Rishi Sunak’s spending review came as no big surprise. After explaining that the economy had shrunk more than ever - 11.3% - which is the most in 3 centuries (but we heard that last time!) and that public debt is the highest since WW2, he presented public sector workers with a bill. Yes, another pay freeze - or “pay pause”, as he put it.
This is meant to save the government up to £23bn over 3 years. Never mind that it could afford to throw more that half of that amount, in fact £12.2bn, down the plughole, on that failed Serco Test&Trace contract...which just bungled follow-ups yet again, this time “losing” 110,000 positive cases! Or that it happily afforded all those other deals for Tory "chums", whether for the wrong PPE, phone apps which didn’t work, LightHouse labs whose test results got lost, etc., etc...
Johnson’s and Sunak’s “priorities”, above all, involve cheering up their reactionary backbenchers and the bosses behind them, by giving public sector workers a good bashing. It’s their favourite old bugbear.
So civil servants, teachers, firefighters, even police, will face a pay cut next year, since inflation is due to rise like a balloon. There will be a few who get a rise - the grand sum of £250, for those earning less than £24,000. And Count Dracula Sunak did not dare cut the pay of exhausted doctors and nurses, currently struggling on the frontline to save lives - thanks to all the help Johnson’s policies have given to the coronavirus.
But of course, if this is the worst crisis in peacetime, and what’s more, unemployment is due to rise to 7.5% next quarter, then the amount Sunak is “spending” is far too little! 600,000 more children have sunk into poverty since the pandemic began and there are 2m poor people using foodbanks. But he did not even pledge to make permanent that temporary £20/week rise in Universal Credit.
Johnson rattles his sabre
While Sunak’s spending review was no revelation, what was not expected was last week’s announcement by Johnson of “the biggest defence investment since the end of the cold war”- as the newspapers put it.
Another £16.5bn spending boost, on top of the already huge military budget of £41.5bn, will “end the era of retreat”said Johnson, bringing spending up and “pioneering new technology”...
Johnson’s explanation was almost comical: “I have taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defence of the realm must come first”.So he was being very brave (facing the spikes of the virus?) and was defending the “realm”! But against whom?
It sounded as if Johnson was preparing for war. But despite the recent upping of rhetoric (following soon-to-be-gone Trump) against China, Russia and Iran - and despite the fact that rash actions can never be ruled out, this is unlikely.
No, this announcement was perfectly timed to coincide with the last stage of the Brexit talks. The transition period is almost over and it is just days before Brexited Britain finally sails off, all on its own, into the blue yonder!
And there are certainly many in the establishment who are worried about the “strategic” consequences of this for Britain: what John Major described as a solitary “second rate power”,facing the world, after leaving the security of the EU...
They only like bomb-strikes
In fact, it was quite significant that Brexit and its high cost (whether there is a deal with the EU or whether Britain leaves on WTO terms with high tariffs) were not even mentioned in Sunak’s speech. And ironically (and implausibly!), when he mentioned the rise in defence spending, it was to say that it would cushion the cut he was making in overseas aid. A cut which he claimed was necessary to satisfy the “British people”, but of course, was really to please his narrow nationalist, xenophobic back-benchers. And how would it do so? By ensuring that the overseas poor, as in Yemen, were bombed much better next time?
The same right-wing chorus on Tory benches has had a fit over the fact that some of the public sector unions said they might ballot for strike action over the pay freeze. Apparently it’s fine to be slaving away at work during a pandemic, exposing yourselves and others to Covid, but if you refuse to work, and down tools, that’s endangering public safety!
Of course, public sector workers would be right to fight for decent pay. Their pay is still 1.3% below its 2010 level! But there are also more fundamental fights to be had. For instance over the degraded conditions of workers who are nominally “private”, but who actually carry out public service on the minimum wage - and without sick pay. A collective fight over these issues could bring all workers, whether public or private, together.