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Budget

Austerity Isn't 'Ending': the Government Still Wants to Discipline the Poor

Today's budget saw some money spent here and there, but the ideological underpinning of austerity remains.

by Simon Childs
29 October 2018, 6:47pm

Chancellor (Dinendra Haria / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Prime Minister wants to end austerity, but can the Chancellor deliver? That was how today's budget was framed, with Chancellor Phil Hammond struggling to put some flesh on the bones of Theresa May's conference speech announcement that "austerity is over", amid rising tension between 10 and 11 Downing Street.

The whole question seemed to imply a battle between a parsimonious minister in the face of a PM who wants to shake things up, all of which is to buy into the idea that austerity was ever needed in the first place, or that you can take what Theresa May said at face value.

In the end, Spreadsheet Phil went with "Austerity is coming to an end but discipline will remain". So it's not "over", it's "coming to an end", at some point. But "discipline" will remain – for which you can read "austerity".

So really, that's, "Austerity is coming to an end but austerity will remain." If that sounds contradictory, that's because it is.

Austerity is a decade-long ideological project which has seen poor and working class people pay for the financial crash through cutting the supposed largesse of the welfare state. The government is trying to loosen spending up a bit while the effects of that project become even more stark.

That's not to say that Hammond didn’t throw a bit of money around.

There was a one-off £400 million for schools for the "little extras they need", as spending on school buildings has fallen by £3.5 billion, leaving schools with leaking roofs and crumbling walls, for instance.

Among other things, there was money to deal with pot-holes – one of the most obvious day-to-day effects of struggling councils. That won't make a huge difference to local authorities, which are threatening to deliver the "legal minimum" in services. As the Conservative leader of Walsall council, Mike Bird, put it: "Never, ever believe what you hear from central government: austerity is not over."

Perhaps the clearest example of the contradiction comes with Universal Credit. Austerity is coming to an end, there’s plenty of cash on the magic money tree, so they’re spending £2 billion to double down on an unpopular, so-far disastrous policy that has led to a lot of misery, an increase in homelessness and a "culture of indifference" at the DWP.

The policy is designed to incentivise benefits claimants to "do the right thing and work", as Hammond said on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Its architect was Iain Duncan Smith, who believes that the disabled should work their way out of poverty. With the extra money spent, it will be more expensive than the benefits system it replaced.

All of which makes Hammond’s nice and responsible sounding phrase "discipline will remain" somewhat sinister. He may be loosening the purse strings in a few areas, but the miserable Victorian worldview remains.

@SimonChilds13