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Thursday, December 05, 2013 

No country for young men.

One of the coalition's lesser arguments for why austerity was necessary was that it wouldn't be fair on our children and indeed our children's children if we didn't deal with the deficit and our debts now.  It was always fallacious for the reason that Labour didn't oppose eliminating the deficit; Alistair Darling's plan, derided by George Osborne and others as the sort which would have invited a run on the pound, the loss of our triple A rating and a Greek-style economic meltdown would in fact have dealt with it years before Osborne now promises to.

What sort of country will our children and their children have to look forward to thanks to Osborne's plan finally beginning to "work"?  It's one where it's possible those born today will have to work until they're 77 before they'll be eligible for the state pension, whereas those lucky enough to be entering the workforce now will merely have to trudge on until they're 70.  For those 18 to 21-year-olds who haven't been able to find a job despite the millions created in the private sector, then after six months on Jobseeker's Allowance they will have to start a traineeship, work experience (workfare) or community work (workfare) or lose their meagre benefits of £56.80 a week.  Should the Conservatives win the next election, it seems certain those under 25 will no longer be eligible for housing benefit, regardless of whether they are in work or not.  As for those who find themselves sick, welfare spending excluding pensions and JSA is to be capped, as we simply can't afford it any longer.  Should you not be able to work until you're 70, and considering the current life expectancy in certain areas of the country is below that it's likely many won't, then ATOS or their successors will certainly listen to your plight, and then deem you fit for work regardless.

As David Cameron promised from a golden lectern, austerity is to be permanent.  Come 2018/19, failing any further economic turbulence, we'll be running a surplus.  This will have been achieved through cutting spending to the point where it will make up the smallest share of GDP since the days of Clement Attlee in 1948, when there was still rationing and the NHS had just been established.  It was also the year my parents were both born.  9 years later Harold Macmillan said Britons had never had it so good; 57 years on and his statement most certainly rings true, at least when applied to the majority of pensioners.  Come April next year the state pension will increase by £2.64 a week, adding to the gains made by median retired households over the past 5 years, whose incomes have increased by 5.1%, while the median income for the non-retired has fallen by 6.4%.

This isn't about playing generation against generation, of course.  Except, as the Conservatives have clearly calculated, with the Liberal Democrats apparently going along with it, seeing as the young either tend not to vote or not to vote for them, they might as well drop the pretence and just go all out for the grey vote.  They might be taking into account that on the surface the young are suspicious of the welfare state, but it's only an extremely minor factor.  As Owen writes, it's almost as though the Tories want Russell Brand to be proved right: why vote when politicians are either indifferent or downright hostile to the young? Why get involved when almost no one speaks for you?
Why rejoice in a recovery that is all but meaningless to the precariat, or if we're being optimistic, listen when instructed not to let those who would abandon "the plan" ruin everything all over again?

George Osborne was always going to use today's autumn statement to claim he had been right all along.  Any politician would have done.  Some, however, although probably not the man Osborne supposedly detests yet models himself more and more on, would have been just a little more cautious.  The recovery, such as it is, is built on sand.  The vast majority of the 0.8% growth clocked up in the last quarter was down to consumer spending and the revival in the housing market.  Exports and business investment continue to either decline or flatline.  Productivity is in a slump.  All three of these things might well pick up next year, and we could see the beginning of the rebalancing Osborne once said he wanted, but it most certainly hasn't happened yet.  There was going to come a point where everyone got fed up with paying off their debts or watching every penny, and accompanied by the coalition's determination to get any sort of growth before the election, the Help to Buy scheme being the chosen device, that's what's happened.

Unfortunately for Osborne, his great moment of glory has been rather overshadowed first by the storm and now by the passing of Nelson Mandela.  Neither the BBC News or Newsnight so much as mentioned his triumph, and so beyond the eye-catching details leaked well in advance, such as the energy price freeze, the rise in the pension age, not to mention the incredibly limited but still ridiculously outdated married tax allowance, little will probably end up being remembered.  The history books might though record today as something more than a footnote: the day when the post-war settlement, the one Thatcher wanted to dismantle but couldn't, was ripped up.

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