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Goodbye, George Osborne, who finally leaves the world of public affairs for the thin air of golden invisibles at the summit of the wealth mountain. Forget chairing that Northern Powerhouse Partnership thing he set up to boost his leadership hopes. Forget his editor-in-chief seat at the London Evening Standard, once such a useful reward-and-revenge machine for his political ambitions. Forget the paltry £650,000 a year for one day a week at BlackRock. He is departing for really serious money at Robey Warshaw, where the top partner earned £27.8m in 2019. To this “boutique advisory firm”, Mayfair cream-skimmers of mega-mergers and acquisitions, the FT says he brings his “network of political links”.
For his political epitaph, let’s steal Sir Christopher Wren’s. Engraved beneath the dome of St Paul’s is this: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” – “if you seek his monument, look around you”. Likewise, stand at any observation point to survey the state of Britain, and you will see Osborne’s work everywhere. Rarely has one man left so indelible a mark. Add an emblem of 2,000 food banks to his coat of arms.
I don’t subscribe to Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history; heroes and Übermenschen are also the product of their time and circumstances. Yet in the past decade, two men stand out for shaping Britain in their image, but not as heroes: Osborne with his politically motivated, shrink-the-state policies; Boris Johnson for swinging the Brexit referendum. Both used the fates of millions to further their own political ends.
As shadow chancellor, Osborne risked spooking the markets with his blood-curdling warnings of the imminent danger of “a proper sterling collapse, a run on the pound”. His first budget, in 2010, delivered what Robert Chote, then head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), called “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending at least since the second world war”.
Osborne justified his “tougher than Thatcher” pledge with hair-raising visions of Britain on “the brink of bankruptcy”, at risk of joining Greece on the precipice. None of it was true. “We were clearly nowhere near bankrupt,” says Paul Johnson, the current IFS director. “We could have borrowed more. Government debt was cheap as chips.” Osborne cut down the green shoots of growth, and by 2013 he had lost the AAA credit rating he had warned was vital to survival; it wasn’t. “He delayed the recovery,” says Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London.
Though David Cameron was in No 10, “this was Osborne’s own – he was the driving force,” says Johnson. An early pen-portrait in the Financial Times called him “hawkish”, with “links with Washington neoconservatives, and ideologically committed to cutting the state”. Cameron played Mr “Big Society” Nice, with Osborne as axeman. His famous smirk was closer to an Ozymandian sneer of cold command, and it would always have denied him the top job. Remember how the crowd booed him at the Paralympics in 2012.
But let’s pretend Osborne believed his own “verge of bankruptcy” scare-mongering. Let’s imagine his antediluvian, pre-Keynesian economics were sincere. After promising that we were “all in it together”, why did his axe fall on the weakest, poorest and sickest people, and on children, leaving his middle England voters unscathed? “He redistributed away from those with the lowest incomes, away from children, toward the middle and upper middle,” says Portes. Paul Johnson agrees: “The poorest third of working age were hardest hit; the upper third got off scot free.”
By geography, he cut the poorest local authorities hardest, so Liverpool took the worst hit, Dorset sustained the least damage. His economics were pure politics: Labour councils bore the brunt. Nick Clegg later revealed that Osborne refused to build council houses as “they would create more Labour voters”.
Early cuts were just an appetiser, and Johnson thinks Osborne was surprised at the lack of political pushback. “A degree of hubris set in,” says Johnson. “He assumed he could do it again and again.” And he did, gouging another £12bn from benefits in 2015. The bedroom tax raised very little money, but the public understood its viciousness. The first case that was brought to my attention was that of a Hartlepool family charged for the empty room of their recently deceased seven-year-old. Cuts to universal credit, a four-year benefit freeze, a benefit cap and more came with that Osborne trope about idle scroungers in bed with the blinds down while honest folk went to work. Meanwhile, the top tax rates fell. He was clever: raising the tax threshold seemed to help the low paid, but he knew the bulk of the relief went to the top half – his middle Englanders.
In our book, The Lost Decade, David Walker and I chronicled the devastation of the Osborne era. What’s worst? Paul Johnson picks out with particular horror “the catastrophe in prisons and the justice system”, caused by his cuts. Osborne knew benefits and justice fell below the public radar. Portes points to disabled people tormented by unjust tests to save £3bn: some lost, some gained, most won appeals, but not a penny was saved.
An opera-going man of culture, Osborne assaulted the BBC, making a deeply damaging cut to its budget by making it pay for free TV licences for the over-75s. He had met with News Corp representatives four times and Rupert Murdoch twice before launching that culture war strike.
Osborne left the country defenceless against a pandemic. Despite election pledges, NHS funding per capita fell as never before, public health was denuded, social care stripped, school spending per pupil cut by 8%, councils weakened by up to 40%: all our social defences were down. A million public sector jobs were lost, leaving Whitehall perilously incapacitated.
Brexit finished Osborne’s career, but Jonathan Portes says: “It served him right, after years of stoking benefit ‘scrounger’ fears – that merged with ‘immigrants’ in the minds of Brexit voters.” Sacked by Theresa May, Osborne used his editorship of the Evening Standard for revenge: he wanted her “chopped up in bags in my freezer”. Any serious pandemic inquest into why so many died in such an unprepared and unequal country would chop up his political reputation, too. But as he exits through that ever-revolving golden door between Tory cabinets and hyper-wealth, I doubt he’s much bothered.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: George Osborne’s legacy is all around us: his cuts left Britain helpless to resist Covid | Conservatives