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Laurie Penny: The Chancellor’s an economic sadist – and we love it

There's something about punishment and hierarchy that holds a guilty appeal for the British public.

This is going to hurt. Perverts and politicians love a bit of dirty talk and for months the coalition government has been intimating exactly what it is going to do to us, oiling us up with simple, seductive moral offensives on the poor and vulnerable in anticipation of the economic violence to come.

This past week it was university funding; before that, it was child benefit. Now, Chancellor George Osborne's cuts have been revealed in all their glory and no government department has been saved from the coalition horsewhip.

Unsure where the first blow would fall, the country seemed to freeze into some kind of rigid inertia, refusing to acknowledge the totality of our barelyelected leaders' assault on social democracy, on the postwar Attlee settlement, on welfare and health care and everything that once made life on this rainy island bearable. The proper term for this approach is not "economic masochism", in the shadow chancellor's phrasing, but fiscal sadism.

Power games

Only politicians and perverts truly understand sadism. Amateurs think that sadism, fiscal or otherwise, is about hurting people. They are mistaken. Sadism is not about pain. It is about power. It is about the power to inflict pain at random, for no reason, with the most cartoonish and fetishistic of implements, just because you can.

Sadism is about having the power to decide when and if and how much to hurt people, because that kind of control makes you feel important, because that's how you get off.

This is precisely the sort of power play we are dealing with, on both a national and a global scale, as the oligarchies of the world react to the public humiliation of the recession with whiplash efficiency. The phenomenon of fiscal sadism is not unique to this government, although the wet-towel-whipping changing rooms of exclusive private schools do perhaps foster a specific fetish for kinky brutality.

The fiscal sadism of these cuts is part of an international war on social democracy whose agenda is mutating into a terrifying form of kamikaze capitalism. However this government wishes to dress up its decisions, whether in the language of economic pretext or a little rubber dress, there is still no pressing reason for these cuts to be made at such colossal speed, in so calculatedly regressive a fashion, besides the ugly Conservative conviction that poverty is a moral failing.

There are patently more efficient ways to make savings than slashing the heart out of the welfare state. For example, the money saved from George Osborne's crackdowns on benefit fraud could be recouped simply by persuading one man -- the government's efficiency tsar, Philip Green, to pay his taxes like the rest of us. This is not about saving money. This is about control. They plan to hurt us because they want to show us that they can.

The truly awful thing, though, is that we like it. There's a guilty appeal to the easy narrative of punishment and hierarchy, especially if it seems -- whisper it -- that only people worse off than us will really be taking the full whack of the Chancellor's changing-room economics. The French, who, as amply demonstrated this month, don't quite have our fetish for grumbling political obeisance, describe bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM)
as "the British perversion"; perhaps there is something in our national character that delights in ritualised deference, especially if it stings a bit.

Make it hurt

It can be grotesquely reassuring to know that someone else is taking charge, even if they're doing so cruelly. Just as sadism is about power, masochism is about the pleasurable surrender of power.

The right-wing press has squealed in gleeful horror every time a new cut was announced, their only real objections being to the relatively minor excisions from the defence budget. Unfortunately, nobody has yet questioned whether there will be anything left worth defending when the Tories have finished slashing the state into submission.

I have many dear friends who enjoy a little private torment, but the proper place for savage power play is not the theatre of politics. Those in power have co-opted us into a dangerous game of kamikaze capitalism and if we want to continue to live in a country with pretensions to freedom, tolerance and justice, we have to risk rearing up against our chains and ruining the game. We have to risk a bolder refusal to submit to this sick assault on social democracy.

We need to throw their filthy talk back in their faces, before it's too late.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.