A couple of articles in today’s Observer point out that the spending cuts are, for the most part, still in the abstract. In a piece which dwells perhaps a little too much on sadomasochism, Nick Cohen notes:
The almost hallucinatory atmosphere in Britain, the sense that we are living in a daydream, can be explained by the vindictive and delusional belief that austerity can be achieved by hitting the featherbedded and sparing everyone else.
Last week, Jackie Ashley summed up this collective sense that the cuts will happen to someone else:
For years we have been living in a lather of outrage, whipped up day after day about somebody, or some group. So when the government says it’s time for the party to stop, and for really painful cuts, millions of voters punch the air. Yes, “they” are getting what’s coming to them at last. Then “we” can all relax and get on with our lives, more successfully than before. Here, I would suggest, is the real source of the optimism.
A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI in April revealed similar attitudes. Seventy-five percent of people thought that spending cuts could be achieved by efficiency savings alone. In other words, it’s all about cutting a few bureaucrats but it won’t affect me.
But Andrew Rawnsley senses a shift over the last few days. The cancelling of school building programmes, he says, is the first time that the cuts have shifted from the abstract to the concrete. Even this has caused an outcry, with right-ish Tory MPs who, presumably, are all in favour of reducing public spending, threatening to lead marches on Westminster because of cuts to their local school building programmes. But the education cuts, says Rawnsley, are relatively small; see what happens when the axe really starts swinging:
This relatively tiny cut impacting on a very small proportion of the public has handed ammunition to the opposition, aroused much agitation on the government’s own side, and forced two apologies from one of the key members of the cabinet. You do not need much imagination to see the opposition that will confront the coalition when they start to implement the big cuts which will impact on large numbers of voters.
The turbulence around the education secretary is but a light squall compared to the dark tornadoes of trouble coming over the horizon.
Those of us who have been around for a while will remember the poll tax. When the legislation was debated in 1988, intellectuals railed at the unfairness of it all in Guardian articles, while the usual motley collection of left-wingers mounted poorly attended protests. The masses, though, were not interested and the bill was passed. Even the introduction of the tax in Scotland and the subsequent outrage failed to make much impact on the English. It was only when the payment demands started dropping on the doormats in February and March 1990 that things began to kick off. And boy did they kick off?
Violent protests broke out in such unlikely places as Stroud and Swindon as well as many of the major cities and London boroughs, culminating in the Trafalgar Square riot at the end of March. Within weeks, opposition to the poll tax had gone from being just another left-wing cause to a mass protest movement. It happened because things suddenly shifted from the abstract to the specific. People who seemed unconcerned about a regressive tax suddenly got very interested when they realised that they would have to pay two or three times as much for council services as they had the year before.
Something similar could happen with the spending cuts. As Jackie Asley said, it’s easy to talk about cuts for ‘them’ but when its our class sizes rising, our hospital closed, our day-centre cut and our bus service axed, then the reality starts to hit home. It moves from the abstract to the concrete and from the general to the specific. And when the specific means us, we start to get angry.