George Osborne leaves10 Downing Street on October 7, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne is rewriting history on austerity

The Chancellor's criticis never said that there would be no recovery, only that it would be painfully slow. And they were right.

George Osborne is in Washington today to deliver what has been billed in advance as his "I told you so" speech. With the IMF forecasting that Britain will grow faster than any other G7 country this year, the Chancellor has decided to round on his critics. In a preview of his AEI speech in the Wall Street Journal, he writes: "pessimistic predictions that fiscal consolidation was incompatible with economic recovery have turned out to be comprehensively wrong."

To the extent that growth last year was stronger than expected, Osborne can claim some vindication (almost alone, his chief economic adviser Rupert Harrison predicted that the economy would be "going gangbusters"). But in claiming that his critics have been proved "comprehensively wrong" (who could he possibly have in mind?), he is engaging in a crude rewrite of history. Contrary to the Chancellor, his Keynesian opponents never said that there would be no recovery, only that it would be painfully slow. 

And they were right. More than five years after the financial crisis, GDP is still 1.4 per cent below its pre-recession peak. The US, by contrast, is more than 5 per cent above. To this, the Conservative riposte is that the UK suffered a bigger crash than any other major country, with output falling by 7.2 per cent from peak to trough. But as Larry Summers noted during his recent face-off with Osborne at the World Economic Forum, "The deeper the valley you are in, the more rapidly you are able to grow." 

The tardiness of the recovery cannot be blamed on the Chanceller alone. The eurozone crisis, the rise in global commodity prices and the fragility of the banking sector have all constrained growth. But it is precisely for these reasons that wise minds counselled him against austerity. As Ed Balls warned in his Bloomberg speech in 2010, Osborne was "ripping out the foundations of the house just as the hurricane is about to hit". Hippocrates’s injunction to "first, do no harm" should have been his watchword. Instead, with the private sector already contracting, he chose to tighten the squeeze. VAT was raised to 20% and infrastructure spending was slashed by 42% (an act even coalition ministers now concede was reckless). 

We are still paying the price today. The double-dip may have been revised away (growth was 0% in Q1 2012 rather than -0.1%; only an economic illiterate would celebrate that) but the austerians didn't only promise that Britain would avoid another recession, they promised, in the words of Osborne's first Budget, "a steady and sustained economic recovery". What we got was the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. To meet the OBR's original 2010 forecasts, the economy would need to expand by 1.6 per cent each quarter between now and the election. That there is now growth is in spite of austerity, not because of it. Despite his unflinching rhetoric, the Chancellor has adopted his own "plan B" in the form of Help To Buy (the largest-ever state intervention in the mortgage market), higher capital spending and deferred deficit targets. 

Even judging by the flawed metrics he adopted in 2010, Osborne has failed. Britain has lost its AAA credit rating and borrowing is forecast to be £48bn higher this year (£108bn) than promised in his first Budget. Having originally vowed to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-2015, he has been forced to extend this pledge by three years to 2017-2018. 

But despite this track record, Osborne is still offering his services as a forecaster. He predicts that those who argue that "the link between living standards and economic growth has broken, will also be proved wrong" (again, who could he possibly have in mind?) The Chancellor's boast is not just that wages will finally crawl above inflation this year (after falling for the longest period since 1870) but that the proceeds of growth will be fairly shared. 

He may well be right (and let us hope he is). But the experience of the US, where the wealthiest 1 per cent have captured 95 per cent of the proceeds of post-recession growth, shows why it would be complacent to assume as much. Even after real wages start to increase, there will be no rise in living standards for the millions of public sector workers who have had their salary increases capped at 1 per cent (nearly half the rate of inflation) and for those most reliant on benefits. That Osborne knows all of this (indeed, as Chancellor, he's responsible for it) makes his sanguinity all the more puzzling. Having recovered from his "omnishambles" low, the Chancellor is setting himself up for a fall all over again. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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