David Cameron’s speech on cutting the deficit was a softening-up exercise, in preparation for harsh times ahead and for an unprecedented scaling-down of the public sector. And, on this measure or preparedness, he did a very good job.
The necessity to cut – and to cut hard, harder than ever before – is now the prism through which all political decisions are being viewed and judged. Cameron – ably supported by Clegg and his mercenaries – has carefully nurtured in the public mind, the sense that we simply cannot go on like this.
While we all get the need for a shake-up, this presents a real risk that, given the generous mood of the media, an unquestioning acceptance of this logic emerges: the public sector is over-blown, we have a big deficit, therefore everything on the public spending tree is ripe for a brutal prune.
This is a dangerous hop-skip-jump: from identifying waste, to trimming expenditure, to what is fast-becoming an attack on the public sector as a whole. It is motivated as much, if not more, by ideology and by a long-held Conservative (and, apparently, a Liberal Democrat) belief in a small state, than it is by deficit reduction.
One section of his speech yesterday was unsettling, particularly for those, like me, who are of the view that alot of what the public sector does is much-needed and endlessly challenging. Here Cameron fell back on the hackneyed (and deeply flawed) contention which crudely and thoughtlessly runs: ‘public sector bad, private sector good’. This is a snippet what he said:
“…while the private sector of the economy was shrinking, the public sector was continuing its inexorable expansion. While everyday life was incredibly tough for people who didn’t work in the public sector…with job losses, pay cuts, reduced working and falling profits…for those in the public sector, life went on much as before”.
You don’t need to be an expert in semantics to see what Cameron is driving at. I don’t want to downplay the recession, but his picture of unrelenting gloom for the private sector is a falsehood (I could name a few businesses who have made a mint). His ‘inexorable expansion’ shows how the Tories still resist a truism of economics – that when the private sector shrinks (i.e. a recession) then Governments have to act (spend) to stimulate growth. At heart, the Tories still subscribe to the ‘if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working’ theory of economic management.
What really appals though, is the implicit message that the public sector contributes next to nothing to the public good – according to Cameron it just expands and continues ‘much as before’. This is a deliberate slight. Think of a social worker dealing with a child protection case; a police officer confronting a violent offender; a nurse caring a patient back to health. Difficult work, David, worthy of respect? Or work to be belittled and undermined? Where is the compassionate Conservatism now?
Look back to an interview Cameron gave in 2008 when he was fully immersed in his campaign to convince us the Conservative had changed. Read the words carefully.
“The point of modernising the Conservative Party was not so that we could then, under the cloak of respectability, introduce even bigger privatisation programmes….This modernisation wasn’t just so we could produce unpalatable rightwing policies and stuff them down the throats of the unsuspecting British public.”
Cameron reveals himself by protesting too much. Read his words again – to uncrack the code: delete ‘not’, exchange “respectability” for “the deficit”, swap “wasn’t” for “was”. His true colours revealed.
Here he donned the cloak of compassionate Conservatism to convince us his party has changed. His current trick is to use the cloak of the deficit to do the work he and his party have always dreamed of; finishing off the job Thatcher started.