War is sport, sport is war

I feel like I’m spoiling all the fun, but I find it distasteful to reduce the Libya campaign to a fo

IT'S WAR. The Sunday Mirror headline said it all. It wasn't quite the barely restrained glee of Chris Morris's presenter on The Day Today announcing the opening of hostilities, but it wasn't a bus ride away from it, either.

You can get a clue to how we see war by how newspapers are selling themselves through their front pages. The news-stands are covered with more explosions than human faces; the bombs are the story, and the message. One cloverleaf-shaped explosion in particular so beautifully conveys the story that it's on five front pages today. The bombs are the stars.

The Sun veered close to "Gotcha!" territory with today's headline, "TOP GUNS 1, MAD DOG 0", superimposed on the blast. This is war as a football match, war as a thing that can be counted in terms of a score. One-nil to us! "We", the Allied forces, are the "Top Guns"; we are Tom Cruise on a brave but necessary mission against one man, The Mad Dog, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Other newspapers take a different approach. The Independent and Guardian sell themselves on human faces and, in the Guardian's case, the result of those pretty orange bomb clouds: dead bodies. And that brings the reality home. All of a sudden it isn't a cup tie, or a film with a stirring soundtrack where the goodies defeat the baddies, or a distant kaboom on a strip of desert: this is something very real.

Whatever the arguments, or the case for intervention, or the case for intervening in Libya instead of, say, Bahrain or Yemen, this isn't a football match. This isn't a Hollywood film. This isn't one-nil. This isn't half-time. Those beautiful cloverleaf explosions will have people inside them . . . I feel like I'm spoiling everyone's fun, but there it is. I find it a little distasteful to reduce the military campaign to a football score, an away win, a penalty kick.

The Sun was just carrying on the good work from the News of the World yesterday, whose front-page "BLOWN TO BRITS" explosion and cut-out missile carried the same message. Just in case you had any lingering doubts about who was The Bad Guy, the subs helpfully put Gaddafi's face in bright red cross-hairs. To further stoke the jingoism, we were told it was "our boys" who were making the things explode.

This, then, is the tabloid glee of war. Our Boys are attacking The Mad Dog, and it's one-nil already. How can we not support it? How can we not be shocked and awed by the beautiful photos of explosions, the family-friendly pictures, without mangled corpses or that messy business that gets left behind when the clouds disappear? IT'S WAR. War is sport, sport is war. Look away now if you don't want to know the score.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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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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