Osborne, the new Victorian

A piece from the Economist lauds George Osborne as he quickly dismantles the British state, “GEORGE OSBORNE is the ultimate Westminster operator. On November 25th, setting out the government’s five-year spending review, he praised colleagues, ditched unpopular cuts to tax credits that had formed the centrepiece of his budget only five months ago, cracked jokes—“We’re not going to make that mistake again,” he deadpanned of a botched government attempt to privatise forests in the last parliament—showered Tory-leaning pensioners with cash and favoured MPs with oinking heaps of pork. A grant here, a spending guarantee there and a kind word for the other guy: the chancellor of the exchequer, who talks of professional politics as a “guild”, was plying his trade with panache”.

It seems Osborne can do no wrong as he makes it harder to be poor, increases the taxes on the poor, makes life for the rich easy by not introducing a rise in income tax and pares back the state either giving it to local government (without the resources) or privatising it, with cuts to policing and health care while continuing the march of the State out of the education system and proposing a market system despite all that has previously happened when such systems have been introduced. The writer makes no attempt to excoriate Osborne for even thinking that his plan over tax credits may have dented his ability to govern for the poorest and most vulnerable in society instead of adhering to nonsense about a smaller state and freer people. The Economist has been criticised elsewhere for its positions.

The piece goes on “It is easy to see why Mr Osborne, with his hurricane of micro-announcements, feints and sleights of hand, is compared to Gordon Brown, his predecessor-but-one. Like Mr Brown as chancellor, he craves the premiership and is prone to short-term fixes and populist gambits. Yet when Mr Brown became prime minister in 2007, it transpired he had little long-term vision. The vacuous, headline-chasing mores of that period were captured by “The Thick of It”, a sardonic television comedy featuring a hapless minister for “social affairs and citizenship” whose grand plan was a “Fourth Sector Pathfinder Initiative”. Mr Osborne walks in the footsteps of a Moses who descended from the mountain with an Etch A Sketch”.

Interestingly the piece does mention, “Is he condemned to the same fate? The consensus is: yes. On the left Mr Osborne is seen as an aristocratic, louche, post-moral dandy. On the Tory right he is considered a metropolitan, louche, post-moral luvvie. Both sides start from the assumption that the chancellor has no big plan and few fixed beliefs. This is wrong. Mr Osborne is a liberal idealist. He bombards aides with accounts of the great Victorian reformers. He badgered Bagehot to reread Mill’s “On Liberty”. Consider the few subjects on which he differs from David Cameron, the prime minister from whom he is otherwise inseparable. Unlike his boss, Mr Osborne was an early Tory supporter of gay reproductive rights, cried at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and has little time for tax breaks for married couples or Sunday trading restrictions”.

Yet Osborne makes the same mistake as many in the United States whose mantra is to end/abolish/shrink the state and let “people” flourish. Yet what will probably, and to an extent is already, happening is that only the richest best connected people will flourish in this new Victorian age that Osborne seems bent on introducing. The poor will become poorer, less heeded and more irrelevant to the political process than ever become as money and politics continue their sickening march together. The state, according to this view has no moral purpose and is seen as an inherent blockage to “progress”. The fact that there are Sunday trading restrictions is good, to abolish them in order to boost economic growth makes little moral sense and diminishes the common good and ignores the social implications.

The piece goes on to praise him “From this outlook stems a vision of the state evident despite Mr Osborne’s tactical tacking. New Labour, the political project that he filleted for lessons for the Tories, governed in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its underlying view was that a civilised society needed the state’s corrective hand. Because he differs from this, many Labour types consider the chancellor a follower of Thomas Hobbes, with his brutal, dog-eat-dog vision of human nature. The chancellor has, it is true, sometimes nurtured this image, characterising welfare claimants as lazy scroungers, for example. Yet Mr Osborne is broadly loyal to the third pole: John Locke, who believed that people tend to be decent, wise and fair. His is an outlook essentially optimistic about human nature but wary of state bloat”.

What the piece omits is that a smaller state will only hurt the poor and be of immeasurable gain to the rich. Without regulation the market will eat itself and effectively take society with it.

The article continues in its praise, “That comes across in his policies—including those outlined on November 25th. The chancellor transferred to councils responsibilities for homelessness and social care and announced that he would wind up their government grant. But he is also letting those authorities control and retain local business-tax receipts. The essence of his vision is thus to scale down the great Whitehall subsidy machine, pushing responsibilities down to citizens, companies and local authorities. Hence the cuts to tax credits should be partly mitigated by a higher minimum wage. Big cities outside London are rapidly gaining powers over their public services and economic fortunes. Housing benefit is being cut as more support is going to housebuilders. Grants to trainee nurses and students are being replaced with loans, and state services increasingly carry user charges (for visa applications and, in some cases, court time). Big companies will soon foot the bill for the apprenticeships from which they benefit. Mr Osborne, in other words, is reducing government’s compensatory role”.

The report goes on to spin this shrinking state as a positive, “Instead the chancellor proposes an enabling state: one that, though offering a limited safety net, concentrates on creating the conditions in which actors can solve their own problems. Thus in 2013 Mr Osborne pushed successfully to lift a cap on university student numbers, has cut corporation tax (and wants to cut it further) and is now pumping cash into infrastructure and science. He often fails to live up to the credo; he has done too little to curb old-age and middle-class welfare, spur house-building, or plug gaps in skills. Yet this does not detract from the vision that—once the thick layers of hyperactive political pragmatism are stripped back—serves as the lodestar of his chancellorship”.

The piece ends frightenly, “The chancellor stands a good chance of running Britain for a while if, as seems probable, he succeeds Mr Cameron in a few years. If he does, his priority will be to win the next election. But in the process, and especially if he succeeds, the outcome could be a state transformed: committed to forging a benign environment for individuals, firms and municipalities, but less willing to meddle in how they proceed—or to catch them when they fall”.

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