A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The man who would return us to 1979

It's 20 years since Francis Fukuyama got his 15 minutes of fame by declaring the "end of history." You may remember that we were supposed to be entering a new epoch in which the big ideological and political questions that had animated the world were settled. As it was put then, we are all liberal capitalists now. But the economic crisis unleashed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year has not only exposed the dangerous underpinning of free-market capitalism, it has also brought the return of the big ideological questions on how our society and affairs should be organised. That was the backdrop for David Cameron's address to the Tories in Manchester this week. He's done a good job in knocking the most unpleasant edges off what Theresa May once called the nasty party - though some rather ugly facets remain. The association with the anti-semitic dregs of eastern Europe is one of them and it's fitting that that has come under some scrutiny. The liberal media's outrage about it, however, is somewhat undermined. So many of those columnists share the basic thrust of the Polish and Latvian right-wing populists' propaganda, which is to trivialise the barbarity of nazism and its collaborators by claiming that they were comparable to or less than the record of the Soviet Union and Red Army.

The Labour front bench and its supporters are similarly hobbled when it comes to challenging effectively the thrust of what Cameron threatens to inflict on the country. The centrepiece of his speech was a Reaganist-Thatcherite assault on the idea of collective solutions to the misery inflicted by the untrammelled market. His leitmotif could have come straight from 1979 - an end to big government and freedom for big business. Some of you will have experienced first hand what that meant at the time. A generation thrown on the scrap heap. Every one of you is living with the legacy. Think of some of the most appalling instances of the breakdown of local communities and then recall the places from where we read reports of damaged children, drug epidemics and violence - Doncaster, the poorest parts of London, south Wales. All of them places that were devastated a generation ago. The problem is not too much government but too little. And what there is is all too often directed at the wrong things. Is the problem for vulnerable children in Haringey that the social services are too vast, overstaffed and too engaged in their lives? Or is that they are barely holding together even before the public spending axe falls? Make no mistake about this - the scale and savagery of the austerity measures Cameron and George Osborne are contemplating threaten to make our country a far more bitter and dangerous place to live. They've yet to come clean with what is to be axed. Osborne announced £7 billion in cuts.

The amount they are after is more than £100bn, with the axe swinging the moment Cameron sets foot in Downing Street. Of course those who would do the cutting are from the most privileged layer in society. Cameron may have sought to rebrand his party, but his shadow cabinet is made up of old Etonians and millionaires. It's a point made by some on the Labour side. But it is somewhat vitiated by the friendships and associations they have chosen over the last 15 years - assorted Russian billionaires and a former leader who has made £15m since leaving office. Labour is similarly hobbled when it comes to refuting the Tories' claims about big government and the public sector. There are three reasons. First, so many of Labour's measures have amounted to authoritarian interference in people's lives under the guise of rebuilding communities or protecting security. The ever-widening scope and application of so-called anti-terror laws is the most extreme example. Second, extra money on public services has gone on an army of consultants and privateers. So it doesn't feel like progress in east London when the rebuild of the Royal London Hospital under PFI will cost more than it would have done in the public sector and leave us with fewer beds as a result. Third, they accept the false economics which, having brought the world economy to the brink, now insists on switching off the life support machine of an enfeebled patient.

It's true that Britain's deficit is set to hit about 13 per cent of national output this year and that the total debt burden is rising. But so it should. If the private sector is unwilling to invest and spend, then the public sector must - or risk a vicious circle leading to depression. The surest way to bring debt down is to generate economic growth. But Labour is not making that case. Indeed, Gordon Brown abandoned the idea of fighting the election on Labour investment versus Tory cuts. So the entire mainstream consensus is that spending and government must be slashed. I'm sceptical of claims that the public are clamouring for that. In any case, there's a big difference between being asked if there should be spending cuts in general and then being told that it means your children's school, your hospital, your pension, your benefits or your housing estate. Many, many people are going to respond in horror and outrage when they discover what the reality of these cuts will mean. But by then it will be too late.

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