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Austerity was something we simply could not afford

The last 12 years have made it ever more obvious that austerity was a false economy, designed to only benefit those who need help the least, says John Bird

2010 general election campaign. Image: Glenn Copus/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

Then-Tory leader David Cameron announces the party’s ‘Year For Change’ 2010 general election campaign. Image: Glenn Copus/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

Why does it take so long for the penny to drop? Three years ago, when we were deep in the Covid crisis, a number of us were saying that the preceding period of austerity had weakened social delivery and harmed the health of many. It had made the NHS almost full of people whose health had been diminished by the cuts that the Cameron/Osborne government had made.

It was evidenced everywhere by the social provision that had been allowed to wither on the vine in order to pay for the enormous bailout of the badly behaving banks, who were dripping in risks and their outrageous rewards.

But it has taken three years for the committees to form and look seriously at what had been done to the wellbeing of those who were just about managing, or were just about not. Now the big inquiry commences and the British Medical Association, the doctors’ trade union, points out that austerity was “Covid’s little helper”. A polite way of saying that the 2010-2016 administration was responsible for the NHS being overwhelmed.

Too many people were made sick or sicker by austerity, with the paying off of the banks’ economic mismanagement. And added to the tragedy is that, although their intention was to knock circa 5% off government expenditure, they only achieved a saving – by such heinous and heartless, thoughtless, injurious and costly cost-cutting – of about 1.5%.

That 1.5% had a huge impact on social support, affecting its essential delivery, with this small amount translated into local authority cuts of in the region of 30%. That’s how 1.5% adds up when cutting the services that then keep people only as well as can be expected.

By reducing local authority support and generally running down social provision, they provided the NHS with an increasing amount of socially and physically distressed patients. Hence the devastation of Covid and the overwhelming of the NHS that carries on to the epic proportions of today.

We could not afford austerity. It was a false economy. The figures did not add up. Unable to prevent the increasing sickness of people in need, the NHS acted as a social sponge to soak up all of these problems that had been exported from social cuts to health needs.

Of course there was always an argument to be made for the cuts: balancing the books made ridiculous by the bank rescue of 2008-9. But there were factors that the government did not take into account: the increase in homelessness, the increase in mental health problems and the increase in general ill health.

It was seemingly felt that a diminution in the wellbeing of people in need was a tolerable side effect of the austerity. But it was a simple case of robbing the poorest of their support in order to shore up those responsible for the calamity of bank failures. That may well have worked in earlier times, but unfortunately the increasing post-war growth of a dependent sector of the population made the government the biggest provider of financial support. All the concessions that liberal-minded people had wrung out of the state to help those in need had to be continued at an increasing cost. Having removed state subsidies for a number of big industries in the 1980s, which had kept a vast amount of people in work, the subsidies almost became personal in the next period as people were given social security instead of work.

This vast bill had increased through various governments from Thatcher’s time onwards. And of course the cost-cutting exercise of closing down the abysmal mental health institutions without providing for their replacement was also an exportation of cost from one government budget to another.

This inter-departmental migration of budgets is one of the outcomes of our recent austerity, and the increasing costs it creates.

Now we are in a soup where instead of getting people out of poverty, a valiant endeavour governments have largely dodged, we have millions who need all the help we can give them. And with the inflationary crisis of today, we are finding that more and more people need support.

Post-austerity we still live with its consequences.

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Of course if there was a root-and-branch industrial strategy created, and the economy was looked at globally and not simply as a question of government budgets being shaved, then we might end up with a concept of reducing the cost of poverty through getting people out of it. Or even of preventing poverty.

In spite of all the concessions wrung out of governments by advocates to give the poor more, there has been precious little grand planning to end poverty. Cure and prevention are like the ghosts off-stage in all the discussions about health and mental wellbeing in the big poverty debate.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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