Austerity vs Hope: We have a Choice

6970462_e852_625x1000Jonathan Shafi has a memo for Osborne, Carmichael, Clegg and Cameron.

Alistair Carmichael in the recent televised debate with Nicola Sturgeon said in reference to spending cuts and austerity, that the coalition government in Westminster were facing ‘difficult choices’. We hear this sort of empty, intellectually rudderless phrase from the Westminster coalition almost every day. Empty phrases, that they wrongly believe account for or divert enough attention away from the destruction (and that is the only word for it) that they are wreaking across society.

Those ‘difficult choices’ about the economy are reflected in Osbornes Autumn budget. In truth, you don’t need to read it to know what it will entail: more spending cuts, higher pension age, the continuation of what is officially the most intense fall in living standards since the Victorians. The UK is now so far down the path of privatisation and austerity, that deviating from it will take a movement on the scale of the Chartists to turn back the tide. 20% of young people are unemployed, and today they are told they must work until 70 before receiving a pension. And even when they find a job, it is statistically likely that it will be poorly paid, impermanent and without career prospects. It is a sad fact that for the poor death is more likely than seeing retirement. This is life in 21st Century Britain: it’s grindingly unjust, and it’s getting worse.

After the budget was delivered the Tory benches turned into braying, heckling yobs. They may as well live on a different planet. Unfortunately, they are calling the shots and they are ruthless in doing so: 350,000 people since April this year have had to rely on foodbanks to survive.

Crisis management

All of the Westminster parties have constructed an essentially false narrative around the economic crisis. Firstly, the broad claim is that the problem with the economy is the amount of spending allocated to the public sector and to services and so on. Only through cutting this – and with it the living standards of millions of people – can the economy be returned to strength, the argument goes.

But, as James Meadway of the New Economics Foundation explains:

Austerity was never necessary – Britain’s government debt rose because of the financial crash of 2008, not because of ‘excessive’ government spending. In fact, until the crash, the last Labour government spent, on average, less as a share of the economy than the previous two Tory administrations spent. But even with the crash, our government debt is a similar size, relative to our economy, as Germany or the US. Austerity was a deliberate choice by this government, as Cameron has now all but admitted. They imposed it because whilst even the IMF now admits it hurts real economic activity, meaning fewer jobs and lower wages, it’s good for finance. Austerity means whoever holds government debt gets paid, whatever else happens, and financial markets love that. They don’t care about the collapse in living standards or youth unemployment. And neither does their government.

What is actually happening here is that the Tories are using the economic crisis to pursue far more profound ideological objectives. They are choosing quite deliberately to make working people pay for the crisis, and to create, in Cameron’s own words, an era of ‘permanent austerity.’

When the bow tied Cameron made this dystopian proclamation in a recent speech he may have said a little too much. They now publicly accept, it seems, that their policy is only partly concerned with economic recovery. What they are really concerned with is rolling back all the gains made by the working class since 1945. Theirs is a privatised society, where capital is all powerful, democracy run roughshod by corporate interest, and where the pay day loan companies flourish. Theirs is a society not based on human solidarity, but on individual greed, self interest and the decimation of workers rights.

A Long-term Strategy

This is not a flash in the pan. This process which we have seen unfold for several years now is not easily stopped. And it won’t be stopped by a Labour government from Westminster. Britain’s ruling class is an old one, and experienced too. They have been through many battles, and sometimes pushed to the edge of defeat. Britain has seen its share of uprisings and revolts, from the 1926 general strike, to the set piece union battles of the 70s and 80s, to the mass mobilisations against the war on Iraq.

But one thing in particular they do well is to plan for the future. Thus Thatcher’s achievement was far more than defeating the miners, but to define the coming decades socially and economically. To wed society to neoliberalism and to ensure that her economic doctrine would survive regardless of who was in power, Labour or Tory. The only thing that has changed is that this generation of Tories are increasingly radical in achieving their goals. They are embedding what will be the shape of things to come for a long time – not withstanding nothing short of a mass peoples movement that will challenge neoliberalism. The Office for Bugdget Responsibility says public spending by 2018-19 will be its lowest as a % of GDP since 1948.

