UK public debt increased following the bailouts of the banks in the financial crisis 2008. Austerity was the political and economic tool – the neoliberal project – used to reduce the debts incurred in the bailout by cutting public spending. As a consequence, the UK suffered unprecedented cuts across our public services. This is alongside deregulation, reducing working conditions, and privatisation that has sold off public assets, such as land, utilities and services. These are ideological moves in neoliberal economics and the UK population suffered severe austerity.
Now, the free marketeers are turning away from austerity, public spending is back on the agenda. This U-turn fits their political purposes. It’s not out of care for people and concern about inequalities. £30 billion cannot match the cuts since 2010. The Labour leader points out that an immediate £54bn is needed on day-to-day public spending, outside health and social care, is be needed to get Budgets back to 2010 levels. £30 billion seems a huge amount of money but consider the treasury had £1.2 trillion exposure and used £123.93 billion from public spending was used to bail out the banks. Teresa May gave £1 billion to the to the DUP to buy their votes for her Brexit plan. Northern Ireland is one of poorest areas and the £1 billion made little change. This is about £500 per head of population, as is, the £30 billion across the UK population. There was no meaningful democracy in how it was spent. The same applies now. The public spending will service the private companies who’ll build the new infrastructure etc.
This budget will be paid for through borrowing, that, according to capitalism’s rules requires strong economies to repay debts. However, even before Covid-19 crisis, the UK growth forecast was weak, and likely to worsen due to looming UK and global recession. Stock markets falls are greater than in 2008 and 1987, shares are overvalued, global corporate and government debts are huge. Then, there’s the relatively hard Brexit trade deals with impact on food system and workers’ rights. The budget does not point to social calm but continued hard times for many.
Despite the seemingly big numbers what is the reality on the ground? One example, attached to the immediate Covid-19 crisis, is that two million precarious workers still have no rights to Statutory Sick Pay: of £94 a week. They have right to Universal credit but this is notorious for its problems. More people will be without money and hungry. With the looming threat of school closures, charities might step in to feed 3million children on free school meals. Why can’t school kitchens say open, cook and distribute food to children and people in need?
Ethic of care
For now, schools remain open on a seemingly cost-benefit analysis for the economy. Government alerts UK citizens that most of us will catch Covid-19 and that some will loose ‘loved ones’. They focus on using behavioural science and a nudge theory urging us to pull together to support the country and fight the virus: ‘Your country needs YOU to join coronavirus fight‘.
In contrast to these business research and social marketing techniques, our communities have ethics of care. Found in my research, as mothers, both in and out of work, volunteered to support feeding children in the community. This ethic of care that emerges from our everyday lives of shared struggles should be a ‘political ethic of care’. So that rather than a ‘herd’ mentality to support government, all our efforts to care in this crisis should be paid, not voluntary.
Free school meals
The budget is in part to be funded by a further 5% cut in Whitehall departments: ‘Boris Johnson has ordered all cabinet ministers to identify cuts of at least 5 per cent to their Whitehall department budgets, telling them to consider axing programmes that do not improve health, fight crime or tackle regional inequalities’.
The budget included an increased spend for schools for study and physical activity but not for school food system which is already underfunded and supported by school budgets. Government advisors support a targeted not universal approach. Now a public debate unfolds on who should receive free school meals. This debate is 150 years old. It is grounded in the role of good nutrition for cognitive development or its constraint. Access to free school food changes as political administrations change. So, it is ideological when the right to food should be fundamental for all children. Targeting stigmatises those targeted. Stigmatisation is a social process of keeping people/children fixed in place. From clinical perspective it has psychosocial effect of blame and self-blame. From sociological perspective, it is an affective injury, a symbolic violence that fixes people/children in place. So, feeding targeted children in schools becomes oppressive and ‘others’.
Feeding children and young people in schools is an act of care, it should an enjoyable and social experience. One that builds their skills, confidence and maximises nutrition. At present only Key stage 1 and 2 children have universal free school meals (UIFSC). It will be a backward step for all children and our social rights, if in Autumn Spending Review, this is replaced by targeted approach. Despite Covid-19 crisis, we have to organise to defend UIFSM.