The national debt has become a mechanism by which international finance-capital disciplines the British ruling class. The bankers’ message is: protect profits and impose cuts or we sell British financial assets and create a Greek-style crisis of state solvency.
In short, it is the City or the NHS. The Con-Dem Government has chosen the City. This is the meaning behind all the talk about deficit-cutting, credit ratings, and ‘market confidence’.
It boils down to something very simple: British governments must do what the magnates and speculators of global finance tell them to do. It boils down to governments being the transmission belts by which the power of the rich is exercised over the rest of us.
Sometimes, governments may try and buck the system. A Labour Government elected in 1974 tried to carry out limited social reforms funded by public spending.
The City, the Treasury, and the US-based International Monetary Fund collaborated to engineer an economic crisis that would force a government U-turn.
‘The people in the Bank of England and the people in the UK Treasury knew what had to be done,’ recalled then US Treasury Secretary William Simon. ‘While they would never say it … I think they were secretly rooting for us, that we would hold fast our ground.’
International bankers started a run on the pound in early 1976. The Bank of England did nothing to stop it. The run accelerated. In July, Chancellor Denis Healey forced a £1 billion cuts package through cabinet in an effort to ‘restore confidence’.
It was not enough. The pound continued to fall, and in the autumn the Government faced a full-blown ‘sterling crisis’. Now, the price of market ‘confidence’ had become a loan from the IMF. The terms were massive cuts in public spending. The IMF’s opening bid was for £5 billion. They finally settled for another £2 billion on top of July’s £1 billion.
The British ruling class had got what it wanted: the Labour Government’s wholesale abandonment of the social reforms it had been elected to enact two years’ earlier.
The political cost was catastrophic. Unemployment doubled. The real value of wages fell. Poverty soared. And Labour lost the 1979 election as disillusioned working-class voters abandoned it. The Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, with her class-based programme of factory closures, union-busting, and privatisation, was the victor.
The example illustrates the implicit threat to democratically-determined political priorities. But the Con-Dem Government has no intention of challenging the power of global finance with a policy of reflation and social reform. Quite the opposite. The Con-Dem Government represents a ruling class of millionaires that would be threatened by an alternative.
The reason is this. Any alternative would have to be radical. It would involve challenging the prerogatives of big business and the greed of the rich head-on, and, in effect, using the state to redistribute wealth from capital to labour, that is, from profit to wages and welfare.
A Keynesian policy of using state power to commandeer resources, channel investment, and create jobs would reverse 30 years of neoliberalism. Instead of ‘rolling back the boundaries of the state’, it would involve reasserting ideas about collective provision, public service, and human need. Any such shift would be bound to raise the expectations and confidence of working people. It would, in a word, move society to the left.
The neoliberal project of privatisation is designed to marketise public services, fragment society, and atomise the working class. If it is reversed, the danger is that the accumulated bitterness at the base of society might gain traction. If it did, anything could happen.
So Cameron and Clegg have made a class choice on behalf of the millionaires they represent. And because the crisis is deep and protracted, they are playing for high stakes in a long game. The deflationary turn is no short-term fix. For them, the economic crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity - nothing less, in fact, than an opportunity to push the neoliberal offensive to its logical conclusion and overturn the entire postwar welfare consensus.
Fear is central to that project. The fear engendered in a world without the protection of collective organisation or the security of public provision - a world, that is, without unions or welfare.
There are presently 2.5 million on the dole. The cuts will ratchet the total up to well over 3 million, perhaps 3.5, perhaps more. Millions of others will be trapped in part-time, low-paid, dead-end jobs. Millions who are not will be anxious to cling onto the ‘decent jobs’ they have.
Unemployment is an acid that eats into confidence, solidarity, and militancy. And it can turn worker against worker. It is a weapon in the class struggle. Fear of the dole might break resistance to the cuts and the counter-reforms that are planned over the next five years.
That is not all. Alongside the cuts and the tax rises, there is planned neoliberal restructuring of benefits, schools, hospitals, and universities. Not only are state services to be cut back heavily; they are to be part-privatised and rationed on a class basis.
Underlying the vicious targeting of the poorest and most powerless is a political necessity to blame the victims for their fate. For if British capitalism is to be restructured, the welfare state must be dismantled. And if welfare is to be cut, it must be that the poor are undeserving.
So the disabled, single mothers, and the unemployed are to be branded ‘work-shy’ and bullied by the threat of destitution into low-wage exploitation. As the Cameron-Clegg Government destroys jobs, it plans to hound the jobless and the impoverished that its own policies create.
At the same time, health minister Andrew Lansley is setting out to break up the NHS. The method here is to force all GPs to join one of between 300 and 500 ‘consortiums’, to give these consortiums control over £70 billion of NHS funding, and thereby to create a market for health services in which public hospitals will compete with one another and with private corporations like Bupa.
Education minister Michael Gove is equally ambitious. Lansley wants to marketise and part-privatise the NHS. Gove wants to create a two-tier education system with new profit opportunities.
On the one hand, he is offering to fund any old group that wants to set up a ‘free school’. The funds will be taken from the existing education budget, forcing other schools to close. On the other, he is encouraging ‘outstanding schools’ to opt out of LEA control and become ‘academies’. Every town will end up with a two-tier system. Better-funded academies and free schools will be oversubscribed and will eventually become selective. The remaining LEA schools will be seen as second-rate ‘sink’ schools.
The plan for the universities is more extreme still. The teaching budget is to be cut by four-fifths. To fill the gap, student fees will sky-rocket, with those for top-tier universities soaring beyond the reach of most working-class youngsters. The proposals in the Browne Report, if implemented, would leave Britain with a privatised, class-divided higher education system.
Little wonder that profiteers touting various education and health services are circling the crumbling state system, looking for opportunities to grab chunks of tax-payer funding or customer fees.
The Con-Dem Coalition is more than a deficit-cutting government of millionaires determined to make working people pay for the crisis. It is a neoliberal regime committed to dismantling the welfare state, redistributing wealth and power from working people to the rich and big business, and bringing about a permanent restructuring of British capitalism in the interests of the class it represents. Here is yet another reason to fight the cuts.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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