It is that serious, and it is that stark. Everything, from the bedroom tax, to attacks on the disabled, the raising of the pension age, the hundreds of thousands now reliant on food banks and so on, is part of the logic of the system defended by a tiny, privileged elite. For them, the ‘difficult decisions’ that Carmichael and his like speak of are not so difficult. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The richest 200 people in Britain have a combined wealth of £218 Billion. That figure is nine times as high as it was in 1989. This is no freak of nature: this is by design. As the World Health Organisation corroborate, child poverty in Britain is avoidable. It is in their words a ‘policy choice’. Whenever you hear them say ‘these are tough times, and in leadership is about tough decisions’ just remember that rhetoric is saved for only two occasions: undermining peoples living standards, and going to war.

These policies affect every area of life. Gary Patterson a student commenting on the long-term impact on education said:

Osborne’s confirmation of the student loan sell off now sends us spinning towards the extremely damaging US student loan system which, increasingly building towards financial meltdown, buckles generations under massive debts without the securities provided by a publicly-provided interest-free loan. The commercialisation of education is almost complete, in little than a couple of decades we have moved from a system of tuition-free grant-supported system to a degree costing tens of thousands with opportunistic profiteering and capitalisation of study.

‘If you don’t like it, vote in a different government.’ That’s the mantra that emanates from the stale consensus in Westminster. But precisely because it is a consensus, interlinked with financial and corporate power in the City, it is also an argument that is historically and intellectually bankrupt. Not least of course, despite Carmichael’s pleading, because we didn’t elect a coalition government, and we didn’t provide a democratic mandate for the Etonians to live out their wildest dreams. Democracy has been sold out from the start of this government. As it was with Iraq, we have seen nothing but failure from Westminster, and that failure has been borne by the majority of working people while the top of society has flourished. If there is a deficit worth considering – it’s a democratic one.

Making the break

There will be millions of people who watch Osborne and the budget and recoil. Many will be worried about the future. Many more will already be at levels of economic despair that the budget feels irrelevant. On every level: economic, democratic and social, this government are not only out of step with people, they are stepping on them. Repeatedly. Real earnings are down 6.4%. Prices have increased faster than wages for 40 out of 41 months in the last 3 years. Luxury goods sales continue to go through the roof.

Despite this situation, the politics of Westminster is a minority sport in Scotland. Already the referendum process is opening up the possibility for real social change. The White Paper – minus the corporation tax cut – is a world away from what is being proposed by Westminster. Where is a society based on justice and community, democracy and peace going to come from? No one can now argue with a straight face that it is from Westminster.

Challenging the establishment successfully is not easy. But voting against them in the referendum is an important staging post in the history of the relationship between the British ruling class and the population at large. But this is not a just a protest. It can be a catalyst for action that can bring about real social change. We can propose, in much more favourable terrain, and with the political momentum of a victory against the British state behind us, a genuine break from the neoliberal orthodoxy and the revolving door corporate-state that we know works for the few against the many.

Osborne, Carmichael, Clegg, Cameron: your time is up.

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  1. Crubag says:

    After the unreferenced claim that the US Congress had “passed a resolution honouring Sands after his death” in the Green Day article – upon inspection it turned out it had done nothing of the kind – I should have been better prepared for the claim above “in Cameron’s own words, an era of ‘permanent austerity.’”

    It turns out he did nothing of the kind. The speech in question:

    https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/lord-mayors-banquet-2013-prime-ministers-speech

    It does have the usual leaner, smarter, more with less state spiel all governments aspire to, though I doubt he would be bold enough to introduce a Scandanvian-style welfare system (free schools seems to be as far as it goes) – but it does not have “permanent austerity” anywhere in it.

    1. muttley79 says:

      Yes he did. This is a quote from Cameron’s speech:

      “It means building a leaner, more efficient state.

      We need to do more with less.

      Not just now, but permanently.”

      Cameron clearly was making a case for permanent austerity. This is the essence of what he was arguing.

      1. Crubag says:

        No, you’re misunderstanding what direct quotes (the ” ” bit) mean. They indicate the exact words of the speaker.

        It could be that Jonathan doesn’t understand this element of English grammar, or it could be that like Callum’s US Congress/Bobby Sands claim, he’s found it on the wilder shores of the Internet (Internet + meets my opinion = true).

        Either way, Bella should be better than this. In neither case was the truth being given.

  2. Angus says:

    Spot on,this encapsulates the grim reality of life in the UK.

