Election Comment: Terry Murden
How thrift became a dirty word in the battle against austerity
As I write, the journalist Hugo Rifkind is presenting a programme on BBC Radio Four about austerity. It has become the buzzword of the General Election campaign. Yet, as he says, the third most election related search query on Google is: what is austerity?
While the politicians bombard us with their ‘anti-austerity’ rhetoric, research from Lancaster University reveals a huge gulf between the language of politicians and those of the voting public. Words like ‘fiscal’ barely trouble the lips of voters. ‘Fiscal Autonomy’ might just as well be the name of an Irish jockey.
These are popular phrases in the political lexicon, but as one academic behind the research says, people don’t use the word austerity, or don’t understand it. And if they do, they have different interpretations of it. While it may conjure up images of post-war rationing before the world found technicolor, its meaning to economists and politicians is that of a policy aimed at cutting spending to tackle the budget deficit.
Ironically, there was a sense of nobility attached to the term when it was coined after the financial crash by those who were imposing it. They were appealing to British values of thrift and duty in response to the recklessness that had brought the economy to its knees. It would restore the equilibrium between consumption and income.
As the austerity measures have eaten into our standards of living and expectation the term has evolved into a dirty word, redefined as a policy that punishes the poor and is an assault on common decency.
So politicians of all shades, including the Greens, UKIP and the SNP, have seized on ‘austerity’ as a key campaign issue. Nicola Sturgeon declared that bringing an end to austerity “will be our number one priority”.
In the process, a term used to define a period of thrifty economics in order to balance the books has been turned into a modern social evil that must be eradicated.
This redefining of the policy is largely the making of its originators. The ‘anti-austerity’ believers are justified in their criticism of a government which has failed to spread the load. The Tories came to power claiming ‘we’re all in this together’, but there is ample evidence that the weaker members of society have shouldered the burden of the austerity cuts.
So, a rainbow coalition of ‘anti-austerity’ campaigners has emerged in this new fight for justice. Unfortunately for them, their policy commitments are starting to fall apart.
The most anti-austerity party of all – the SNP – has just been told by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that its policies would only slow down the pace of austerity and that, actually, it would mean austerity lasting longer. Mmmm… that surely isn’t what all those party acolytes chanting on the steps at the top of Buchanan Street in Glasgow yesterday had in mind. Dig deeper and the SNP’s record on austerity isn’t much to brag about.
Former Labour government minister Brian Wilson, writing in The Scotsman yesterday, stated that the SNP spends less on the NHS and education than Westminster, even though public spending per capita is higher in Scotland than in England – thanks largely to the Barnett Formula.
However, a note of caution. He fails to mention that a crude comparison of public spending takes no account of key differences. For instance, the water industry is in public hands in Scotland, while privately owned in England, and this will raise the average.
Even so, the poorer record on NHS and education spending does not give Nicola Sturgeon’s party the right to chastise its opponents. Of greater concern, particularly to the loyalists who refuse to hear any word of criticism of their Great Leader, is that it raises expectations quite falsely that the SNP can, or intends to, bring an end to austerity.
The party’s maths, as with oil revenues, is once again found wanting. According to the IFS there is a “considerable disconnect between this rhetoric and their stated plans for total spending”.
But none of this logic will matter. Ms Sturgeon was swept into the top office in Scotland by those still in denial about the referendum result. Far from accepting the verdict as the settled will, they see it as an injustice and an affront to the underlying mood of the nation.
Polls would suggest they may be right, and that if a referendum were held now the Yes campaign would win.
It is for this reason that the ‘anti-austerity’ policy has taken hold. While there is a palpable sense of indignation and anger over the impact of austerity, most visible in the proliferation of food banks, there is also a mismatch between those who aim to ‘end’ it and the real world of accounting and policy making.
No matter, it has become a slogan in the war against those who stand in the way of wider goals. And for many voters, that is a good enough reason to win their support.