“Austerity Britain”

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment


There’s a lot of weaselling going on around this word: Austerity.

Austerity Britain is David Cameron’s version of his government’s economic policies. It’s a term he’s appropriated from an unlikely precedent.

With the Labour landslide of 1945, Attlee’s government inherited huge war debts (to the US) and an economy that needed to be rebuilt. It was this, the first majority Labour government, that nationalised coal, gas, the railways and many other key industries, as well as the Bank of England. It created the Welfare State: the NHS, free access to education and a host of state provisions and benefits, many with children in mind, including subsidised school meals and free milk – one third of a pint – at playtime (it was Margaret Thatcher who later took away the milk). An ambitious programme of housing provision was launched and employment was boosted by industrial renewal. But these egalitarian aims and the drive towards a stable economy had to be financed by higher taxation and a limit on imports, which meant that food rationing continued at even stricter levels than those during the war. So much was achieved, though at a cost to Labour’s popularity; it lost the 1951 election.

I’m probably reminding you of what you know already, and in a greatly simplified summary. But here’s my point: Austerity Britain meant shortages and sacrifice, with the object of redistribution, to build a fairer country. So much was achieved, by means of vast public investment, job creation, necessary public works and higher taxation of the better off.

And Austerity meant we were indeed all in it together. What we’re seeing now, Cameron’s and Osborne’s “austerity measures”, is the very antithesis. Austerity is now a euphemism for aggravating poverty and deprivation, for cutting and privatising benefits and services while making tax concessions to the rich. This isn’t about balancing the budget, it’s about dismantling the state.

Of course, Cameron knew what he was about with his Austerity Britain; he knew he was borrowing from the past. But he has no compunction about borrowed clothes: his ferocious right-wing policies are those of the Wolf, while by supporting gay marriage and women bishops he can tiptoe around like a nice progressive Sheep (some in his own party don’t seem to get the point, or they wouldn’t be turning to UKIP, threatening a leadership election because he’s not right wing enough).

Cameron is a skilled PR man to whom cosmetic manipulation comes naturally. Even after their partial election victory in 2010 the Tories knew they had a problem with image. Theresa May urged the need to discard the “nasty party” label that had dogged them since Thatcher’s day.

Thatcher’s rhetoric was ideologically declarative, making a virtue of divisiveness, pitting the strong individual as a force for good against the collective. It did not disguise the purpose of her policies: the savage dismantling of manufacturing industries, the humiliation of trade unions. It built the illusion of endless choice, with the fanfare of denationalisation, as gas, electricity, BT, BR and BA were sold off in a populist coup that promised share ownership to households up and down the land (just see who owns and controls them now: often foreign companies, many of them state owned, in France, Germany, the Netherlands etc).

Cameron’s rhetoric aims to hide, to show concern and humanity where these do not exist. Rather like the Centre for Social Justice, set up as an independent think-tank in 2004 by Iain Duncan Smith, currently Secretary for Work and Pensions. Some of its reports and ‘warnings’ may have a sound basis in reality, stirring up small doses of controversy, but its thinking on state benefits supports the government’s strategy, all the while purporting to have the “most vulnerable” at heart.

A few days ago I saw a television interview with an EU spokesperson, a German. At one point the issue was the very word “austerity”, and the German pointed out that for the British “austerity” meant something different from what it meant to the Germans: “For you it means brutal cuts, for us it is fiscal discipline.” Even though “fiscal discipline” sounds pretty weaselly on its own account, the man was making a distinction. He thought it was linguistic, an example of what’s called ‘false friends’, where words that sound similar in different languages can have completely different meanings, but Austerität was imported into German from the English usage of the Attlee government.

Politicians are notorious abusers of language. We shouldn’t let them get away with it. It matters.


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