Prior to delivering his 2014 budget to the country via the chancellor’s annual budget speech to parliament last week, Osborne waited patiently while the prime minister and the leader of the opposition entered into the ritual pre-budget speech exchange.
Tributes were paid by both men to former Labour MP and government minister, Tony Benn. Benn, it should be noted, was the most hated man in Britain at one time, reviled by the Tories, the British establishment, and the leadership of his own party. The tributes that have been paid to him in response to his recent death would suggest that the political class in Britain is either suffering collective memory loss or is riddled with rank hypocrisy.
This pre-budget speech exchange then moved onto recent events in Crimea. Ed Miliband assured the prime minister that he will have Labour’s support for the toughest possible action against Russia over the decision by the Crimean people to secede from Ukraine and apply to join the Russian Federation, asking Cameron if he favours suspending Russia from the G8. The prime minister assured the Labour leader and the House that he will discuss it with Britain’s allies, but that they should consider banning Russia from the G8 permanently as punishment for its role in the Crimean events.
The House cheered its approval and you knew by now that you were bearing witness to a political class in Britain that exists in a parallel universe.
Next up was Chancellor George Osborne to outline the government’s budget for 2014-15. It only took him a couple of minutes to confirm that the mass experiment in human despair which the Tory-led coalition government describes as an economic policy is set to continue.
Osborne began his speech with the boast that “If you are a maker, a doer or a saver, this is a budget for you". He then went on to regale the House with various statistics to support the government’s assertion that Britain’s economic recovery is headed in the right direction as a result of the austerity measures they have implemented since coming to office in 2010. The chancellor then confirmed that cuts to public spending will continue.
Food banks don’t lie. Their proliferation over the term of the current government confirmation that Britain in 2014 is a nation in which poverty, destitution, and the inevitable despair which follows on from those maladies is worse than at any time since the Second World War.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, recent figures released by the charity Oxfam reveal that the five richest families in Britain share more wealth between them than the poorest 20 percent of the population – around 12.6 million people.
Never mind taking a penny off a pint of beer, as the chancellor announced in his budget speech, the sheer extent of inequality in Britain in the 21st century is a travesty, the fruits of three decades of neoliberal orthodoxy that shows no sign of abating even in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
The response of the government – whose front bench consists predominately of millionaires educated at Eton and other elite schools in England – to the recession has been to wage an all-out assault against the poor, especially the unemployed, who have seen savage cuts to their benefits in addition to a tightening of the conditions attached to their provision.
In a classic example of divide et impera – divide and rule – the government has succeeded in turning the low waged against the unwaged, the able bodied against the disabled, and everybody against immigrants. Meanwhile, the City of London has felt no pain and continues to reward itself with outlandish bonuses, despite its responsibility for the financial crash which caused the economic crisis, a consequence of the greed and recklessness that has and continues to underpin its drive for short term profit at the expense of long term stability and sustainability.
The chancellor’s announcement that growth is expected to outperform previous expectations – moving from 2.4 percent to 2.7 percent - tells us little apart from the fact that international demand for high-end London properties remains buoyant and that the City of London remains one of the world’s premier financial hubs, attractive to investors seeking a regulation and tax-friendly environment in which to do business.
The housing crisis that has bedevilled the country for decades, and which successive governments have failed to tackle, has led to an ever-burgeoning housing benefit bill as private landlords have cashed in at taxpayers’ expense. Placing a cap on housing benefit rather than on the amount of rent landlords can charge tells us whose side the present government is on.
One of the main planks of this government’s economic strategy has been to keep interest rates down, benefiting borrowers, especially homeowners with mortgage repayments constituting the bulk of their monthly outgoings. Suffering in the process has been the nation’s savers and those dependent on the value of investments, such as pensioners. Both the aforementioned demographics are more likely to be Tory voters, which is why they have been rewarded by Osborne with measures designed to increase the threshold at which pensions contributions are taxed and make it easier for savers to move money around without being penalized.
Lost in this direction of travel in favour of the nation’s savers is that the British economy is still labouring due to a lack of spending. What the nation requires are measures designed to put money in people’s pockets, necessitating more government investment in order to offset the lack of investment on the part of the private sector, which continues to sit on a giant cash surplus. Back in January the government’s own Office for National Statistics (ONS) put the amount of said surplus at 334 billion pounds. This is an investment strike by any other name, which the government is responding to with measure after measure – tax cuts, tax breaks, subsidies, below-inflation pay rises across the public sector, thereby acting as a brake on pay in the private sector - designed to bribe them to end it.
Ultimately, the chancellor’s 2014 budget merely confirms that Britain is a country where socialism for the rich is being paid for with austerity for the poor.
Karl Marx, lying in his grave at London’s Highgate Cemetery, could never have seen that one coming.
* John Wight is a writer and commentator specialising in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.