Aus­ter­ity

The Guardian - Review - - Forewords -

So farewell then, aus­ter­ity – per­haps. A few weeks ago, Theresa May an­nounced that “aus­ter­ity is over”, but in this week’s bud­get speech, Philip Ham­mond said that “the era of aus­ter­ity is fi­nally coming to an end”, which means that it isn’t over yet. But what ex­actly should we be cel­e­brat­ing the maybe in­cip­i­ent fin­ish of?

“Aus­ter­ity” as sel­f­re­straint is a spir­i­tual virtue: in 1502, it was said that Je­sus’s teach­ings con­sisted of “poverty, hu­mil­ity, and aus­ter­ity”. In 2009, David Cameron en­thu­si­as­ti­cally promised an “age of aus­ter­ity”, and in 2010 he set about slash­ing gov­ern­ment spend­ing and raising taxes. Dur­ing the se­cond world war, Bri­tons had en­joyed “aus­ter­ity buses” and “aus­ter­ity cloth­ing”. Now, we were ex­pected to agree again that the bit­ter medicine was good for us.

But was it? “The tough de­ci­sions of the past eight years were not driven by ide­ol­ogy,” Ham­mond said, “they were driven by ne­ces­sity.” The econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes would have laughed at that. In 1937 he wrote, in the first ex­am­ple of the fis­cal sense, “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for aus­ter­ity at the Trea­sury.” Still, what­ever your ide­ol­ogy, “aus­ter­ity” also means a gen­eral bleak­ness, so its time is not past yet.

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