Breaking the vow threatens to break up the nation, and is leaving millions bitter and impoverished, writes Joyce McMillan
WHo would be a Conservative minister in the UK’s coalition government? Their pay and conditions may be generous, their personal fortunes in most cases even more so; but all the same, their lives are full of the peculiar stress that comes from having to say one thing to one group of people, and another to everyone else. Every couple of weeks, they fly out to Brussels to negotiate policy with other members of the European Union’s Council of Ministers; they must soon become aware that all of those ministers lack cloven hooves and forked tails, and are just politicians like themselves, wrestling with very similar issues.
Before they return home, though, they have to spin these often quite technical encounters as a series of endless re-runs of the Battle of Agincourt, in which the doughty princes of British government confront the effete and morally inferior European armies, tell them how to run an economy, and win “victory” by threatening to leave if everyone fails to do exactly as they say. Something like this appears to have happened this week to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, although the scene was not Brussels, but a high-level, business-orientated organisation in London which campaigns for a more “open” Europe.
The Chancellor made a fairly detailed speech, which was mainly about the complex consequences of running a two-speed Europe, containing both eurozone members and countries which have opted out of the euro. For public and domestic purposes, though, the speech was heavily spun as a bullish denunciation of the entire European social model, followed by a threat that if Europe does not “reform” in exactly the way George Osborne thinks it should, then Britain will have to leave.
The political impulse behind this kind of language is not difficult to discern; the Tory leadership is in a state of low-level panic over the electoral threat posed by Ukip, and the consequent restlessness of its own Eurosceptic backbenchers. All the same, it should be a matter of concern to British voters that the government is confronting the European Union on such exaggeratedly right-wing ground, and is apparently encountering so little well-argued opposition to its largely specious arguments.
For essentially, so far as Europe’s future is concerned, George Osborne’s case is that the continent’s economy is crippled by the scale of welfare payments made by EU governments; and that these provisions therefore have to be “reformed” – that is, in less Orwellian language, cut or withdrawn. Quoting the German chancellor Angela Merkel, he thunders that Europe accounts for 7 per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of the world economy, and 50 per cent of the world’s welfare spending; he suggests, without supporting argument, that we “cannot go on like this” and implies that high welfare spending, rather than the economic meltdown caused by his friends in the City, is responsible for the fact that European economies have stagnated since 2008, whereas the Indian economy has grown by a third.
Now I know that George Osborne moves in political and social circles where “welfare” is routinely dismissed as a great social and economic evil, partly because no-one in the room is ever likely to need it. But still, it is difficult not to be taken aback by the colossal gaps in the Chancellor’s arguments. There is, for example, no reliable link between low welfare payments and economic efficiency; on the contrary, some of Europe’s most generous social democracies are also among its most productive nations.
More significantly, it is striking how Osborne and his ideological allies simply dismiss the entire modern political history of Europe’s democracies – their gradual shift from warlike autocracies to advanced welfare state democracies – as some kind of historical error, rather than a serious democratic movement to empower ordinary people and offer them dignity and security. It is true that many European leaders of the centre-left – subjected to the same barrage of neoliberal propaganda as politicians and voters in the UK – seem themselves to have lost faith in the story of European social democracy; this week, the besieged French president François Hollande actually used the phrase “social democratic”, while announcing a major capitulation to the neoliberal idea that government should always prioritise the self-defined “needs” of business over the welfare of ordinary citizens.
What the recent history of Britain suggests, though, is that once nations have made the welfare state promise to their people, they cannot without huge damage go back to the world of Dickensian poverty and atrocious labour conditions now experienced by millions in those much-admired boom economies of India and China. In Britain, the breaking of that promise now threatens to advance the break-up of the nation; and across the UK, particularly in the former industrial areas, it has left millions bitter, disenfranchised and increasingly impoverished.
It should not, in other words, be necessary to explain to a man of George Osborne’s intelligence that crude economic growth is not the only measure of national success; and that if Europe can only return to this type of economic dynamism by inflicting cruel and frightening welfare cuts on its own most vulnerable people – something that is clearly now happening in the UK – then that is not a price any decent democratic politician would pay. It should not be necessary to point out that post-war west European democracy has produced some of the best-governed, most peaceful and most prosperous nations the world has ever seen; and that it should therefore be confronting change on its own impressively successful terms, rather than with one eye on the ethical and environmental disaster zones created by the American and east Asian models.
It should be made known, finally, to all those who share George Osborne’s elite world-view, that their preferred economic model is not only divisive, unjust, environmentally destructive and socially costly. It also breaks hearts, by taking people who have known what it is to live in a world governed by ideas of justice, dignity and the common good and forcing them to return to a ratrace that reflects only a tiny part of our capacity as human beings, and that tramples, every day, on the values that truly make societies worth fighting for, and human lives worth living.