Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Wed, 12 Sep 2018, 02:30 PM


Getting away with murder

Author:   |    Publish date:   |  >> Read article in Blog website

Simon reminds us of the massive costs of fiscal austerity: not just a loss of around £10,000 per household, but tens of thousands of deaths, despair for millions of victims of a harsh benefits system, and the economic cost and social divisions caused by Brexit which would almost certainly not have happened were it not for austerity.

Austerity, then, must be one of the most catastrophic policies in peacetime British history. Which poses the question. How have the Tories - not just Cameron and Osborne but their Cabinet colleagues who are still in government - escaped the censure they deserve? Why are they not universally regarded with abject contempt?

There are, I suspect, many possible reasons. Here are a few.

One is plain deference. We have, wrote Adam Smith, "a disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful":

We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.

If you went to the right schools, are in the corridors of power, and give the impression of entitlement and confidence you'll get a free pass. There's a reason why the word "confidence" is in the phrase "confidence trickster."

Secondly, there's been a handy scapegoat. As Simon says, blame for stagnant real wages and pressures on public services have been shifted from the Tories and Lib Dems onto immigrants.

Thirdly, there's adaptation and a "devil you know" effect. The costs of austerity crept up on us gradually rather than as a sudden shock, so voters became accustomed to them. And we never see the road not taken. There's no Jim Bowen telling us "here's what you could have won." The costs of austerity are underweighted because there's no clear contrast in the public mind between actual policy and the feasible alternatives.

Fourthly, there are many political commentators - not just on the right - who don't think of politics as a matter of real lives and genuine hardship but as a cosy parlour game in which what matters is who's up and down, and who can present a "credible" image. To them, talk of "sound finance" matters more than human suffering, just as "sovereignty" trumps hard cash.

This is magnified by a perhaps unavoidable bias in even the so-called impartial media. What I mean is that the news is "flat". A policy that costs 10% of GDP doesn't get 100 times the coverage of one that costs 0.1% of GDP. A "car crash interview", a "gaffe" or a minor ministerial resignation are all treated much the same as a genuinely disastrous policy. The BBC is lousy at distinguishing what matters from what doesn't.

And then there's class. There is always class. The cost of austerity is, as Simon says, "concentrated on those at the bottom end of the income distribution." Those at the top end, by contrast, have done OK. Osborne's "fiscal conservatism and monetary activism" helped to raise share prices and house prices to the benefit of the rich.

And it's these that shape the public discourse. They have vastly more voice than the poor, and not just because they own the press. Just listen - if you can bear to - to any BBC politics programme: Question Time, Today, Sunday Politics, whatever, and ask yourself: what is the average income of the speakers? It is, quite likely, ten times that of a minimum wage worker. People on six-figure salaries account for less than three per cent of the workforce but, I suspect, well over half of the political voices we hear on the BBC. The interests and concerns of the Bubble are thus grossly over-weighted relative to those of the victims of austerity.

I don't pretend this is a complete list of the reasons why the Tories have escaped so lightly. But the fact is that they have done so. They have, almost literally, gotten away with murder.

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