Politics Simplified: Austerity In The UK

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A decade has passed since the Conservatives were helped to power by their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Ever since the government has pursued deep public spending cuts known as austerity.

The government argued that these cutbacks were the only way that the UK could recover from the 2008 financial crash after bailing out the banks. However, these public spending cuts were not been accompanied by tax rises. Instead, taxes were cut for individuals and businesses.

£40 million a year has been cut from the welfare budget since 2010. Central government funding for local councils was slashed in half, despite rising demand for services such as adult social care. Even former Prime Minister David Cameron whose government brought about this austerity wrote to his local council in Oxfordshire. Cameron complained about the impact of these cuts to libraries, museums and services for the elderly. The poorest areas of the country where councils rely more heavily on central government funding have been hit the hardest.

Shelter estimates that at least 1 in 200 people in Britain are homeless. In November 2018 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights reported that 20% of the UK population live in poverty. As a country with the fifth-largest economy, the report’s author argued that ‘poverty is a political choice‘.

From the start of the twentieth-century, life expectancies in England rose each year. However, since 2011 progress in English life expectancies slowed dramatically to a halt, with women in the most deprived areas losing 0.3 years. The more deprived an area, the greater the proportion of the population’s life is spent in bad health and this has been to a greater extent since 2010. Professor Marmot, who discovered the scale of health inequality in the UK, argues that this has been caused by cuts to sure start centres, the education budget, poor housing quality and insecure employment contracts.

Some political commentators theorise that the effects of austerity drove the British public to ‘take back control‘ by voting to leave the European Union in 2016. During the 2017 General Election, when Theresa May’s post-Brexit snap election gamble backfired, she repeatedly announced that there was no ‘magic money tree‘. That was her response when she was asked whether it was acceptable that nurses were being forced to use foodbanks as a result of wage drops. However, at the Conservative Party Conference in 2018, Theresa May declared that austerity was over.

Austerity weakened the UK’s capacity to deal with the coronavirus crisis and undermined the NHS’ preparedness for a pandemic. Stockpiles of around 200 million vital resources such as respirators, masks, syringes and needles were found to be past their use-by date.  Whilst the initial response to the coronavirus crisis saw £3.2m invested to keep the homeless off the streets during the pandemic, this was discontinued shortly after. As the coronavirus crisis pushed the government away from its austerity politics, this is likely to be only temporary.

The disruption of the coronavirus and the lockdown created an economic crisis, with the UK’s GDP sinking 20.4% in April. This has caused the government to weigh up its duties to maintain both public health and economic security. Lockdown has been loosened and the length of social distancing has come under review, risking an increase in transmission. The pandemic has helped foster an economic crisis. If the solution to this is further austerity, inequality will continue to widen and poverty will worsen in the UK.

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Politics Editor 2019/20 BSc Politics & International Relations

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