On Monday night, as the riots spread throughout London, the Home Secretary – freshly returned from her holiday – looked like the proverbial bunny trapped in the headlights of oncoming disaster. She seemed to have lost the facility of coherent speech, repeating again and again the same mantra: the riots were ‘sheer criminality and thuggery’ which are ‘completely unacceptable’, and for which there can be ‘no justification’. The thing is, what is the point of saying this? It is entirely obvious that the riots were acts of wanton criminal damage, and nobody was suggesting that they were in any way ‘acceptable’ or justified. The argument was reprised by the hapless Nick Clegg on his visit to Tottenham when he said, ‘It was needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more, nothing less.’ (By the way, there was an almost classic Thick of It moment when he was confronted by one resident who asked if the cuts would mean that this would now happen all over the UK; Clegg, clearly at a loss, responded with a less-than-resounding ‘Um, I don’t think so…’ Wrong, already.)

The trope that is emerging that there is ‘no justification’ for the riots, or that the violence is ‘sheer criminality’ – ‘no more, no less’ – is a ruse designed to close down explanations. Its purpose is to deliver a paradox, namely that the only explanation is there is no explanation. This suits the politicians very well indeed, because it diverts us away from awkward questions about the relationship of these events to the austerity programme; about the growing inequality and lack of opportunity that have built up over three decades of neo-liberal capitalist fundamentalism; about whether the anger being vented on the streets of the capital might not, in fact, be not so far removed from the anger that so many of us continue to feel about the bankers bringing our economy to the brink of collapse and then getting away with it (and being handsomely rewarded for it too) – after all, it is completely patronising to suppose these young men and women on the streets do not share this completely ubiquitous sense of unfairness; about whether, deep beneath the ‘mindless thuggery’ there might not, in fact, be an explanation after all.

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Some decent articles appeared in the run up to the long-awaited Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) which collectively throw light on both the politics and economics of it all. First up, Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, writing about how Labour really needs to take on the Coalition’s attempt to pin the blame on them for the ‘economic mess’, and that the deficit is all the fault of profligate Labour spending. According to the Budget 2007, the structural deficit stood at just 3% of GDP before the recession struck; now it is 11%. In other words, prior to the recession it was relatively low by historical standards – as Ed Balls pointed out earlier in the summer, Britain went into the recession with ‘the lowest net debt of any large G7 country’, and this is a matter of fact not interpretation. Indeed, using the Treasury’s figures, the accusation that Labour wildly overspent in office just does not add up: public spending during the previous period of Tory rule was higher in all but 4 of the 18 years they were in office than at any point during 1997-2007 (the four years in question being the boom years after the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the City, that period satirised by Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’, 1988-1991).

This is the basis for the first of Freedland’s two killer points. If Labour’s public spending was so wildly out of control, why did Cameron’s Tories (back in his hug-a-hoodie, quality-of-life days) promise to match Labour’s spending plans almost pound for pound? The answer is that clearly it wasn’t. This means, of course, that the size of the deficit now is largely down to the recession and the fiscal stimulus package that prevented disaster turning into catastrophe. Without it, it is likely that recession would have turned into depression, but somehow the Coalition spin machine has successfully managed to make it appear that the medicine was the disease.

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