40 reasons to support Scottish independence: reason 15: austerity

A no vote isn't a vote for stability. It's a vote to be part of the new, brutal Britain Osborne is building.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
4 May 2014

This is number 15 in a list of 40 reasons to support Scottish independence. You can see what's already been published to the right. Please help fund our Scottish work, including the rest of the series, here - we need to raise another £4000 in the next 3 weeks.

It’s called social security. It’s based on the principles of solidarity, togetherness and fairness: paying in and getting something back. Westminster says that it is reforming our system of social security.

It isn't.

Westminster is destroying our system of social security. Those paying the penalty are the disabled, young people looking for work, the single-parents and families struggling to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads.

This isn’t pooling risks. It's pulling the rug from the poorest and most vulnerable. Those who can least afford to take the hit are taking all the risks. That’s not sharing – that is shameful.”

Nicola Sturgeon, deputy First Minister of Scotland, October 2013



picture - Adam Ramsay, Creative Commons

When George Osborne came into office, he announced record spending cuts. The government at the time had less debt per pound of GDP than it had had for 169 of the previous 250 years, but never mind that. The Treasury had borrowed more than at any point since the 1990s, and that was all the excuse the new Chancellor needed to announce an austerity revolution. His justification? 

“As Rogoff and Reinhart demonstrate convincingly” the Chancellor pronounced “all financial crises ultimately have their origins in one thing – rapid and unsustainable increases in debt.”

The argument seemed a simple one: the UK couldn't escape the recession until the government borrowed less. In the face of a lorry-load of criticism from a royal flush of Nobel prize winning economists telling him that his cuts to public spending were only going to extend the recession, entrench poverty and make private debt worse, and that it wasn't funding for schools, hospitals and child-care which caused the banks to collapse, he repeatedly cited this 'convincing' academic paper.

Even then, the case for cuts was flimsy. It ignored both massive tax dodging and a century of economics explaining why governments and households are a little different – why cutting spending won't always cut borrowing.

Last year, an economics student doing his homework spotted that the paper Osborne found 'convincing' had a mistake its Excel spreadsheet. Rogoff and Reinhart had failed to include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark – the first five of the twenty countries they were looking at. Fix their copy/paste error and the trend, Osborne's justification, disappeared.

It gets worse. “If you reverse the creative accounting and add the interest from the quantitative easing back where it used to be, as a Bank of England asset” John Lanchaster pointed out last year “it adds 0.6 per cent to the structural deficit. That takes it back up to 4.9 per cent – higher than it was when the coalition came to power”. In other words, if you don't let Mr Osborne fiddle the figures, austerity has increased the amount the government borrows each year. It has also “cost the average U.K. household a total of about £3,500 over these three years”, according to a study last summer by Oxford professor Simon Wren Lewis.

Cuts haven't cost everyone though. From 2009 to 2013 the thousand richest people in Britain and Ireland, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, have seen their wealth grow from £258 billion to £450 billion. That's an increase of 74%.

If the government cares about the country, it's hard to overestimate the scale of austerity's failure. If their aim was always to enrich their friends and funders, then it is hard to overestimate how successful they have been. Only by recreating the conditions which delivered the 2008 crisis have they managed to fabricate an end to the recession.

“Economy” and “recession” are very abstract words though. They conjure images of graphs and pie charts and spreadsheets. What they really refer to is the lives and livlihoods of real people.

23 year old mother Stacey Ingall from Porthleven is one of those people. In October, she was evicted and made homeless after the bedroom tax put her £700 in arrears. Blind woman Helen Sockell from East Ayrshire now fears being thrown from her home too. And then there's Liverpudlian scientist Robert Barlow and South Lanarkshire security guard Brian McArdle. They are two of the 32 people who now die each week after being denied benefits by ATOS because they are found 'fit to work'.

The number of families struggling to make ends meet went from one in eight in 2012 to one in five in 2013 while the number living on England's streets has grown by 37% since 2010. One British person in sixty now depends on a foodbank, and not all make it to one. Disabled Oxfordshire man Mark Wood had his benefits withdrawn this year. He starved to death. In neighbouring Warwickshire, Mark and Helen Mullens chose to avoid that fate. In the face of another cold, hungry winter, they took their own lives. It isn't George Osborne we should think of when we consider austerity. It's his victims.


Helen and Mark Mullens - image from here

And cuts are as much social management as economics. The Chancellor's carving knife carefully divides communities against themselves, pushing women back into their homes, encouraging us to blame disabled people for their fate and 'foreigners' for our own.

This is just the start. As Osborne said in January: “We've got to make more cuts – £17bn this coming year, £20bn next year, and over £25bn further across the two years after. That's more than £60bn in total.” Cameron has promised to make austerity “permanent”. As my co-editor, Olly Huitson puts it: “For Westminster this isn't a deficit fix, it's not short term and its not just economics, this is an aggressive process for transforming the UK into a different sort of economy/society - even by their own figures we will end up with a smaller state as percent of GDP than the US”.

Labour have repeatedly promised that they too will be “ruthless” about cutting public spending. “Ed Balls promises to keep coalition spending cuts” announced the Telegraph last year. "The public want to know that we are going to be ruthless and disciplined in how we go about public spending" the Shadow Chancellor said in 2012. “We will be cutting departmental spending in 2015-16 and not raising it” he repeated last year. Austerity has been an economic and human disaster, but while the Tories may cut the path, One Nation Labour play “follow my leader”.

For all of the genuine questions about what a yes vote brings, the only certainty derived from leaving Westminster in charge is that which you would experience in the half second after leaping from the roof of Big Ben. When Johann Lamont tells us to vote no in the hope of a Labour government, she is instructing us to stand still so Ed Balls can more easily punch us in the face. Short of a revolution in Labour or the sudden rise to power of one of the parties to their left, there is no escape route but a yes vote. In that context, to vote no is to voluntarily commit the most vulnerable people in Scotland to that attack simply because their neighbours are being assaulted too. That's not solidarity, it's cruelty.

It's no coincidence that the referendum is happening now. The Britain we knew is being transformed into a very different country. The question people in Scotland have to ask is not “do we want to live in the Britain of the past?” it's “do we want to live in the Britain they are building?”. Looking over the edge of that cliff, I'd opt for a different path.

There is no guarantee that independence won't bring with it its own brand of austerity. Scotland's finance secretary John Swinney is no socialist. But he is a Keynsian. He has consistently argued against austerity – not just because it cuts his budget, but because he understands economics.

"The Chancellor's approach has been criticised by the OECD, IMF and numerous commentators.” he said last year.

"New research shows that Westminster's welfare cuts have driven more people than ever to food banks as families struggle with austerity. This is simply not acceptable in what should be a wealthy and productive society.

"The UK spending review is a prime opportunity for Westminster to realise the error of its ways and follow the international advice that they should be investing in capital projects and investing now."

You might not trust the SNP to save our public services, but Labour and Tories are promising to attack them. We can't guarantee a yes means ending cuts, but we can be sure a no means more of them. A vote against independence is not a vote for the Britain we know. It's a vote to accept the Britain they are building. Yes is a vote to preserve the institutions of organised justice left in trust to us by our grandparents and at the same time to deal a blow to the jaw of the Westminster consensus entrapping and attacking all on this island. The power we have is to demand that they stop the train so that we can get off. It's time to use it.

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