Joyce McMillan: Bring the curtain down on austerity

New Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief Shona McCarthy is right to call for a halt to planned savings. Picture: Jane Barlow
New Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief Shona McCarthy is right to call for a halt to planned savings. Picture: Jane Barlow
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GEORGE Osborne’s cuts are a drop in the ocean compared to the coffers of the super-rich, writes Joyce McMillan

This week, posed elegantly against the impressive backdrop of Edinburgh Castle, the new chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Shona McCarthy, gave her first round of interviews to the media since her appointment five months ago. She told The Scotsman that in her view, the City of Edinburgh and the Scottish Government should rethink planned cuts in spending on the city’s cultural life over the coming years, and should instead invest heavily in celebrating next year’s 70th anniversary of both the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, without resort to the small “bed tax” on tourists that the city is currently proposing.

Although it seems to me that a modest bed tax could play a useful role in continuing to fund Edinburgh’s huge success as a “festival city”, it’s otherwise hard to disagree with a word Shona McCarthy says, on the long-term wisdom of maintaining the city’s role as a globally recognised cultural capital, rather than imposing a set of short-term false economies that could see it slide into decline.

Yet although the arts always offers a particularly vivid example of high returns from well-placed public spending, the truth is that there is now barely an area of current cost-cutting, in the public sector, where the same could not be said about the costly long-term damage that is being inflicted, for what are often paltry short-term savings. Numbers, so they say, are not the British people’s strong suit; back in 2009, for example, we were easily persuaded to spend months frothing at the mouth over the few million pounds involved in the MPs’ expenses scandal, while the people who caused the financial crash, and drained the public purse of tens of thousands of times that sum, were allowed to walk away with personal fortunes that often exceeded what an MP could earn in several centuries.

Yet before you stop reading on the grounds that I’m exaggerating, just pause for a moment to do the sums; for at current pay, it would take an MP 100 years to earn £7 million, a modest personal fortune by financial elite standards. Sir Philip Green, formerly of British Home Stores, for example – just one of the world’s estimated 1,800 billionaires – is said to share with his wife a personal fortune of £3.6 billion; and that is 50,000 times the basic annual salary of a member of parliament.

And it’s worth bearing those kinds of numbers in mind, before we embark on any discussion involving the current round of spending cuts in Britain; for in truth, the sums that are supposedly being “saved” through the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s austerity drive are often so small in comparison to the amount of private wealth now stashed offshore (estimated at £13.5 trillion, more than the GDPs of the United States and China combined), yet so destructive in their impact on ordinary citizens’ lives and on our social fabric in the long term, that it is increasingly hard to believe, even for a moment, that this is really a matter of essential financial prudence. Spending on good quality, attentive home care for the elderly – to give just one example among dozens – is widely recognised as essential to reduce unnecessary strain on hospitals and hospital budgets; it’s also a key marker of any self-respecting, compassionate society.

Yet anyone who works in the home care field will tell you how the private contractors now operating the system have borne down repeatedly both on pay rates and on the quality of care, as budgets have been slashed. In England, annual spending on home care has fallen by almost 20 per cent over the last five years, causing untold misery to hundreds of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people who have paid a lifetime of taxes. The total sum saved, though – even if you discount the extra charge on the NHS of keeping elderly people in hospital when they need never have been there– is less than half a billion pounds a year; that’s right, a sum Sir Philip Green could pay out of his own pocket for the next half-decade, without becoming anything like a poor man.

It’s time, in other words, for this cruel, pettifogging and increasingly ridiculous cult of austerity in the UK to end, and for the introduction of a decent international tax system which prevents the looting of colossal wealth into private bank accounts, while essential aspects of our national life are starved of cash. Time was when the wealthy were not numerous or rich enough for the taxing of their private wealth to make much difference; but since they took to paying themselves in multiples of average earnings that run not into single figures or tens, but into hundreds and thousands, that is no longer true.

And for our politicians, finally – in Scotland and beyond – this state of affairs presents an ultimate test of sense, integrity and political courage. Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has scored her recent remarkable electoral successes by portraying her party as a strong opponent of austerity; so while her government may currently have few options beyond implementing George Osborne’s cuts or clobbering ordinary earners for more tax, she should now be starting to demonstrate how an independent Scotland would succeed in defying the austerity cult. Labour in Scotland, meanwhile, needs to decide whether it fully rejects austerity, alongside Jeremy Corbyn, or at least partly accepts it, like his predecessor Ed Miliband.

And the Tories in Scotland need to make it clear, now they are the leading party of opposition, whether they are eager proponents of the austerity myth like their Westminster colleagues, or whether they are the kind of sensible small-c conservatives who will finally reject this elite ideology of “essential” public impoverishment for the self-serving nonsense it is. This last question will be the defining one of Ruth Davidson’s political career. It will also, though, define the career of every politician of the current generation who claims to be more than a humble servant of the financial establishment; and that includes Nicola Sturgeon, who now needs the skill, invention and vision to show how she will act, to begin to make her anti-austerity dream come true.