Losing the argument on cuts

David Cameron continues to preach to the converted.

At Left Foot Forward, the Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala offers a very interesting analysis of the debate over the government's deficit reduction and spending cuts programme. Katwala's principal claim is that the government has "lost ground over one of its central arguments" – that the cuts will "meet the fairness test".

Using YouGov polling which asked voters, between June and December 2010, whether they thought the spending cuts were being done fairly or unfairly, Katwala has produced a "fair cuts index" which appears to show pretty conclusively that popular attitudes have shifted decisively against the government, By mid-September, the index showed a net fairness rating of -21. And the Spending Review the following month failed to yield a "fairness bounce" for the government. There is a lesson to be drawn from this, he says:

[O]pponents of the government's agenda have been relatively effective – on the question of fairness – at persuading the middle ground of public opinion, while the government appears to have been much more guilty of preaching only to the already converted. The attitudes data presents an important blow to a government "narrative" that all reasonable people understand that the cuts are necessary and fair – and that the opposition is made up of a smattering of "denialists" and refuseniks who would always oppose everything they do. This is a popular argument with commentators who champion the government – but it does not seem to be persuading many people beyond the core 30 per cent of the electorate who have always been satisfied with the government's strategy. The content and tone of the government's "there is no alternative" argument risks patronising a considerable swath of opinion, which was at least open to the government's argument six months ago.

If his appearance this morning on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show is anything to go by, that's a lesson that David Cameron has yet to learn – he was deploying "Tina" for all it was worth. Marr in fact raised the issue of fairness, pointing out that VAT, which the government has raised to 20 per cent, is a regressive tax.

Cameron played a dead bat and dodged the question: "You have to ask . . . what if we weren't dealing with the deficit." As if the government had no alternative to raising VAT. Indeed, he stuck to the Tories' pre-election playbook throughout the interview. So there were the ritual invocations of "Labour's job tax", numerous reminders of the "vast pit of debt [the government was] left" and the "mess" the coalition inherited in May.

He even conjured the spectres of Ireland and Greece, though, as David Blanchflower points out in the current issue of the New Statesman, "What has happened in Greece and Ireland is largely irrelevant." And there was barely a word about "fairness".

Katwala ends his piece by observing that the government is coming under pressure from the "anti-egalitarian right" to abandon talk of fairness altogether:

Supporters of the government from the anti-egalitarian right – voiced by Policy Exchange and ConservativeHome – is that the coalition government made a mistake in making the "fairness" claim for its deficit reduction programme, and an even bigger one in seeming to accept distributional analysis as an important part of "fairness". The argument is that the government should drop the fairness claim – or at least reframe it, rejecting distributional analysis in favour of a different argument about who deserves what. The housing benefit argument is one area where the government is trying to do this.

Whether reframing the debate as one of desert will be a more effective strategy for the government remains to be seen. But this is a useful reminder to those on the egalitarian left that considerations of desert and reciprocity have been as important a part of the debate about "fairness" in this country as have questions about redistribution.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage