Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Second Class Citizens

Britain has for the last two parliamentary terms, one Labour, one Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition, had a black hole of debt. Although the current Chancellor George Osborne claims a growing economy will fill this hole, whoever triumphs at the next election will almost certainly tackle it with a swingeing raft of austerity cuts.

The problem with this, at least as manifested under the current government, is who suffers from the cuts. Despite government claims to the contrary, we are not in this together. Irrespective of the maths which deem cutting benefits and services of the poorest and most needy will reap the required amount of savings, rather than increased taxes on the rich, and passing over the ideological strand behind this decision, the problem is what it says about the people you will target for savings and those you won't.

Mrs Thatcher also inherited a financial black hole. She went about it through a mixture of increased economic growth (share ownership, the financial Big bang, buying council homes for private ownership) and cutting back services and benefits (local government funding, the arts, student grants, unemployment benefit). Everything had to be justified in terms of the free market. Did it turn a profit, or did it cost the State to provide? People were formally costed, either as productive, or as a drain, as a burden to the State. The productive elements of the working class were welcomed with offers to buy shares and council houses and to do everything on credit (for which we are now paying with our debt crisis). Those less well-off were pretty much left to sink in unemployment, sink housing and failing schools. And before you think this is merely a case of Thatcher or Conservative-bashing, Blair and Brown did nothing to reverse these policies of any significance. Those places that rioted in London in 2011 were the same as had rioted under Thatcher in the 80s. This was the next generation, the children and grandchildren of the earlier rioters. Nothing had materially changed within their communities in 30 years.

With Mrs Thatcher having executed the first raft of cuts to welfare benefits and services, what else remained for the current government to make savings on? They have gone far further than Thatcher ever did, targeting the disabled, people in social housing with spare rooms (a punishment for not buying your Council House?), police and army numbers cut back t5o the bare bone and despite Lib-Dem promises, an increase in student loans to pay for tuition. Yet no one is held responsible for the economic crisis that blighted so many people's lives against which this backdrop of cuts was taking place. The Power companies went unchecked on their price rises and recently laggardly response to the collapse in the oil price. Unmerited bonuses to executives leaving their jobs in failure are also allowed to proceed, unless the resignee has the grace to forego what they are entitled to, their reward for failure.

So here's the thing. All people having been costed. the decision has been made that money will be clawed-back from those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, those more vulnerable and needy, rather than those higher up. This implicitly, or maybe even explicitly, avows that such people are worth less to the government and the State than those higher up the ladder. A two-tiered system of favour and prejudice if ever there was one. The calculation is these people cost the state more and are likely to return less to the coffers, therefore they are the ones ripe for plucking for savings. Rather than tax those more able to cope and who can contribute more to State coffers. This is what happens when people are reduced to financial assets or liabilities. What does it behove a State to do to earn the loyalty and allegiance of its citizens? Not to scare off the rich with higher tax rates, or to provide a minimum level of help and assistance for those who are the worst off in society? If the rich can be frightened away so easily, then they are not really that committed to Britain, but only to their money. If the poor have their safety net shredded and ripped away from them, then that is not a State I want to pledge my allegiance to either.

This is not the politics of envy, this is the politics of decency and propriety. The terrorists win if in the campaign to defeat them, we sacrifice so much of what it means to be free and living in a democracy. Similarly, Great Britain ceases to be great if under economic burdens it strips away every welfare benefit and service that makes us a civilised society that looks after its most vulnerable citizens.

Oh and don't be fooled, if Ed Miliband acceded to power, he might tinker around the edges with things like a freeze on power prices, but he would still make swingeing cuts because he had to. How much would he tax the rich when push comes to shove? Blair didn't. Brown didn't. they are too scared of alienating some of that cohort who they know they need their votes to obtain power.

So do I have any solutions? Of course not. But I do know a society has to look at itself and decide what its values are, what living in that country means and stands for. And I know treating your citizens as economic indices and wealth-earning units is not the way to go. I also feel Great Britain should lose some of its self-aggrandised credit-rating, not the formal financial rating, but that of calling itself 'Great'. If we are perennially to face a financial black hole and decisions attendant on that, maybe we are not a powerhouse in the world anymore. Without our sense of self-inflation, then perhaps we wouldn't feel such a compunction to fight long-term foreign wars that are such a drain on our finances. Forget our glorious history, in the here and now we are a second division country,  acting and strutting as if we were still in the Premiership of nations. Of course no politician will own up to this because it is electoral suicide. The myth of Britain's greatness is to prevail. So to keep that neon sign illuminated, we punish the weakest and most vulnerable of our citizens, without even providing them a Band Aid for the sake of appearances.

No comments: