Wednesday, June 06, 2018

"A slow bleed"

On 26th May, the image chosen by Tim Adams for the Guardian's regular Big Picture feature was Tish Murtha's shot Karen On Overturned Chair, 1980. Taken in her native Newcastle, the photo is remarkable in many ways, not least for the urban desolation that surrounds the central figure. So bleak is the scene that it's hard to believe that the image isn't several decades older, a depiction of people picking over the rubble after a devastating Second World War bombing raid.

Much as they might seem to belong to another age, however, such images do not capture a past that is alien to the present day - quite the contrary. The day before Murtha's photo was selected for the feature, the Independent reported on a forthcoming book called Invisible Britain. The portraits that it's set to contain are very much in the same vein as Murtha's - a vivid reminder of the painful and tragic human cost of austerity.

As is this superbly clear-headed piece, published in the New York Times around the same time. In the course of tracing the extent and impact of government cutbacks on ordinary people, and alluding to several measures of social well-being (including poverty, crime, drug addiction, food bank usage and homelessness), author Peter S Goodman hits the nail repeatedly and firmly on the head.

On the long-term political and cultural significance of austerity: "It has refashioned British society, making it less like the rest of Western Europe, with its generous social safety nets and egalitarian ethos, and more like the United States, where millions lack health care and job loss can set off a precipitous plunge in fortunes."

On the Tories' sly attempt to market austerity as a necessary evil, while insisting that we're all in it together: "From its inception, austerity carried a whiff of moral righteousness, as if those who delivered it were sober-minded grown-ups. Belt tightening was sold as a shared undertaking, an unpleasant yet unavoidable reckoning with dangerous deficit budgets".

On their fanciful - or, more accurately, vacuous and morally reprehensible - blathering about the Big Society: "Diminish the role of a bloated government bureaucracy, they contended, and grass-roots organizations, charities and private companies would step up to the fore, reviving communities and delivering public services more efficiently. To a degree, a spirit of voluntarism materialized. At public libraries, volunteers now outnumber paid staff. In struggling communities, residents have formed food banks while distributing hand-me-down school uniforms. But to many in Britain, this is akin to setting your house on fire and then reveling in the community spirit as neighbors come running to help extinguish the blaze."

On the Tories' persistent shirking of responsibility: "The political architecture of Britain insulates those imposing austerity from the wrath of those on the receiving end. London makes the aggregate cuts, while leaving to local politicians the messy work of allocating the pain." (It's for this precise reason that I felt considerable sympathy for Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes when he and the city were the subject of a 2014 article by the Guardian's John Harris. Councils' hands are to a large extent tied. Don't shoot the messenger and all that.)

Like many of the people that Goodman speaks to, I'm in no doubt that austerity measures have been principally motivated by political agenda rather than economic necessity. As he points out, the latter argument - always cited as the primary justification - is now even less convincing given that last year there was a budget surplus rather than a budget deficit. But, as he also acknowledges, that is unlikely to have much effect. Austerity has set the country on a particular course that would be very tricky to change or reverse - and in any case the economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit has conveniently handed the Tories a new rationale for policies that continue to ruin lives and communities.

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