Bad language

The strange thing about language, the anniversary of the death of Litvinenko, elections in Australia

One of our star turns on newstatesman.com is Victoria Brignell who writes on living life as a 'wheelchair rider' in her regular monthly slot Crip's Column.

This week she turned her wry gaze on the often vexed issue of language. Just how should we talk about disability. It's a useful - if inconclusive - insight into what labels are acceptable. As you would expect, I hope, there isn't unanimity on this issue.

Victoria writes: "I know disabled people who care about terminology passionately and others who aren’t really bothered. But every disabled person will contemplate the appropriateness of descriptions at some point. So what labels do us crips prefer to be stuck on us?"

Click on her pages to find out.

Much else has been turning up on the website. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economy and Policy Research wrote us a piece in which he tried to redress some of the blatant bias in the reporting of Hugo Chavez and the forthcoming referendum in Venezuela. We'll be returning to this subject very shortly.

We've also been focusing on the Australian elections. Ahead of the game we profiled that country's new prime minister Kevin Rudd a few weeks ago.

Then there was the first anniversary of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the perilous state of UK house prices (or otherwise), Sian Berry's London mayoral launch plus a look at Lebanese politics and Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah.

All that plus my interview with Sian's rival for mayor, Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick - the former top Met officer which I'd like to draw special attention to. Oh the power I wield.

Moving back briefly, if I may, to the knotty issue of language. During my lunchbreak I sometimes like to visit the pigeon eating pelicans of St James' Park.

Anyway en route there the other day from Terminal House, I encountered an American family in a tunnel under a busy junction near Victoria Station. Without preamble the mother approached me and said: "Where's the subway?"

I said, given we were in a subway: "Do you mean what we call the Tube or Underground'?" She replied she did and I pointed her in the right direction.

"Is this the subway?" she then asked.

"No," I said patiently, keen to avoid confusion, "this is the underpass."

Anyway I tell you this to demonstrate how confusing language can be because I was watching some TV the other day. Suddenly on my flickering set appeared a bunch of sweaty people who seemed to be dwelling like troglodytes among the jungley tendrils.

One by one these people did a 'piece to camera' and begged to be allowed to remain where they were.

Now, with the exception of Cerys Matthews, whom I eventually identified, they were nothing to celebrate and all insisted they wanted to stay put. Yet I then learned at the commercial break that the programme was called I'm a celebrity get me out of here. Now in this era of dodgy TV shows that can't be right. A more accurate title might be: I'm not a celebrity, leave me where I am. I'm hoping the public will be happy to oblige.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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