetails neatly with their ideology. The true blue values of many Tories are both masked and miles away from endless touchy feely PR wooing of the swinging votes.

    Nine months on from the election, the ground has been well primed with months of saturation in the press of stories of benefits scroungers, a national vilification that few have seen fit to deny. The climate is set and the sound of belts being tightened en masse hardens feelings to those who may be neither strong nor productive, who simply do not have a bus or bike to get on, who are set to be brushed beneath a rug of touted necessity, of a new and harsher colder world.

    A kind of glee in many quarters sets the picture firmer down a deeply unsettling road. There was a sense of vindication which Cameron did not restrain from whipping up. “Think of how many nurses that money could employ,” he spouted, clear enough that you could almost hear the spittle on the mic as he talked about benefit cuts. “Think how many schools and hospitals it could help to keep running.” It was a denouncement so enthusiastic, that pandered so unapologetically to the most predictable and emotive lines of reasoning it sent a bolt of warning down my spine.

    So London held its breath and even months on from the touted claims of “sociological cleansing”, the sense of shock, of something bitter sinking in has not entirely gone, even as the students vented the rage of a nation, even as that shock has been transformed to a kind of fire of the spirit and vindication that this cannot be allowed. Perhaps it is partly a reflection of this change of public mood that the proposed housing benefit cap has been postponed till this time next year. What’s clear is that if these measures are not moderated or overturned there will be very real misery. There will be greater homelessness. There is already stress in countless thousands of houses and on the estates.

    What was shocking in reading some of the early comments on the web, the product of the vanguard of the loyal libertarians perhaps, or an indication of the power of Cameron’s crude popularism, was the drawing up of a thousand proverbial bridges. The poor are undeserving after all. Let single mothers be moved into bunkhouses. Let immigrants now find their own way home. This stunned and all too nearly broken Isle, this shocked and awed and deferential country; is this really now how it will stand; a shrugging of our shoulders and wallowing, complicit, in a lie that says it cannot be another way, that only the strong can survive, that only the virtuous prosper, that it is not for a government to be compassionate and the people all must fill the breach because the state has no greater role than sweeping the board clean to let the markets do how they see fit.

    Such rushed and savage cuts in many quarters stand to only bring out cruel and false economies, the bills from block-booked B and B’s for the displaced being just one. Even the vaunted ideals of a move away from New Labour’s totalitarian streak are looking little more like cynical window dressing for what was an almost mandatory piece of mendacity for the elections.

    It’s worth remembering that the current deficit, while it has risen sharply since 2008 is still just over half of what we faced after World War Two when it is placed in line with GDP. Admittedly that’s an extreme example; we had just come through a full scale global war, the years following 1945 brought with them a sharp decline in what we owed, our credit as a nation was still good and the role of a still bouyant US was no small factor. But it helps to show there are good grounds for reducing the deficit more gradually, if such a possibility can only be articulated to greater effect. But whatever the neccessity, however undeniable the crisis, these cuts are being ushered in at their present speed and on their current scale because of Cameron’s view of what the government should look like, irrespective of what we stand to lose as a nation. And the cuts’ nature all too often seems to fly in the face of good sense, as the changes to the way tax is to be collected exemplifies.

    Meanwhile, the poor have simply to pull up their own breeches and get on with it. It is will and work that make a person rich in his society, not chances dealt at birth or through health or education. The fact that there are now 2.5 million unemployed and only 500,000 jobs is an inconvenience that those in his circles will not have to suffer. It amounts to more than minimal government; it is effectively Social Darwinism, a return to the worst facets of nineteenth century attitudes to society at large. Factor in that, whteher through design or accident, cities like Liverpool will be disproportionately hit and the whole thing takes on the pallor of a monumental sick joke. Except there is no joke, no waking up from the nightmare, no sudden admission from Downing Street that this has all been some mistake or monumental wind up from the start.

    Across the South, in many coastal towns there looks set to be new ghettos for the poor; Hastings, in North Kent, in all the conurbations stretched out as a kind of commuter country nineteen thirties afterthought along the Sussex coast. If the caps continue, in fifteen years vast tracts of the South East will be made unaffordable to an equally vast tract of people, an ensuing migration to the far more jobless North only exacerbating the situation.

    This could be avoidable if people are willing to conceive we have a choice and that it does not include another four and a half years of a coalition with such a shaky mandate from the start. The crisis is real, but this kind of short, sharp shock is exactly what neoliberals espouse as the best way to respond to it. The tragedy is that this may well lock the UK into a spiral of decline from which only the very richest stand to benefit. Economically, even when dealing with a deficit in a recession, these cuts represent an absence of clear thought.

    Meanwhile everything that generations passed have fought for in the name of equality and freedom is being swept aside. The result may be a breeding ground for the kind of conditions that brought about an interwar interim of massive turbulence, which eventually necessitated the creation of a fully fledged welfare state as a way of ensuring a fairer society and more stable political climate. As Karl Mannheim wrote in 1943:

    “All of us know by now that from this war there is no way back to a laissez-faire order of society, that war as such is the maker of a silent revolution by preparing the road to a new type of planned order.”

    However we choose to do so (and this is worth a read for anyone taking to the streets), it is imperative that more and more of us continue to articulate our discontent. What stands in the balance is not just our own fate over the following months and years or the fate of generations down the line; it is an honouring of a tradition that goes back to at least the mid nineteenth century. It is an honouring of those who sought to reform a Poor Law that condemned the unemployed in a world of finite opportunities to brutal and degrading conditions in the workhouses. It is an honouring of those who fought for the notion that the poor have a right as a matter of course to a greater share of society’s wealth and who, while a culture of hard work should always be maintained, should not be subjected to humiliating means testing. It is an honouring of those who believed that the state had a greater role than fiscal maintenance or passing laws; that it could be an instrument in the building of a fairer and more equalitarian world.

    Men and women have suffered and died for such dreams. Don’t let us fail to serve their memory because we have forgotten as a nation that such things were hard won, that we have been handed down unparalleled opportunities, damaged a little on the way perhaps by a thirty-year-long slumber Thatcher set the way for. But we must still be willing to believe that we have it in our hands to shape the kind of world we would see fit, as surely as a generation did sixty five years ago, blinking from the rubble of a global total war, sure of only one thing in a time of unprecedented uncertainty; that they had fought for a better world and would not see the chance for its creation snatched away by the duplicity of a party of privilege with no right to sell this country down the river. It was Ghandi of course who said that each generation must re-enact the struggle for its rights, or lose them. Be under no illusions; that time has come again, there is as much at stake today as there ever was in 1945.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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