The most successful Prime Ministers of recent times, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, were often able to convince voters of the necessity of making difficult choices. For Mrs. Thatcher, TINA – there is no alternative – was her ally, while Tony Blair preferred instead an open recognition of how it was sometimes important to take unpopular decisions.
Since taking power a year ago, Britain’s coalition government has tried to take a similar position. The country’s structural deficit, rising debt and recent financial crisis meant the Conservative-led government came to power full of doom-mongering about the UK’s solvency. Building up the drama, the government staged an ‘emergency budget’ shortly after taking office, and allowed talk of an ‘austerity budget’ to enter the media debate. The junior partners in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, publicly allowed themselves to be convinced of the need for drastic cuts, rowing back on positions they had campaigned on just weeks before.
In the fourth series of The Wire, Baltimore’s Mayor Carcetti, faces a similar situation. An unexpected shortfall in his education budget forces him to reverse his reformist spending pledges. Reflecting the language of Baltimore, the mayor finds he has a shit sandwich to deal with.
There are two distinctive features of the shit sandwich. The first is that it must be eaten. Like a hospital pass in rugby, the shit sandwich is a terrible thing to receive, but impossible to pass on. Someone’s going to have to take a bite. The second feature is that no matter how much bread there is, it’s still a shit sandwich.
Faced with such an unappetising menu on coming to power, and hardly over-endowed with intelligence (this is a team that regarded a former News of the World editor as an intellectual powerhouse), it is hardly surprising the new government allowed itself to overstate the unpleasantness of its situation. Moreover, not put off by their own exceedingly comfortable backgrounds and circumstances, they thinly claimed that they were “doing this for us”. Thanks guys! Unsurprising was the lack of gratitude from the populace, though many of them were more used to being stuffed by the big fat state lying back on a sea of easy money.
Given how gullible many people are financially (have you ever spoken with a retail bank’s personal advisor? It’s like being patronised by Jedward.), it is hardly surprising that a significant proportion of the public rejected out of hand the concept it was necessary to cut state spending when there was less money.
Predictably, those with most to lose and the best organisation, the trade unions who are concentrated in the public sector, led the campaign. They were followed by their political allies in the Labour Party, seeking a popular cause after being thrown out of office and relegated to third place in the May poll.
Disappointingly, these groups decided that the best course of action was simply to deny the existence of the shit sandwich. Or, if they led the Labour Party, claim they know it exists but declare that those who believe it doesn’t exist are heroes. No, it made no sense to anyone else.
Moreover, if you write for the Guardian, or are the shadow chancellor, you now must believe that if such a dish were to exist it can be magicked away via the means of Keynes, where increased state spending will clear away any unpleasantness through faster economic growth and higher government revenue. That such increased state spending would be entirely dependent on borrowing yet more from bondholders, who have – via their proxies in the rating agencies – made it clear there is a puke point after which they will not lend, is so inconvenient as to be portrayed as irrelevant.
But while one side of the debate is in denial, the other side is in crisis. Unlike 1997, when Labour came into power with a rigid professionalism, this new government crash-landed into power and have looked ill at ease ever since. Though accused of ruthlessly executing an extremist ideology by their leftist critics, it has always seemed more likely that incompetence and incoherence would be more likely to trip them up. A sign of their uselessness came at the start of the year, when they failed to sell off a few commercial pine forests after having no answer to a press release circulated by a weeks-old leftwing campaign group. The AV referendum, meanwhile, has been a thorough disaster for the current crop of Liberal Democrats, who risk being remembered by history as simply a stupid bunch of fuckwits, outmanoeuvred by a babyfaced PR man with a small brain and a large wallet.
But what of the shit sandwich? Though the government may be less trustworthy than Paul Gascoigne conducting brain surgery with a can of Stella just beyond reach, and as likely to do the right thing as Lee from Blue judging a fraud trial for a bit of a laugh, it does not follow that there is no looming solvency issue for the British state. As the latins would say, that’s something of a non sequitur. Looking ahead, it remains to be seen if the incompetents in government will stick to their task, and keep munching, or fall apart as their rank incompetence defeats them all. If so, would an election then propel the deniers-in-chief back to power? Whatever – I seem to have lost my appetite.