Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Cameron turned a crisis of free-market capitalism into a crisis for public services

Back in 2006, when Leader of the Opposition David Cameron was (supposedly) flirting with some of the ideas of centre-left commentators, many people wouldn't have expected what sort of government Prime Minister Cameron would eventually lead. That he would, in league with the (supposed) centre-left Liberal Democrats, lead a government that is seeking to dismantle almost every aspect of state-delivered public services, would be pretty unthinkable.

But then, in 2008, when the government stepped in to save capitalism from itself, not many would have expected that it would be teachers, police officers, civil servants, librarians, firefighters and social care workers that would take the pain - and, crucially, the blame - for the crisis.

But that is where we are at. A government that failed to win  an election outright is embarking on a programme of ideological intensity that some members of the Thatcher government would have balked at. And the justifications for all of its reforms lie in one simple premise:

It was public spending that caused the deficit and any actions the government are taking are to pay off this debt. These cuts are not ideological, but are in the national interest. Furthermore, public spending didn't work, so delivering them through the private or voluntary sectors is the only option.

It doesn't matter that the first part of the premise isn't true, in that it almost wholly ignores the single greatest cause of the deficit - the cost of the bailout of the financial system, associated government interventions and the recession that the crisis created - and also fails to point out that debt levels prior to the financial crisis were relatively modest, both in historical terms and compared to many of our neighbours.

Nor does it matter that the second part of the premise - that public spending over the last decade and a half didn't work - is contrary to much evidence. This includes academic studies, international comparisons, huge physical improvements (from new libraries, to new hospitals, to refurbished schools, to parks and recreational facilities), and is backed up by studies of public opinion.

What matters is whether people believe it or not. It is the acceptance by the British public of this premise that will be the key to whether this government succeeds or not. So, Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Danny Alexander and other right-wing politicians* will repeat the same mantra: the government spent too much money and spending that money didn't work anyway. It's up to all those that believe in a society built on values beyond those provided by the free-marketeers to argue otherwise.

* It's getting tiresome going to the trouble of differentiating the Lib Dems and Tories when writing posts like this, particularly when the Lib Dem leadership have little or no interest in doing so themselves.

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