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”. In case you don’t know the story, the Emperor is ‘conned’ into paying for, and then actually ‘wearing’, a non-existant suit of clothes during a public parade. His subjects are cowed into believing the fiction but, eventually, someone takes courage and shouts from the crowd that “the Emperor has no clothes!”
The major difference between post-war austerity 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 has been entirely different. The world financial system collapsed, not under the weight of war but under unsustainable debt created by ‘loadsamoney’ gambling on stock markets and currency speculation (which, by the way, we are still seeing). 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 has been ideological and its aim has been to shift the responsibility of delivering almost all state service functions into the private sector for profit. 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, as demonstrated by those providing 1.6 million food parcels at food banks, proliferating homeless shelters, and crowd-funding for basic school equipment.
In the wake of an unexpected rebuff at a General Election of 2017, and the self-inflicted policy hiatus caused by their Brexit debacle, the Conservatives addressed why so many people didn’t vote for them, by changing leadership ‘style’ and then leader (again). They do not seem to see, as others can, that if they can change economic policy now, in the run up to another election, they could have changed course before. If are listening now, why weren’t they listening before – it’s not like they weren’t told? In my opinion it’s not “austerity” per se that the populace increasingly reject, but the pointlessness of it except for those who have benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from it. There is still no overarching visionary ‘holy grail’, other than some nebulous notion of “getting Brexit done” and continuing deficit reduction. There is no gain worth this pain. The increasing ranks of newly politcised young people, who apparently voted en-masse for something better in 2017, need more than ‘being famous’ to escape the future that has been mapped out for them.
The Conservative leadership simply do not, and cannot, ‘get it’ because they seem to be intellectually, socially, culturally, some even morally, incapable of grasping that we can see Emperor Boris has no clothes. On Thursday 12th December 2019 they, and we, have the chance to shout “I know who you are, I see you!” – if we have the courage.