If there was one word that personifies the current Tory Government, and indeed the coalition one that preceded it, it would probably be ‘austerity’. This has been used time and again to signify that here was an administration that, unlike its Labour predecessor, was fiscally prudent and would not overspend ‘with the country’s credit card’.
Austerity was about eliminating the deficit, first by the end of the 2010-15 Parliament, and then when that didn’t happen, by the end of the 2015-20 Parliament. The fact that the first target was missed, and missed by quite a significant margin, hardly seemed to effect the Tories in the 2015 Election; to the point that Labour’s austerity-lite programme provided the perfect foil for David Cameron and George Osborne to exploit.
If austerity as a political tool has proved to be very effective as a stick with which to beat Labour, and we should never miss an opportunity to berate Liam Byrne for leaving ‘that letter’ as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, it is also an opportunist cover story for achieving the political aim of smaller government. Austerity works for the Tories because it neatly achieves these two goals.
Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, however, a new word has emerged in the Tory lexicon: that of ‘security’. This is linked to ‘austerity’ with the narrative that a high spending Labour government would threaten our individual and collective financial security, but this is a convenient side issue for the Tories. The real story here is that Britain would be more open to outside threats posed by terrorism, migrants and criminals under a Corbyn-led administration. Only under the Tories, goes the claim, can we feel safe and secure in our homes. To be secure, though, also means that we need to give up some of our historically hard won freedoms in order to counter the threats that we face as a nation. Security here is not only about raising our borders; it is also about identifying the enemy within them.
So, like ‘austerity’, ‘security’ also has the effect of both beating the opposition, and here I mean the political opposition, and as a legitimation for some rather significant and far reaching changes to the nature and feel of our society.
The question I wish to pose here, however, is whether ‘austerity’ and ‘security’ can work concomitantly? As a political tool with which to beat Labour the short-term answer has probably been yes, the Tories seem more secure than for a long time if the opinion polls are to be believed.
Yet even at this relatively early stage we can see ‘austerity’ and ‘security’ chipping away at each other, because events are beginning to catch up on the policy of austerity. To borrow Warren Buffett’s observation after the 2008 crash that: ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked’, so we are beginning to see that by reducing the size of government in a systematic way, as the Tories have attempted to do, has resulted in a situation where we need to question just how secure we should really feel?
Those on social security are, of course, feeling the effect of austerity far more than their more wealthy counterparts; we can take that as read. Perhaps the real issue here is that to make us feel more secure collectively as a nation, we need to feel protected from those elements that threaten us. A smaller government, though, offers less security not more, and if austerity is to be pursued to its stated conclusion then something will have to give.
Security, however, is not just about how we respond to terrorist and other military threats. It is also about those other elements that represent threats to our way of life, and this must surely include climate change. Austerity has meant that flood defences, and other measures to combat climate change, have not been put in place as promised. This at a time when the frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events is on the increase. In order to feel secure we are perhaps coming to realise that austerity only diminishes our feeling of security against the elements.
This relationship between austerity and security underlines how much the latter is increasingly becoming a commodity in itself. This has always been the case, to a certain extent, as the existence of entities such as private security firms and the global arms industry testifies. Yet we in Britain, like many other countries, have relied on that sense of collective security that has sought to make us feel safe. Indeed it is the threat of its absence that is behind much of the fear driven politics against migrants and terrorism that we are currently witnessing.
The Tories political survival seems to rely on the presence of what seems to be two competing narratives around ‘austerity’ and ‘security’. Their continual existence relies on the unspoken premise that neither are implemented universally. We are not all in it together because not all of us are afforded protection under the umbrella of a shrinking government. Yet we are at the same time asked to believe that our fear for its absence can only be ameliorated by the very administration that is removing it. As long as enough of us continue to buy into this, or can afford to make other arrangements, then the Tories, at least, are secure.