On Wednesday, the coalition government delivered a dud Queen’s Speech demonstrating that they have run out of ideas, apart from insisting, like deranged automata, that their inflexibility and lack of vision is actually helpful. In the House of Commons, David Cameron claimed that the Queen’s Speech was “about a government taking the tough, long-term decisions to restore our country to strength, dealing with the deficit, rebalancing the economy and building a society that rewards people who work hard and do the right thing.”
That is ridiculous, of course, as the Tory-led government’s mania for austerity has pushed Britain into a double-dip recession, and rewards are the last thing being visited on “people who work hard and do the right thing.” Instead, the ordinary hard-working people of Britain are being squeezed financially and besieged by ministers whose only message seems to be to tell people to be permanently insecure, while the only people who really matter to those in power — those rich enough not to feel the squeeze — continue to get richer through their dubious investments in property, their exploitative ventures around the world, and their shareholding in private companies profiting or preparing to profit from the destruction of the state (as with the NHS, for example).
In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins did a good job of kicking the government, as they deserve to be kicked, in an article entitled, “George Osborne’s growth policy is turning British cities into Detroit UK.” Jenkins began by noting, with reference to the pan-European obsession with austerity over the last two years, that “Europe’s collective response to the 2008 credit crunch ranks with the treaty of Versailles and German reparations among the great follies of history.”
However, while Greece, France, Spain and Italy are challenging the damaging effects of austerity, here in the UK the chancellor, George Osborne, backed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, “have no more idea of what to do next,” as Jenkins put it. Explaining that those who warned that the government “risked double-dip recession by over-suppressing demand have been proved right,” he added that Osborne “raised VAT to 20%, tightened benefits and allowed banks to restrict credit (while saying the opposite),” and “declared that private sector growth would more than compensate for public sector contraction.” That notion was always ridiculous, as the liberalisation of the financial sector (which led to the 2008 crash that caused our current woes) and the outsourcing mania of the last 25 years have made sure that there are no more prospects for growth in the West unless there is some genuine vision and economic stimulus from government.
Nevertheless, Osborne, echoing Cameron’s inflexibility, has insisted that there is no alternative to his kamikaze austerity mission. As Jenkins noted, he arrogantly refused to listen, in December 2010, when the most senior civil servant in the land, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, called for a Plan B. As the Guardian described it at the time, he “urged the Treasury to prepare contingency economic stimulus plans, including fresh capital spending on infrastructure, in case economic growth falters,” at the same time that Vince Cable, the business secretary, expressed his concern about the direction of Treasury policy, describing officials as “thirties fiscal fundamentalists.”
Simon Jenkins also explained that “it was clear 18 months ago that demand was collapsing,” but that the government’s “obsession with rescuing banks” dominated their concerns until it was too late and “the gangrene of double-dip set in.” He added, “Britain is now having one of the worst recessions in the OECD [the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development].”
Even in London, the effects can be seen, as shops and businesses close in all but the most aspirational neighbourhoods, where those with money cluster, and professional couples still shackle themselves to huge mortgages to avoid the out-of-control rents that are the only other alternative, leeching disposable income from workers everywhere — and out of the general economy — to feed property owners’ sense of entitlement.
Elsewhere, however, the effects are ruinous. As Jenkins explained, “From Cumbria to Corinth it has been left to ordinary voters, to the great Babel of democracy, to bring reality to bear on those who manage economies. Enough austerity, they have cried, try something that works.” Jenkins noted that Andrés Velasco, the former Chilean finance minister, has written that “it is ‘insane’ to envisage countries locked in a common currency slashing their deficits while trying to promote growth: it is a contradiction in terms.”
He added, perceptively:
In Britain the only growth the Treasury has recognised so far has been to turn to the banks. It is like asking the mafia to promote honesty in local government. Ministers pleaded with bankers to lend more to real people, and even printed the money for them to lend. The banks simply carted the loot from the mint and used it to pay off their gambling debts. There is no evidence that one penny of the hundreds of billions of pounds made available “leaked” into the productive economy.
