Joyce McMillan: Austerity could cost Lamont dearly

LABOUR leader’s ill-judged decision to deride free services and join the doom-mongers, is a gift to Salmond, writes Joyce McMillan.

Thursday lunchtime: and on The World At One, three jovial men – two experts in business and finance, and one standard-issue BBC presenter – are discussing the eurozone crisis. The experts are, to judge by their utterances, exactly the kind of men who completely failed to predict the financial collapse of 2008, and who in some cases helped to hasten it, by taking part in dubious and unsustainable business practices.

Yet here they are, unopposed by any dissenting voice, and unchallenged by the interviewer, being invited to sneer unchecked, for several minutes, at what they see as the rank incompetence of the eurozone in managing its currency, and the foolishness of assorted European nations – Spain is the latest whipping-boy – that have failed to cut public spending with the speed and savagery they deem appropriate. Oddly, these experts seem unaware of the feedback mechanisms – now evident in the UK’s flatlining economy – by which excessively sharp cuts in public spending actually make deficits worse.

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Even more striking than this large financial blind spot, though, is their extraordinarily patronising tone of voice, directed towards the whole of continental Europe. It’s a tone of voice that we in the UK now hear all the time from our own ruling elite, as they lecture us about the virtues of public spending cuts, about the desirability of market-style “reforms”, and about the need for a “robust” response whenever foolish people pour on to the streets in protest.

It’s a tone that is condescending, exasperated, elitist, overwhelmingly negative, and – if you analyse the assumptions behind it – quite possibly based on one of the big lies of the age; it’s also a tone that is out of time, associated with the age of market triumphalism that ended in 2008, rather than with any politically sustainable future.

It’s therefore profoundly sad to note, this week, the Scottish Labour leader’s monumentally ill-judged decision to join in this oppressive chorus of boss-class miserabilism, orchestrated by people who care nothing for the lives of ordinary citizens, in Scotland or elsewhere.

It’s not that Johann Lamont is wrong to raise questions about some of the anomalies thrown up by the Scottish Government’s commitment to free provision; the council tax freeze, in particular, is a nonsense for any government that says it is committed to localism.

The point for any Labour leader, though, should be to set that discussion in a clearly progressive context, and in the framework of a plan – a kind of New Deal, if you like – designed to restore confidence and hope to the lives of ordinary families in this country. It’s not that everyone needs to maintain the levels of affluence many enjoyed during the economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s; almost all of us could easily tolerate some decline in private material consumption, provided the essential social 
quid pro quo was there.

The tragedy is, though, that it’s exactly that necessary, societal support – the promise of greater income security in return for a pay freeze, or employment for our children leaving education, or affordable housing in our area, or a reliable continuation of the public services and benefits on which we depend – that the grim ideology of the austerity-mongers forbids, dismissing those key social goods – in Johann Lamont’s truly shocking phrase this week – as an unaffordable “something for nothing”.

For, of course, none of the services mentioned in her speech are “something for nothing”. They are the public goods we pay for with our taxes, the lifeblood of a functioning and compassionate society; and in joining the ranks of those who simply assume that our taxes can no longer pay for the services we want, Johann Lamont effectively sidesteps a crucial debate about exactly how our resources are being distributed, in this 21st century economy, and risks putting herself irretrievably on the wrong side of history.

Last week at this time, after all, the UK’s entertainment of choice on social media was the musical version of Nick Clegg’s “sorry” speech, a satire on his supine acceptance that “there just wasn’t the money” to pay for free university tuition in England. It was soon replaced, though, with something even sharper; a film of some posh young student protestors invading the gala dinner of a corporate “tax planning” conference in Oxford, and awarding the outgoing head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs a mock trophy, for his notorious services to massive corporate tax avoidance, alleged to cost the British exchequer more than £20 billion a year.

And so long as those sorts of questions remain – about the real scale of the UK’s deficit, and about the real necessity for the cuts currently being endured – no 
social democratic leader worth the name can afford uncritically to accept the world-view perpetuated by the austerity lobby, never mind to adopt their divisive language in the way Johann Lamont did this week.

Alex Salmond, in other words, may be a bit of a chancer; he may be spending resources he does not have, or cruising for a financial bruising at some future date. What he seems instinctively to understand, though, is that a nation cannot deal with any kind of crisis – economic, climatic, political – if it has deliberately slashed away at every tie that binds the national community together, and has failed to offer its people that promise of a better future which inspires confidence, unleashes creativity, and makes life worth living.

In that sense, his stout defence of the free public goods in which Scotland takes pride makes strong practical sense for the future of Scotland’s society and economy; not because it’s easy to see how they can be paid for, but because their continued existence helps motivate and inspire solutions, where the reactionary mantras of austerity only divide and depress.

Although we may never know what dark whisperings within the Labour Party made Johann Lamont take her fatal step, this week, we can know this: that her misjudgment has left Alex Salmond in a stronger political position than ever, as one of the few western leaders of our time with the courage and gaiety to buck the trend, and to dare to offer a politics of hope, rather than of fear, mean-mindedness, and decline.