The fashionable book among British intellectuals is David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, an account of the years 1945 to 1951, as Britain emerged from the Second World War. It’s one of the great periods in British peacetime history; nobody had anything to eat, and they managed to invent the National Health Service. The two things, Englishly, are often thought to go together. According to novelist Andrew O’Hagan, “British people are generally better at being strapped than at being flush. People say they hate austerity whilst secretly feeling buoyant as they tighten their belts.” They’ll get another chance to feel that way.
The book is having a moment because the other week in his emergency budget, the chancellor of the Exchequer for the new coalition government unveiled the biggest public-spending cuts since the glory days of Thatcherism: a 25 percent cut across nearly all public services—only health and international-aid spending are to be protected. This has come to be known as “the new austerity.”
As economic policy, this might be a huge mistake: Many experts warn that drastic reductions in government spending around the world will sink what recovery there is. They’re probably right. But that isn’t the real question. It’s about how this will put a stop to the Americanness of England.
A brief note on British social history: Margaret Thatcher once announced that “there is no such thing as society,” and it is often thought that she and Tony Blair did their best to make it so by attempting to remove the stultifying class structure that had England locked in a death grip. However, this new classlessness that they championed led to serious concerns that England was becoming classless more in the Real Housewives sense of the word. This was the rise of the Chavs: brand-loving, globe-trotting English who like having money and like spending it even more. They like to go large. They zip around the world on low-cost airlines. They are Thatcher’s children, individualistic and avaricious in their matching outfits, and having an awesome time. Everyone wants to grow up to be one. The patron saints of Chavhood are David and Victoria Beckham. Beckingham Palace is the new ancestral home. On the corner of Fifth and 57th in Manhattan lies the Chav Triangle: Burberry, Vuitton, and Niketown; this is where Chavs shop when they come to New York.
The new rulers of Great Britain are not Chavs. They are, to continue in the parlance, Poshos, born firmly into the upper classes. The imposers of this new austerity belong to the ancient orders: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and George Osborne are, respectively, an old Etonian, a Westminster, and a Pauline. These are the schools of the ruling class. They dislike Chavs; Chavs threaten the natural order they were born and educated into. (Thatcher went to what Americans call a public school.) The British mania for bling is being consigned by government fiat to history. The Conservative government, under the guise of lowering emissions, has even refused to add new runways to London airports, to cut down on “binge flying.” There are concerns that privilege will return to the hands of the few.
The new government claims it is not so. It wishes for everyone to get the benefits of a cold-water elitist education. Last month, Kenneth Clarke, the Justice secretary, announced that he wanted to drastically cut Britain’s prison population. He has a new plan to preserve order: “Everybody who’s sent to prison costs more than it costs parents to send a boy to Eton.”
That’s not really the issue, though. What’s at stake here is whether Osborne, Clegg, and Cameron, in their quiet, well-mannered way, can convince the population that the class system knows best.