In addition, in order to appreciate first-hand how ruinous two years of this government’s austerity obsession has been elsewhere in the UK, Jenkins was recently in the north of England, travelling “on the road north out of Manchester towards Rochdale,” where, he noted, “The scene is one of utter devastation. Not just individual shops but entire parades have gone out of business and are boarded up. Mile upon mile of factories, garages, supermarkets and warehouses lie empty and for sale. Recession has delivered the coup de grace to a quarter century of manufacturing decline. Manchester is by no means the worst hit of English cities, but its northern suburbs are Detroit UK.”
The answer? Short of the mass occupations of empty buildings and land that I envisage — much like the squatters after the Second World War — Jenkins focuses on the need for the government to do a U-turn, create a Plan B and stimulate demand:
The British economy needs three things: demand, demand, demand. It needs cash in pockets and cash in tills. It does not need richer banks or easier credit lines or looser regulation. It needs that old Keynesian salve, money in circulation. If money can be showered short term on banks, it can be showered short term on consumers, whether through benefit handouts, vouchers, tax holidays or scrappage schemes. Osborne declares quantitative easing to be off his debit sheet. He can do the same for temporary boosts to the money supply.
Moreover, if Osborne claims that “boosting demand is inflationary,” Jenkins has an answer: “this is the least serious threat to Britain at present. Look at youth unemployment, shop prices or interest rates. Visit the outskirts of any British city. Britain is bursting with unused capacity. Inflation is for another day, not now.”
Instead, of course, the Tories and Lib Dems, as obsessed as all governments are with corporate interests and grand schemes, remains fixated on throwing money away on vanity projects that will do nothing to stimulate demand. As Jenkins noted:
Osborne is already spending or planning billions of pounds for new railways, tunnels under London, wind turbines and aircraft carriers. There are murmurs of power stations, toll roads and ecotowns. The portfolio of ideas flowing through Whitehall reflects the interests of those whom Whitehall meets — government contractors, land-owners, estate developers and the bankers who finance them. It comes from government departments lobbying for airports, colleges, roads and hospitals.
The reason why the Treasury likes such projects is that they make headlines for ministers and can be controlled from the centre. Also, few involve big spending now. They are slow growth, lobbyists’ growth, dumb growth. They can be farmed out to private finance and are more likely to fuel the next boom than ease the present slump.
Instead, as Jenkins points out, it “would be better by far to import the US concept of “smart growth”, described on its website as “a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.”
Or, as Jenkins puts it, “smart growth” channels hugely important spending “to the renewal of existing communities and infrastructure, to where there are already roads, transport, schools and hospitals. It restores, infills and stimulates activity where the social and physical framework is in place. It is productive and ‘sustainable.’”
While Simon Jenkins was in Manchester, Owen Hatherley, the author of Militant Modernism: A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, was reflecting on Bradford, and the Hole, a giant crater in the city centre where a shopping centre was supposed to have been built, which I took note of during my visit to Bradford two years ago. As he explained, it “sat unused for about four years before becoming a ‘temporary urban garden’” and a site that offers new perspectives on the buildings all around — something that I also noticed, and always do in London, whenever I encounter a vast building site, in the City of London in particular.
As Hatherley noted, the Bradford Hole “is a sign of failure and a source of anger,” because of the corruption and ineptitude of elected representatives and corporate interests, but it is “also a place of possibility and potential.”
This leads him to ask, “After the bankruptcy of cities based on retail and speculation, what now could fill the empty spaces of British towns?” and to explain:
One of the greater disappointments since the bubble burst in 2008 has been in the way these holes haven’t been filled with new ideas — at least not yet. Councils, usually — and now especially — Labour-controlled, have faced derelict spaces, developers pulling out and regeneration schemes caving in, and have generally responded by desperately hoping that it’ll be 2007 again sometime soon.
