19 March 2014: Budget Day, though not so much a Budget as class war waged with a calculator. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne stands outside Number 11 Downing Street posing for the traditional photo call, holding the famous red briefcase containing his speech with a slightly awkward expression on his face, the look of a man lifting his own luggage for the first time. Arm rigid and knuckles white around the handle he seems about to ask, “… Er … Whose job is this? …” He smiles, nods at the press and confidently leaves to deliver his fiscal medicine in the House of Commons.
Every Budget speech ever given in Parliament is subject to the principles of reverse technology: if you look at who benefits from a Budget then you can see the voters the Chancellor is trying to woe. Osborne’s is no different but when he announced a cut in bingo tax and 1p off the price of a pint of beer he revealed his limitations as well as his aspirations, and those of his party. Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps MP infamously tweeted: ’Cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people to do more of the things they enjoy.’ Oh uncontained delight! Bingo and beer. Let every flat cap on every whippet be thrown into the air with gay abandon. Let every walrus moustache on the lip of every hardworking man be wiped clear of foaming ale so all may cry, “Gawd bless Mister Osborne!” He could not have been more patronising if he announced a tax break on racing pigeons.
Class is what defines this Coalition Cabinet above all else, its massed ranks of millionaires and ex-Etonians who have no grasp of everyday reality for working people. It is almost as if we have returned to the 1930s where the rich were our masters and betters and the poor knew their place. In the 21st century we are governed by people who think Downton Abbey is a documentary. In a world of millionaires and Etonians it must be effortless to use the two classic Conservative strategies deployed in the face of rising poverty: (1) deny the facts; (2) blame the poor.
The explosion of people using food banks was greeted with derision by Lord Norman Tebbit, who insinuated that this was an example of a something-for-nothing culture, implying that there is no poverty, just greed. That those in crisis and facing destitution are just greedy kids running after free sweets thrown into the air in a playground.
Privilege and dogma have framed the Conservatives’ thinking as they mount the greatest ever assault upon the welfare state and the poor since World War II. The poor simply do not matter; they are casualties of ideology. If the facts don’t fit the credo, the facts are wrong.
It does not even seem to matter to Osborne that the one task he asked the electorate to judge him by has been beyond his reach, namely to eliminate the budget deficit by 2015. On 19 March 2014 he announced new predictions for the elimination of the deficit by 2019 and more public spending cuts. Maybe the one real task he is judging himself by is the Tories getting elected with a working majority in 2015, this time without the hindrance of having to help the Lib Dems put up some bunting every now and again.
We are in the middle of cult-based economic experiment where the rich have fixed their world but not ours.
So I am delighted to scribble these ill-constructed words for the author Mary O’Hara. This book contains things the Conservative-led Coalition hates. It has facts. The author actually made the unforgivable faux pas of listening to the unheard voices, the poor, the huddled masses; those who would in a better world seek shelter beneath the wing of a caring state. This book gives voice to those at the bottom of the heap, those who struggle to just exist.
This book is ammunition. Use it.
Austerity bites by Mary O’Hara is published by Policy Press on Wednesday 28th May price £19.99.