"There will be some redundancies," George Osborne told MPs insouciantly as he delivered his Spending Review (SR) on 20 October and confirmed 490,000 job losses in the public sector over the next four years. The day before, just 3,000 people from across the UK arrived in Westminster to join a "rally and lobby" organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) against the Chancellor's spending cuts.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, French workers took to the streets for a seventh straight day of protests against their government's attempt to raise the retirement age by just two years, from 60 to 62. More than a million protesters have been disrupting schools, oil refineries and transport networks in France. "It's the street," Didier Caron, a striking Renault employee told reporters. "If the street works well, it could still win."
Despite media-induced memories of the Winter of Discontent, the British no longer do strikes, and certainly do not take to the streets in the same way as our confrères on the Continent. Or is that about to change? The phoney war is over. We are now a nation divided. The axe has fallen. The bloodletting has begun. Choose your own preferred metaphor or cliché, but the cuts to public spending announced in the SR are unprecedented in size, scope and speed. Council budgets slashed by 7 per cent every year for four years; 19 per cent off departmental budgets over four years.
Don't blame us!
“The deficit made us do it," squeal members of the Con-Dem coalition, from Prime Minister David Cameron downwards. Ministers have long pretended that these cuts are for the common good. And in his speech to his party's conference, Osborne claimed to be a One-Nation Conservative while dismissing his opponents as self-serving: "On the other side is Ed Miliband and the trade union leaders who put him where he is. The national interest or the vested interests."
Put to one side for a moment the long list of notable figures who have spoken out against Osborne-style austerity measures, from Barack Obama to a string of Nobel Prize-winning economists (including the latest laureate, Christopher Pissarides of the LSE) and focus instead on the curious phrase "the national interest". The idea that ministers are guided by the interests of the public at large, rather than those of the insular and privileged elite from whom they are drawn, is laughable. Coalition ministers – Tories and Liberal Democrats alike – have little experience of unemployment or life on benefits; in fact, of any economic hardship whatsoever. Twenty-two out of 29 cabinet ministers (76 per cent) are millionaires, 19 out of 29 (66 per cent) were educated at private, fee-paying schools and 19 out of 29 (66 per cent) are Oxbridge graduates.
Is this a cabinet guided by the national interest, or vested interests? Not since the days of Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s has Britain been governed by politicians representing such a narrow social base. And Supermac and his millionaire colleagues at least believed in the universal welfare state. Cameron and his rich chums, in contrast, are engaged in a war on welfare.
In June, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (net worth: £1m), used an interview with the Sunday Telegraph to urge jobless people to move in order to find work ("Coalition to tell unemployed to 'get on your bike' ", was the headline). In September, Osborne (£4.6m) castigated benefit claimants for making a "lifestyle choice". Earlier this month, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (£4.5m), told poor families to have fewer children.
Are we really "all in this together"? The Department for Education, for example, has cancelled the building of 400 playgrounds. But how will that affect, say, the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin (£1.6m), who has his own tennis court at his home in Somerset? The Department for Culture has scrapped free swimming for children and pensioners, describing it as a "luxury". Why should that concern the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond (£7.5m), who has a swimming pool at his mansion in Surrey? The Department for Transport is relaxing the cap on rail fares, which is expected to lead to fare increases of 10 per cent a year for the next four years. But how will that bother the Chancellor, George Osborne (£4.6m), who once claimed £440 from the taxpayer for a chauffeur-driven car to take him from his Cheshire constituency to London?
Plutocracy extends far beyond the cabinet table. The Topshop boss Philip Green (£4.4bn), whose wife lives in the tax haven of Monaco, has been put in charge of cutting government "waste". The former BP chief executive Lord Browne (£45m) has been appointed as the lead non-executive on the Cabinet Office board. The banker Stephen Green (pension pot: £19.1m), outgoing chairman of HSBC, is to join the coalition as a trade minister in December. National interest, or vested interests?
Meanwhile, the millionaire cutters in government have been able to call on the support of their multimillionaire friends in the corporate world. In the run-up to the Spending Review, the Daily Telegraph published a letter from 35 senior business leaders backing the Chancellor's spending cuts and assuring readers that they would "deliver a healthier and more stable economy".
One of the signatories was Ruby McGregor-Smith (salary: £1.1m), chief executive of the outsourcing company Mitie, whose annual report for 2010 notes: "The public sector faces the prospect of considerable pressure on expenditure in the coming years. We believe that this will create significant opportunities for the outsourcing market as contracts will tend to become larger and broader in scope . . . we believe that in subsequent years we will benefit from the efficiency agenda that is expected to impact central and local government." National interest, or vested interests?
To point out that cabinet ministers will be largely untouched by the cuts that they are introducing, or that austerity measures could enrich their private-sector pals, is neither "class war" nor the "politics of envy". The financial crash transformed public attitudes towards the privileged and the wealthy, the undeserving rich. I suspect voters will not stomach a diet of cuts, cuts, cuts imposed by millionaire ministers and backed by corporate barons and bonus-rich bankers. Even if Britain is not France. Yet.