In Southampton, for instance, a “master plan for renaissance” advocates demolishing the city’s post-war retail street, Above Bar, and building bigger shops in its place, then building another shopping mall in a disused post-crash site. Other proposals entail building apartment blocks on what is now light industrial space near the port. Somehow, in a prolonged economic crisis, planners and councillors have looked at the wastes and thought: “What we need here is a better retail offer and some buy-to-let flats.”
Describing the “failure of imagination” revealed in these plans as “mind-boggling,” Hatherley added:
Everywhere you look in the UK’s built environment there’s a collective refusal to admit that the game is up. Aside from commissioning instantly dated Blairite master plans, an easier way is to attempt to paper over the cracks. In Redcar, North Tyneside, and much of north Kent, virtual shop fronts hide the dereliction with photographs of shoe shops, sports shops and record shops where they might once have been.
Photos of what will eventually be there can still be seen on buildings left derelict in Sheffield, where Sevenstone, a Liverpool One-style “outdoor” mall, is still being desperately awaited by councillors, despite the lack of desire for it from either residents or retailers. Meanwhile, Castle Market, the city’s down-at-heel but unique multilevel indoor palace of small retailers, exactly the sort of place that people always say they want in their city, non-corporate, small-scale, individual, is to be replaced with a flat box next to the someday-to-arrive Sevenstone, with rents that will price out many of the old market traders. The site is to be replaced with a “mixed-use office development”, this being the home of inept outsourcing vulture A4e. Nearby, the old National Union of Mineworkers building is scheduled to be replaced by a casino. In British cities today, derelict sites are being given the most depressing uses by councils — or they’re being occupied.
In contrast to these failures of imagination, Hatherley explained that new ideas, from those living in cities, need to be allowed, pointing out that it was in cities where “the ‘civic gospel’ was preached, where publicly owned transport and publicly owned utilities were first created, and where civic planning led to public libraries and public housing.” He also noted, crucially:
During the last crisis of this size, in the 1930s, architects and planners put out proposals for what cities could look like if they weren’t dominated by rentiers. Today, architects and thinktanks give us “pop-ups”, boutique shopping, happenings and art “follies” to hide the holes. The contrast with the instant universities, health centres and libraries of the Occupy movements is telling.
After wondering whether we will ever “see the architecture foundations and civic trusts commission an architectural competition for, say, a new generation of council houses,” Hatherley concludes by expressing support for “the spaces vacated by a bankrupt neoliberalism” that “are sometimes forcibly taken anyway, like the occupied Bank of Ireland building in central Belfast, which squatters plan to turn into a homeless shelter,” and adds, “Hundreds of new councillors can now look afresh at these empty spaces. They should be looking to the occupiers, rather than the developers.”
It is not clear if most new councillors — like their more ambitious counterparts in Parliament — are up to the job of looking beyond the illusion that more shops and more flats are the way forward, when, to be blunt, the money is drying up, jobs are being lost and credit has been permanently frozen, but it is certainly the time for it, and perhaps those with vision can start persuading politicians that the crisis needs a new way of thinking. Certainly, as it stands now, at every level of government, those who who got themselves elected because they claim to want to lead are demonstrating, for the most part, a counter-productive myopia that is thoroughly uninspiring.
So if you’re interested, read up on “smart growth”, think about implementing local initiatives like the communalism initiated in Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, and consider that a huge focus on loosening the restraints on small-scale entrepreneurship — via tax breaks, rent restraints and applying the brakes to exorbitant taxation at the local level — would also benefit the UK, where we have a great amount of creativity, but not enough support for it. And as we gear up for a summer of grand, pointless gestures that will benefit no one — hello, the Olympics! — I’d also like to voice my support for a large-scale occupation of empty properties and empty land, to create homes and small businesses that can start up from nothing.
Note: For further information about James Chadderton, the artist whose image was used above, visit his website or see this BBC page. Please also note that the use of this image is not meant to be critical in any way of Manchester, the city of my birth. If I could have found a good apocalyptic picture of London I would have used it instead. Perhaps James Chadderton could be persuaded to create an apocalyptic image of the City of London?
