A follow up to my last week’s blog on the autumn statement and a further exploration of what is wrong with the policies of austerity being so relentlessly pursued by the British Government.
The report from the Office for Budget Responsibility, Britain’s the tax and spending watchdog stated that low wages force Britain to spend £900m more on tax credits than planned. A simple and compelling illustration of why austerity does not build prosperity. The greatest growth in poverty has been among those in work, so how can the Chancellor delude himself that people who need tax credits to bridge the gap between wages and what it actually costs to live on or about the breadline are going to generate consumer spending of the sort needed to fuel a recovery. The simple answer of course is that the Chancellor is not deluded and is perfectly aware of the consequences of the policies this government is pursuing. The low paid and unemployed are collateral damage in the vision of the new world order of unrestrained capitalism where wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
The ugly truth is that free market capitalism requires boom and bust – shaking the tree dislodges those with a precarious hold on wealth and prosperity and frees assets to be acquired at knockdown prices by those with liquidity.
The haves buy up repossessed properties and rent them back to those who because they lost their jobs failed to pay their mortgages but who still need somewhere to live. Those with spare capital can buy repossessed properties cheaply. Buy to let mortgages are easy to obtain for landlords who already have a portfolio of properties so they can grow their assets with relative ease. The State will pay housing benefit for rent although it is parsimonious in the extreme in helping those in trouble with their mortgage payments.
My Aunt taught in Glasgow in the poorest of areas in the 1930’s and the hunger and destitution she saw stayed with her for life. She taught children who shivered barefoot to school through the snow with no food in their bellies. It made her an ardent socialist who wanted a just world where no children were denied a hot meal, a warm coat and boots, not much to ask you’d think but it was then. People died of hunger and from treatable illnesses because they couldn’t pay for a doctor. My partner’s mother had rickets from malnutrition as a child because her father had no work in the great depression and no money for food.
Our parents’ generation grew up in hard and bitter times and survived the pain and the loss and destruction of the Second World War and were determined to build a better future for the generations that came after them. Free health care so that people like the sister of Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran born into an impoverished mining family, do not die untreated in a workhouse at the age of ten because their family cannot pay for medicines. He spoke vividly and movingly at the Labour party conference this autumn about his experience as a child he said
“Wages were low, rents were high and there was little or no job protection as a result of a post war recession that had gutted Britain’s industrial heartland. When the Great Depression struck Britain in the 1930s, it turned our cities and towns into a charnel house for the working class, because they had no economic reserves left to withstand prolonged joblessness and the ruling class believed that benefits led to fecklessness.”
This sounds a chilling echo in what we hear today about the culture of workshy families and benefit fraud, about immigrants and poverty being your own fault and other such myths and in the cuts the Chancellor proposes that the Institute for Fiscal Studies say would mean cutting the size of the state to pre-war 30s levels. All the gains our parents thought they had made towards a fair, just and equitable society that looked after the poor, the old and the vulnerable are being taken away from us and we seem powerless or paralysed in our attempts to stop it.
Voices like Harry Smith are vital because the generation that remember the 1920’s and 30’s are dying out. Soon there will be no first hand witness testimony to these times. Like the First World War where the last few surviving servicemen have recently died it is passing from living memory into history and history we all know is a fairground hall of mirrors in which the present distorts the past to serve its current needs and purpose.
We have a simple choice, each of us as an individual needs to ask the question- ‘what sort of world do I want to live in, want my children and their children to live in?’ – If the answer is that you want a fair and just world where they can be healthy and prosperous not hungry and desperate then I have to I open my eyes to the reality of what is being taken away and stand up and say ‘enough no more!’
Society and government are the ties that bind us and we need to protect the poor and vulnerable not vilify them and pretend it is their own fault they need help.