Cuts: tough choices, or ideology?

By Bernadette Meaden
December 7, 2014

The scale of public spending cuts proposed by UK Chancellor George Osborne is shocking, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Not because such savage cuts are necessary, but because to many in government they are desirable.

Just as US President George Bush used the 9/11 attacks to justify invading Iraq, something he had long wanted and planned to do, so the global banking crisis has been used by politicians who desire a small state, and the low taxes that come with it.

Public services and the taxes that pay for them are seen as a burden and a hindrance to the wealthy people who really matter. And to libertarians, of whom there are plenty in the current Conservative party, taxation is seen as an affront to personal liberty. Presumably that’s why in the midst of austerity, we are still promised future tax cuts.

Organisations which influence the current Cabinet, like the Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), have long been calling for a much smaller state. In 2011 the IEA published ‘Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big Steps to a Small State’. It proposed the abolition of many taxes, including stamp duty on property and shares, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, the bank levy, climate change levy, and Vehicle Excise Duty. It also proposed reducing income tax to fifteen per cent.

The type of society this would produce would be a dream for the rich, allowing them to hold on to almost all their wealth. For those on low incomes, who do not own property or investments but who do rely on public services, it would surely be a nightmare.

On education. the IEA said: "An even more fundamental reform would be to move back towards a system where all parents (except the very poor) made a financial contribution to schooling, as they did in the nineteenth century."

Indeed, the nineteenth century is often regarded as a golden age by such thinkers: they see it as a time of unbridled capitalism, when entrepreneurs were allowed to get on and make lots of money without being bothered by such hindrances as health and safety regulations and a minimum wage

On health the IEA proposed Health Savings Accounts "to restore consumer sovereignty, innovation and competition – which were, before the creation of the NHS, widely admired aspects of UK health provision." Again, pre-NHS days are seen as better days, which is why the idea of public spending at 1930s levels would not be such an alarming prospect for people like Daniel Hannan MEP, who described the NHS as a sixty year long mistake on American television.

And it’s important to understand that this is not maverick thinking by people on the fringes of the Conservative Party. Such ideas have been promoted by senior politicians such as Oliver Letwin, who in 2004 was quoted as saying that ‘the NHS will not exist’ within five years of a Conservative election victory. He even wrote a book called ‘Privatising The World’.

Of course these views were not widely publicised when David Cameron was trying to ‘detoxify’ the Conservative Party and appeal to voters before the 2010 election. Former Minister Michael Portillo openly declared that the Conservatives concealed their plans for the NHS because they knew they would not win an election if they revealed them. (Video here)

So whether we agree with cuts or not, we should understand that for many politicians they are not ‘tough choices’, but the manifestation of their political ideology. The tough choices are actually those made by the people at the receiving end of the cuts, whether it’s Councillors choosing whether to close a library or a Sure Start centre, or whether it’s the parent of a disabled child deciding whether to heat or eat. They are the real tough choices, and they are the people who have to make them.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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