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Digg, cosmicsurfer wrote:
“In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins did a good job of kicking the government, as they deserve to be kicked, in an article entitled, ‘George Osborne’s growth policy is turning British cities into Detroit UK.’ Jenkins began by noting, with reference to the pan-European obsession with austerity over the last two years , that ‘Europe’s collective response to the 2008 credit crunch ranks with the treaty of Versailles and German reparations among the great follies of history.’”
Great to hear some journalist tell the truth – in the US, they are owned by the Wall Street pigs that are succeeding in taking the country – and the people STILL too blinded by blather to comprehend it.
Austerity us a sham brought by neo-liberals to create a global feudal state and they are succeeding right on the timeline.
Sure the people are beginning to complain but will it be too late?
Revolution is inevitable but the question is whether or not the plutocratic puppet governments will unleash their security goons on their own people?
Thanks, cosmicsurfer. The main question here in the UK, as I was trying to get at, is whether, if we we can get the Tories out, we can actually create a viable alternative. Labour needs to come up with a new vision – which they seem to be incapable of – and while it’s important for Occupy, UK Uncut and other groups to argue for a new force in national and international politics, I’m increasingly coming to believe that people need to find ways to implement radical plans at a local level, and then insist that councils help them – occupying empty buildings and empty land, pushing for breaks to create viable businesses from nothing. The cost of living is insanely high, and too many pigs are at the trough, bleeding ordinary workers dry with almost ever transaction they have to make. We’re doomed if we don’t work out how to create much, much more self-sufficiency and get rid of all the middlemen, trousering profits without actually doing anything productive.
On Facebook, in response to the question I posed in my article, “How Can We Stop the Tories’ Relentless Destruction of Britain?” Graham Ennis wrote:
You can’t. It’s already past the point of return. The Scots are voting with their feet, and others will follow. The economic situation, with 4.8 trillion in national debt, is unsolvable. (450% of the GDP, versus only 50% in America). The repressive surveillance state, a stupid and incompetent ruling class, and a slump into serious economic depression, is going to lead to a massive backlash, which will be repressed. I give it another 3-5 years, and then all hell will happen.
Wow, grim prognosis, Graham. I’m not sure where you’re getting your figures from, though. My investigations suggest that UK debt is about 85 percent of GDP, and the US’s is about 103 percent. I agree about the rest of your analysis, though – the “repressive surveillance state, a stupid and incompetent ruling class, and a slump into serious economic depression,” although that’s pretty widespread, except – hopefully temporarily – for the particularly – uniquely, excessively – stupid and incompetent leaders we’re saddled with at present. I’m not as pessimistic as you – although I could be, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t see yet that we’ve reached the point of no return, although we need some serious awakening, and sooner rather than later!
I have read the articles from Simon Jenkins and others and agree with what has been conveyed. Simon Jenkins also wrote a very good article concerning the ‘ war on terror ‘ which I don’t believe is a totally separate issue. We seem to have a situation where the Labour Party and a few sympathizers are saying we need to stop many of the economic cutbacks and the rush towards privatization. The Conservatives say we need to cutback just about everything; even if this brings great hardships for many. They also tell us that privatization of much of the public sector is the way forward. This about sums things up; but no one seems to look any further than this. Vast numbers of ordinary people don’t seem to really know anything other than faded memories of some crass headline in the Sun, whilst politicians only care about elections and what actions will be ‘ vote getting ‘ moves for elections. I believe this is about more than this, it’s about what sort of privatization and oversight, accountability and more. We have seen the whole government infrastructure’s denial of wrong doing related to the war on terror. We will see the same denials from the same companies and government once again, but this time with the British economy. The whole country may well become another mad plutocracy; that will serve the purposes of those very same people who have caused the problems highlighted on this web site.
