Five BS arguments that should be cut
George Osborne’s spending review is neither a Thatcherite assault on ‘the vulnerable’ nor a sparkling solution to our economic woes.
Today, George Osborne, Britain’s bumbling, hard-to-take-seriously chancellor of the exchequer, will announce cuts to public spending. There are many striking things about both his proposed slashes and the response to them from the government’s critics, which has ranged from the shallow to the shrill. Here are five arguments about the cuts agenda that really ought to be cut.
1) This is the return of the evil Tories
Liking nothing better than to wrap themselves in the comfort blanket of the old politics, many of the Lib-Cons’ critics are fantasising that Osborne’s cuts finally expose what they’ve known all along: that this government is Thatcher-in-drag, hellbent on reining in the state and imposing a Milton Friedman-style free marketism. Some are calling on the Labour Party to live up to its newly rediscovered, Ed-fuelled Red-ism and to fire a major salvo in this stand-off between state and market. It is time for Labour to lay ‘the basic foundations of an alternative economic plan’, says one commentator, auditioning for a talking-head role on I Love 1979
In truth, the Lib-Cons are carrying on Labour’s work. The Lib-Cons plan to reduce public borrowing over the next two years by £113billion, and they aim to save that money first by increasing tax revenues (which will cover £29billion) and second by cutting spending (covering £83billion). But they inherited £21billion of that tax increase and £52billion of those spending cuts from… guess who? Labour. Osborne and Co., those allegedly Bullingdon-braised lovers of billionaires, are only pushing further what Labour started, adding a few extras to the cuts-and-tax agenda that the former government came up with in response to the recession. The real story of the cuts debate is that all sides of the political spectrum now see reining in as the only solution to economic crisis.
2) The public will rise up
There’s no question that everyday people, especially public-sector workers, will suffer as a result of some of the government’s proposed cuts, whether by losing their jobs or certain benefit payments. But the most striking thing about the cuts debate is the extent to which it is taking place on an entirely elite plane, resembling a spat between clashing sections of the powers-that-be rather than a stand-off between the cash-strapped public and their rulers. For all the union leaders’ claims that the cuts agenda will generate ‘intense divisions’ in society, easily the most notable thing has been the expulsion of public man from debates about the future.
From army bigwigs using the pages of the Daily Telegraph to complain about the Lib-Cons’ cuts to defence spending to the welfare elite using the politics of fear to try to stave off cuts to the benefits system (where they effectively argue that Britain will turn into a moral wasteland without their institutions), this looks more like a job-protection racket than a real public debate. Even to the extent that the trade unions have got involved – organising a protest in Westminster yesterday – it has been as a lobbying front for Labour’s preferred cuts agenda rather than as the representatives of public outrage. The language used by union officials to describe those who will suffer as a result of cuts – ‘the sick, the poor, the vulnerable’ – reveals the extent to which the public are now passive observers of an elite argument. It says a lot about politics today that the cuts agenda has generated sectional infighting, individuated debate, rather than a social response.
3) The age of austerity begins today
There’s a flagrant hypocrisy in the liberal commentariat’s and Labour activists’ complaint about the Tories ruthlessly imposing an ‘age of austerity’. Because it was largely the liberal sections of the elite who over the past 10 years laid the intellectual foundation stones for contemporary austerity. They wrote articles and academic papers and books on everything from ‘affluenza’ (wanting too much stuff makes you mentally ill) to the ‘problem with prosperity’ (it increases inequality), which contributed to a zealous belief amongst the better-educated sections of society that thriftiness was preferable to wealth and that people should be coaxed into living with less.
This week, one of Britain’s top green columnists slated the Tories for punishing the public sector and the poor with austerity; yet in 2007, under the headline ‘Bring on the recession‘, that very same columnist said: ‘I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises’, because only a recession can give us ‘the time we need to prevent runaway climate change’. Across the pages of the liberal press, there was unadulterated recession porn in 2008 and 2009, as well-off writers welcomed the ‘era of thriftiness’ (some posh people don’t understand the difference between thriftiness and poverty), while eco-activists set up a campaign called Riot 4 Austerity. This decade-long academic and cultural clamour for austere living, this demonisation of material aspiration, means that today’s liberal critiques of the Tories ring hollow. Worse, they have weakened the ability of people to offer an alternative to the cuts agenda: all-out wealth creation and a drive for greater prosperity.
4) The Lib-Cons are taking hard decisions
The Lib-Cons and their defenders claim that David Cameron and George Osborne are resolutely cutting back to try to rescue the British economy, regardless of how unpopular it makes them. In truth, one of the most revealing things about the Lib-Cons’ cuts agenda is how short-termist and politically defensive it is. Many of their proposed chops seem designed with spin rather than saving in mind. They appear driven by a determination to present the Tories in a flattering (or at least uncontroversial) light rather than by any Thatcher-style ruthlessness about slashing spending. The Lib-Cons’ aim is to water down controversy as much as possible amongst their own kind: the media, the think-tank world, the civil service.
So Osborne’s announcement a few weeks ago that child benefit would be cut for those parents who earn more than £43,875 a year – ‘middle-class mums’ – was explicitly about sending the message that the Tories are no longer the nasty party that attacks the poor. On defence, the Lib-Cons have desperately tried to please both the defence elite and the critics of defence spending by simultaneously talking up the need to tackle new threats (eg, cyberwarfare) while also scaling back old military tools, such as aircraft carriers and maybe Trident. The 50 per cent cut in the social housing budget has outraged some of the Lib-Cons’ liberal critics, but the downgrading of investment in nuclear power has pleased them. Cuts are increasingly being made from the standpoint of a narrow and defensive political opportunism, rather than being driven by a thought-through economic outlook. This is an alarmingly responsive rather than removed spending review, revealing a political class which – as a result of its immaturity and lack of leadership experience – seems incapable of rising above the trend of elite fratricide or of thinking in a long-term manner.
5) Cutting is the only game in town
Yes, cuts should be made. Yes, it is legitimate, and necessary, to rethink many aspects of public spending. But the focus on cutting alone – amongst both the Lib-Cons and their critics – speaks to today’s severe poverty of thinking on economic matters. Alongside cuts as a firefighting measure, we need a thoroughgoing debate about restructuring the economy; about investment, in everything from new nuclear power stations to road-building and construction. In short, we need to discuss creation – of jobs and wealth – alongside cutting. It is the absence of this side of the argument, amongst the bickering elites whose main disagreement is over what should be cut and by how much, which means that this remains a very poor debate indeed.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website.
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