Image: Political Scrapbook
"When it comes to saving money, we all know that the more you can do early, the smoother the ride." So said George Osborne in his speech to the Confederation of British Industry this May.
I’m used to the sensation of impotent frustration that accompany announcements of fresh spending squeezes by the Chancellor. But as he tells government departments to make an immediate start on finding a whopping further £13bn of unsustainable cuts, one phrase bounced around my brain.
'We all know...'.
But I didn't think that we did all know. So I set up a little poll and asked ten people:
'When it comes to saving money, did you know that the more you can do early, the smoother the ride'?
As you'll see, it's not the easiest question to slip into a casual conversation, but I gave it a try.
The result? Six people, in fact, didn't know. Even when I told them that George Osborne had said that they would know. Three of them actively disagreed with the statement, two asked me if I was feeling okay, one shared her unprompted speculations on George Osborne's parentage and one person asked for Fireman Sam to be put on the telly (three year olds, eh? The youth of today...).
I called up a friend who did an economics degree.
‘Hi Carl, how's things?’
‘Good mate. Listen, when it comes to saving money, do you know that the more you can do early, the smoother the ride?’
‘When it comes to saving money, do you know that the more you can do early, the smoother the ride?’
‘Er, that’s weird. You okay?’
‘Yeah good mate, just need to tap your enviable economics pedigree’.
‘Right. Well if what you do early doesn't put you in trouble later and allows you to save sustainably then I guess it makes sense. But if you save too much too early then it's not necessarily sensible and could be damaging.’
‘Thanks Dave, see you soon’
‘Er, bye Carl’.
During the next five years of austerity we are going to see a more of these supposedly self-evident truths that nobody else seems to know.
Before 2010 chancellors talked about inflation, balance of trade, fiscal multipliers, exchange rate mechanisms and the like. But in the last parliament, Osborne stumbled upon an important realisation – that he didn't have to say a single thing of economic substance. That if he tried to discuss economics he might find himself subject to an intellectual scrutiny that his austerity dogma may struggle to resist. Instead his team effectively drew up two sets of broad propositions. One concerned 'things that we all know' and the other concerned 'how we know them'.
Indeed if you want to find a way to sit through the next budget statement with a few friends you could even turn them into an admittedly limited drinking game. One finger for a 'thing we know', one finger for a 'how we know it' and down your glass for a combination:
The things that we know are:
There are lots of scroungers in the UK
Scroungers are bad
Strivers are good
The deficit is bad
Hard working families are good
Tax is bad
Public spending is bad
Cuts are good
Austerity is unavoidable
The way we know them is:
'We all know that...'
'There can be no doubt that...'
'We need to get serious about...'
'Let me be clear about...'
'We have no choice but to...'
And that's it. The lexical toolkit for austerity chancellorship. Who needs economic detail? If you repeat these enough, through a sympathetic and uninquiring media, at budget and dinner speeches, and in parliamentary debates, they take on the status of truths. Particularly when the opposition parties are spouting the same aphorisms.
For those living at the sharp end of austerity economics, these nebulous propositions have little value. Their reality is characterised by detail, all too much of it, imprinted on their minds day and night. £11 left for the month thanks to the spare room subsidy. £6.30 to buy meals for a week for a family of five. 5 cups of tea to fill the stomach in place of food. Needing to be round at their mums before midnight to administer her medication because her operation has now been cancelled 4 times. 1 benefits sanction for missing an interview while you attended a funeral. Care workers having to choose between filling the remaining 1 minute of their visit with an assisted bathroom stop or a change of clothes. 3 letters from magistrates having failed to cope with the hole left by council tax benefit. A £400 payday loan revolving for the third time. General practitioners looking at the clock and seeing 8.51pm as they work through the final batch of prescriptions of antidepressants.
Details, details, and more details.
So, what will the country look like after five more years of austerity economics? More regressive taxation? Savage cuts to the welfare state, including help for the disabled, the vulnerable, and the NHS?
Behind the degradingly bland exercises in ‘common sense’ that have replaced economic discourse, the cogs of neoliberal fiscal management continue to grind. What we do know is that when the political consensus is characterised by austerity one-upmanship, these base clichés become modern public truths. And we all know that.
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