Austerity will be challenged…

May 5, 2010

My parents married in 1945 shortly after VE Day. Each had served their country for 3 years as volunteers; my mother in the WAAF, handling barrage balloons and scraping the flesh of airmen off the fuselages of planes damaged but not downed; my father as a wireless operator/rear-gunner in Liberator bombers for Coastal Command.

I was adopted 10 years later at 6 weeks old, not long before they got the keys to a newly-built council house with running hot water, gardens front and back, and with fields and woods close by for us kids to play in. So I missed the worst of the tough times and rationing that figure so strongly in David Kynaston’s fascinating study of Britain’s austerity in the 6 years after the war.

Now, 60-odd years on, it looks likely that the people of Britain have another period of austerity to deal with.

This time it’s not the result of a war between nations, a conflict to save us from fascist invasion or the imperative of adjusting to a post-colonial world in which an empire was beyond the pocket of its mother country. The debt this time is not owed to an ascendant US for its economic aid in preserving democracy in Western Europe; it’s owed to bankers and financiers for the favour of preventing the systemic collapse of their casino-like system.

The truce between people and profit of les trente glorieuses lasted to the 1970s. Then from 1976, we witnessed the post-war welfare state beached and rusting; its hull dismantled by monetarist free-market economists and their political progeny. And the hull of our politics was hollowed out simultaneously.

Leaders of people and nations became followers – of market research polling; parties became brands and voting a matter of consumer choice. The ethos of commerce and sales, ethics-free mis-selling of undifferentiated products, invaded our politics as we came to define ourselves, and be defined, by what we bought and owned not who we were.

There is much to commend austerity. The immediate post-war diet was amongst the healthiest the British ever ate. The culture those years created was one of make-do and mend; a resourcefulness that’s appropriate today for a world of diminishing natural resources.

The difference between then and now of course, is that in 1945-51, everyone had been in it together for 6 years of war with no guarantee of freedom from fascist subjugation or, for very many, personal survival.

Those who pulled through were determined to help make a better world, with no return to either war in Europe or the cleavage and poverty of the 1930s. For a significant period they succeeded. Stoicism and forbearance based on hope and belief in a better future and confidence that something had changed and there was now no going back, all helped in that success.

Today there is no equivalent. If the bankers and financiers and the politicians who they prey on expect me to experience austerity this time around and witness it amongst my compatriots, neighbours and friends, then they are much mistaken. They will be challenged.

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