There’s a bit at the end of John Lanchester’s Whoops! where, describing the probable trajectory of a savage recession, he mentions polarisation. I thought, how does that work? It’s not as if a recession splits a nation down the middle, with half of us doing well out of it and half of us doing badly. We’re not insulated from one another; the first thing that becomes apparent in a bust is the interconnectedness of fortune, the contagion of low confidence, the sheer scope of a person’s economic identity.
Only the very rich and the very poor are simply rich and poor. The middle – not even the squeezed middle, the vast middle – are many things at once, carers and workers, parents and consumers, benefit scroungers and taxpayers, homeowners and drains on the NHS. Surely hardship would bring us together, as we realised how in-this-together we necessarily were?
No, and Lanchester spelled it out even more clearly in an essay for the London Review of Books: “Can you imagine the fights that are going to happen? The political polarisation between public and private sector employees … the furious sense of righteousness on both sides? It’ll be Thatcher all over again, and the current period of managerial non-politics will seem as distant as the Butskellite consensus did in the 1980s.”
And so, incredibly, it has come to pass: the first and most obvious dichotomy is the one between public and private sector employees. After the anti-cuts march, Max Hasting wrote: “Britain is no longer split by class. Instead the social chasm is between taxpayers and the public sector.” He went on to call public sector workers overpaid, formidable, unionised, “Labour voters almost to a man and woman”, whose inflated salaries were in essence a bribe for their political loyalty.
That opening is a bit shonky, considering that public sector workers are also taxpayers. The idea of this hugely well-paid public sector class doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – two-thirds of local government workers, of whom there are 1.6 million, earn less than £18,000. On the back of the proverbial envelope, call that one million people of a six million-strong public sector army, earning very low wages and subject to a pay freeze that looks likely to last three years (we’re in year two). One in six people of this bloated sector is on the breadline. But let’s not split hairs.
I assumed this to be an idiosyncratic argument, but its tone crops up more and more often. Interviewed on Radio 4 about their forthcoming strike, the head of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Mary Bousted, said: “People are going to say, ‘You may feel that you’re going to be working longer, paying more and receiving less, but you’re in the same boat as everybody else – why do you think you’re any different? You’re going to have moderately paid, private sector workers subsidising you.'”
This is a line of attack – you shouldn’t even ask for fair treatment because as a public sector worker you’re already ligging off the honest private sector worker, just by having a salary and a pension – that I have not heard in my adult life. I have never looked around the people I know and considered who’s in the public sector and who’s in the private. I have never looked at a friend who’s a doctor, and thought, “another black cardigan from Selfridges? Really?” (although that example slipped out so seamlessly that this is obviously a resentment harboured by my subconscious). This division is specious; none of us, looking at our own lives, would buy it for a second. And yet current political rhetoric is built on it.
Similar oppositions are being set up between the old and the young, or the old and the middle: the argument is often made, at the moment, that the old, unable to live off their savings because of the low interest rates, yet subject to the same VAT hikes and inflationary pressures as the rest of us, are paying the price for financial folly of the young. (In this narrative the crash was due to the individual’s debt bubble, but the argument still works if you blame the City. )
At the same time, under the euphemistic banner of “baby-boomers” – what you call old people when you want to portray them as selfish – there are counter-arguments blaming them for everything that’s wrong with the economy, from the inflated housing market to the pensions and NHS crisis. This is bizarre, and there’s not the smallest amount of political energy in such an opposition.
On the subject of political energy, the tropes of the Thatcher era – that the left doesn’t understand money and the right doesn’t understand the human heart – have re-emerged with stunning speed and force. It’s impossible not to get sucked into it: I believe, often, when this coalition savages disability living allowance, ends legal aid, casts people into terrible hardship, that they do not care. But logically this cannot be true: it might be true of George Osborne but it can’t be true of every Tory, and it certainly can’t be true of every liberal.
This is politics performed as a game of British Bulldog: it’s fun for a bit, but then it’s quite tiring.
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