If there was anyone, at the start of the week, who still believed that the UK’s coalition government was in any way progressive, then the events of the past few days have surely disabused them of this ridiculous notion.
On Monday, David Cameron announced that roads were, in effect, no longer a public good. They would be built and run by the private sector for profit, saving the government (and citizens) money. But that’s unlikely to be the case. The New Labour years taught us many things, one of which was that in the long term it is more expensive for the private sector to run such public services. Hospitals built on the cheap in the short term are, for example, proving to be cripplingly expensive.
On Tuesday, the marketisation of health services deepened with a parliamentary vote to approve the Health and Social Care bill. Doctors can commission services from any willing provider, in what seems set to intensify the race to the bottom.
Not even the combined opposition of various groups who know the NHS best – the professionals who work in it – could stop the march of the market; not even the promise not to institute a top-down restructuring of the health service stopped David Cameron and Andrew Lansley from doing just that. Patrick Wintour’s tale of the bill in the Guardian is a frightening read.
Then, on Wednesday, came the coup de grâce – George Osborne’s budget. All the major announcements were teed up in the media – the cut in the 50p tax rate and the rise in tax allowances being the two biggest headlines. However, it was the way in which the budget would impact pensioners – the ‘granny tax’ that may well be to Osborne what the 75p pension increase was to Gordon Brown – that hit the headlines.
Osborne is often depicted as a brilliantly calculating politician, but to have almost universally negative front pages on the day after a budget is a rare feat for a Conservative. Pensioners vote – and despite their age, they do not forget.
The cut in the top rate of tax may not mean much revenue is lost, but the symbolism of it is potent: we are no longer all in this together (not that we ever were). Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the scale benefit little from the rise in the threshold when their tax credits have been removed and VAT is at 20%. This was truly a budget where the millions pay for the millionaires.
We shouldn’t be surprised – this is Tory ideology. The Liberal Democrats are beyond hope; mealy-mouthed, feeble and in government without power. But we should be concerned. The Tories’ cult of individualism and private money is laying waste to the remaining sense of society and public goods paid for and benefiting all.
As Seumas Milne points out in the Guardian, the Tory way is based on a failed economic model. Private enterprise works, but often needs a leg-up from the state. Ed Miliband’s response to the budget was bold and clear – he, and Labour, need to show that there is another way to run an economy and a society.