From their inception, austerity policies have been promoted as necessary for economic recovery. Throughout Europe, the demand to cut spending and deficits is presented not as a choice but a requirement that if not fulfilled will lead to national ruin.
Within the UK, these “radical measures” are similarly justified as the only thing preventing the “End of Britain” marked by irreversible economic stagnation and public insolvency.
The recent statement by the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, however, depicts these policies as not only ineffective but potentially dangerous.
While calling for “radical reform”, much of which follows an established austerity blueprint of cost-saving and enhanced private sector involvement, Hogan-Howe also opens the space for a different less austere politics to emerge. Contending that further cuts to the police would “endanger the public”, he argues for the need to also reinvest in social services to improve public safety.
These sentiments represent the potential to build a popular effective coalition between established anti-austerity parties and movements with front-line service providers. The new question is not whether austerity can protect the country from economic crisis but rather who can protect the public against austerity?
Enemies of austerity
The idea that austerity is imperative to economic recovery presents a vision of a country under such severe economic threat that it can only be saved by slashing government budgets and increasing privatisation. As chancellor George Osborne intoned on the release of the 2010 UK budget:
Today we have paid the debts of a failed past. And laid the foundations for a more prosperous future.
It was both ideological and timely – a direct attack against the wastefulness of more publicly-oriented economic ideas and a crucial contemporary force for safeguarding the population against the constant spectre of an economic crisis.
This approach shifts the blame for the economy’s woes from the global financial crisis to the social welfare policies of the past. As Osborne stated in 2013:
This deficit didn’t suddenly appear purely as a result of the global financial crisis. It was driven by persistent, reckless and completely unaffordable government spending and borrowing over many years.
At the heart of this legitimisation lies a profound tension. Is austerity a permanent state of affairs or a temporary correction to cope with an extreme period of economic threat? In this respect, its very success potentially creates the exact reason for its ultimate end. If the economy has recovered, then why does it still need to sacrifice for the sake of austerity?
Not surprisingly, politicians have sustained popular support for these policies by stoking collecting paranoia. Indeed, only last month prime minister David Cameron warned the British public of the threat of economic collapse coming from Europe and the need for more austerity measures to prepare for such a downturn. So even though austerity has led to some recovery, more tightening of the belt was still necessary.
Broadly, this tension and subsequent paranoia can be seen in the seemingly endless parade of enemies said to endangering the nation’s economic and social well-being. From welfare cheats and immigrants domestically to the aforementioned EU internationally, the nation is eternally imperilled by foes both at home and abroad.
Endangering the public
Critics of austerity have not surprisingly attacked austerity as just another example of elites using popular fear-mongering to achieve their own self-interests. A leading member of the UNISON union stated this year that such policies were “a political choice, not a necessity” that are “about funnelling ever greater sums of money toward those who already have far more than their fair share. So never mind the fact that the economy has struggled back into some sort of growth.”
As comedian Russell Brand stated in his recent much-publicised debate with UKIP leader Nigel Farage:
There was an economic crash and a lot of money was lost. His mates in the city farted, Nigel Farage is pointing at the immigrants and the disabled and holding his nose. Immigrants are not causing the economic problems.
Conservative proponents of austerity have hit back against these attacks by charging that critics are engaging in similar fear-mongering and that the entire country, both rich and poor, was “sharing in the pain” associated with austerity measures necessary for curing the country’s economic ills.
Osborne went on the offensive against the BBC, in this spirit, accusing the network of “hyperbolic coverage” when one of its reporters claimed the policies in current proposed budget would lead Britain back to the depression era depravity described famously by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier.
Hogan-Howe’s statement cuts through this ongoing political drama that is being played out in the media. Using his position as the nation’s leader for ensuring civil peace, the police chief makes clear that the call for further cuts threatens the safety of the entire country. He maintains that:
Society’s ability to reduce abuse is much more than a policing issue. It’s about a range of agencies – from social services to mental health – having the capacity to intervene early. If we retrench in isolation, the risks to public safety can only increase.
Contained within this declaration are the seeds of a more fundamental social and economic critique of austerity. He connects this public endangerment not only to the funding shortfalls given to law officers but also social services more generally.
A national threat
While almost all the mainstream UK parties have supported continuing austerity, with even Labour leader Ed Milliband stating that “higher spending is not the answer to the long-term economic crisis that we have identified,” these policies exist on rather shaky political grounds. How far can public services be cut and the social safety net be destroyed before the country can no longer successfully function?
But there is a tantalising possibility for a common political voice to emerge to declare austerity a national threat, presenting it not as an ideological choice but a pressing danger to the country as a whole. Such a coalition can go beyond established partisan divides.
It is important that the UK can change what is seen as the economic “common sense” underlying these austerity policies. The concrete risks posed by perpetual cuts and privatisation have the power to alter the dominant belief that such measures are not only advisable but also necessary and open the space for a shared vision that stresses social welfare and public investment as a matter of national survival.
This would be an opportunity to move away from a politics centred on fear mongering, paranoia and scapegoating. Rather than blaming old and new “enemies” for the country’s problems, this coalition would focus on a constructive agenda of general inclusion and shared prosperity.
While this may appear idealistic, the statement made by the Met commissioner points towards this. The funding of social services reflects a commitment to support at-risk and traditionally marginalised individuals and communities instead of simply policing them. Behind this idea is an acceptance of a common community committed to preserving the dignity, needs and welfare of all citizens.
Austerity must be understood not as the answer but the cause of Britain’s economic crisis. Continued support and implementation of austerity measures endangers the country at large. Can the public unite with a new political, economic and social vision to recover from this existential national and international threat?