The True Face of Austerity Britain

For nearly a decade now, austerity has been a defining feature of British government policy. This week, two reports have exposed the stark reality of what austerity has meant for the poorest members of British society. The first came from Human Rights Watch, an international NGO which researches and advocates for human rights. The report focused on food poverty: their key finding was that tens of thousands of families in the UK do not have enough food to live on, and are increasingly reliant on support from charities and non-state organisations. The second was produced by Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. In an even more damning account, Alston described poverty levels as “a social calamity and an economic disaster”, characterising welfare policies as almost Dickensian.[1] In both reports, the key cause of escalating poverty and hardship is clear: government spending cuts. Human Rights Watch explicitly linked escalating levels of food poverty to austerity measures, in particular freezes and caps on benefits allowances, which they condemn as “cruel and harmful policies”.[2] Their report also accuses the government of disregarding the consequences of its actions, having repeatedly “ignored growing warnings and evidence from a range of expert sources that these policies are exacerbating poverty”.[3] In Alston’s words, the British government is responsible for the “systematic immiseration” of a large part of the population.

The news that a UN expert and an NGO which seeks to uncover literal human rights abuses have condemned the policies of the British government should be shocking. Their revelations about the extent of poverty in the UK are appalling – but they are not new. They are merely the latest in a stream of reports and statistics which have continually emphasised the human costs of austerity since 2010. Earlier this year, it was reported that life expectancy for women in the poorest areas of the country had actually fallen between 2012 and 2017.[4] Recent child poverty figures prefigured Alston’s report, showing the normalisation of intense deprivation in many parts of the country – there are now ten parliamentary constituencies in which more than 50% of children live in poverty.[5] And in 2017, research conducted by academics at UCL found that 120,000 additional deaths had occurred since 2010, which can be linked to austerity policies.[6]  

These statistics have been accompanied by the periodic reporting of personal stories of suffering caused by government spending cuts. Stories about the hardships faced by those trying to negotiate the benefits system, facing arbitrary sanctions and impoverishing delays. Or about the desperate people relying on foodbanks to survive. Many testimonies have come from those working in schools or with charities, both of which have been pushed to the forefront of attempts to deal with austerity-related problems. Schools in Leeds in 2017 found that girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford sanitary products, with many teachers using their own money to supply them.[7] In 2018, the New York Times used a primary school in Morecambe, Lancashire, as a case study for the devastating effects of austerity, with teachers reporting stories of hungry children and struggling families.[8]  Alongside these testimonies, there are the more mundane and less quantifiable consequences to austerity which are rarely considered – for instance, what impact is nearly a decade of underfunded education having on a generation of students?

The costs of austerity have been obvious for years. However, the government’s response to the most recent reports mirrors its reaction to previous revelations – denial and obfuscation. They have quoted statistics purporting to show economic growth, and pointed to areas of government spending. Amber Rudd announced that she would be lodging a formal complaint with the UN about Alston’s report.[9] This fits into the wider narrative which the government has sought to present in recent years, in which they have increasingly acted as though austerity is finished – in October 2018, Philip Hammond declared that austerity was coming to an end, promising extra spending on education and health.[10] These statements, as Alston has argued, have little grounding in reality. While spending in some services has increased in recent years, it has not been restored to earlier levels, or been calculated to make up for years of underfunding. For instance, promises of £1.3 billion for social care in 2017 remained well below the £4.6 billion that had previously been cut.[11] Similarly, although wage freezes for public sector workers were removed, their wages have still failed to keep up with inflation.[12] Meanwhile, the universal credit roll-out, periodically delayed since its announcement in 2012, continues in many parts of the country, despite evidence of its disastrous consequences for vulnerable families.

The key issue is the way in which austerity continues to be presented as something that was regrettable but necessary. Hence you can still see politicians lining up to defend the policies of the last nine years.[13] The costs of austerity, never really addressed in these narratives, are implicitly dismissed as by-products of a painful but necessary process on the way to some imagined economic recovery. By this logic, it makes sense to write off the years of cuts, and ignore them when it comes to allocating future spending. It also makes sense to continue policies like universal credit. But this misses the point. Austerity was never necessary – as Portugal has shown, anti-austerity politics can deliver economic recovery.[14] It was always an ideological choice, based on a set of beliefs about how economic recovery could and should be achieved, and what cost was worth paying to achieve this. It was a choice which valued the balancing of the budget and statistical proof of economic growth over the impoverishment of many groups and the exclusion of a large section of the population from any benefits of this growth.  

This political choice is still being made, with tremendous consequences for the most marginalised groups in society. After so many years of continuous cuts, and with so many other pressing political matters to consider, it is easy to become jaded to the statistics and reports which draw attention to these consequences. But we need to retain a sense of horror at the accumulation of misery and hardship which has taken place over the last nine years. This recognition of the human cost of austerity is vital in maintaining demands not just for an end to austerity, but a comprehensive attempt to deal with its consequences.