Why are Britons so willing to accept cuts in public services?
Just to clarify, today's post isn't about you, it's about society as a whole. There will always be individuals who want the government to spend less on things, just as there'll always be individuals who want the government to spend more. That's perfectly natural, that's the way of things, that's politics. But the national mood has most definitely swung behind towards those happy to pay less, those who see cuts to public services as inevitable, those who accept austerity rather than rallying against it. And I wondered why.
Over the last century (and more), governments of all hues have built up considerable public infrastructure to support society. This includes the education system, a national transport network, the state pension, local government services, and of course the NHS. Various sectors have been squirrelled off to the private sector over the years, but we retain a core of key services paid for out of taxation. Your children are educated, your bins are emptied, soldiers defend your borders and your local care home is maintained. But more and more we're being told we simply can't afford to fund services at existing levels and that they must inexorably be cut back. And more and more the British public accepts this as reality, deeming it necessary, even essential, to the wellbeing of our nation. How did we get here?
There was a time when taxes went up as well as down. If the country needed to pay for something we dug our collective hands in our pockets and paid for it, even if we didn't especially enjoy doing so, in recognition of the greater good. We expected council tax to rise to pay for things that councils do, we expected that a better NHS required spending money, we expected to build more schools (and better schools) from the public purse, and we expected beer duty to rise and fall according to the proximity of the next election. The left liked it more and the right liked it less, but as a nation we generally backed the notion that governments spend money.
No longer. Our government is fixed on cutting costs faster than any government has cut before, hacking at departmental budgets across the board. Ministers have been forced to decide what to cull and what to keep, while those in charge of delivery attempt to plead their worth. A lot of this has been paraphrased as "making efficiencies", but after five years there's only so much dead wood left to hack, and the latest cuts go well below the surface. And yet the general public seem generally unfussed. A library goes missing and only a minority blink. Transport subsidies are whittled down and people continue to travel. Social security benefits are scaled back and those who don't need them simply nod. There's heartfelt opposition from the usual quarters, sure, but the majority of Britons aren't fussed.
And it's not just making cuts, it's not allowing spending to rise. Local government grants are capped, and elected authorities specifically barred from raising more. The licence fee is frozen to force the BBC to do more with less. Education authorities are obliged to match rising pupil numbers but prevented from opening new schools. The NHS retains notional protection but lacks the funding required to maintain an equivalent level of services. Decisions have been made and laws passed, essentially hardwiring our social infrastructure to drive itself down. And yet society continues to function, the argument goes, so why the hell were we spending such excessive amounts of money in the first place?
The government has successfully embedded acceptance of cuts into the national psyche. The deficit must be tamed, we're told, often enough that we believe it must be true. By driving home the message that public spending was once wildly irresponsible, we've come to yearn for the comfort blanket of spending less. Austerity must be embraced rather than queried, a philosophy repeated at every opportunity, the battle for hearts and minds now won. Living within our means has become the priority, with those in power able to decree a ceiling on acceptable levels of expenditure. Indeed so transformed is the electorate's mindset that even politicians on the left compete these days to prove their cutting credentials. The economic centre of our country has shifted so far that it's now more acceptable to close a library than to open one. What changed?
Many of us still hold exactly the same views as before, either that public spending is beneficial or that public spending is weak. So what must have changed are the opinions of the mainstream; cajoled, encouraged and convinced to believe that spending less is more. We've become a more self-centred society, unwilling to support others when we could keep that money for ourselves. If a dozen fewer fire engines means more money in our pockets, bring it on. If cutting tax credits for others means that our pensions rise above inflation, what's not to like? If we were interested in going to Birmingham we'd drive, so why subsidise the losers on the train? And yes, it might mean longer to wait for medical treatment in the future, but only sick people need the NHS, so spare cash for a daily cappuccino is much more welcome.
This must be a deep-seated shift, because the Conservatives deliberately promised to make swingeing cuts in the run up to the last election and in spite of this were voted back in. Be it economic caution or a desire to pocket more for ourselves, we're much more comfortable with lower public spending these days and we don't mind the consequences, because that's the kind of country we've become. And so the government's plan to roll back the state sector continues generally unopposed, until by the end of the decade several services will have been dismantled beyond the point at which they could ever be reassembled. Unless these cumulative cuts ever hit home and make us reconsider, expect our nation's transformation to continue.