19 October 2010
Tough Choices? No choice - tough!
As the DCC ‘Tough Choices' roadshow continues its journey through Devon, trying vainly to sugar-coat the painful medicine of cut-backs with the notion of inevitability, it's important to retain some semblance of balance and objectivity, as the three main parties continue to vie with one another on their interpretation of the Axes of Evil. It does not have to be this way. There are alternatives. This Government does NOT have a mandate on the necessity for cuts, certainly not for cuts as severe, as deep, as prolonged and as quick as these.
As DCC leader Cllr Hart stage-manages each event with the aplomb of a political caste born to rule, it is clear that this is an ideological choice - the choice of a right-wing party coming home to roost, reeling back the power of the state, looking after its own and crushing those least likely to support them anyway. And to the dismay of millions of voters throughout the UK and particularly here in the SW, they are doing so with the active support of the Liberal Democrats, hitherto considered to be a reasoned voice of opposition and a reasonable recipient of the wasted/tactical vote.
So where is the opposition? Certainly not from Labour, although support is returning, ironically, now that the Blair/Brown years are over and they are once more in opposition. I wish I could say the Green party, but with Britain's archaic voting system, that will be some time away. It can only come from us, the people, the public, the voter; and yet where are we? Who are we? We're certainly not the French, who bring the country to a standstill over a rise in the pension age, something that caused barely a ripple over here, so bowed are we by the seeming inevitability of it all.
The Poll Tax caused a sensation and things changed. But in recent history, that seems to have been it - the miner's strike, the invasion of Iraq, Climate Change, airport expansion, nuclear power plants - all this and more may well bring some of us out onto the streets, writing letters or lobbying Parliament. So will petrol price hikes, the ban on hunting (aka the Countryside Alliance), immigration or the platitudes of the G8, when they hit town. But the prevailing abject conclusion is ‘they've made their minds up, there's nothing we can do - other than vote them out'. Yet we don't; we never do. After hundreds of years of painfully slow democratic progress, we always return to our feudal lords; the toffs are back in power and they are administering the medicine we deserve for daring to have flirted with an alternative that was an abysmal failure anyway.
The Comprehensive Spending Review, introducing the most vicious, targeted and blatantly unfair fundamental cuts ever, hitting the poorest and least to blame, the disabled, pensioners, families with school-age children and, say it loud, women (who, as reported by the Fawcett Society and subsequently confirmed by the House of Commons Library, will bear the brunt of the pain, with ‘stealth taxes' and family benefits and the public sector being slashed) has caused reams of media verbiage (of which this is part), hours of discussion, an occasional flurry of street activism but basically nothing, barely a ripple. We are, apparently, in a state of shock.
Psychologically it's pretty clear why we are so acquiescent. The full weight of these cuts, despite the duration of the crisis, has still to hit home. We are in denial - ‘so far so good'. Yet as the foundations are crumbling all around us, we turn the telly up louder, channel-flick faster, turn to the sports' pages, go down the pub, play the violin. Clearly, too many still have too much and not enough have little or nothing.
Even if we do read all about it, it is still a dialogue of the deaf. Highly respected columnists, pundits, commentators and organizations try urgently to alert us to the potential threat of a double-dip recession, of the limitations of any economic policy based upon unlimited growth; of the incongruity of destroying the livelihoods of over half a million public sector workers, coping with redundancy pay-offs, paying them unemployment benefit and thereby losing their tax revenue; of the basic historical fact that our whole mercantile, entrepreneurial, consumerist system is based upon debt - without massive returns from debt, our capitalist system would collapse. Monbiot, Blanchflower, Young, Toynbee are lauded by some as the fonts of all reason, derided by others as the naïve and irresponsible harbingers of doom. We bury our heads, hearing only what we wish to hear, that which corresponds with our preferences and confirms our prejudices - we are determined to learn nothing that might challenge us out of our comfort (or indeed dis-comfort) zone.
We flourished (some say) in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, while gathering up our Empire, with debt levels far higher than they are today - and our levels are still lower than in the US, Japan, France and Germany. Why this fascination with it? Why are we frozen in the headlights of recession, depression, inflation, interest, stocks and shares' fluctuations? And why are we so unhappy into the bargain?
Throughout my career, one of the most frustrating yet absolutely appropriate questions from work colleagues on, shall we say, ‘current affairs', has been ‘why?'; and always, in the absence of an answer, we get diktat for on high superimposed on our heavy work-load. We are fed a few crumbs of vapid promises at election time, followed by five-odd years of deteriorating governance, drifting ever right-wards until the electorate has a chance to have their say again. Please allow me to add a few more ‘why's and ‘wherefore's; at least it may generate some correspondence:
Ø Why is infrastructural investment in infrastructures to create sustainable jobs less attractive than throwing hundreds of thousands onto the dole?
Ø Why renege on harnessing the power of the Severn whilst maintaining a £1.7 billion grant to the private sector for cleaning up the toxic waste of their defunct nuclear power station acquisitions?
Ø Why, oh why penalise the public sector (the word ‘public' is powerful) for the abject failure of the essential backbone of the ‘private' sector - namely finance and banking?
Ø Where is the logic of, for instance, getting rid of tens of thousands of public servants in the Inland Revenue, when the amounts lost through evasion, avoidance, non-payment and off-shore havens massively exceeds the whole public services budget?
Ø What is the sense of maintaining (or subtly postponing a decision on) our Trident nuclear-strike capability, at the cost of countless monopoly-billions, when the Strategic Defence Review clearly highlights that the top threats to our security are irrelevant to our nukes - terrorism, cyber attacks and epidemics/climate change? Our warheads are neither independent nor a deterrent - and they stymie any attempt we make to prevent other countries from developing nuclear capability.
Ø Why does this coalition Government hide behind the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and ‘international agreements', when refusing to adopt the ‘Robin Hood Tax' on financial transactions (just as it does with aviation fuel taxes), when the European Parliament is considering ‘going it alone'?
Ø Are we seriously anxious about losing some of our best hedge-funders and financial whizz-kids to other countries, if we dis-incentivise them too much with too-high taxes? Aaah. Good riddance.
Ø How much thought has been given to the knock-on effect on the private sector of the massive cuts of £7 billion in public-sector investment on top of the £11 billion already announced in the June Budget?
Ø How is it that we can live with the fact that the poor continue to get poorer, that 10% of this ‘equal' nation are one hundred times better off than the poorest 10%; that wage disparities within businesses can be to the tune of times 40?
Ø WHY can't we tackle the Bonus Culture more effectively? Why does it seem that we have returned to ‘Business as Usual' and that the ‘Usual Suspects' have been forgiven and allowed back into the Casino?
Ø Please can someone explain how policies that support an attitude of ‘I'm alright, Jack', ‘Beggar My Neighbour', ‘Race to the Bottom' etc., fit in with the glorious concept of a Big Society?
Ø Why can't the ‘Spirit Level' (Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett: ‘Why more equal societies always do better') be a set-text on the Key Stage 4 schools' curriculum?
I could go on but you're nodding off, I can tell. There are plenty of implied answers within the rhetoric, but let's just hope there's food for thought for those who perhaps wouldn't respond to a call to arms. To do nothing is to capitulate. See you on the barricades. If not, at least try and get to one of the remaining ‘Tough Choices' presentations in Barnstaple, Lynton, Bideford or Holsworthy and see if you can help DCC decide how it can cope. I doubt if you'll spot any choices though. Tough.