Forget ‘race to the top’ – Liz Truss doesn’t even pretend to care about inequality | John Harris

AAs this most bizarre and surreal national moment unfolded, voices of power and influence constantly spoke of national unity and shared sentiment. The media is suddenly inundated with ‘us’ and ‘we’. All these flowers, flags and banners embody the same message: that whatever the tensions and resentments of this country, the United Kingdom remains exactly that. But, in a grim accident of timing, when politics resumes this week, the bigger story will be about something that suggests the exact opposite: a government so indifferent to the huge gaps dividing people and places that it will widen them. even more.

Friday will see the much-attended ‘tax event’ in which new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng will outline details of the government’s energy price freeze and tax cuts promised by Liz Truss in her campaign for the leadership of the conservatives. The Resolution Foundation estimates that on average the tenth of the wealthiest households will benefit from these measures of around £4,700 a year, while the poorest tenth will receive £2,200. To add insult to injury, towards the end of last week news broke of Kwarteng’s efforts to remove the existing cap on bankers’ bonuses, a legacy of our EU membership. As with Truss’s hostility to a windfall tax extended to large energy corporations, here is further evidence of his government’s key intent: to “go for growth” by privileging wealthy and powerful people and interests, in the hope that this could boost UK growth. production.

Clearly, this approach leaves little room for the jumble of politics, rhetoric and half-formed intentions known as the race to the top. This program was already sick: even as Boris Johnson continued to talk of an imaginary rebalancing of Britain as his big mission, transport plans centered on the north of England were canceled and cut, the programs of Whitehall which replaced EU funding for UK regions turned out to be a shadow of what came before them, and the long-awaited leveling white paper was turned into a non-event by the refusal of Rishi Sunak to support it with new public funds. But following Johnson’s downfall, the upgrade was shelved even as a vague idea.

To no one’s surprise, Truss’ first speech outside Downing Street made no mention of the term. The Department for Upgrading, Housing and Communities is now the responsibility of low-powered Conservative minister Simon Clarke. In the real world, relatively small-scale projects funded by £4.8bn of leveling money are now at risk from rising inflation – and at the end of last week the Financial Times reported reported that among local councils and Whitehall insiders, “there was no expectation of additional cash from central government.” So far, one of the few glimmers of reflection on regional inequalities between Truss and his allies was a fuzzy suggestion that “certain areas” will be turned into low-tax, deregulated corporate zones – a warmed-up version of an old, failed idea, and a far cry from past promises of infrastructure upgrades. , improving education and everything else.

Under Johnson, the failure to level up could be attributed to a lack of consistency and skill. But in Truss’ case, the meaning of the idea that hits the wall is the result of ideological beliefs highlighted in his first major TV interview. Four days before the Queen died, she appeared on the new BBC show with Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday, where the host asked her why she was prioritizing tax cuts that would hugely benefit those at the top. Truss cheerfully conceded the point. “But looking at everything through the prism of redistribution, I believe, is a mistake,” she continued. “Because what interests me is the growth of the economy, and the growth of the economy benefits everyone.”

Truss knew the meaning of what she was trying to explain, even though Kuenssberg didn’t seem to know. “It’s a really important point,” she insisted. “The economic debate of the past 20 years has been dominated by discussions of redistribution. And what’s happened is we’ve had relatively low growth…and that’s held our country back.

On the surface, this is a very odd view of the past two decades: Was that period really so “dominated” by a debate over equity and inequality that it stifled the economy? Even in the days of New Labour, senior politicians tended to remain silent about such things: Gordon Brown’s redistributive policies, let us not forget, happened largely by stealth. Moreover, once David Cameron and George Osborne took power, austerity meant that inequality – especially in its regional manifestations – worsened dramatically. So who or what was Truss’ target?

What she really lamented, it seems to me, was the turn in Conservative politics after the Brexit referendum. Theresa May and Johnson may have nuanced their rhetoric on UK inequality by insisting they had no intention of taking money from areas at the top of the wealth and poverty rankings. revenue. But they nevertheless talked about their focus on disadvantaged people and places, and said they could use the state to start reshape the British economy. In February of this year, then-Secretary of Leveling, Michael Gove, contrasted leveling with “trickle down economics”, and said that if the free market was left to its own devices, “then what you see, it’s that inequalities are increasing”.

This is what Truss and his allies have apparently come to avenge: as true Thatcherite believers, they believe that even the most timid interventionism could lead to ruin (hence his initial rejection of “alms” to alleviate the energy crisis), and that ultimately inequality is just another word for what makes capitalism so dynamic. His Conservative colleagues see very clearly this linchpin of his convictions. “She has an agenda, it’s quite ideological and it’s very conservative,” Osborne says. “We didn’t get that with Boris Johnson or Theresa May.”

This last point is true. The fact that Truss’s two predecessors said they would move away from post-Thatcher Toryism was in fact a big part of why the political loyalties of former Labor hearts began to shake in 2017, leading to the fall of the so-called red wall two years later. As crazy as it sounds now, many people in those places had voted to leave the EU in the spirit of hope, and May and Johnson then did their best to convince them that their optimism was not misplaced.

Now we are suddenly in a very different political climate. What, you can only wonder, is Truss’ message to voters who live in the kind of areas still commonly referred to as “left behind”? That they should drown out their hopes, do their best to weather the tough times, and rejoice if a sugar rush in financial services boosts national income by a few percent? If this remains his government’s approach, millions of people will know exactly what they are dealing with: the end of any lingering hope that upgrading would mean anything, and the return of the creed that ensured they were left behind in the first place.

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Edward L. Robinett