The Tory right, friends of chancellor George Osborne, are now arguing openly that they want Britain’s living and working standards to meet Asia’s.
There was something of a storm last week after it emerged that a group of Tory MPs close to George Osbourne claim in a new book that Britain has become a “nation of idlers”:
The “young guns” from the new Right of the party called for a culture of “graft, risk and effort” to propel Britain into the “superleague” of nations. . .
“Too many people in Britain, we argue, prefer a lie-in to hard work,” they said. . .
“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world,” they said. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.”
The economic crisis should be a “wake-up call” of the need to “rediscover the lost virtue of hard graft”.
The group, whose most prominent member is Dominic Raab, is making a claim commonly heard – there’s too much employment protection in the UK, and that bosses should be free to sack “coasters” (i.e. to sack at whim). Britain’s failings are, supposedly, due to the slackness of it’s workforce. Of course, this is empirically false. But the facts aren’t getting in the way of the narrative. And the narrative is there to sell the reality – the right, but the political class more generally, want to push down living standards and working conditions in order to make Britain more “competitive” internationally.
The MPs said that the UK had to raise its work ethic towards that of South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, rather than the office and factory culture in struggling European nations, or risk slipping into grim decline with falling living standards.
“Britain will never be as big as China or Brazil, but we can look forward to a new generation, ready to get to work,” the MPs said. “If we are to take advantage of these opportunities, we must get on the side of the responsible, the hard working and the brave. We must stop bailing out the reckless, avoiding all risk, and rewarding laziness.”
Additionally, they claim that British workers’ leisure time is a negative thing:
Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
The implication here being that Britain should have levels of grinding poverty and/or fear of the sack and destitution which mean you don’t have time for pleasure, with Asian economies like India as the model.
This competitiveness means you work more, and get less – that the way to arrest Britain’s international decline relative to emerging Asian economies (with China a likely future centre for capital accumulation) is to knock down the cost of labour for capital in the West. Immediate proposals include a hire-and-fire culture and the erosion of the minumum wage, to begin with by exempting small businesses from paying it to young workers. The welfare state should be gutted.
This is increasingly the chatter within the Tory party, and the “infinite austerity” consensus is a reality within the Labour party too, despite the bluster: we already know that there are no commitments to undo pay freezes or cuts with a labour victory, and “rising stars” like Stella Creasy are arguing for a massive, “radical” labour-led “restructuring” (read: erosion) of the welfare state.
What needs to be realised is the international pressures which are increasingly moulding the project of infinite austerity; that these are being explicitly discussed now shows how normalised it has become. The only thing that will deter this incremental slide towards, as Paul Mason has argued, meeting Chinese living standards, is the same thing that has provided upwards pressure on wages in china: strikes and collective action by workers. The capitalist class know their objectives and have a strategy. We need to respond in kind.
This article first appeared in Libcom.org