Remarkably, the profundity of current events is such that even last week’s damning verdict by the UN that the UK breached international human rights law by pursuing a regressive austerity-based policy agenda might be considered relatively insignificant. It shouldn’t be. It might be more important than we realise.
It appears that the Leave vote was located in traditional Labour strongholds where UKIP has done well, with areas that have suffered the worst economic adversity voting most strongly for Brexit.
Lower income households in less prosperous areas of the country are more likely to be dependent upon state benefits and public services. There is some evidence (and poll data) that a perceived pressure on public services contributed towards the resistance to immigration. Equally, the promise of extra spending being available for the NHS appears to have been persuasive for many leavers. Scotland, where some of the worse effects of austerity have been avoided or mitigated, voted to remain in the UK despite having similar social attitudes to the rest of the UK. Doubtless there are many factors which explain the demographic divisions exposed by last Thursday’s vote but it does appear that austerity mattered in this referendum.
The last two governments repeatedly blamed the economic crisis in Europe for the ongoing need for austerity in the UK, whilst others were keen to attribute the decade-long stagnation in wage levels to cheap imported labour from Europe. In such conditions it was hardly surprising that many were unconvinced that they would see economic benefits from continued membership of the EU.
But the manner in which austerity-based policies have been pursued in the UK may have had an even more profound impact on this referendum. And this is why the UN’s unusually critical report is so important.
The report was issued by a committee of independent experts that monitors states’ protection of economic, social and cultural rights, especially for disadvantaged groups. It does this by applying a set of legal norms designed to ensure that everyone’s rights are progressively realised using the maximum available resources. It of course appreciates that after the financial crisis ‘tough choices’ had to be made; it respects the considerable scope for legitimate political disagreement about how deficits should be reduced in the pursuit of prosperity. Above all it is a legal institution that values evidence and the rule of law over rhetoric and propaganda: austerity policy programmes are judged on their own terms.
After considering extensive evidence submitted by the Government, national human rights institutions and civil society groups and conducting two public ‘dialogues’ with the UK Government’s delegation, the Committee set out its concluding observations on the UK’s performance since its last review in 2009. Its findings are stark: social security reforms and cuts to public services have had a disproportionately adverse impact on low-income households and should be reversed. Regressive reforms to corporation, inheritance tax and VAT have diminished the UK’s ability “to address persistent social inequality” whilst not enough is being done to tackle tax evasion by corporations and high net worth individuals. The housing deficit is now “critical” and contributing to “exceptionally high levels of homelessness”. Insufficient action has been taken to address the growing dependency on food-banks. Benefit levels leave many in persistent states of destitution. Benefit sanctioning is being misused.
And despite all of the pain the good times never came. According to the Committee, the ‘National Living Wage’ is “not sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living”; employment levels are increasing but too many people are in poorly paid low skill jobs or on zero hour contracts. Even before Brexit the Institute for Fiscal Studies projected child poverty to increase by 50%, with almost one in five living in absolute poverty by 2020.
So the UN Committee’s verdict is clear. Austerity in the UK has proved to be much more austere for some than others. We are not all in this together. The counter-narrative has been exposed by an independent body of experts with no axe to grind and no vested interest to protect. It shouldn’t have happened in the way that it did and it didn’t happen in the way that they said it would.
The sense of division, disillusionment and public mistrust to which the austerity agenda has contributed obviously doesn’t wholly explain last week’s referendum vote but it is important to recognise its part. The role of experts, fact and truth in the respective campaigns has been widely commented upon. Why did so many seemingly vote against their own economic interests? Why did the net contribution that migrants make to the country’s finances not convince them that free movement was good for them? Just how racist and xenophobic is the country we live in? Did politicians really lie that brazenly about the consequences or voting in or out? This apparently ‘anti-factual’ world extends beyond our own borders and across the Atlantic. It owes its existence in part to the excessive use of spin, hyperbole and propaganda by the political classes. But why should the public have trusted those who told them austerity was a pill we all had to swallow?
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Surely, as we enter this period of unprecedented political and economic uncertainty, it is critical that we claim the right to honest informed debate and evidenced-based policy to carry us through it. There is nothing axiomatic about this happening here or anywhere else that contends to be a functioning democracy. A robust public discourse backed by enforceable human rights and the rule of law is integral to ensuring that it does. An honest and responsible government would welcome, not fear it.