Thankfully I am warm and dry as I write this, but there are thousands of people in Northern England, Scotland and Wales that are huddling in upstairs rooms of flooded houses, taking refuge in town halls, piling sandbags high in vain against the ferocity of mother nature while some have simply had to abandon their homes entirely. The floods that have struck Cumbria and beyond offer a depressing but all-too realistic analogy to how we have been coached into approaching certain economic decisions made over the past five years: unfortunate, at times disastrous, but inevitable.
Yet just like the proliferation of freak weather events around the world, economic policy is not inevitable, but the result of deliberate choices. Little mention has been made of the fact that the flood defence budget has been cut by the current government, and that even before this higher spending was being recommended by a range of experts. This is not a mere accidental oversight by Westminster, however, but rather the outcome of a pervasive ideology that wishes to shrink the state and empower the private and the unaccountable instead, masked by the seemingly-innocent desire to 'pay down Britain's debts'. Flood defence cuts come at the same time as a 40% overall cut in funding for local authorities over the last Parliament, a savaging of welfare provision to the most vulnerable in society and a raft of cuts to basic provisions such as legal aid and disabled students allowances.
David Cameron came under fire recently for what was perhaps the second most bizarre story to emerge about him this year (no prizes for guessing the first), when he seemingly chided his own council for following his own policies to their logical conclusion. Decrying the loss of 'frontline services' by his own local Oxfordshire council, he suggested that they instead attempt to find more 'back-office savings', even offering to set up a meeting with Downing Street advisors to help them do so. Commentators make much of the ridiculousness of Jeremy Corbyn disagreeing with his own front bench, but it's something else when you speak out against your own policies. Never has there been a clearer example of a politician aloof to the impacts of his own decisions. Mr Cameron simply fails to understand the destruction austerity is reaping across the country he is meant to serve- his economic approach is causing irreversible damage to local communities and the future of British society.
Many services are simply disappearing entirely, and those that are not are either being hoisted upon volunteers (commenable in terms of giving local communities more control over their services, but at times woefully unable to provide the same level of skill and commitment as paid, trained staff) or put into the hands of private companies where profit, not provision, is the priority.
Already I see austerity eroding away many things I have held dear in my life, be it threatening the provision of local libraries that have provided such a nurturing of my own creativity and provide so much more to so many others, or the loss of staff and courses in my university due to reduced government funding. Other areas are suffering too; parks and other recreational facilities that are crucial for both physical and mental wellbeing, youth centres that give young people purpose, direction and community and the social services that protect vulnerable communities. In a damning report by the poverty-campaign charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, cuts to local services have been shown to be exacerbating and entrenching inequality, disproportionately hitting the most deprived areas where spending is, ironically, needed most. These cuts are setting in motion a damaging process of widening class divisions with impacts that will ripple throughout many generations.
There is nothing modern or innovative or liberating about such an approach to state spending. Such an idea constrains the state and with it our collective effort and ambition. It reduces our ability to make a change in our local communities, to help the vulnerable, to encourage the young and to tackle the corrupt. It gives us less opportunity, not more, it doesn't move us forward but instead it holds us back. It is time we switched from talking of spending to talk of investment- these vital services being torn away from local communities, whether they be prevention of poverty, ignorance or environmental devastation, are what are termed 'fiscal multipliers' in the jargon, not just good in themselves but bringing us all rewarding returns in the long term. As a nation we are richer with these services, and all the poorer once they have been stripped away.
In his appraisal of the situation in his own local area, Cameron was right in one aspect, even if he doesn't realise it: the idea that dealing with the deficit doesn't have to look like this. If, of course, you pursue the economically illiterate dogma of slashing away at whatever public services you can reach then it will, but that's not the only way to 'balance the books'. Doing all the usual things prescribed by the left are necessary: a living wage, clamping down on tax avoidance, regulating businesses so they don't force externalities onto the rest of society, but beyond this a reclaiming of state spending is needed. We need to be unafraid to invest in community services like libraries and youth centres, in a younger generation's education and in new industries that can help tackle devastating climate change that is beginning to wreak havoc with our lives.
Jeremy Corbyn is often derided as merely a throwback to a simpler time, as a misguided demagogue attempting to resurrect outdated political ideals, resuscitating the spectre of socialism and all the attendant, negative connotations that go along with that term in modern Britain. Yet those that see this as a criticism fail to grasp the nature of politics. The left and right have existed as useful approximations of political opinion as long as they have because they are two sides of fundamental debates about human nature, and are constantly throwing up recurring themes throughout our political history. The current ideological mission of our government is no different in its repeating of old ideas, old ideas that make the many poorer and the few richer every time they come back around.