The meaning of austerity


Alasdair Duke

The irony of the word “austerity” is that its main definition would appeal to many on the left. Dictionaries describe austerity firstly as “plainness and simplicity” (Oxford), or “living without unnecessary things” (Cambridge). Taken thus, austerity is a common lifestyle choice and political position: why should anyone have more than they really need? Why live frivolously when others don’t have enough?

It is the second definition that is politically contentious: austerity can mean “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure” (Oxford again). It is this meaning of austerity that has brought widespread poverty back to Britain: people paying high levels of rent to live in squalid conditions, benefit claimants hounded even when they have found work, and police, A&E and child protection struggling to cope with spikes in demand for their services, which are caused by lives spiralling out of control.

Personal austerity is an admirable lifestyle, which most of us live with, whether or not through choice: buying no-frills products, getting plenty of wear out of our clothes and so on. Applying this value base to politics would entail a social mindset, probably involving higher taxation for the rich and better-off, a civic-minded recognition of the importance of universal public services, and simple pleasures such as parks and libraries.

The second meaning of austerity – lower public expenditure – does none of these things. This meaning has been co-opted by UK governments and their pet economists to reduce public spending on “nice” things such as libraries, leisure centres and social provisions for children, young people, and the lonely or vulnerable. A consequence of this is that people no longer feel able to choose to lead austere lives; government cuts force people to take on debt to avoid destitution, while the better off “go private” in health and education due to the perceived dire state of public services.

Austere people generally don’t own second homes, build property portfolios or subscribe to private health and leisure schemes. A truly austere government would tax property and wealth, especially for those who have more than they need, to provide municipal services of which people can be proud. Austere politicians would suggest that no one has a right, tax-free, to a six-figure family inheritance, whether hidden in untraceable paper shares overseas or otherwise.

But we are stuck with a government that adheres to the second definition of austerity: aggressive cost-cutting. What’s worse is that the government’s approach doesn’t even save money. Austerity has brought new forms of financial waste. Benefit claimants face mandatory “Work Programme” schemes which literally reduce their chance of finding work. A generation of health ministers, from all the established political parties, allowed hospitals to be built on a legacy of unpayable debt. Similar private finance contracts have seen schools in Scotland falling down barely ten years after they were built.

I will vote for politicians who are austere, in the real sense of the word. I will vote for politicians who cycle, use the NHS, dress unfashionably and publish mundane tax returns. I will vote for a party that would tax inherited wealth to create more level playing fields in health, housing and education.

Prime Minister, you have to go. Take the whole government with you, because my austerity is not your austerity.


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