A few months ago, I saw a rather vacuous and self-indulgent article on the Conservative Home website reminiscing fondly over the great wartime (and Conservative) leader Winston Churchill, with language to the effect that he should act as an “inspiration” for others to take on Corbyn, more specifically with his apparently stellar performance in the 1950 general election, when he cut the Attlee government’s majority from 146 to 5, on a platform of accepting most of Attlee’s reforms. The article is heavily tinted in black and white, with horror stories of the “unapologetic” Labour MPs trying to create a “socialist empire” that “looted, seized and otherwise nationalised” a large slice of the economy, and Churchill heroically taking a stand against Labour’s socialist enterprise, especially food rationing, a “hated hangover of the Second World War”, that Labour apparently promised to continue “forever and ever”.
A couple of things struck me about this article. Firstly, if rationing, broadly agreed to still be necessary due to budgetary constraints, was so politicised by the Conservatives, then it doesn’t speak very well of them that they continued it when returned to office. But I also mulled over the “Corbynomics” that Churchill was supposed to be fighting against. So, Churchill opposed rationing, the unacceptable dictum that the government can control what you eat, can restrict your access to things due to tough economic times, and force you to tighten your belts for the greater good. Ah, you mean like… austerity?
Now, obviously there are vast differences between Churchill and Corbyn. But there is still something very odd about a Conservative blogger decrying the austerity imposed by a Labour government that apparently harmed the British people so much, whilst serving as an apologist for a more contemporary government that has become synonymous with that word, and has arguably done more to stamp out Churchill’s optimistic vision of “plenty” and “opportunity for all” than any government prior.
This paradox demonstrates that “austerity” is, and always has been, a political tool. Whatever this new government’s rhetoric about the “need” to make cuts, it doesn’t seem to have stopped them lavishing taxpayers’ money on bible projects for schools, a £1.5 million scheme to translate the entire works of Shakespeare into Chinese, and of course the multi-faceted requirements of the military top brass. All of this has contributed to swelling the National Debt more in five years than Labour (the “party of debt”) did in thirteen. So when disability benefits, unemployment benefits and more are cut in the name of “austerity”, “austerity” sounds less like making emergency savings and more like the Mediaeval custom of preaching squalor and incontinence to the poor; telling them to be grateful and accept their lot, and reminding us all that rich people will only work if you pay them and poor people will only work if you threaten not to pay them.
The structural elitism and hypocrisy of “austerity” (or “rationing”, depending on which party is enacting it) can be seen everywhere. Germany, which benefitted greatly from Keynesian economics (and as a result started recovering from the financial crisis before Britain did), nonetheless decided to immolate Greece on the electric chair of austerity. The main difference between today’s analogies and the “socialist empire” of the Attlee government was that Attlee, despite finding himself in an “austerity” situation surely unparalleled before or since, still found the time to create our modern welfare state, including the NHS. Can you imagine what Churchill, or indeed Cameron or Osborne, would have done in his place? Probably rationing, but of a slightly more unbalanced sort.