Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Going way beyond any mandate?

Increasingly staking out a claim to be the go-to commentator on political economy, Aditya Chakrabortty in today's Guardian (here) is right on the money. Using IMF numbers he shows that the UK government has embarked on a policy to shrink the state to the size of the US by 2017.

It means that it is policy that we as a country spend less on pensions, education, healthcare, care of the elderly, social services, welfare, etc. Now I'm sure lots of people voted for a reduction in the deficit expecting that things would return to the pot-war norm in a few years time. But this goes beyond that.

Chakrabortty claims that the government has embarked on something much more radical and far-reaching. It wants to shrink the state so that it takes 40% or less of GDP. This is a massive reduction over a short space of time that will change the shape of the country in ways that I suspect no one voted for.

He points to David Cameron's conference speech that spoke us needing to emulate the rising economies like India and Nigeria rather than being 'fat, sclerotic, over-regulated' like we are. I assume he does want us returning to hunger levels currently on offer in India or levels of infant mortality in that country or deaths from easily treatable infections at the levels enjoyed by Nigeria.

The truth is that we cannot emulate such countries - even if we wanted to - because we have developed way beyond them and part of that development has been the creation of systems of social welfare and support that is part of being a citizen of an advanced capitalist country.

When you look across the Atlantic at the private sector welfare provision that is being overwhelmed by the rising numbers of those out of work, disabled and in other ways disadvantaged, I think you need to ask whether shrinking the state is a good thing. I've just come from our foodbank where I was involved in helping two families who have been overwhelmed by life's circumstances and are unable to buy food this week.

After they had gone, we sat around talking about the depths of the problems that these families faced. They will not be solved by our hand-out, but neither will they be solved by rhetoric about cutting welfare budgets to encourage people to find jobs.

Both these people have seen the help they were receiving cut because of budget cuts in both local and national government; the agencies who used to be there for them are no longer there. They do not have family who can help them (for a whole variety reasons that will be reproduced in countless thousands of households across the country - and the rhetoric that calls on families to do more is little short of a cruel joke). Neither of these were in a position to work even if there were jobs locally that were open to them.

Cutting the size of the state in a democracy is something that needs to be debated properly not introduced behind a veil of deficit reduction. Let the government come forward with properly costed policies that promote this idea so that we the electorate can assess them on their merits. Debate, of course, is in short supply in our country. A supine press does not debate ideas at all and movements like Occupy - who have a really important contribution to make - appear incoherent and for that reason tend to be dismissed as irrelevant and unworkable (they also frighten people a bit because of their approach).

What Chakrabortty has highlighted is just how much happens without the people affected by massive changes being consulted in any meaningful way. I'm not sure this is to anyone's long term benefit, is it?

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