Saturday's demonstration was the first national demonstration organised by scientists, in defence of science, for decades. The size of the protest against threatened spending cuts is a measure of just how serious that threat now is.
The Spending Review
On 20 October, George Osborne will announce to Parliament his plans for the biggest cuts to public spending since the 1930s.
Twenty-five to 40 per cent cuts are expected to departmental budgets. The reputable Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that at least £67bn will need to be cut, across government, to meet Osborne’s targets.
No aspect of life will be left untouched by this. Local services, healthcare, welfare, education, transport and the arts will all be hit. The Coalition government is planning a complete overhaul of public spending.
Funding for scientific research will not be left untouched. Cuts of 20 per cent or more have been mooted.
Scientists and their supporters are rightly concerned that this will seriously damage the quality of research conducted in Britain.
Already, there is talk of scientists being forced to leave the country. Demonstrations like Saturday’s have been organised in protest.
The case for science
There is a solid case, on simple economic grounds, for continued public funding of science. We know that scientific research provides the seeds for future economic growth.
We also know that the products of scientific research have improved the quality of life for millions.
Other countries recognise this. Britain is alone amongst developed countries in planning cuts to science funding during the recession.
This is the case that has been well-made over the last year by scientists and representative organisations.
But good arguments for science alone will not win this fight.
It is now quite clear that, whatever soothing noises some ministers make, the Treasury and No.10 are unmoved.
To understand why, we must understand what is driving the cuts.
The roots of the crisis
The Coalition government claims that the cuts are made necessary by the deficit.
They claim that the previous Labour government was “profligate” in their spending, running up huge debts.
This is a lie.
Public spending under Labour, from 1997-2007, averaged 38.4% of GDP.
Public spending under the Conservatives, from 1979-1997, averaged 44.3% of GDP.
Labour was less “profligate” than the previous Conservatives.
The increase in national debt, and the rising deficits, are entirely the product of the financial crisis that consumed the world in late 2008.
The bankers’ gambles turned bad. The world’s third biggest bank, Lehman Bros, went bankrupt. Its collapse threatened the entire banking system.
To prop up the collapsed financial system,governments everywhere used public funds. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, estimates that £1,000bn of public assistance was provided by the UK alone.
This bailout, and subsequent recession, caused the rapid rise in public debt - not “excessive” public spending. Cleaning up after the greed and stupidity of an over-paid few has landed the rest of us in debt.
The rest of us are expected to pay for the bankers’ profligacy. You’d have to be George Osborne not to see the injustice in that.
And the banking system is unreformed. It is bonuses as usual for the bankers. Because the system is unreformed, the risk of another crisis is very real.
It is fear of another banking collapse that is driving these cuts. The International Monetary Fund has called the global banking system an “Achilles heel”, demanding continued public funding and crippling economies.
Creating an effective opposition
So this is not just about having good arguments and relying on rational persuasion. There is a deeper process at work.
That means no group receiving public funding can consider itself safe, or think it has a special case.
Not the disabled. Not single parents. Not the unemployed. Not artists. And not scientists.
All of us will be affected. The only reliable defence we all have is unity.
The government knows this. They have already tried to set different groups of researchers against each other. Vince Cable has tried repeatedly to ask scientists what research can be cut.
This is divide-and-rule. It is absolutely right that it has been opposed.
But the same logic applies everywhere. If the government can set all the affected groups fighting against each other, it can win. It is easier for it to fight a series of small, isolated battles, than a single, big fight.
That means defending science in the UK is of a piece with defending the arts, or defending welfare.
If scientists join with others in opposing the cuts, they and everyone else will benefit.
Winning the fight
This is a weak government, dependent on a Coalition agreement no-one voted for. It is already under severe pressure. Its traditional supporters did not like the child benefit cut. The risk of a “double-dip” recession from spending cuts grows daily.
It can be defeated the same way that the Poll Tax was defeated, or Tony Blair chased out of office. A mass, national campaign against the cuts can break the government’s will.
That means creating a united campaign, drawing all those from across the country who will suffer from the cuts.
Tony Benn launched his call for a “Coalition of Resistance” against the cuts just over a month ago. Thousands of people, from all walks of life, have joined.
The Coalition of Resistance has called a demonstration, outside Downing Street, on the day of the Spending Review: October 20th. Tony Benn, Caroline Lucas, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson will be amongst those speaking.
We want the protest to be first steps in building a mass campaign against these unnecessary cuts.
And there is a national conference on 27th November, in London, that will start to draw together all the separate strands of opposition.
These are the first steps in building the kind of campaign that can defend not just research spending, but the whole welfare state.
This article was originally issued as a leaflet on the Science is Vital protest, 9 October 2010
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