What kind of society do we want?

By Bernadette Meaden
December 28, 2014

With George Osborne promising to return public spending to the level of the 1930s, it would be useful to remind ourselves what life was like for the average British citizen in that era.

There was no National Health Service of course, so that was one big chunk of public spending that simply didn’t exist. The infant mortality rate was at 6.3 per cent, compared to about 0.5 per cent now. Boys born in 1930 were expected to reach the ripe old age of 58, whilst the average expected lifespan for girls was about 62. So there wasn’t much spending on pensions or social care for the elderly, because people didn’t get very old.

In education, the vast majority of children left school at 14 or 15, with only a privileged few receiving any significant further education, or going to University.

With widespread poverty and no organised network of foodbanks, we had Hunger Marches instead. And we also had serious social conflict, a fact which often seems to have been airbrushed from our history. Marches and protests were often met with shocking police violence.

Just as today we see little difference between the main parties (and UKIP) on cutting public spending, so in 1931 it was a Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald who, under pressure from the Banks and the City, cut unemployment benefit by ten per cent.

Of course today’s proposed spending cuts are said to be justified by the urgent need to reduce the deficit. Yet there is a growing body of opinion which says that this obsession with the deficit is actually having negative results. As William Keegan recently wrote "The fact of the matter is that the budget deficit is not the most important issue. But the coalition, which has ensnared the country in its homemade austerity trap, has done a brilliant job until now in bringing out the masochistic streak in the British character, and persuading people that all these budget cuts are necessary."

And of course, the promise of tax cuts for the prosperous whilst drastically reducing the size of the state rather gives the game away, suggesting that this is really much more a matter of political ideology than economic necessity.

There is every possibility that the outcome of the next General Election will be as inconclusive as the last. Perhaps no single party will be able to have things completely their own way. So between now and when we vote in May, we need to make our wishes clear. If we want a positive vision fit for the 21st century, not a return to 1930s levels of public spending, and the type of society that would bring about, we need to make sure that all politicians understand that.

* More on the upcoming General Election from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015
Views expressed by individual contributors do not necessarily reflect an official Ekklesia view.

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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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