We may or may not be back on “the Road to Wigan Pier” as BBC Assistant Political Editor Norman Smith suggested in a throw away line during an informal two way interview on Thursday mornings Radio 4 Today programme, but the problem with independent agencies such as the BBC and the Institute of Fiscal Studies is that they tend to tell the story as they see it and to their own timetable not yours. Hence the furious reaction of Chancellor George Osborne to Smith’s comment and to the subsequent announcement by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the Chancellor’s spending plans announced in Wednesday’s Autumn Statement implied a further £55 billion of cuts in the period 2015-2020 on top of the £30 billion of cuts already implemented. The IFS statement brought a swift end to the media honeymoon that the Chancellor had conjured up with his reforms to Stamp Duty and suggestions that a Google Tax might bring tax avoiding multi nationals to heel and force them to pay taxes in countries where they actually make their profits.
In spite of the Chancellor’s reaction to media coverage of the IFS Statement, he condemned coverage on the BBC as “totally hyperbolic” in a later interview with John Humphreys, the IFS statement only confirms what the Government watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility [OBR] said in the immediate aftermath of the statement. That the Chancellor’s spending plans would leave the role of the State at its smallest for eighty years relative to UK GDP. In other words, in illustrative terms Smith was absolutely right to use the allusion to George Orwell’s classic 1930’s study of poverty in what the Chancellor now calls the “Northern Powerhouse”.
The implications of cuts at such a level, were the Chancellor able to implement them, are profound and would affect everyone in the UK. IFS director Paul Johnson said
“…it is surely incumbent upon anyone set on taking the size of the state to its smallest in many generations to tell us what that means.
“How will these cuts be implemented? What will local government, the defence force, the transport system, look like in this world? Is this a fundamental re-imagining of the role of the state?”
Experts suggest that cuts at the level apparently envisaged by the Chancellor would lead to a 40% reduction in existing budgets in non ring fenced area of Government spending. For the Heritage and Archaeology the implications are profound because the Department for Culture Media and Sport does not have a ring fenced budget and the new “Historic England”, the regulatory half of English Heritage, would almost certainly face the same level of budgetary restraint. Indeed, the DCMS might even face abolition in any attempt to streamline Government, which would mean no centralised specialised advice in areas of heritage and culture in Whitehall and no voice around the Cabinet table. Equally the budgets of local authorities who run the planning system and many local museums all over the Country are also a prime candidate for further cuts. Finally the Higher Education sector is also an area where budgets could be slashed, increasing the pressure on Universities to offer more popular courses which would lead to identifiable financial benefits and attract sponsorship from industry to Universities which, critics argue, increasingly see themselves as international businesses rather than centers of learning and research. In that climate it is unlikely that a small university archaeology department supplying small numbers of graduates to an insecure profession which some would see as offering a block to development and growth would be sponsored by, for example, the UK’s largest house builder Taylor Wimpey. Under those conditions archaeology could go the way some fear that some fear training for the acting profession has already gone, with archaeology departments becoming a finishing school for lucrative foreign students paying commercial fees or those from privileged backgrounds who can afford full fees.
Overall some estimates suggest as many as one million public sector workers could find themselves out of work and the experience of the last five years is that many who do find work find it in lower paid jobs with worse conditions and perhaps on one of the infamous zero hours contracts. Even for people in work but on low pay, and this would include many in the archeology and heritage sectors, In Work Benefits [or what critics would call “the Bad Employer Subsidy”] are likely to be further reduced, especially if politicians continue to favour the “grey vote” by protecting pensions and pensioner benefits such as free TV Licences.
In his defence Mr Osborne said ” “I’m not pretending these are easy decisions or that they have no impact. But the alternative of a return to economic chaos, of not getting on top of your debts, of people looking at Britain across the world and thinking that is not a country in charge of its own destiny, is not a world that I want to deliver.”
However Business Minister Vince Cable, of the Liberal Democrat half of the Cameron led coalition, stated that “I think the plans that Osborne set out are actually implausible. I don’t think they can be realised. Whatever government comes in, even a Conservative government, is going to have to increase taxes, for example.”
While the current debate is highly politicised and the attempts by the Chancellor and No 10 to intimidate the BBC which are widely reported today, is probably more to do with the tactical position for the forthcoming General Election rather than the immediate cuts debate, it is clear is that there are cuts to come and that all the political parties, with the possible exception of Mr Cable, do not want them set out let alone debated before the Election in May. Of the two parties likely to head any UK Government , the Conservatives it is argued are on the verge of creating their idealogical dreamland of a low tax and low regulation small government state and a second term could see that embedded to the extent it is irreversible and they do not want that put at risk. The Labour Party could argue that this shrinking of the State has been achieved for purely idealogical reasons by stealth and to the benefit of a few, not least private service providers picking up former in-house government and local authority contracts, on the back of the collapse of the banking system 2008. However, fiscal and political realities, particularly the danger of offering any policy which implies a tax rise for individual voters, ensure that it too cannot avoid further cuts to spending, let alone simply reinstating the cuts made under the Cameron coalition.
In the end thePipeLine believes there is only one real lesson from the controversy surrounding the Autumn Statement. That is that we are living through profoundly political times in the United Kingdom and next May will see a General Election where various groups and political parties are currently trying to shape the debate.
In “The Road to Wigan Pier ” George Orwell wrote
“The earth is so vast and still so empty that even in the filthy heart of civilization you find fields where the grass is green instead of grey; perhaps if you looked for them you might even find streams with live fish in them instead of salmon tins.”
In a time shrunk, globalised world there is currently more influence, profit and political donations to be obtained from the suppliers of tinned Salmon than from the keepers of live fish and archaeologists, indeed anyone who works in or care about the heritage sector, either as an individual or as members of family, social and business networks will be profoundly affected by the decision the Country makes on 7 May 2015. Therefore if they want to have any influence at all it is up to those people, both as individuals and through their representative organisations, to mobilise as a visible and vocal part of that debate in the same way as Environmental pressure groups such as the CPRE and Greenpeace have been doing for years.
After all, what is the point of belonging to a profession, even a chartered profession, if there is no sector left to work in and no way of inspiring and educating its future practitioners because the courses are closed, the museum collections have cherry picked, to be sold off and access to knowledge is priced beyond reach.