Thanks, Peace Activist. Always good to hear from you, and thanks for pointing out the connections between management of the state and management of the “war on terror.” they are indeed connected. Reading trough your comments, however, I was struck, as I always am, by the absolute blundering wrong-headed myopic cruelty of the Tories, whose cuts are not benefitting the country, as workers who lose their jobs must be supported, and cannot contribute financially to the economy as a whole. It’s so obviously counter-productive that I realise that my blood boils when I think of it because these idiots’ fixation with their pet economic theories is only regarded as sound by them because it so perfectly matches their outlook on life – survival of the fittest, and punishment of the poor, and especially of the “undeserving poor.” As I’ve said before, that’s the mentality that led to the creation of Hitler’s death camps.
Graham Ennis wrote:
Well, I am working on the debt thing. I have heard figures of three trillion, and four point eight trillion, for the debt. if its 85% of UK GDP, then it’ nudging towards a trillion. I would generally trust your figures, so will check this one. But still very serious. The UK has no significant remaining industrial base, it’s de-industrialization, and transfer abroad of production. This means that there is no actual wealth producing basis for most UK general population jobs and activity, its all endless sales and marketing, consumer activity, and digital debt. Actual real wealth creation, as opposed to wealth manipulation, is a minority of UK economy. The situation however, is much more likely to explode as the Tory ideological program unfolds. They are quite ruthlessly using the financial crisis as an excuse to rill back the clock 70 years or more, I think. There long term goal is destruction of the 1945 “Settlement”. This is siply going to produce an explosion, and large scale instability.
This page is interesting, Graham: http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_debt
I agree, however, with the nub of the problem. We continue to outsource everything, we continue to sell off whatever companies are British-owned, without a qualm, and we continue to allow companies to make people unemployed when they don’t have an excuse for doing so.
Today I was in Marks & Spencer’s in Greenwich, and when I came to buy my sandwich there were four tills, but only one was manned; meanwhile another member of staff was encouraging customers to use one of the five self-service tills, which will soon put him out of work. When I complained to the person serving me, he told me that many – perhaps he even said most – customers complain about the self-service tills. What excuse is there for companies to do this, when we have an unemployment epidemic? What possible reason can the government have for not intervening and making companies employ people when they can afford to do so, rather than laying them off and replacing them with self-serve machines?
Anyway, I’d like to set up a campaigning group on this issue – genuinely – if anyone’s interested.
In the meantime, Graham, yes, the Tories are all set to take us back to the 18th century, I think, the vile scumbags.
Graham Ennis wrote:
Sadly, Andy, if things in the Middle East do not settle, or the American Dollar collapses, we are going to go a lot further back than the 18th century. Welcome to the new feudalism
Yes, my favourite analogy is that having Cameron and Osborne stupidly hastening our decline is like the 18th century – but with Twitter! – although I don’t always stop there while winding back the clock. The new feudalism is a distinct possibility, although a government that gets its own police force on strike may not be the one actually qualified to implement it!
cosmicsurfer wrote (in response to 2, above):
That brings another question – will the new boss be the same as the old boss?
I hope there is time to build from the ground up – good luck with it…
The warrior in me sees the need to develop battle plans while the Gandhi me hopes for peaceful resolution where there is no place for battle plans
Same as in the US, I think, cosmicsurfer. Can we the people overcome the apathy and the mistaken selfishness of our comrades in the 99 percent? If so, we can probably leave the metaphorical pitchforks in the metaphorical barn. If not, then we’re in deep trouble …
Graham Ennis wrote (in response to 10, above):
Thanks for the ref to spending, though. But when you add in the UK personal debt, the credit cards, the Banks’ debt, and all the digital money that has been pumped into the country, to keep the banks afloat, its a dangerous situation. A war in the Middle east, that is still possible this year, could land us all in the brown stuff.
To be honest, Graham, I’m more worried about how internal dissent may be crushed than I am about Terror War III – after Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran, with its huge population, isn’t in the same league. That one could be Armageddon – and I don’t think we can afford it when we’re all supposed to be believing in austerity. Then again, it depends on the extent of the “war.” Libya took place when we were already in Tory austerity, of course, and apparently without a penny in the world.
