I always thought the austerity rhetoric had something of ‘the spirit of the Blitz’ about it. Austerity (the rhetoric) instilled a sense of togetherness and inclusion in the British public even if austerity (the programme) had a highly uneven impact on different groups, and was largely ineffectual in improving our country’s economic fortunes. In a country steeped in nostalgia for the Second World War, this kind of appeal to mass public sacrifice had a galvanising effect. The British public accepted the idea that some personal short term pain was necessary, even if they privately wanted to see more of that pain passed on to those they deemed less deserving. It conjured images of rationing, of a British public without heed to class distinctions responding stoically to a time of crisis - we were ‘all in it together’, showing our unity and our mettle in times of adversity. Even our cultural artefacts said ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’, before the Hoxtonistas got their hands on them.
It is perhaps because of the success of austerity (the rhetoric) that the Panama leaks are so potentially damaging. The unpalatable situation that confronts the Conservative party this morning is that at the time David Cameron announced the absolute necessity of austerity to UK citizens, his father had employed the services of Mossack Fonseca to avoid making the sacrifices perceived to be the duty of others less well off than himself. Time will tell if Cameron stood to gain personally from this arrangement, but it is now difficult to avoid the sense that we were never all in it together: it was always one rule for the privileged and another for the disabled, the homeless, the council workers, the nurses, the junior doctors and multiple others who were told that there was no alternative and that we all must give up something for the sake of the many. For a party steeped in family and other money, much of which may prove to be mobile, there will be nervousness amongst Tories tonight because that image is potentially toxic.
The British electorate do not like hypocrites and they don’t like to be taken for fools. It was, after all, the hypocrisy of the Back To Basics programme that undid the previous Conservative administration, as revelations about extra-marital affairs, romps and exotic sexual encounters undermined the party’s authority to wag its finger at ordinary people and preach the merits of self-discipline and the sanctity of the family unit. The routine scandals made the party a laughing stock and robbed them of power for nearly a generation. We are now potentially in Back To Basics Mark II. When asked to make sacrifices, we like to think it is not beyond those who stand to lose least proportionately to muck in; particularly when the financial crisis was in large part an elite debacle in the first place. What we learn from the Panama leaks is that for the rich, including allegedly a relative of our leader, even these modest sacrifices were unacceptable.
Cameron has said that this is a private matter, but it cannot be this time. The context of his own austerity rhetoric makes this new revelation unavoidably public. This can’t be handled like the pig-gate affair which was successfully starved of oxygen; his one-line response is of similar intent. Cameron now stands accused of something much worse: he is accused of being a hypocrite and of taking the British public for fools. And that is much more serious politically.