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Joyce McMillan: In the grip of austerity narrative

The growth of food banks in recent years is one sign of a drastic fall in the nations living standards. Picture: Contributed

The growth of food banks in recent years is one sign of a drastic fall in the nations living standards. Picture: Contributed

  • by JOYCE MCMILLAN
 

EARLIER this week, the Oxford English Dictionary published its annual list of new words, for inclusion in the august online volume.

I stared at the list for a while, searching half-heartedly for a clue to the great political mystery of our time; the question of how the Coalition Government has persuaded the people of Britain to tolerate the sharpest decline in real earnings for more than a century, without either a dramatic collapse in its own poll ratings, or – in most quarters – the slightest ripple of real protest.

And what struck me about the new words, as they rolled before my eyes, was just how many of them conjure up the image of a nation slumped on the sofa, wearing a thermal onesie, and medicating its anxieties – financial and personal – with large doses of screen and online entertainment. The new words, for example, include “binge-watching”, the practice of watching an entire television drama series at once, over a day or a weekend; and also “click-bait”, the industry name for sensational rubbish placed upfront on websites to attract casual internet surfers.

All of which makes a kind of sense; for the economic numbers reveal with terrific clarity why the average British citizen might currently be in full flight from reality, and in search of fun that doesn’t involve the expense of going out of the house. On Wednesday, after a few months of hesitant improvement, the Bank of England revised its prediction for wages growth in 2014 from a modest 2.5 per cent, down to an almost invisible 1.25 per cent, well below the rate of inflation. This means, in effect, that six years on from the financial crisis of 2008, the real income of the average British worker in still in decline, having already fallen by more than 8 per cent. What’s more, these overall statistics may well understate the plight of most people on ordinary salaries; the figures often exclude those hardest hit by the recession, particularly those forced into “freelance” work, who may be earning little or nothing.

Yet for all that, the British people broadly seem minded to accept that the decline in their wealth and prosperity has been inevitable; and all this has taken place in an economy once thought so sensitive to any raid on the voters’ pockets that parties of the centre-left dared not propose even modest increases in income tax to improve public services, amounting to a mere 1 per cent or 2 per cent of earnings.

So how have we reached this strange and disturbing point of political stasis? Part of the reason for the current uncanny political calm perhaps lies in the particular pattern of the current round of recession and spending cuts. It has, for example, borne particularly hard on middle-aged women; and if you want to inflict serious economic pain without provoking an aggressive response, it certainly makes sense to bear down hardest on a section of the population who are simply too busy trying to cope with various work and caring responsibilities, on an ever-diminishing income, to get involved in political protest.

At heart, though, the secret of the UK Government’s success in taking money from the people without paying a political penalty lies in their iron grip on the narrative of this recession, as expressed through most of Britain’s mainstream media, and rarely challenged in public debate, certainly not by an ideologically confused and divided Labour Party. In a classic demonstration of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”, the economic right has succeeded in persuading people – largely in defiance of the facts – that the British economy was on the brink of catastrophe in 2010, that high spending by the previous Labour government was to blame, and that the current “austerity” – for some, if not for all – is therefore not a policy decision, but something to be endured because it cannot be helped.

And beyond that, they have also succeeded in persuading a majority that this unavoidable economic policy is “working”, although for most of us it clearly is not. This is a formidable triumph of dominant narrative over actual lived experience, and raises deep questions about exactly how people are supposed to access alternative and more accurate narratives, in a world where contact with others in our socio-economic group is increasingly limited to the presentation of a carefully-edited self-image on online social networks.

The exception, of course, is the Scottish referendum campaign, which has unleashed, at least in some quarters, the idea of a Nordic-style Scotland that might actually choose to pay more into the public purse, in order to achieve Norwegian levels of social equality, opportunity, and security. Yet faced with this brief glimpse of the undeniable truth that there is an alternative to the neoliberal consensus prevailing at Westminster, right-wing politicians and commentators have been tripping over themselves to point out that Scottish voters are probably as averse to paying tax as voters anywhere else, and will never shell out another three or four pence in the pound on the off-chance of building a society free – for example – from the scar of endemic child poverty.

What we have learned from this mighty recession, in other words, is that there are forces which can counterbalance the addictive materialism of Britain’s boom years, and that people will tolerate a substantial loss of disposable income if they believe it is necessary. What we lack, though, is the fully-fledged political counter-narrative that might mobilise that popular flexibility and tolerance in the good cause of greater social wellbeing and opportunity, rather than the bad cause of bailing out a failed and extreme form of capitalism that no longer serves the interests of the majority. In Scotland’s referendum debate, one version of an alternative narrative has made a brief and tantalising appearance, and has influenced some aspects of SNP policy.

But until a mainstream political party emerges that will adopt that new narrative wholeheartedly, it will remain a voice at the margins; constantly outgunned by the big beasts of the current Westminster consensus, who speak proudly of their “economic recovery”, and are never challenged to change their language or their vocabulary, to reflect the reality of the vast majority of British lives.

 

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