We have no nature. Our nations are not built instinctively by our bodies, like beehives; they are works of art, like ships, carpets and gardens. The possible shapes of them are endless. It is bad habits, not bad nature, which makes us repeat the dull old shapes of poverty and war.
Alasdair Gray, Lanark
The emergency budget is intended to change the arrangement of the state permanently. The cuts it contains have been trailed as inevitable as well as irrevocable. The extent of the deficit has been talked up mercilessly. Tim Harford points out that almost all the ‘extra’ debt the government claims to have discovered has in fact been public knowledge for a very long time, but it doesn’t matter: the debt has to seem new, because it has to justify the mercilessness of the cuts.
Our whole way of life must change, promises the Prime Minister. But it’s not impersonal circumstance that demands those changes – cuts are clearly required, but their extent and their structure are debatable. The only thing impelling tomorrow’s budget is the government’s own beliefs about what society and the state should look like.
So what sort of changes will we see? Well, look to the flagship policies in education. Instead of focussing on providing a better standard of universal schooling, the coalition policies will provide a middle-class minority with a sliver of self-determination. What will those children who don’t have the rich, well-educated, leisured parents capable of running a school get from free schools? They will get nothing.
Not quite nothing: they will get the lie that their lives could have been better, if only better choices had been made. It doesn’t matter whose the choices were, or when they were made; they were choices, and that makes them a irreproachable justification for whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
In this fiction, we will pretend that, say, a whole system of free-at-the-point-of-need education is the emanation of millions of small, trivial choices (“Will they say prayers?” “Is there a swimming pool?” “What are their SATs like?” “Can I make a school like the one I’ve imagined?”) rather than the product of one large, blunt but compelling assertion: every child should have a good education. Without a principled state to invest ourselves in, what will we have? Entrenched privileges, inherited position, and convenient beliefs that the worse-off really deserve to be where they are.
There’s an argument made by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that greater equality (in relatively well-off countries) leads to better lives for everyone. It’s a tricky idea to put into practice, because it demands that people should give up one immediate (but unreliable) good – the idea that they can do a bit better than their peers – in favour of a more distant, but also more substantial one: a fairer, happier society.
This budget will be about sating those immediate desires, and giving up shared responsibility for the distant ones; about trusting to the supposed inevitability of the market and choice, rather than the possibility of making better structures. It will serve our worst habits, and propagate those dull shapes.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010