Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

A Decade of Austerity Ruined Britain – We Can’t Afford a Repeat

Today marks 10 years since the first Coalition austerity budget. The last decade showed that austerity can be worse for the economy than any recession – but the government is determined to ignore the lesson.

“This is a once in a lifetime crisis.” This quote neatly sums up the miserable state of the UK economy.

Just a week and a half ago, it was confirmed that our GDP had plummeted by 20.4 per cent in April. Days before that, the OECD predicted that the UK economy would contract 10.5 per cent in 2020 – making it one of the worst hit countries in the world. These are unprecedented numbers.

But the quote isn’t about the impact of Covid-19 at all. In fact, it’s taken from former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England Charlie Bean’s response to the global financial crash twelve years ago. At the time, it provided a sugar-coating to the bitter pill of the financial crisis: yes, the impact would be disastrous, but it was a one-off event.

Now they’re just famous last words. The last financial crisis caused a decade of despair for many. Livelihoods were lost, vital public services starved of funding and the support for those struggling most were cut back. The justification given was that it was a necessary sacrifice – one that would pay off in recovery. As we mark the 10th anniversary of the first Coalition austerity budget, we find ourselves in a second period of crisis, without having reaped any gains from an austere decade. 

It has never been clearer that austerity was a political decision. It presented a choice – economy versus security, growth versus wellbeing – that was entirely unnecessary. Now, as we face another recession, we must be wary of those who would force the same choice upon us again.

Blaming Lockdown

The release of such dire economic figures accelerated the search for a scapegoat. Most pointed to lockdown as the cause. “18 years of growth wiped out as lockdown triggers record economic slump,” said the Telegraph. Millionaire Simon Dolan has launched a legal challenge to lockdown on the basis it causes ‘social and economic ruin.’ A host of Conservative MPs came out to put the blame for our economic figures squarely at lockdown’s door.

This might seem intuitive – lockdown closed the economy, so it is responsible for the economic fallout. But it is a loaded choice, and an oversimplification. For one, it does nothing to challenge us to search for the real causes of our economic slump – the global conditions for the emergence of the virus (globalisation and climate change) and our nation’s lack of resilience (a decade of austerity).

Neither does it accept the possibility that the economy would have collapsed without a lockdown; that the UK’s dithering imposition of the lockdown might be behind such poor economic figures; or that a second wave could do far more damage than a slightly slower re-opening of non-essential shops.

And blaming the lockdown comes with another implication: a suggestion we had a realistic choice when Covid-19 hit – between protecting public health and protecting our economy. 

Health or Prosperity

This plays into the hands of a growing, reactionary and often libertarian group of lockdown sceptics. They argue that Covid-19 has put health and economy into conflict. They tell us, by not prioritising the economy, we have made a fatal mistake. They employ the logic that sat behind austerity ten years ago.

Steve Hilton, formerly David Cameron’s director of strategy, has been among the most explicit. He told Fox News viewers that:

“Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, they can afford an indefinite shutdown. Working Americans can’t. They’ll be crushed by it. You know that famous phrase? The cure is worse than the disease? That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it’s just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.”

While Mail on Sunday commentator Dan Hodges saw recent economic figures in terms of an existential crisis for the country:

“Do people seriously think Britain can sustain unemployment rates of 3m, 4m, 5m without the total break down of social order… Record levels of unemployment and it’s all over.”

The specifics of the argument can vary. Some suggest lockdown was never justified. Others say that it should have been implemented less aggressively, while many more just want the economy to be opened more rapidly, R-rate be damned. 

But, in summary, they are the same: we must choose between public and economic health; an economic downturn is a bigger risk to people’s health than the pandemic is; thus we should prioritise GDP over current concerns with R and excess mortality. 

Self-proclaimed General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, Toby Young, puts it even more succinctly: “Stay sceptical. End the Lockdown. Save Lives.”

Supporting the Orthodoxy

Such arguments will only intensify as more economic bad news trickles, inevitably, through. This makes it incredibly important for us to deconstruct what lies behind lockdown scepticism.

In particular, we need to recognise that those who present a trade-off between public health and economic health do so to protect the orthodoxy. They promote a swift return to the economic status quo as the only way to maintain our health and society in the long-term.

They prioritise reopening markets and catalysing consumerism as central aims. They tell us that ‘business as usual’ is the inevitable way forward. Behind this, they give a special position to the role of growth – as measured by GDP – as the ultimate determinant of the country’s fate. 

Such a conception of growth is central to contemporary economic theory. In the last few decades, it has validated a system of property rights and contract enforcement, of free markets and deregulation, of ever more ingenious and aggressive ways to use our finite resources. Should lockdown suggest we can be agnostic to growth, and even prioritise other things, that would be a significant challenge to their worldview.

But, their attempt to protect the privileged position of GDP falls in the face of the evidence. In a country like the UK, an advanced economy, it is not lower GDP that kills people. Rather, it is our response to recession that matters.

There are many examples of governments managing recession well, and so avoiding a significant impact on population health. The evidence shows that these are governments that shun austerity and instead invest more in welfare, in getting people back to work and in maintaining healthcare. 

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu have documented Iceland’s approach to the financial crash. They noted that while its banking crisis was incredibly severe, and debt jumped to 800 per cent of GDP, the country had a plebiscite on how they should react.

The people chose not to cut their health or social security systems, and it has been a fantastic success. By contrast, where other countries cut essential services, as the United Kingdom, there have been rises in poverty, deprivation and ‘deaths of despair’.  

As David Stuckler himself puts it: “Recession can hurt. But austerity kills.”

There Is an Alternative

This fact opens up an alternative. We can reject the choice between health and the economy – and instead have both.

Many thinkers and policymakers are exploring this exciting avenue. New Zealand have enacted a wellbeing budget; Kate Raworth has developed a sustainable ‘doughnut’ economic model now employed in Amsterdam; Wales have a Future Generations Act.

These realise, to varying degrees, that GDP has proven a poor proxy for prosperity. It has convinced us that we cannot have a strong economy while also prioritising wellbeing, health, and sustainability. But we can reject the orthodoxy, redefine what we mean by prosperity, and refuse to choose between economic health, public health and wellbeing.

Naturally, this does not sit well with the economic theory behind lockdown scepticism. In fact, it is anathema to the kind of economic orthodoxy we have had this last ten years. Rather than a small state, it proposes we fund the welfare people need to stay healthy and productive, particularly when times are bad.

Rather than cutting spending to reduce debt, it pushes us to invest in productive and green industries. And rather than less debt, it highlights that we need more skills, more jobs and better work to drive growth. It does not cohere to the neoliberal ideals of small government, market ordinance and austerity.

Most of all, it suggests that extra debt can be sustainable. This is a red line for much of the right wing. They have invested significant energy in arguing inflated debt reduces growth and becomes unsustainable. But this has not borne out.

After the financial crash, as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has shown, many European countries managed to maintain big government, a well-funded welfare state and growth comparable to that seen in the more austere UK.

Will History Repeat?

Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. On Monday June 22nd, it will be ten years to the day since our first austerity budget. In the coming months, as more economic bad news trickles through, many will argue that we should return to that policy. Former Chancellor George Osborne already has. 

If government choose austerity, the cost will be severe. Poverty and inequality will rise. Indeed, IPPR analysis suggests that 1.1 million more people face poverty by the end of the year, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  

If we take that path, it will be down to the success of those who argue that we must pick between priorities: public health or economic health. But it has never been clear that this is a flawed logic – one similar to impossible notion of the Queen in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass: “jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”

Government must be brave enough to reject such ideas.