Pensioners and parents are being forced into poverty. Who will be their champion?
At the height of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln stood in a soldiers’ graveyard and promised the United States that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Almost 150 years later, that democratic dream looks more perishable by the day.
While George Osborne’s Autumn Statement is not to be compared to the Gettysburg Address, it offered the polar opposite of Lincoln’s pledge. Government of the markets, by the markets, for the markets is the unspoken mantra of the moment, in Britain and in Europe, where leaders have until Friday to save the euro. Whatever form of fiscal union is cobbled together will certainly not be democratic.
Great crises often engender popular bonding, ranging from wartime Blitz spirit to the overload of Shirley Temple films released to cheer America during the Depression. Political earthquakes also tend to produce a Roosevelt or a Churchill, but the national narrators of this financial meltdown are small figures telling stories, larded with economic jargon, of debts that don’t get paid, of borrowing that keeps on rising and of growth that does not happen. The only respite, it seems, are folksy insights from the PM on how he prefers EastEnders to The Archers.
The result is a political economy decoupled from the people. In this post-human politics, the gulf is widening between the governing and the governed, the rich and the poor. Yesterday’s OECD figures showed, shockingly, that inequality among working-age people is rising faster in Britain than in any other rich nation because a financial services caste has, through education and marriage, siphoned wealth to a core elite. A Britain whose trade in cars or steel or textiles faltered long ago is still selling its poorer citizens down the river.
On the brink of defeat in 1983, Neil Kinnock told a country about to choose more Thatcherism: “I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.” That list just got longer. The sub-text of the Autumn Statement read as follows. Don’t be poor, don’t be frail. Don’t be a bird or a butterfly (for the Chancellor is after your habitats). Don’t be a starving citizen in some forgotten corner of Africa. Don’t be a woman or a child.