Sadistic austerity

All that seems to unite us is miserliness

Artillery Row

Britain is a nation of misers. None — bar single mother nurses in Lee Anderson’s visual range — feel the puritanical disapproval of masochistic stinginess more than those associated with the running of the state. 

Britain requires a large amount of money to function, made larger still by the security needed to protect it. Minor frivolities that bring mild levels of comfort therefore cost a great deal. Buying biscuits for one person costs a little bit of money. Buying biscuits for a thousand people costs rather more.

Labour has managed to semi-successfully, and somewhat unfortunately, harness this general spirit of miserliness. Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the party, has heralded a po-faced inquisition into departmental spending. “As Conservative ministers once again reach into the pockets of taxpayers to dine out on a five-star luxury lifestyle,” this Savonarola of Stockport inveighed, “families up and down the country are sick with anxiety about whether their pay cheque will cover the weekly shop. Far from actually governing, Conservative ministers are living the high life and treating taxpayers like a cash machine.”

Did you know, for instance, that in March of 2021 the Department for Work and Pensions spent £726 on … postal supplies? Or that the Department for Health had spent £507 on cloud storage services the month before? Or that a diplomatic reception for the Foreign Secretary came in at £7,218? Will the tax-funded cash cow ever run dry? One can only imagine ministers fanning themselves on tropical islands with hidden gigabytes of storage, or selling dozens of pounds worth of commemorative stamps upon leaving office. 

A Zoom call could have saved an extra 4.3 seconds of NHS funding

Nor do Labour’s stingiest PR operatives seem to understand the concept of bulk-buying. In March 2021, they note, the Department of Health spent £59,155 on stationary — and only £1,470 for the rest of the year. Well, knock me down with a feather! 

Do we really bemoan government departments for their sellotape? “The Tories,” wrote Angela Rayner, “have frittered away taxpayers’ money across every part of government. Rishi Sunak has failed to rein in lavish spending across Whitehall on his watch. We’re lifting the lid on this scandalous catalogue of waste.” Golden wallpaper and duck moat MOTs this is not.

Has Labour now been out of power long enough to not realise what it precludes? It’s a particularly stupid line of attack when waiting in the wings. What will happen when Angela Rayner inevitably sits in cabinet, and she is asked unthinkingly by some bored civil servant to sign off on the paper and biros budget for the year? Will she baulk at the cost of paper reams? Does she expect to implement Michael Gove’s 2010 curriculum and communicate via 18th century naval flag signals?

This campaign is political point-scoring for people who don’t know how government works. Nay, it’s point-scoring for people who don’t know how anything works. 

Nevertheless, this is not an attack unique to Labour. Rather, one of the few issues that unites both the left and right wing within Britain is the shared belief that virtually any sense of pleasure, comfort or dignity should be swept away in relation to the state.

In July 2021, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak stayed in — gasp — a five star hotel with economic advisors and aides whilst attending the G20 summit in 2021 at a cost of £4,500. Did they not know that fitting them all in on a Zoom call could have saved the taxpayer an extra 4.3 seconds of NHS funding? 

In January of last year, the Independent breathlessly reported that then-foreign secretary Liz Truss had flown by “private jet” to Australia “at a cost of over half a million pounds to the taxpayer, rather than using scheduled flights that would have been faster and far cheaper”. Do they think that the fourteen people who undertook the flight were part of a jolly diplomats’ outing? 

To explain to people that the Foreign Secretary is a prize target for terrorist and state actors alike who may wish to maim, spy on or blackmail an individual responsible for the diplomatic affairs of a great power state is beyond the dignity of anyone tasked with doing so.

Why does Britain insist on such absurd levels of self-flagellation?

Ministers need high levels of security and space. Why does Britain, seemingly uniquely, insist on such absurd levels of self-flagellation?

The scale of money involved in American politics simply dwarfs ours. As the writer John Oxley has pointed out, in just four months Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg spent enough on his forgotten, failed bid for his party’s nomination to cover “every single candidate and party’s spending for twenty UK general elections”. The British public don’t seem to understand how much their politicians cost them. MPs pay comes in at 0.01 per cent of state expenditure: their public estimate it to be x800 the size.

Our MPs often work in miserable little cupboards, earning less than those in private industry — which itself pays significantly less than our American counterparts. Just try to explain to an American that masses of our doctors earn under £30,000 a year.

Our general air of miserliness will bite us. Rather than prioritise non-economic factors, we instead punitively decide that others — from the poorest to wealthiest — must be brought down. But for a select few golden calves, we as a state cannot invest — only defund or stagnate. It’s an attitude that affects our entire society. Want to afford a house? Buy a few fewer cappuccinos. Want a new power station? Pointless — it wouldn’t be up and running for a decade. The spirit of Cameron and Osborne lives on: we can make the short-term sacrifices, but we cannot invest in the long-term benefits. 

As stupid as this line of thinking is, it seems to win votes and tap into the wider biases of the British public at large.

For we are a nation of misers, self-consciously trying to raise our own status in the eternal pursuit of “middle class”, whilst simultaneously belittling anything that might imply significant investment or expenditure. 

Sadistic austerity runs in our blood. It’s beginning to affect the dignity of our state. 

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