Graham Ennis wrote:
Well, they got a useful oil concession for BP, thats a start, and other economic deals. That war actually made a profit.(For the Tories’ bent City of London friends). But the internal issue is serious. The total implementation of the national surveillance state will be complete, when the new internet bill, etc. is law. In the meantime, the Courts are showing a certain tendency to a bit more independence, but it’s patchy, and the Government is ignoring Court Orders it does not like, (such as re the NHS.) The trend is towards more and more repression. I expect, if I stay, that people like you and me will end up under house arrest, or worse. Probably within five years. People have to start thinking about how to continue to resist, inside a UK Stasi type state. no one is thinking about this yet. The East Germans have a long history of resistance, and knowledge, of this, maybe we should ask them about it.
I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that, Graham, but I know where you’re coming from, and why you fear the worst. We certainly don’t live in a time when there’s any hope for a bright shiny future, even if there’ll be a lot of jolly 1950s packaging for the Olympics, and a novelty dog act just won half a million pounds on a “talent” show …
Mezentian Gate wrote:
Spending other people’s money has got to be difficult when either
a) the other people object
b) there isn’t any, or
c) when no one will loan you any
C.f., Greece, Spain, Portugal….. and soon obama’s Amerika
Yes indeed, Mezentian. And it gets very complicated when debt – and the repayment of debt – swallows up any actual money that’s generated. After all, the majority of Greek and Spanish workers are still working. it’s not that there isn’t ANY money, just that most of it is paying off debts that, to my mind, were made illegally.
William James Bickerton-Hudson wrote:
I’d back a ‘stop digitization’ (in Supermarkets, taking our jobs) campaigning group immmediately ..
William James Bickerton-Hudson wrote:
“I’m more worried about how internal dissent may be crushed than I am about Terror War III” ~ Snake Plissken [Escape from New York] is NOT my favourite role, although I am prepped for it ..
William James Bickerton-Hudson wrote:
Its Like the Human’s forgot they INVENTED money – then started taking it out on themselves that they couldn’t achieve possession of all of it for themselves … serves the fuckers right … …
Thanks, William. Good to hear from you, and glad you’re also up for an anti-self-service-tills campaigning group. I’m still thinking about it. A snappy name would be a start …!
The coalition are making necessary cuts to reduce the deficit, which NEEDS to be reduced. Also, they are implementing welfare reform, which anyone with any common sense knows needs to happen in Britain.
Labour allowed welfare dependency,many to be better off working than on benefits,mass immigration, a ‘nanny’ state, and the general destruction of the country.
Also, with regards to your Guantanamo Bay book. Why are you concerned about terrorists who have killed thousands who would kill you in an instant ? What would happen if an enemy was in their hands? They would be beheaded. Write a book about that…….and stop being brainwashed.
Also, regards your post. The recession is WORLDWIDE, and started when New Labour were in power. WAKE UP !
Wow, two birds with one stone, eh? Attack the journalist who doesn’t believe the lies and distortions told about the prisoners in Guantanamo, and who also doesn’t believe the lies and distortions told about the UK deficit. It must be wonderful having such sound opinions, Lucy, based on no detailed knowledge of what you’re talking about. The US intelligence services – you know, the people who are supposed to know what they’re talking abut, unlike me, apparently – have always maintained that no more than a few dozen of the 779 prisoners held at Guantanamo have or had a connection with terrorism. As for the UK deficit, intelligent economists know that you can’t cut your way out of a depression, and sensible people know that whinging endlessly about how it’s always someone else’s fault – Labour, the EU – as George Osborne does, and as David Cameron also likes to do, is a poor substitute for real leadership. And do some research on debts and deficits, will you? You’ll find that other countries – also heavily indebted – are dealing with it differently. And look closely at Osborne – even his friends are now telling him that his experiment has failed, and that he needs to spend to stimulate a depressed economy that he is responsible for.
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