Friday, 1 January 2016

Cameron's great reforming decade

It’s heartwarming to start 2016 with the stirring words of David Cameron ringing in my ears.

According to his New Year message, Britain is living through “one of the great reforming decades” of our history.

We’ve had great reforming eras before. Attlee’s post-War Labour government launched the National Health Service and put in place a welfare state. In the sixties, we saw Labour back under Harold Wilson and making changes that would revolutionise the way we live: doing away with the death penalty for murder, ending the legal prohibition of homosexuality, massively extending access to education. And then, in 1997, we had a Labour government which, despite the Iraq War tarnish Tony Blair gave it, notched up some remarkable achievements: the human rights act provided Britain with the closest thing to a fundamental law in its history, while the introduction of a minimum wage was matched by outstanding levels of investment in the NHS. The government took millions out of childhood poverty and brought peace to Northern Ireland.

If your preference is for the Tory version of reform, there were the Thatcher years too. We had section 28 to demonise homosexuality again, the deregulation of business that allowed unregulated banks to punish us all for their irresponsibility in the 2008 crash, and the crushing of the unions to give us today’s zero-hour contracts and non-living wages.

So what are the great reforms that Cameron has ushered in? Well, there was gay marriage, and we shouldn’t underestimate that change. On the other hand, the first breakthrough came with the introduction of civil partnerships, under a reforming Labour government, in 2004. In the next year or two, we may have a major decision to take over membership of the European Union, but that will lead either to no change at all, or to a regression to pre-1975 isolationism.

Apart from that, what have we had? Five years, now extending to six, of austerity economics. The effect has been of slowly extending hardship across the least well off in society. Less support for the working poor. Severe cuts to assistance to the ill. An onslaught against the unemployed. And, of course, the slow strangulation of the NHS as hospital after hospital goes into the red.

A monument to Cameron's achievement: homelessness growing again
These policies are intended to serve what Cameron presumably views as his big idea: the elimination of the “structural deficit” in government spending (structural deficit is a slightly easier form of deficit to cut than the actual deficit) and the reduction of public debt. However, what he described as the “legacy of debt” Gordon Brown had left to our children in 2010, had grown by well over half as much again by 2015. That’s because progress has been minimal over the deficit – it’s been pain without gain.

Indeed, in October 2015 the deficit reached its highest level since 2009, at the time of the crash.

Not much sign of a major, dramatic turn for the better there then. Nothing to compare with legalising homosexuality or even privatising the railways. Instead all we see is a general greying of society, a growing meanness as those already least comfortable in their lives are made to suffer more, while those imposing the misery retreat into their increasingly valuable houses and shut the door on what’s happening outside.

Perhaps we shouldn’t pay too much attention to Cameron’s notion of a reforming decade. Instead we should focus on the beginning of his messages and the words, “for me, there are no new year’s resolutions, just the resolve to continue delivering what we promised in our manifesto.” That sounds much more like him, doesn’t it? For “no resolutions” read “no ideas, no commitments.” For “continue delivering what we promised” read “we’ll go on with the policies that have failed for the last half decade, and once again miss our objectives.”

A decade of reform? Sounds more like another five years of increasing squalor and low achievement. Rather like the years under Stanley Baldwin's Tory government. If you've never heard of him, or can't think of any of his achievements – well, that would be precisely my point.

Still. Happy New Year. Let’s make it one in which many more people wake up to the fact that they don’t have to put up with this kind of government for ever.

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