“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. I was recently reminded of Milan Kundera’s famous quote. And how apt.
Because more than anything else, this government is hoping that we forget. They are praying that we don’t remember what caused the economic collapse. They want us to believe that the public sector is to blame – that our welfare state became bloated. They hope that we buy the lie that we’ve lost our jobs because our nurses cured too many sick people, our libraries had too many books, we cared too much for older people, and invested too much in the young.
They want us to forget words like ‘credit crunch’, ‘sub-prime mortgage’ ‘AIG’, ‘RBS’, ‘bail-out’, and ‘Fred the Shred’. They hope that our anger at bankers’ bonuses was a flash in the pan. They think we’ve moved on.
But the truth is that we remember. It is not much more than two years ago that RBS was first bailed out. We haven’t forgotten that our economy collapsed because the bankers who paid for the Conservative Party’s election campaign had built our wealth on a house of credit cards. Rather than allow wages to rise, they persuaded us to borrow, and borrow, and borrow, and then cashed in the cheques on our interest payments. Rather than investing our wealth in the real economy – building a better, more prosperous future – they bet it on the money markets. Instead of solar towers, they built towers of derivatives. Instead of investing in new knowledge, they invented new financial products. They were gambling with the global economy – with other people’s jobs, livelihoods, and lives. They wore sharp suits and used long words to hide the fact that they were earning massive bonuses in jobs most of them didn’t understand.
Or maybe they did. Because when the financial wizards’ magic turned out to be little more than a sleight of hand, when this house of credit cards finally collapsed, they didn’t need to pull a rabbit out of a hat. They just went cap in hand to the government, and demanded a bail-out. And, now that the real economy has been destroyed in their wake, these conjurers have not been asked to chip in. The con trick continues – we are being asked to pay the crooks.
And while some just didn’t understand the rules of the game, others knew only too well what they were doing. At Goldman Sachs, leading banker Fabrice Tourre made it clear in 2007 that he got: “The whole building is about to collapse any time now. Only predicted survivor, The Fabulous Fab (yes, that’s what he calls himself), standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created”. And Mr Osborne is hoping that we didn’t notice that those who caused this crisis have seen their wealth soar in the last year – they have crashed our economy and made a killing from the salvage.
Yes, Mr Osborne, we remember. It was not the teachers and the doctors and the nurses who caused this economic crisis. It was your good friends, the people who paid for your election campaign. The bankers. You may have cut corporation tax, and handed our national economy back to them – for now – but we remember only too well that it was they who caused this mess in the first place.
But we remember further back too. Because in the past, the bankers wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with this. We used to regulate our financial sector. We had rules to keep everyone safe. But then came Mrs Thatcher, Mr Reagan, Mr Clinton, Mr Blair – they dismantled the protections that wise men had put in place after the last great depression. And, all the time, they were cheered on by Mr Osborne and his friends. Because for the last 30 years, Britain has been built on the myth that if you give money to the rich, it will trickle down. And for 30 years, ordinary people’s wages have stagnated, while the mega-rich have plundered the wealth our work creates, and now scuttled the ship.
We were told that Britain would become a nation of financiers – we would hand all to the bankers, and they would make us rich. Others tried that path too: Ireland, Iceland, Dubai – a roll-call of the damned. This idea was foolish from the outset, and now must surely be consigned to the dustbin of history. For this idea hasn’t just delivered one economic crisis. The global economy has lurched from collapse to collapse. From 1945 to 1970, unemployment in the UK was never above 500,000. Since we set the banks free in the 70’s it has never been lower than 500,000. Even by its own measure – GDP growth – this model has failed. Both in the UK, and around the world, economic growth has slowed rapidly since ‘trickle down economics’ became the flavour of the month. Surprise surprise – an economic system based on expecting the majority to thrive on the scraps from the table of the richest doesn’t work.
But this system did deliver something. Because while most haven’t got any wealthier, the mega-rich have seen higher and higher bonuses. Inequality in Britain is at a level we’ve not seen since Queen Victoria was on the throne. This inequality is not just morally abhorrent. It is ripping Britain apart.
And yet Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron are trying to re-inflate the banking bubble. They are pumping money from our public services to fund corporation tax cuts, and they are selling the bailed out banks back to the city as though nothing had happened. They are allowing the grotesque bonus bonanza to continue.
But we haven’t forgotten that this crooked system that Mr Osborne is trying to re-build – exactly as it was before – this crooked system was designed by the mega-rich, for the mega-rich. And we haven’t forgotten that it doesn’t need to be this way.
And as long as we remember who it was that caused this crisis, as long as we don’t forget who built the house of cards in the first place, we won’t let Mr Osborne forget either. The banks thought they had got away with daylight robbery. But they will be held to account, today, and tomorrow. Because the winners write history, and we are not willing to lose. Because man’s struggle against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting, and we will make sure that everyone remembers.