Around two years ago, I read Alejo Carpentier’s ‘Explosion in a Cathedral’ (original title ‘El siglo de las luces’, which translates as the Age of Enlightenment). The Cuban writer and musicologist’s 1962 novel deals with the ‘exporting’ of the revolution to France’s Caribbean colonies, and was recommended by a friend as a ‘mood-setter’, before we went to Cuba. Its opening line is haunting and chilling in equal measure: “I saw them erect the guillotine again tonight. It stood in the bows, like a doorway opening on to the immense sky…” The book records the transmutation from Enlightenment to Terror and the mirroring of the wholesale executions on both sides of the Atlantic. Inasmuch as some have argued that Scotland’s Enlightenment role was one of seed to its equivalent in France (rather than simple recipient as elsewhere int he world), I think that is a legacy that most of would want some distance from.
I found myself prompted to think of this by David Cameron’s speech yesterday. Emboldened by his unexpected electoral success, he has increased his austerity target to £12 billion in welfare cuts, but will not say where they will come from. It is planned to cut Personal Independence Payments – the replacement for the Disability Living Allowance – by 20%, as apparently the list of disabled deaths resulting from the welfare cuts to that sector (see calumslist.org) as a direct result of the implementation of the austerity measures is not long enough already. As Frances Ryan notes in today’s The Guardian, Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work & Pensions is in conflict with the Information Commissioner’s Office over figures showing how many individuals have died within 6 weeks of having their benefits stopped. As has been noted elsewhere, this is not exclusively a Conservative problem, as half of the deaths resulted under Labour, the other half under the coalition government. (Journalists such as The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill conveniently dismiss this toll as merely a ‘problem of suicidal people’, thus neatly sidestepping any need for responsibility to be taken. Stay classy, Brendan.)
Yeah, maybe it gets boring, dealing with that old idea that austerity is predominantly hitting the wealthy, when of course Dave told us that “we are all in this together”. Here was Dave’s new message, yesterday: the poor, he says, will be hit much harder, if the deficit is not brought under control. This is the myth of trickle-down economics for a new age – once the economy is stable again, then we can look after the poor….but, if we are still ‘in it together’, is austerity hitting the wealthy? Well…since the 2010 General Election, the wealth of the top 1000 has grown by £212 billion (to reach £547 billion), so I’m not sure how much traction that idea really has. This is not trickle down: this is sucking up.
And with the UK’s debt now at over £1.5 trillion (one correspondent suggested Cameron’s promise to ‘look at Holyrood’s books’ was because he was desperately trying to find handy hints on ‘how not to increase your national debt’ for his Chancellor), and the deficit reduction targets consistently being missed by Osborne since he became Chancellor (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/a-post-autumn-statement-of-the-obvious-using-a-crisis-as-a-pretext-for-an-ideological-opportunity/ ), it seems unlikely that that aspired to ‘stable economy’ is going to be showing up anytime soon to stop the position of the poor getting worse.
Purely in Scotland, there were 510,000 people in severe (with an £11.5K household income, equivalent to 50% of the UK average, or less) or extreme poverty (on a £9.2K household income, equivalent to 40%), in 2012-2013, with 410,000 the year before. With the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit (the ‘super-benefit’, replacing six others: including Job Seeker’s Allowance, tax credits, income support, housing benefit – see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), rent payments will go direct to the household, rather than the landlord, despite the outspoken opposition of many charities: as Social Work Scotland said in their submission to Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee, “Increased homelessness is widely anticipated as a result of Universal Credit being paid directly to individuals.” The recent drop in relative poverty (60% of the UK average) not only is a reflection of the general cross-the-board drop in living standards: it was also reflected in the increased numbers of those in severe and extreme poverty. These people aren’t leaving poverty by being ‘upcycled’: currently, there is no way but down, once you get to that income level.
