Whither Keynes? For the past six to twelve months, the big philosophical imponderable doing the rounds in British political life has been the extent to which the government should intervene in the market in order to stimulate the national economy. The Conservative/Lib Dem government’s “Plan A” to cut, cut and cut some more is flatlining; growth is stagnant. Unemployment has risen to 8.4% – the highest it has been since 1995 – as the jobs that the government’s austerity programme has ripped from the public sector and wrung from the strangled charity/NGO sector are not being replaced in the for-profit sector as hoped.
This is by every empirical measure imaginable a failing fiscal plan, but Plan B remains firmly off the agenda. And why? Keynesian economics is not policy anathema, but it has become political anathema. Central to the fable being spruiked by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives is that Labour’s clunky and interventionist approach to economic matters is to blame for the mess that Britain now finds itself in. If the Tories were to take a backward step from their “Plan A”, the economic dogma they’ve peddled since May 2010, they would be letting the Opposition off the hook. They would also be pricking the bubble of fallacious confidence that George Osborne et. al have, in effect, hitched a ride with throughout their war on public spending. It’s easy to forget given all the sanguine polling doing the rounds, but this is a government sustaining itself not through success in matters of policy, actual popularity, or anything resembling hard work, but merely ego: a reserve of confident bloody-mindedness that the market will eventually prove them right and that those on welfare should be punished.
The rigid stance adopted by the government on economic stimulus is particularly galling when one considers some of the moral peccadillos that the Tories apparently feel do warrant some intervention. This is a government that has no qualms about pulling levers and interfering with the market like a bunch of cardboard cut-out social-engineering lefties when doing so will slap and tickle their upper middle-class conservative base. A crusade to cap welfare benefits, directly impacting the lives of some of the nation’s most needy children has in recent days seen support for David Cameron soaring to a 22 month high. Jobs may be disappearing into the ether by the thousand across the country, but as Allegra Stratton alluded to in The Guardian recently, Cameron’s willingness to engage in blinkered market intervention has been plainly evident for some time now:
In a WH Smith not far from Westminster, there are no Terry’s Chocolate Oranges on sale at the till but there’s every other calorie and additive on offer. This stroll to the newsagent counts for political research because if you listened to David Cameron six years ago, flogging cheap chocolate to captive targets was an exemplar of immoral capitalism run amok.
“As Britain faces an obesity crisis, why does WH Smith promote half-price Chocolate Oranges at its checkouts instead of real oranges?” Cameron protested. Through the bully’s pulpit of office and opprobrium, he sought to change it.
In America, they would call out such a protest as socialism. In Britain, it would just be an all too typically fluffy intervention into the market on behalf of the morally conservative, rich or powerful, while the brutalisation of the truly needy by the market continues, wholly aided and abetted, in the background.