Bring On the Pain

Will Britain’s massive spending cuts drive Brits onto the streets?

George Osborne

To call the speech British finance minister George Osborne made to the House of Commons Wednesday afternoon “highly anticipated” does the term a disservice. Shortly after the Conservatives formed a government with the Liberal Democratic Party in early May, Osborne announced that he would outline his plans to cut $130 billion from the budget on Oct. 20. The early months of the new administration were conducted in the shadow of this impending “comprehensive spending review.”

The cuts announced today were massive—for details, see the BBC’s summary—but because the media had spent the summer predicting where the ax would fall, many commentators focused on the strategy rather than the size. Writing in the Guardian, Jackie Ashley said, “It’s the oldest game in the book: for a couple of weeks before the chancellor’s statement, swamp the media with scare stories … and hey presto, George Osborne, in denying all these rumours today, can try to make it look as though Christmas has come early.”

Other columnists in the liberal Guardian declared that the government had chosen to kick Britain’s lamest dogs. Said Jonathan Freeland, “The cold, hard political calculation is that it makes more sense for the coalition to hit the poorest and weakest—by making swingeing cuts to welfare—than to whack the middle class or the powerful.” Meanwhile, Osborne “pacified other more crucial voting blocs”—the elderly and other sympathetic groups who know how to mount a heartstring-tugging protest. Aditya Chakrabortty agreed; he reckoned Osborne’s “strategy for achieving his spending cuts is to pick losers”—to minimize the impact on groups that know how to lobby or wield political influence.

Politicians have favored the strong and run over the weak since the days of the cavemen. But what we are seeing here is the ascendancy of the noisy. The smartest protesters have joined the bearers of the deepest pockets in the list of groups that will escape the worst of the austerity measures. The conservative Daily Mail approved of the cuts to the nation’s “bloated welfare budget” but seemed disappointed that the government had budgeted more money for international aid and to tackle climate change.

Climate scientists and international aid workers don’t spend much time at protests, and British elections are publicly funded, so political fundraising works very differently than in the States. But global warming and starving children evoke more passionate feelings in middle-class Middle England than do welfare recipients.

Still, the unemployed are free during the day—now that it’s clear that the squeaky wheel avoids the ax, is Britain going to develop a street-protest culture like that of Argentina or France? Or will the coming tax increases—the spending cuts are intended to do three-quarters of the work of reducing the deficit; tax hikes will take care of the last quarter—lead to a very different kind of British tea party?

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