Owen Jones writes:
“Austerity” is a term so abstract that, during the televised leaders debates at the last general election, the most commonly Googled phrase in Britain was “what is austerity?”
That was after five years of it.
Yes, workers suffered the longest squeeze in their wages since the 19th century, but the fall in living standards was somehow decoupled from the issue of cuts.
Government cuts pursued the following strategy: to target people who were less likely to vote (such as young people) and who preferably were held in low esteem by wider society (such as benefit claimants); or where the consequences would not be felt for a long time.
A case in point: the prison system.
Over the last few days, the crisis enveloping Britain’s prison system stopped being a warning scribbled in press releases. It become an actuality.
This weekend, up to 200 inmates rioted in Bedford prison.
Yesterday, two prisoners escaped from Pentonville prison and are now on the run.
And on the same day, there were reports of a riot in Exeter prison.
Our Victorian prison system – which is more interested in locking up mentally ill poor people than rehabilitation and crime prevention – is overcrowded, under-staffed and underresourced.
No one can say the warnings weren’t there.
While our prison population doubled in the space of two decades, last week the Prison Officers’ Association warned that falling staff numbers and cuts mean a“bloodbath in prisons”, adding that “staff are absolutely on their knees, lost all morale, all motivation”.
Opponents of cuts are frequently accused of alarmism: we are now seeing how prophetic they were.
Some of the other consequences of austerity are becoming visible, too.
A UN inquiry has condemned government cuts for “systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people, whether it be the bedroom tax or cuts to disability benefits.
And today the Trussell Trust reports that – partly due to benefit sanctions and delays in social security payments – it is set to deliver the biggest number of emergency food parcels ever.
After Britain was battered by floods over the festive period last year, it was revealed how cuts to flood defences had put households at risk.
The danger is that – even as these cuts hit – they will remain abstractions, headlines to goggle at and then turn the page.
Those most badly affected can all too easily be ignored.
But the failure to invest in a country’s future means we will all increasingly suffer the consequences.
We are beginning to see what some of them are.