Politicians and political commentators fight for the supremacy of their favoured ‘narrative’, a story of how the country has changed underneath a government. This change may build upon the work of a previous government, or the change may undo it. Rhetoric often diverges from reality, and the rhetoric has to be inflated to fit a given narrative.
‘The rich’ is usually used as a pejorative, particularly in a political context. Now, it is increasingly normal to see the word ‘rich’ with a heightening adjective, such as the terms “ultra-rich”, “mega rich” and “super rich”. Alternately, politicians may spell out their targets in monetary terms, such as United States President Obama’s statement that “millionaires and billionaires can afford to pay a little bit more”, and British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s characterisation of the UK government’s tax reduction as “a tax cut for millionaires”. President Obama’s tax plan would increase taxes on all individuals receiving more than $250,000 in earned yearly income, and the coalition government’s tax rate reduction affected all earners over £150,000. This is more than most people make in a year, but the proposals would affect a wider constituency than suggested by the rhetoric. According to HMRC in 2010-11, about 275,000 people earn over £150,000 in that fiscal year, but just 13,000 people earned over £1m in a year. This means that the rhetorical device used, “millionaires”, misappropriated to mean someone who earns £1m a year, as opposed to the usual definition of someone who has £1m in wealth and assets, represents only 4.7% of the affected citizenry. In both cases, ‘the rich’ was eschewed in favour of “millionaires” and “millionaires and billionaires”, even though such people were only a small part of the affected group. The extensive application of ‘the rich’ as a pejorative has clearly dulled its effect with the electorate.
The coalition government’s economic reforms have created two separate narratives, with the rhetoric rising on both sides, eroding their connection with reality. According to the UK Public Spending website, total government spending in the UK was £660.8bn in 2010, £681.3bn in 2011, £688.0bn in 2012, and it is projected to be £676.6bn in 2013. Throughout, the ‘welfare’ category remains constant at about 17% of all government spending. As the fiscal deficit is being reduced, but remains greater than zero, the national debt is increased: from £759bn in 2010, £905bn in 2011, and £1,039bn in 2012, which is projected to rise to £1,159bn in 2013. From these figures, it is clear that government spending is being constrained and controlled, but not forcibly cut.
One narrative is that Chancellor George Osborne is a malevolent puppet-master, instituting neo-Dickensian poverty on a helpless people, savagely destroying government services, and serving gruel to working families. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite Union, said that: “George Osborne’s credibility is in tatters. His addiction to austerity has strangled growth and risks not just deferring recovery but trashing the economy altogether. He is cutting his way to national calamity.” Furthermore, Mr McCluskey said:
Working men and women will ask, where are the jobs? Are my loved ones better off? Can we face the future without fear? This statement offers them no change and no hope. Osborne’s chill wind is howling through the households of millions of ordinary people. It will punish our people for years to come unless we have a change of course and a government that invests in growth and jobs.
Polly Toynbee, columnist for the Guardian, wrote that “Class war, generation war, war against women, war between the regions: George Osborne’s autumn statement blatantly declares itself for the few against the many”, accompanied with “[t]he Bullingdon budget tears the last veil of deceit, leaving the nasty party naked for all to see.” In another article, Ms Toynbee states that “our government eagerly cuts to the bone voluntarily”. Tristram Hunt, Labour MP and historian, wrote that:
Young boys were sent out to work in the tanneries and were so starved they gnawed on rotten bones and putrid horseflesh to stay alive. The cuts we are witnessing today to Britain’s public services will not send us back to the worst days of the 19th century. But the approach of David Cameron and George Osborne to the welfare state reeks of the 1800s.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for the Independent, said that “the government has declared war on the welfare state”. The main problem for this narrative is that government spending, as a percentage of GDP, will reach levels last seen in the middle of the last decade, rather than before the creation of the British welfare state. Soup kitchens, child labour and grinding poverty were not major features of the last Labour government.
Whilst the imagery of a grotesque and maniacal government may serve to insulate reason and fever emotion, there have also been exaggerations of the government’s economic prowess and competence. The alternate narrative is that the government is actively reducing the national debt, bringing down spending sharply. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that: “And that’s why we’re even more determined as a coalition government to do it as fairly as possible, to spread the burden as evenly as possible so that we can wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren.” George Osborne’s pronouncement that “we are out of the danger zone” appears to not sync with reality. Far from wiping “the slate clean”, the government is actively increasing the debt, and moving its reduction as a percentage of GDP further into the future. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, points out a poll that shows only 6% of Britons know that the government will increase the national debt by about £600bn over the course of the parliament. With the rhetoric opposing reality, it is little wonder that so few British people are fully aware of Britain’s fiscal position.
The similarity between the major British political parties, particularly on economic matters, means that political language must cleave borders between them. A government attempting to constrain the growth in public spending must derided as a cruel, devilish caricature, channeling the spirit of Victorian workhouses. That government and its supporters must also overstate its own economic competence. The substitution of ‘the rich’ for “millionaires and billionaires”, and other superlatives, shows that old political villains have been used too often to be effective, like recurring antagonists in Saturday morning cartoons. The inflation of rhetoric is underway, eroding our savings of sober analysis.