Brexit and social justice

By Bernadette Meaden
May 11, 2016

Whatever our opinions on the European Union, whether we want to Leave or Remain, we should not be fooled into thinking that social justice depends on voting either way.  The UK government, in deciding how it shares out our national wealth, is fully in control of how fair a society we choose to be. That is what the distributional analysis  of every Budget is about, showing how rich and poor have been affected by the Chancellor’s decisions.

Since 2010, we have had a government policy of austerity for poor people. Cuts to taxes for those on high incomes have been coupled with cuts to benefits for those on low incomes. Meanwhile the increasingly harsh regime at the Department for Work and Pensions has driven people to accept any job, no matter how exploitative, on pain of sanction. This must have contributed to suppressing wages, as bad employers know that if a person does not accept the terms and conditions they offer, the alternative can be a very real prospect of hunger.

As a result, many people are now facing serious hardship. We know that over eight million people struggle to put food on their tables, meaning that the people who use foodbanks are just the tip of a very ugly national iceberg.

At the same time, we have had swingeing cuts to public services, hitting social care, education, health and housing. Local authority spending cuts have hit the poorest (Labour voting) areas hardest, placing pressure on school places, health and social care, and all the other services most relied upon by the most disadvantaged people in society. Home ownership has been promoted whilst support for social rented housing has been cut, and many people are desperate for somewhere decent to live.

This means that we now have large swathes of the country where people rightly feel very badly done to. Given a clear and widely-disseminated anti-austerity narrative, they would have long since placed the blame for their hardship where it belongs, at the feet of the government. But UKIP, and more subtly the Conservatives, have over the years been able to present immigration as the cause of their problems, and sadly this has resonated with many people. Can’t get an appointment at your GPs? Don’t blame a shortage of doctors, blame migrants. Can’t get a Council house? Don’t blame housing policy, blame migrants. This use of migrants to deflect attention from the government’s deliberate policy to shrink the state has proved very useful for several years, but now, during the EU referendum debate, it has gone into overdrive.

In order to urge people to vote Leave, Brexit campaigners are now making ‘the social justice case’  for leaving the European Union. Politicians who have supported almost every budget cut and every benefit sanction are now blaming the EU and ‘uncontrolled immigration’ for the hardship their government has inflicted on a large section of the population. This is breathtaking in its cynicism. To impose hardship, and then use it to manipulate the people suffering that hardship to support your political ends is quite something.

Brexit campaigners are also claiming that any money saved by leaving the EU could be put into the NHS or other public services. This is entirely unconvincing, when the most prominent Brexit campaigners are strong supporters of a low tax, small state economy.

The government could, if it chose to, abandon the self-imposed and economically futile target of reaching a budget surplus, tax corporations and private wealth, boost the incomes of the poor, and better fund public services. Or it could continue to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, squeeze public services and reduce the incomes of the poorest. It is entirely a political choice for the UK government, and will continue to be so whether we are in or out of the European Union.

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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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