So, after months of anticipation, George Osborne has finally had his “Here’s Johnny!” moment and announced the long-dreaded results of the Government’s spending review. It’s fair to say that the reaction has been mixed – some people have clearly decided that large cuts in goverment spending effectively mean the loosing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the imminent Coming of the End. This is probably a fair response if you’re a disabled pensioner stuck in a council flat on a reduced income and minus a subsidised bus service, but is a bit over the top if you’re Polly Toynbee or run a national museum. As ever, those who suffer most are not necessarily the loudest complainers and vice versa.
And me? Since it is possible that the ultimate outcome of all this may be that I join the rest of the 490,000 civil servants due to have their careers prematurely terminated, I ought to think the whole process sucks. Of course, on one level I do. On the whole, I’d rather not have to contemplate what I would do if I lost my job at a time of high unemployment. However, when governments are spending more than they earn, there are really only three things they can do – (a) raise taxes; (b) cut spending; (c) borrow a lot of money to fill the gap.
I personally would rather pay more taxes than lose my job or public services and I imagine a lot of other people would say the same (although how far they truly mean this depends on your view of whether people tell pollsters the truth). However, no politician with a serious chance of power seems to be in favour of raising taxes much. So, with taxes off the agenda, that leaves cuts as the only alternative to borrowing. The latter is by definition a short-term strategy, because in the end you will run out of people willing to lend you money; they’ll decide that your debts are out of control and that you look like a bad risk. Then, as a country, you have to go to the IMF, who will probably insist you impose spending cuts as a condition of them bailing you out anyway.
There is therefore a reasonable case for the “There Is No Alternative” approach, or at least “There Is No Alternative For Those Not Confident That The Anarchist Revolution Can Be Pulled Off And The Evils Of Capitalism Resolved, Comrade” approach. It must be said that many of those opposing the cuts have not really proposed convincing alternatives. Either they would themselves have imposed cuts, but slightly smaller ones (the Labour Party) or they are economists/financial journalists who fear that they risk prolonging the economic recession in pursuit of the chimera of a balanced budget, as happened in the 1930s . This may be true, but then it was companies, people and governments relying excessively on borrowed money that helped cause the recession in the first place. Countries may not be people or companies, but that doesn’t mean they can magically carry on borrowing as much as they like without consequences.
The rational arguments are one thing; the emotions are another. My head tells me something along these lines was inevitable. Emotionally, it isn’t much fun to realise that significant parts of your life are at the mercy of people more interested in how the figures stack up than your life, and no doubt many others will feel the same. Politicians may try to address these points, but a strategy of saying, “We’re all in this together”, whether or not it’s factually correct, has its limits. Being reminded that everyone else is having a tough time doesn’t necessarily make yours any easier. The Second World War is often referenced, but perhaps people need reminding that the first thing the British public did after that ended was to vote out of power the public school educated Tory grandees who’d spent the past six years telling them they were all in it together. An uncomfortable parallel for David Cameron, I’m sure.
Indeed, on the emotional front, a lot of the stuff written and said on both sides about the spending review has a weirdly dehumanised quality to it. It’s by people who write about “welfare” whilst not showing much sign of knowing what living on benefits involves; about job losses without really seeming to know what being made redundant can entail and about a “double dip” recession as if it was just a clever expression invented by a colleague. This does nothing to tackle the view held by many that politicians, policymakers and journalists live in a comfortable and incestuous little bubble, having intellectual jousts with each other and little connection with real life. The most damaging consequence of the whole matter may therefore be if even more people conclude that politicians don’t really care and give up on politics altogether.