But more than that, as I have said, there are a further £12 billion in cuts coming, meaning that the current proportion of 1 in 10 in Scotland living in severe poverty is scheduled to rise, with a further 100,000 children in Scotland projected to be in poverty by 2020. Audaciously, Cameron attempted to morally justify this move yesterday, by accusing welfare of being a “veneer of fairness”, papering over the cracks of poverty, as opposed to “extending opportunity”…although quite how opportunity will be extending by precipitating more people into the poverty trap of the ‘in-work poor’ in full-time working austerity is currently unclear. More sinisterly, this speech heralded a move to make a significant legislative change, as The Times reported: “The Child Poverty Act, one of the final pieces of legislation passed by the last Labour government, commits the government to ensuring that, by 2020, fewer than a tenth of children live in relative poverty. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the latest figure is 2.3 million, or 17.4 per cent of children in Britain. Cutting child tax credits, one option under consideration by ministers preparing to cut a further £12 billion from the benefits bill, could add 300,000 children to the total living in poverty, according to the IFS. The prime minister said that the definition of relative poverty enshrined in law meant that even a small rise in the state pension led to an increase in average income and, consequently, the number of children living in relative poverty.” A familiar pattern of goalpost-moving for those who remember the modifications of definitions of being ‘unemployed’ under the last Conservative Government, in order to cosmetically reduce the numbers.
Pensions will supposedly be protected in this new round of cuts. One might cynically say that this is because the demographic that will be recipients are traditionally a core Conservative-supporting group, but in reality (if looked at by share of average earnings) the UK pension ranks 23rd out of 27 in the European Union. Instead, tax credits are widely viewed to being in the frame for a significant part of the cuts…as Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group put it: “No moral mission involves taking away tax credits for our poorest children. No serious plan for the low-paid begins with making them poorer by cutting their tax credits.”
Mike Danson, Professor of Enterprise Policy at Heriot Watt University, warned us before the General Election that the remaining austerity cuts would be implemented regardless of the impact on the poor, because they were ideologically-driven – and this was reinforced by Osborne not backing away from further austerity in his last budget 50 days before the General Election (https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), as well as the recent noises that they will go even further. Other than meeting purely ideological objectives, these cuts achieve nothing…in fact, they further contribute to low growth and extend the life of this (increasingly-localised) recession. Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economics and fellow of Merton College University of Oxford, criticised the austerity ‘strategy’ for this very reason before the General Election: “The main impact of lower growth – including that caused by fiscal austerity – has been on living standards.” Lower growth caused by fiscal austerity would normally mean higher unemployment or lower living standards: “Austerity in itself has increased child poverty…Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the economic impact of austerity on the UK is correct, with no qualifications.”
It is scenarios like this that start to give one a glimpse of the anger of the people that simmered under the former European aristocracies, eventually causing the people to take to the streets and later execute those aristocrats. Working in China during the last couple of years, I saw the gauche evidence of China’s new rich, driving their Maseratis past the subsistence farmers, who were struggling with their donkeys along the same stretch of motorway. Culturally, rural China might well have been long indoctrinated through the Cultural Revolution into believing in their inherent agrarian nobility – but how long can you expect such flaunted wealth to not provoke a reaction? Perhaps the most powerful – and most likely the least-intended – lesson that I derived from Carpentier’s novel was that, bloody as the Terror was, at least the aristocrats did not smoothly slip back into their previous roles within a short space of time, restoring the status quo that had been so comfortable for them at other’s expense. True, others eventually did – but it took much longer than in France, and at least was not the originals.
Cameron states the continued existence of the deficit would harm the poor in the long-run – that, in effect, the increased poverty (and – inevitably – deaths) are ‘for their own good’: he plays the part of Lewis Carroll’s Walrus to Ian Duncan Smith’s Carpenter…sobbing crocodile tears and feigning sadness, while keeping right on eating. Except the lives affected are not oysters, but those of real people, successively demonised by the press since the recession began, and now ripe for victimhood. The difference being that, by the end of Cameron’s gluttonous meal, there will be far more impoverished and suffering than at the start of his ill-advised walk upon the sand. Does Cameron really understand the keg of nitroglycerine that he is kicking around? Does he see the abyss, or is he too drunk on the heady intoxication of his unanticipated electoral majority to remember to care?
Perhaps he can act with complete impunity. But he would do well to heed the warning: Sands shift.
“It has been astonishing, from a US perspective, to witness the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.” (Paul Krugman, Nobel economist 2008, The Guardian, 29/4/2015)