Britain’s new buzzword — cutsWednesday, January 8, 2014
Little sunlight in Tories’ grim forecast
For The Herald
The storms that have hit the UK this week have been little short of frightening. Coastal areas have been battered with relentless waves, while flatter parts of southern England have seen record levels of rainfall. Some towns, including those on the Somerset Levels have been cut off, only accessible now by boat.
The weather is expected to improve in the next few days, but the key message of the week, aside from the continued relevance of climate change, has been the solidarity of people in communities affected by the weather. However, the other narrative has been the lack of preparedness of rural Britain to face what is becoming a frequent occurrence.
This lack of preparation, according to some, is due to the contemporary buzzword of modern British life: cuts. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been reduced dramatically since 2010, while on January 3 the Environment Agency announced that 1,500 jobs, probably linked to flood management, are to be cut by October.
In austerity Britain, the concept of budget cuts is no longer new; it has become a depressing reality, grimly accepted by the inhabitants of a nation in recovery since 2008. The 2010 general elections were ostensibly about which party was best prepared to handle the difficult job of implementing hardship to secure the future.
Although Labour ended up out of office, it was the Conservatives who arguably lost, as they failed to convince the electorate that their party was best placed to bring about the changes required. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, have been fighting on that platform ever since, keen to demonstrate that the Conservatives are best placed to drag austerity Britain back from the brink.
The success of their efforts will be judged in the next general elections in 2015, and it seems that these elections are already looming large in Conservative minds. This much was apparent in public statements made by Cameron and Osborne in the last few days.
The Prime Minister led the way by using an interview on January 5 to lay out a policy squarely aimed at a core sector of voters. Osborne followed on January 6 with a speech that laid bare the severity of the budget cuts to come over the next government.
The media-friendly warmth of Cameron contrasted with the severity of Osborne’s pronouncements on a “year of hard truths.” Their good-cop/bad-cop routine was based on the same predicate: the British economy is recovering, but it is not there yet.
The Prime Minister was first up. In an interview with Andrew Marr on January 5, Cameron pledged to protect state pensions, keeping in place the “triple lock” system that maintains pension increases at whichever level is highest: wages, inflation or by a minimum 2.5 percent, until 2020.
Writing in the Sunday Times, the Prime Minister described the move as the “first plank” in the Conservatives’ election manifesto for 2015, although Cameron was quick to point out in the television interview that the move “reflects my values.”
However, in promising to protect state pensions, Cameron did not rule out cuts in other areas, suggesting that other groups in society would be footing the bill for the move. Critics also decried the move as a cynical attempt to focus on older people, who are more likely to vote, while hitting the young with tax increases.
The Prime Minister also sidestepped questions regarding winter fuel allowances for old people and a further income tax break for millionaires, drawing fire from Labour leader Ed Miliband for wanting “further tax cuts for the richest in our society at a time when ordinary families face a cost of living crisis.”
Hard times ahead
An answer of sorts on where the financing for the pension protection would come from was given by the Chancellor in his speech at a manufacturing facility in Birmingham on January 6. The key message of Osborne’s first address in 2014 was that much had been done — but there was still a long way to go.
"Thanks to the hard work of the British people, our economy is on the mend - and our country is doing better," said the Chancellor. However, in order to reinforce this improvement, Britain would have to face up to “hard truths.”
The truths Osborne had in mind were as predictable as they were punishing. The Chancellor stated that £25 billion would have to be cut in the first two years of the next parliament to continue stabilizing the economy.
The figures in themselves are not necessarily disagreed with by the Conservatives’ political opponents, but Osborne went further by pointing out two areas that would be hit by cuts: housing benefits for people under 25, and social housing for those earning over £60,000.
The decision to explicitly attack welfare drew criticism from across the political sector, particularly from the Liberal Democrats, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described the proposed moves as “extreme” and “unfair”.
Comparing the hinted at income tax reduction for the wealthy with the assault on housing benefits, Clegg insisted the “unrealistic” move revealed “something about the Conservative values.”
Clegg was not the only politician with concerns. According to a Guardian article published on January 6, Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith has expressed alarm at the Chancellor’s plans. Also, the extent of savings that the welfare cuts would actually produce was under further scrutiny, with critics suggesting that the actual savings would be minimal — housing for under-25s constitutes just 7 percent of total claims, according to the Financial Times.
If the savings from cutting housing benefits are minimal, an explanation for Osborne’s announcement could be the same as for Cameron: this is how the Conservatives will face the next election. It will be a combination of Cameron’s “values” with Osborne’s “truths.”
In terms of electoral strategy, it seems clear that the three major parties are all continuing along paths taken in 2013. The Conservatives are clinging to the austerity Britain mantra that has seen dramatic cuts across the state; Clegg and the Liberal Democrats will only increase their opposition to the Conservatives as they strive to stand apart from their coalition partners; and Miliband’s ‘cost of living crisis’ will be Labour’s motto for the year ahead.
However, beyond the politics, the messages that Cameron and Osborne issued this week are concerning for Britain’s future. The under-employed young will be expected to shoulder the policies that benefit the key constituents (currently the old and the wealthy), while public funding will shrink ever further. Instead of focusing on growth and recovery, it is clear that, in the political narrative at least, more hard times are just around the corner.