by Mary O’Hara
It’s four years since the hardback version of my book Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK was first published. Borne from a year of travels around the country interviewing people about the impact of an unprecedented slashing of the welfare state, its task to was to unpick the multitude of harms to individuals, communities and society as a whole as a result.
In many ways, with the Brexit fiasco so dominant over the past couple of years, it feels like a lifetime ago that austerity was the primary catastrophe facing the country. And yet, objectively, this is far from the case. Austerity is alive and kicking.
Austerity was never about a short, sharp adjustment to the economy as its Tory advocates propagated in the wake of the 2008/09 financial crisis. It was always – and remains – a strategic manoeuvre to shrink the state and to hell with the consequences of those cuts for the real people on the receiving end.
Ten years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which marked the dawn of a financial calamity that shook the world, people across the UK are still dealing with the fallout of austerity. What continues to mystify me though, is the ongoing normalising of it.
While food banks have mushroomed, local authorities stare down untenable budget shortages affecting crucial care for the most vulnerable, disabled people painstakingly try (as they have done from the very beginning) to expose the government’s culling of vital support services, and child poverty is rampant. Evidence of the kind of widespread fury and disgust needed to force a government to backtrack, simply isn’t there. Even when a landmark study in 2017 attributed 120,000 deaths to austerity it is still being pursued.
Even as individuals, groups and grassroots organisations have mobilised to fight multiple aspects of the cuts, such as the Surrey families who recently took their local council to court to challenge the £21m to be drained from its special educational needs and disabilities budget, the cuts keep coming.
Even as new books, such as The Violence of Austerity, edited by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte and to which I contributed, have come out and countless pieces of analysis have added to the wealth of evidence of the damage these policies have unleashed, austerity remains a fixture.
At the recent Tory Party conference, Phillip Hammond the latest chancellor of the exchequer made it clear that more of the same was coming down the line. As many people, myself included, warned when the wheels of cuts began turning, a sort of perma-austerity has taken root.
In a familiar political fear tactic, Hammond felt confident enough at the conference to declare that the Treasury’s austerity programme would prevail, using a swipe at the Labour leadership (“populists and demagogues”, apparently) to shore up his arguments. Labour, whose leadership in 2012/13 failed utterly to challenge austerity when it first took hold, were according to Hammond, now proffering “a discredited ideology that would never solve real world problems.” The hubris is staggering. Austerity is a discredited ideology. Austerity creates real world problems, not solve them.
Just to put the cherry on the cake of facile contradictions, Theresa May, in a spectacularly dull speech, declared (as Osborne tried to 3 years ago) that austerity was actually over. It beggars belief.
From the beginning, the advocates of austerity have tried to paint themselves as the responsible adults in the room. With metaphorical allusions to tightening belts, us all being in it together and balancing the books, they crafted a sneaky and incredibly effective narrative that framed cuts as a dose of medicine that had to be taken. All of this is nonsense. Austerity was never necessary. It was never a cure for economic crisis and poor policy decisions. And, May can say all she likes that its over – but the people affected know the truth.
I’ve sat in the living rooms and communities of so many people whose lives, or loved ones’ lives, have been tragically altered by austerity it genuinely baffles me how Britain has put up with it, or the Tory framing of it, for so long.
If there is ever going to be a tipping point it better be soon because, as we have seen, lives are at stake.
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