George Osborne Just Delivered the Cosiest Autumn Statement Yet
Nothing's more festive than poverty.
Autumn is, as you'll know from one of the scraps of poetry bouncing around your brain for no particular reason, the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". Your GCSE English teacher probably told you that John Keats was celebrating the late plenitude of life on the edge of death; in fact he was the first person to make an autumn statement cheerily glossing over some disappointing growth figures.
Few people will admit it, but autumn is horrible: the nights hang low and heavy; the daylight hours flash past in what seems like minutes; and the sun can hardly bear to drag itself from the horizon, sulking pale and impoverished and half in bed all day, much like you. The leaves stain with poison and plummet broken to the ground, which is nice until it means you have to plod through four inches of sodden sludge every time you leave the house.
The only consolation for the general enshittening of everything that comes with the autumn months is the lingering magic and the seasonal commonality; all of us huddling close by the last embers of the fire as the cold screams outside. And even that's being taken away: thanks to global capitalism, you can now eat nothing but strawberries all the way through December, and pad around the house in your swimming costume, if you want to. But don't worry: Chancellor George Osborne has finally revealed his mission to bring the magic back to the season, with the cosiest spending review in living memory.
For too long we've been shallow and materialistic. All we think about is money. Will I have enough money to pay the bills? Will I have enough money to eat for the next week? And when we can't make the money ourselves, in our sheer venality we demand it from the state. The Chancellor's autumn budget statement, announced in Parliament today, aims to put that right. Tory policy has always been based on the idea that when state services are cut, families and communities should step in to fill the breach; this was the concept behind David Cameron's "Big Society". But instead of spontaneously coming together to live off our rich parents, much of the country selfishly continued to demand enough money to live. So today, Osborne is heroically forcing us to be cosy, if not quite comfortable.
A 37 percent cut to the Department of Transport will help put an end to the shallow hustle and bustle of modern life, forcing us to stay inside, under the blankets, where it's warm and lovely. With £12 billion cut from welfare over this parliament and new caps to housing benefit, more of us will be forced to sleep on friends' floors or sofas: we can stay up late, telling each other ghost stories, huddling together for body warmth, comradely against the cold, in lieu of the heating we can't afford to turn on.
While the much-loathed "tampon tax" is being kept, the money raised will go to women's charities – especially shelters, which have been badly affected by previous cuts: if this gesture manages to keep them open, then it'll be another form of good old-fashioned ecological self-sufficiency, re-using sanitary products for social needs; and if not, then what's better in these chilly times than the traditional nuclear family staying together through thick and thin? The old autumn is coming back, the ancient autumn that decorated Stonehenge with trails of frost and the blood of sacrifices: the soil freezes over the parsnips, we live in a hut made of sticks and peat, but the rosy glow on our faces as we share a dinner of boiled leather is enough to heat us until spring.
Of course, this being autumn, there's still the profligate harvest feast, held before the gods of soil and sky. Probably the most headline-grabbing feature of today's statement was Osborne's decision to drop his plans for cuts to tax credits. A few months ago, they were absolutely essential, and their defeat in the House of Lords sparked a minor constitutional crisis. Now, they're no longer necessary, and the Chancellor is pleased to present us with the gift of not taking everything away just yet.
As Aditya Chakrabortty points out, he's been able to do this because of some fairly over-optimistic growth forecasts for the years ahead from the Office of Budget Responsibility, whose predictions may as well be gained by staring at the entrails of a raven and declaring that next year will bring a good harvest. It's not exactly living within our means, but this is how seasonal magic works: we collect the summer's wealth, and splurge out a tiny portion of it, in imitation of what our rulers do every night of the year; that way we can pretend that everything is fine, and half our children won't have died come spring.
And so we stare along the black and icy road down to Christmas. The holidays are getting too commercialised, we grumbled. It's all about shiny toys and adverts instead of family and togetherness, we moaned. But did we do anything about it? George Osborne will. Once, mass gift-buying around Christmas was the only thing that kept the economy going over the sullen winter months; now the Treasury must have reckoned that the same effect can be gained by a few Saudi princes helicoptering into Harrod's to buy roughly 12 extremely expensive baubles.
For the rest of us, it'll be a return to the kind of simple, home-made gifts we always whinged about: not flashy, not expensive, but given with love, and without a receipt. Simple folk, sharing what they have, living within their means, all of us poorer, but all of us happier without the glib crudery of riches. Well, not all of us. Not everyone has a family, or support networks, to feed and house them when the winter winds come to chew at their bones. But is there anything more Christmassy than really dire poverty? Doesn't the home seem warmer, don't the candles dance prettier, doesn't everything feel more magical when you know that outside, people are freezing to death on the street?