The Labour movement column
It is difficult to decide which was the bigger lie about the emergency budget – that it was fair or that it was unavoidable. We now know that that it will slam the poorest hardest. It’s a contorted sense of justice that expects the least vulnerable and voiceless to pay for the excesses and irresponsibilities of an affluent few. Perhaps this would constitutes ‘fairness’ in a kleptocracy or in a gangster state. It’s difficult to imagine where else – apart from Conservative Britain, it would seem.
In some ways, though, it is the “unavoidable” claim that is of greater concern. For whenever you hear the word “unavoidable” – or similar – you know two basic things. The policy being trumpeted is not unavoidable. And, once implemented, disaster will not be too far behind.
The last time we heard “unavoidable” with any great gusto was at the time of the Iraq war. George W. Bush declared war as “unavoidable” in a prime time national address in 2002. We now know it was no such thing, and hindsight tends to cancel ‘unavoidability’ with very high frequency. The war was driven by interest and ideology and a resulting distorted sense of national and regional security. Perhaps that leaders behave in this way is unavoidable. Perhaps some of them are just like that. The war itself though was anything but “unavoidable.”
“Unavoidable” comes in many different guises. Margaret Thatcher would go for phraseology such as her famous “there is really no alternative.” Funny, because her other most famous utterance was “there is no such thing as society.” And TINA and ‘no such thing as society’ were easy bed-fellows. The latter was an expression of despair; the former the expression of pure disregard for the consequences of brutal fiscal contraction and high interest rates.
Just as a return to growth and productivity was celebrated as an economic miracle by the Conservatives in the 1980s, so it will be again if they manage to restore growth and get the deficit down in this parliament. Paul Krugman suspects that they will fail and we will see a return to an 1870s style decade – long, long depression with permanently reduced output and mass, long term unemployment.
Even if that doesn’t transpire, the lost output and ruined lives from this “inevitable” budget will be considerable. In economic calamity and foreign policy disaster alike, the path to dependency of hapless and heartless leaders is evident. It was there in Suez. Eden stated that to ignore Egyptian aggression was to “avoid reality.” And a military response was “inescapable.” The words change but the sentiment doesn’t. The Iraq war, Margaret Thatcher’s masochistic and destructive economic policies, the Suez War, and the Conservatives ‘emergency budget – all “inevitable”, “there was no alternative”, “inescapable”, and “unavoidable.” Only none of them were so at all.
And now in the aftermath of the most terrifying economic calamity that we have faced for decades, the Conservatives once again play fast and loose with the economy, all the while piling the burden onto the poor. They talk as if the recession was caused by state action rather than unrestrained market action. The banks pay their levy; they get their corporation tax rebate. What sort of country is it that burdens the poor with the mistakes of the very wealthy? That’s the reality of this new Conservative approach. They talk the language of fairness while deploying the same old kick down, kick hard methods. At least Margaret Thatcher was honest.
The simple fact is that none of this was unavoidable. They have chosen to over-shoot sensible deficit reduction in a deliberate attempt to create the space for tax cuts down the line. And you can guess immediately that the 50% tax rate and bank bonus tax will go and the inheritance tax threshold will be raised considerably. The least well off pay now, the wealthy get to cash in later.
By 2014-15 the Conservatives will be reducing the deficit by £40billion more than Labour had planned. That is teeth-clenchingly tough. They could have cut by an additional £10billion, say, to demonstrate willing to the markets and left it there without calamity. It could have then allowed welfare reforms to be driven by sound social policy instead of the need to make cuts. The outcome may still have been some cost savings and at least they would not be kicking families out of their home, humiliating and hurting the disabled, or forcing mothers to face a choice between welfare cuts and their family. And once the impact of public spending cuts have been taken into account, the least well-off suffer even more as The Fabian Society and Landman economics have shown in shocking clarity.
There is a choice. Much of this additional pain is one choice. But there is another way. Wait for recovery to be more established. Appraise the social consequences of what you are doing while nonetheless realising that there will be a great deal of pain. For that reason, do what you have to and no more. It is painful enough. And watch out for warnings of unavoidability. For very soon they turn to disaster.
Anthony Painter blogs at http://www.anthonypainter.co.uk