During the Second World War, and the years of recovery afterwards, much of the world endured privations which, today, are almost unimaginable. In pre-war UK society it was the norm for families to be ‘nuclear’, with one main source of income. Post-war many families were without a breadwinner. Children slept in the drawers of furniture, some went shoeless. There was severe rationing. Many were, quite literally, homeless having been ‘bombed out’. Ordinary people experienced restrictions on their lives and aspirations which make our present use of the term “austerity”, to describe a deliberate political policy, an insult. I am reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
The major difference between then and now is that the general population had a clear, in many cases very personal, cause for the pain and a reason to endure it. During the war the economy was directed, it was not a free market economy, and it was directed to one purpose: winning the war. The only people who made any money were the arms dealers and black market spivs, and the latter were subject to extreme penalties if caught. Soon after WW2 the country elected a Labour government which directed the economy to peace, and creating a platform for social equality: universal free education, the NHS, mass social housing, which gave the population a pay-off for the pain. It had a vision of what the country could be like.
The so-called “austerity” of the years after 2008 was entirely different. The world financial system collapsed, not under the weight of war but under unsustainable debt created by ‘loadsamoney’ gambling, and stock market speculation. Unlike WW2, the cost and pain of our 21st Century “austerity” has not been borne equally. The long term pay-off is not at all clear except to those who have imposed it. It has had no vision other than to deliberately, and nakedly, deconstruct the state’s involvement in directing, and contributing to, the economy. Its primary driver was ideological and its aim was to shift the responsibility of delivering almost all state service functions into the private sector for profit. And as a result, for example, we have burgeoning private health care, housing, prisons, education (for those that can afford them) and, at the same time, the state providers of these services have been systematically starved of resources. The gaps, where possible, are filled by charities and individual compassion.
In the wake of an unexpected rebuff at a General Election, for the Conservatives to be addressing why so many people didn’t vote for them, by changing leadership ‘style’ and, particularly by rethinking “austerity”, shows how far removed they are from really understanding the popular mood. They do not seem to see, as we do, that if they can change economic policy now, just because of a poor election result, they could have changed course before. If they can listen now, they could have listened before. In my opinion it’s not “austerity” per se that the populace have rejected, it is the pointlessness of it except for those who have benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from it. There is no ‘holy grail’ other than some nebulous notion of deficit reduction. There is no gain worth the pain. Until recently many young people, who apparently voted en-masse for something better on 8th June, had only ‘being famous’ as an aspiration to escape the future that was being mapped out for them.
The Conservatives simply do not, and cannot, ‘get it’ because they seem to be intellectually, socially, culturally, some even morally, incapable of grasping that we finally see the Emperor (and Empress) has no clothes.