Museum of Austerity is an immersive exhibition ‘that preserves memories of public and private events from the austerity era’. You could visit Room 1 at this year’s London Film Festival. It told the stories of disabled benefit claimants who died in the UK between 2010 and 2020. On my way in I was given an augmented reality headset and told to raise my hand if at any point I felt uncomfortable.
Rough sleeping is up 169 per cent across the country since 2010, along with every other form of homelessness. The rate in Manchester is more than twice the national average. Among major English cities, it’s higher only in London and Bristol. The numbers of homeless people referred to temporary accommodation in Manchester rose 319 per cent between 2010 and 2017. It’s bizarre in these circumstances for Greater Manchester Police to downplay the crisis of homelessness by claiming that the genuinely homeless receive help, and those visible on the street are not really in need. ‘There is plenty of help for those willing to accept it,’ they say.
The Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project has reported a steep rise in the number of women starting or returning to sex work in the city. The English Collective of Prostitutes says the pattern repeats itself across the country. ‘Zero hours contracts, benefits sanctions and family care needs’ are among the reasons women give for turning to sex work.
In The View From Nowhere, Thomas Nagel describes his encounter with a large spider in a Princeton University urinal, from whose gutter it can't escape. Through the summer, the spider survives, even thrives, despite being urinated on 'more than a hundred times a day'. Finally Nagel takes pity and helps it climb out of the trough with a paper towel. Next day he finds the spider, exactly where he had left it, dead. The golden shower turns out to have been its lifeblood.
Back in Sweden again. (I travel back and forth.) What strikes me this time is the great contrast between the political and economic mood here and in the UK. Britain is gripped by ‘austerity’, and full of gloom and doom (except for the very rich). More cuts in social provision are promised, hitting the poorest and most disadvantaged, and the NHS is collapsing for want of funds. The government is using the ‘crisis’ to extend privatisation and diminish the state, on what appear to be purely ideological grounds.
‘Does it look big?’ an elderly woman asked me, craning her neck to see down the street. ‘I’m afraid so,’ I replied, thinking she might be worried about getting to the Tube. ‘Good,’ she said. Like thousands of others, she was in London on Saturday for the national anti-austerity demonstration organised by the People’s Assembly. As we marched from the Bank of England to Parliament Square, the crowd kept growing.
Austeritarian politics minds less about balancing the books than cutting the state. It aims to bear down on public spending but also distrusts tax, particularly on the well-off. Austeritarians bang on about the debt while failing to plug revenue holes. Labour muddied the issue last week by merging it with the question of toxic party funding. At prime minister’s questions Ed Miliband attacked Tory donors including Lord Fink, who’d benefited from HSBC’s newly exposed Swiss tax scamming. Miliband apparently saw this as a chance to brand the Tories as high-rollers contemptuous of the fisc. The tactic was doubly doomed.
The budget details had been so widely leaked that there were few surprises. The chancellor had little room for manoeuvre and resisted the temptation to go for broke. (That probably comes next year, just before the election.) The Lib Dems got their £10,500 tax threshold – which won’t make much difference. The drinkers and bingo players got something; but other betters and smokers did not. There was a little for small business. Those who pay a 40 per cent marginal rate saw the threshold at which they pay it raised a little, but probably not as much as they expected. Older people with savings do well. Changes to pension arrangements, the introduction of more ‘generous’ ISAs and the pensioner bond do something to restore income to those whose savings in the last few years had received negligible returns. It is apparent that the budget is meant to appeal primarily to older voters – who are more likely to vote than any other age group.
France last week had its credit rating knocked down a tick from AA+ to AA by one of the ‘big three’ rating agencies. Standard & Poor’s blamed the French economy’s sluggish recovery, high unemployment and a high debt-GDP ratio. Credit ratings, whose rationale is to make risk assessments for investors, matter for governments and other bond issuers, since lower ratings mean higher borrowing costs, and downgraded bonds can tailspin as increased repayments up the likelihood of issuers’ defaulting. For governments, that means higher budget deficits, and calls for austerity to balance the books.
So credit ratings are big bananas. But what are credit rating agencies?
On the drizzly evening of 7 November, I joined a demonstration in front of the Parliament in Athens. Like the estimated 100,000 other people in the vast square and surrounding streets to protest against the imposition of yet another – the fifth – round of austerity measures being debated inside the building, I wasn’t in a good mood. My pension had already been cut by 40 per cent, the tax rate on the remainder nearly doubled, and a further cut was planned. We were kept away from the building by multiple rows of police, a terrifying sight with their bulky black uniforms, white helmets and visors, assorted weapons and communications gear, tear-gas canisters and water cannons. The scene that wet evening made for a peculiar image of democracy in practice; the people’s elected representatives cowering inside the temple of democracy, protected from the people’s wrath by a praetorian guard. That was bad enough. Inside the building, parliamentary democracy was getting short shrift.
On 6 May, I went with my father to vote at our local polling station in Maroussi in north Athens. The anger in the queue was palpable. It was unsurprising that the centre-left Pasok had its parliamentary majority wiped out, coming third with 13 per cent of the vote and winning a mere 41 seats out of 300. Pasok’s former coalition partner, the centre-right New Democracy, came top, but with less than 19 per cent of the vote and only 108 seats, couldn’t form a government. The left-wing anti-austerity party, Syriza, came second, with just over 16 per cent of the vote and 52 seats (taken together, the various far-left parties won about a third of the vote). And the overtly fascist Golden Dawn received nearly 7 per cent of the vote, gaining 21 seats. The result may have been unclear, but the message was not: a total rejection of the EU, ECB and IMF’s bailout plan, and of austerity.