Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Wouldn't it be nice... a fable for our times

It was irritating when Carol, in all her cocky self-assurance, interrupted the professor to contradict his views.

‘But... honestly... come on... It was an incoherent mess. They weren’t even consistent with their own stated principles...’

But the professor had seen, and indeed seen off, a lot of over-enthusiastic undergraduates in his time.

‘You have to be careful. You’re trying to judge a historical subject by today’s standards, standards that are recent and didn’t necessarily apply then.’

‘But surely — we’re talking basic credibility here... even they must have seen that their words and deeds were in total contradiction?’

‘I think they would have said,’ the professor replied again, infinitely tolerant, speaking slowly as he considered the subject with the respect it deserved, ‘that it was the objective that mattered. Don’t forget that this was a time when there was a tendency to take an almost religious view of goals, as though they were divinely ordained and fulfilling them was a quasi-religious duty.’

‘But they didn’t! They failed dismally to hit their stated objectives.’

‘That was their tragedy. But it didn’t mean that they weren’t sincerely bent on achieving them.’

‘I thought religion was about the pursuit of virtue. What virtue was there in lying to achieve goals which they then failed to reach?’

‘Religion was by no means about virtue. Often it was about mere ritual. The repetitive incantation of meaningless formulas with little relation to reality.’

‘What sort of things did you have in mind?’ I asked, if only to put an end to Carol’s monopoly of one side of the conversation.

‘The kind of things we were talking about. ‘The surest way to growth is by cutting debt’. Obviously when no growth occurred and the debt remained stubbornly high the emptiness of the claim was clear to all who had eyes to see it. And it can’t have been a surprise: they knew their economics, they knew it couldn’t be true. But it’s as though they thought that saying it often enough would make it so.’

‘What about ‘we’re all in it together’?’ That was Carol again.

‘Well of course, that was the wildest claim of all.’

‘It was a blatant lie!’ She almost shouted.

‘Well, was it? Was it really? Certainly, it’s true that the 2012 budget benefited only the wealthy, allowing them to escape the effects of their own errors, while the poor bore the pain. But when the inevitable backlash set in, didn’t that turn the consequences of the policy back on its architects? When finally the majority rounded on the feckless minority and drove them from power? Didn’t they too find they had to pay a price?’

‘Out of power for a generation,’ I agreed.

‘And it was the turning point that made Britain the kind of society we see today,’ he concluded, almost triumphantly, ‘where despite our problems we seem to have understood that means based on falsehood can’t achieve an honourable goal, and no policy built on social injustice can lead to lasting gain.’

Osborne and his budget: a painful hangover from the past?

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