  3. I am sick of hearing from those that claim to be “The Labour Party” that they can change things.They cant or rather wont change anything just use different words to salve the troubled mind.The real party of Westminster is “THE WESTMINSTER PARTY” there are no other parties with the exception of the smaller ones.When the Labour party took the bribes from Westminster they joined the big party and lived off of the backs of the men who financed them,used the workers to create a new social class.The bribes of Westminster entail the Ermine Club with an extra large pension,the rest of the bribes are the expenses,and the extra pay for “being in or on a committee” this gives them a pay of a quarter of a million pounds a year,not bad for selling out those that you hold in contempt,the ones that believe in you though you broke their trust almost daily,some are awakening and shall bring democracy to these islands.There is no democracy in a monarchy nor in the land of privilege & title.

  4. braco says:

    I am starting to get a bit concerned by the slow and subtle ‘lefty’ repackaging of Scottish Independence as primarily some sort of method of ‘re establishing’ proper social policies upon the ‘re awoken’, previously duped into voting for various shades of neo-con, poor wee rUK electorate.

    As a happy democratic repercussion, resulting from our absolute primary goal of establishing Scottish Democracy as a permanent and effective voice for our sovereign population, then I wouldn’t mind at all. But it seems, now that this reality is at last coming into view after centuries of fighting, a premature ‘British wide’ refocusing appears to becoming fashionable among some of the ‘newly convinced’ voices promoting Independence.

    This ‘re focusing’ has become more and more overt, the more the arguments advanced for Independence have taken the form of ‘Social Policy’ and the Party political sloganeering of ‘No more Tories!’ etc. This is understandable but dangerous.

    Surely this is about gaining Democracy for Scotland, whatever that sovereign voice dictates whether left, right or center? It certainly is not about finding some sort of left wing advantage from independence, in order to unduly influence the democratic will of a rUK. RUK is more than capable of choosing it’s own government’s political direction. Is that not exactly the reason we require access to our own democracy?

    Scotland and Scottish history is littered with disasters brought about from National leaderships more interested in Scottish power simply as a stepping stone to ‘greater’ British ambitions. That is no longer acceptable to the electorate now we have access to a democratic voice via Holyrood. 2011’s Labour Party ‘Now the Tories are back’ campaign, being the most recent and salutary example.

    This is about Scottish Democracy.

    Secure Democracy first. If others like the look of it, well that’s up to them and all well and good. If they don’t, and they haven’t until now remember, well that is their democracy.

  5. florian albert says:

    A fortnight ago, at the RIC, Jonathan Shafi, was writing about the need for energy, education, health, transport and housing to be run ‘by and for the people.’ Today he is content with the SNP White Paper, minus its cut in corporation tax. David Torrance described the White Paper as ‘orthodox neoliberalism.’ There is certainly nothing in it to suggest it would deal with the gross inequality and social apartheid of today’s Scotland.
    This is revisionism with a vengeance.

    1. braco says:

      Which David Torrance? Tory supporting BritNat free lance ‘Journalist’ and Newsnicht political commentator, or SNP MSP for Kirkcaldy?

    2. david says:

      The article doesn’t say anything of the sort. Incredible how people can be determined to read something that isn’t there.

  6. Wul says:

    What is “RUK” or “rUK” ? Can someone enlighten me? Thanks.

    1. braco says:

      Wul,
      ‘rump United Kingdom’, more polite than ‘former United Kingdom’. (wink)

    2. It refers to the United Kingdom of South Britain & Northern Ireland.

  7. gerry parker says:

    Not long now, then we get to make a “difficult choice” see how they like it then.
    g.p

  8. George Gunn says:

    Jonathan Shafi has given us a very considered critique of what is going on at Westminster and the effect it has on the majority of the people in Britain. In England that majority have no alternative in mainstream politics to vote for. We in Scotland can vote Yes next September and begin to build a decent representative democracy. Before and after the first government of an independent Scotland is elected into power we must, as a people, ensure that our democracy is open, participatory and responsive and remains so. I, for one, believe that the wealth of Scotland should be spent on the people of Scotland for it is they who created it.

    1. Crubag says:

      I don’t think the English are any worse off than the Scots in terms of representative democracy – in the shape of Respect they even had a brief flicker of a mainstream alternative at nation state level (though if the SNP stood accross the UK…)

      In Scotland, I’d expect both the Greens and the various socialist parties to continue to manage representation at Holyrood. Once if becomes the national parliament (on all issues) we are keeping the same mechanisms, so I wouldn’t expect increased representation.

      The main competition will be between a social democratic party (probably post-Labour) and an economicaly liberal party (probably continuing SNP, minus a few centre-leftists) as in other European countries.

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