Thursday, October 21, 2010

The CSR: prophesy more quietly, please.

I'm thinking outside the box here but what we really need is some new cliches. Or rather, we should dispense with them altogether because, drawing as they do from the past, the use of cliches have a tendency to fall into the trap of hyperbole. Like, for example, the tiresome way in which any public misdemeanour by politicians today comes reported with the suffix 'gate' - regardless of how trivial. ('Bigot-gate', indeed!)

I'm concerned that too many of us who are opponents of the Conservatives will fall into something like this trap when responding to this 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review. Where were you when the Osbourne Axe fell? asks Paul Sagar, with the suggestion that this spending review will, like 9/11, come to be seen as an epoch-changing event.

I think this is unlikely in the extreme. Budgets, never mind spending reviews, are rarely events of great political theatre. The so-called People's Budget was, but that was the precursor to a constitutional crisis. And even with this - did anyone remember where they were that day? This is a process with uncertain outcomes and while I share the view that they are unlikely to be good, it is unwise to hold hostages to fortune by being so emphatic about it - especially in language that evokes the ghost of Geddes. Whatever British society and economy looks like in the next five or ten years, it is not going to be a duplicate of the interwar period.

And if resting a political programme on a prediction about the shape of the British economy is unwise, how much more so is one based on assumptions about what people's reactions are going to be? Political Betting ask, will Johnson's 'ideological charge stick'? I wouldn't have thought so. A majority of people seem to have been convinced that the cuts are being made out of necessity and are therefore only likely to be influenced by how poor they feel as a result of them rather than what motivated them. Now, Polly Toynbee is already convinced that the "comfortable 70%" will care when the cuts bite. "You bet they will". No, you bet if you want to; I'm not gonna because here's a paradox: the extent to which this will be true depends on how evenly public spending reductions are felt - but from what we can gather so far, what the same critics insist on, is that they are not going to be spread evenly.

Mass public disquiet tends to be prompted by issues that effect almost everyone and here I'm concerned that this government's opponents haven't spotted how they've tried to avoid this. Services that most people use, like health and education, have come off relatively lightly. The rest are targeted, as far as we can tell, on groups whose disadvantage is unlikely to produce mass rebellion. Most people don't live in 'social housing'; people aren't going to riot because higher earners aren't getting child benefit anymore; and the influence that mass unemployment, and the poor treatment of said unemployed, has on political opinion is often exaggerated by people with hazy memories. The Thatcher regime survived years of mass unemployment with contemptuous ease; the poll tax, which affected everyone, was another matter.

In short, even if the most dire predictions of this government's fiscal strategy are vindicated by events, it is the fact that we are not 'all in this together' that should cause us to eschew the perils of making political prophecy.
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