JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 20.3.15.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Wednesday was a grey day in London; but it did nothing to darken the mood of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, for whom – as he rose in the Commons to make his Budget speech – the rising sun of economic recovery was shining brightly enough to dazzle an entire nation. To roars of approval from the exultant Tory benches, the Chancellor – sporting an ever leaner and hungrier look – declared the deficit in rapid decline, and average household incomes higher than in 2010. And by way of celebration, he splashed out on a few tax breaks, notably for those on the cusp between standard and higher tax rates.
Yet while the better-off working population and pensioners who will benefit most from this budget will have to make their own decisions about how to vote in May – and may well, as in Scotland’s referendum last year, tip the balance towards the status quo – there is one huge, voiceless group in British society whose concerns were not represented at all in George Osborne’s budget. They are the army of those in Britain whose household incomes are not sufficient to meet their basic needs, in terms of food, clothing, energy and housing costs; the 13 million estimated by the Rowntree Trust, last November, to be living in poverty, more than half of them in jobs so poorly paid that they need in-work benefits to meet their basic costs.
These figures will, of course, be dismissed by many as ridiculous, everything to do with fecklessness and bad budgeting, nothing to do with the kind of absolute poverty experienced in the 1930’s. But these are exactly the same prejudices which were applied to the poor of those days; and they typically cannot survive any real human contact with the families at the cutting edge of Britain’s scandalous 21st century low-pay culture. Last week, Renfrewshire Council published the findings of its own high-powered Commission into poverty in the area; the damning verdict was that low pay and insecure employment are now key causes of poverty in this country, and that Ian Duncan Smith’s outsourced welfare system no longer provides anything like an adequate safety net.
And this is the sea of low-level suffering and distress in British society – the foodbank archipelago, if you like – that George Osborne, as Chancellor, will not address, and will not even recognise. The growing “in-work” figures of which he boasts so proudly are at least half composed of a strange patchwork of part-time, zero-hours and pseudo-freelance employment, often delivering almost no income. These are the people who have paid the price of the 2008 financial crash, and whose pain we are told – by one high-earning financial ”expert” after another – is the necessary price of “repairing” our public finances, and retaining the approval of global financial markets. What is obvious to any observer not blinded by self-interest, though, is that a financial system which demands such blatant injustice and inhumanity as the price of its survival is at best on uncertain political ground, and at worst unsustainable.
What is most depressing, though – and frightening, for those who hope for peaceful political change – is the continuing failure of western politics to throw up a persuasive counter-narrative to the 40-year-old neoliberal mantras uttered by George Osborne, and to map out a new politics which is about inclusion and sustainability, rather than division, and another reckless dash for growth for the better off. The possible success of the Tories in aboiding defeat this May, for example, depends entirely on persuading the slightly better-off to consider only their own short-term self-interest, and to believe that there is nothing to be done in terms of creating a better society for those who have little or nothing – indeed, that less should be done for them, to “save money”.
Elements of the UK popular media dedicate themselves daily to the dehumanisation of benefit claimants, so as to exaggerate the psychological distance between those in poverty, and those slightly better off. As for the official opposition – well, as Labour shadow minister Rachel Reeves made clear this week, the Labour Party can no longer afford to be seen as “representing benefit claimants”, even when many of those claimants, just a week or a month earlier, were among the “hard-working families” Labour loves to praise. And the SNP, while it adopts a clearer anti-austerity position than Labour, is now being so aggressively demonised by the London media for its constitutional politics that Nicola Sturgeon’s hopes of exercising a civilising social democratic influence on UK politics seem utterly forlorn.
So the flame of hope for a more sustainable social-democratic future burns low, in the week of George Osborne’s “sunshine” budget. A couple of months ago, during the debate over Syriza’s anti-austerity policies, someone tweeted that “economic reality is out there”, and that we have to live with it. This is not true, of course; “economic reality” – insofar as it has to do with money, and the global financial system – is socially invented and constructed, and can be changed with the stroke of a pen when it suits those in power, as it was seven years ago, for our insolvent banks.
So long as the majority of people believe in those “economic realities”, though – believe that they are fixed and immutable, rather than politically determined – there will be no basis on which to build serious political change. After the Second World War, at Bretton Woods, they tore up the old global financial system that had failed in the 1930’s, and started again from scratch; and It seems clear to me that we need to do the same today, in response to the mighty and still-rumbling crash of 2008. Until we understand that such a change is possible, though – and produce a generation of politicians with the vision and determination to carry it through – that process will not even begin; and we in Scotland, in or out of the UK, will have to live with the broken global system we now inhabit, and with the fierce hostility to basic social-democratic decencies that now seems written into its very DNA.