The public see Britain’s prosperity, less through the prism of a growing economy, and more through their collective experiences, their own circumstances. The latter will likely define Osborne’s legacy in politics. The positive outlook conjured this week, if it is not realised in any tangible way, will be forgotten. It will be buried under the memory of John McDonnell waving Mao’s Red Book.
After various gloomy prognostications, most commentators expected the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement to be damning. It was not to be so, at least on the surface. Instead, a suspiciously optimistic OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) report allowed Mr Osborne to paint a nicer future for Britain; a U-turn on tax credit cuts, protection for the police budget, frontloaded spending on the NHS.
Some remember Margaret Thatcher as being the most forward thinking PM of the century. while others recall the caricature of, the ‘milk snatcher,’ the poll tax riots, and the crushing of unionised labour which condemned large parts of Britain to decades of economic stagnation. Many critics would, no doubt, see the Chancellor’s policy platform as a mere continuance of her legacy. For those people, The Iron Lady was the effigy on which to hang modern neo-liberalism. For them, she is predominantly responsible for guiding the public sensibility away from the Keynesian economics of post-war Britain, and driving it toward a monetarist tradition, in line with her admiration for the economics of Friedrich Hayek. Less government, more free market, was the motto.
That said, neither Thatcher’s administations nor any subsequent government has ever strictly adhered to a Hayekian philosophy: Hayek and many other major contributors to economic thought, like Adam Smith for example, were aware, concerned even, as to the potential harm such a free market model could cause. It would not be unreasonable to say, especially in the case of Adam Smith, they would be upset to hear that perversions of their ideas have become so central to UK monetary policy. Above all else, both Smith and Hayek would think the government’s monetary policy was lacking in humanity.
It was Smith that said:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”
Humanity, or a lack thereof, is central to what will become George Osborne’s legacy. Since the banking crisis, a picture of Britain’s economy has been painted for its public. The complexities of the UK economy have been reduced to various primitive analogies: a family balance sheet, a monthly household budget etc. By this device the government has convinced the public of their need to suffer. If there is no money, as the last outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury famously declared, then how is the country to pay its credit card bill?
Austerity, as we now know, has fermented unprecedented levels of inequality. The bottom 10% of earners subside on less than £9,000 per year. Trickle-down economics has not worked. In fact, it has been demonstrated that each quantitative easing injection benefitted the highest quintile of earners the most.
The Chancellor’s cleverly painted picture of the economy is pretty but the public believe what they can see, what they can experience. And, so long as they do not reside in a rural, true blue constituency, they will surely notice the rise in inequality. They will notice that getting a doctor’s appointment is harder than ever. They will notice how increasingly visible homelessness is in our city centres, and they will notice the effects of cuts to the services they use.
Taking all this into account, one would imagine that these tangible consequences would result in electoral mutiny. This does not seem to be happening. The public remain as loyal as ever, obsequious, head-nodding, whilst George Osborne reiterates the, now entrenched ‘long term economic plan.’ The last Ipsos Mori poll showed, 41% of us remain strongly in favour of David Cameron’s government.
The political theorist, Peter Kropotkin, spoke of men living under corporate and state control, as being of ‘servile mind.’ George Osborne may well be remembered as being the man that continued Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, but it might be more apt to think of him as, being able to do this as a consequence of the servility Thatcher’s policies engendered amongst the public, all those years ago. Now, thanks to that legacy, Osborne has free license to paint pretty pictures of a false economy whilst real people suffer his inhumanity.