It's probably our fault

It's been a "fun" (aka horrifying) few months for liberal watchers of British politics since the May election gave us a Tory majority for the first time in a generation. I've found myself reading an awful lot of economics articles, books, etc. in that time, hopefully not to the detriment of my day job, because from a physicist's perspective it's intriguing to see how any progress can be made in a discipline which studies a chaotic system without repeatability or control over variables, and with undeclared political bias ever present in interpretations.

Still, there does seem to be academic consensus that the Coalition's signature austerity policy, now set to go into overdrive in this untrammeled Tory administration, damaged growth rather than ensured it. False but superficially compelling comparisons to household budgeting and the situation in Greece, via a compliant media, ensured that austerity was the dominant narrative through the electioneering, and Labour's "austerity lite" sales pitch failed to convince. (Several good summary articles on this from very respectable economists: Simon Wren-Lewis, Paul Krugman, and Robert Skidelsky (again). The blogs of Wren-Lewis, Richard Murphy, Frances Coppola, and Steve Keen have also provided me with much food for thought this summer.)

The pop psychologist in me wonders if the attachment to the austerity narrative is particularly British. We are of course (clichedly) notorious for not just gallons of tea, never saying what we mean, and social awkwardness, but also for a national obsession with self-deprecation and defeatism. Which is not to say we're not proud to be who we are, at least deep down, but that quite a bit of that national pride is about not thinking too highly of ourselves... quite the paradox.

Believing -- even when confronted by good numerical evidence to the contrary -- that a) Labour overspent badly and caused the 2008 crash, and b) austerity was a necessary and successful response to that by a financially responsible government, seems to tick several boxes of Britishness.

First, it was Our Fault. We all know deep down that it's always our fault; it's almost relieving to have it laid out clearly by Serious People in charge. I don't know why this would be such a British trait -- surely guilt should primarily be the burden of institutionally Catholic countries, and we've been suppressing that for centuries. Maybe we're just jealous.

It wasn't the Hard Working People who did it, though. We all like to think that we're the HWPs being talked about. But unscrupulous cheats and foreigners taking advantage of our much-vaunted hospitality. Ooh, don't you just hate it when people take advantage, and being British we were too polite to tell them to stop: hurrah for the plain-speaking Tories ready to grasp the nettle!

And second, obviously you can't spend your way out of a hole. After all we know that our nice-but-dim Labour government had overspent so badly (George Osborne told us so, and he looks trustworthy), and we have collectively absorbed centuries of Protestant teaching about the moral failures of spendthrifts who can't balance their household budgets.

Let's ignore that -- as surely anyone who slightly thinks about it must realise -- experience of household budgeting has little to do with running a national economy. Most particularly an economy with its own fiat currency... but then it's definitely too good to be true that we could not just spend our way out of trouble but also print our own new money to do so! "Too good to be true" re. QE is a great rallying call for British fatalism; perfectly engineered to be wisely muttered over the beer-wet bartops that Nigel Farage used to so often be pictured guffawing over (at least until UKIP and others were shafted by our electoral system and he ceased to be the must-have feature of the daily news cycle for another year or so... there's little Faragian guffawing afoot now, I suspect).

I don't have the experience of other countries' politics (despite meaning to follow the Swiss and French versions when in situ) to know if this suspicion is really true: are the miserabilist British actually more convinced of our own culpability, and more sceptical of hopeful glimmers than other nations? No idea, but we certainly wear it well, even when digging ourselves into a self-flagellating austerity hole for the second electoral cycle in a row.

Like many, though, I've found the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to offer just the sort of hope that my national instincts want to squish. It's second-order hope, because it's still around 5 years before the party he now leads has a pop at being in charge and enacting the policies that he's been espowsing for the last few months. And he has yet to convince his parliamentary party, significantly right of the party membership, to follow him. And because the hostile media are surely going to land shambling-unpatriotic-back-to-the-80s-Michael-Foot-2.0 attacks any minute now, and while bollocks they could still be highly destructive. I'm also really not a fan of his foreign policy history -- exactly the reactionary liberalism that champions illiberal causes so well documented by Nick Cohen.

But Corbyn's economic policy at least is more in line with academic consensus than the current regime, who must be worried that simply by mentioning the unmentionable from a high profile position as leader of the opposition, the Overton Window of economic narrative will be dragged leftward. Economics matters because it's central to all the other business of state, and without the excuse of "necessary" austerity there is little motivation for the ideological service cuts that the Cons have presided over and are gleefully extending.

There will be a plan to discredit Corbyn -- and admittedly he has plenty of potential chinks in his armour. But for a grizzled old Trot he showed plenty of media management nous in his leadership campaign, and ran rings around the gang of allegedly "professional" politician drones that were ranged against him. It's all to play for -- if only the collective British psyche will tolerate discussion of hope for a little while longer.


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