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Q&A: Mary O’Hara on Austerity and Inequality in the UK

Mary O’Hara, a longtime social justice reporter for the Guardian in London, is preparing for the stateside release of her book, Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK, which was released across the pond this past spring. The timing of the book’s U.S. release couldn’t be better.

Her book traces the effects, which are just starting to be felt, of David Cameron’s hard-fought conservative party austerity measures, which were rolled out as the Tory response to the financial crisis of 2008. Four years later, from the looks of things, the UK economy isn’t getting any better; moreover, the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor, appears to be headed for what O’Hara calls a “new Gilded Age.” (Sound familiar?) And many of these measures now appear to be semi-permanent since the Cameron-led coalition government took power (without a majority) in 2010, with Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, serving as Cameron’s coalition government whipping boy.

O’Hara says she “grew up poor,” so the subject matter of her first book is not merely bleeding-heart-liberal-soapbox stuff; she is the embodiment of how a welfare system in the UK can lift people out of poverty. She comes from a proud working-class family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, earning a scholarship to Cambridge, and, later, a Fulbright scholarship. Political moods and wonk-ish social policy are her lifeblood. This is her beat, and she owns it with facts and figures, not blustering talk.

Austerity Bites, not surprisingly then, is a work of scholarship and extensive reporting. O’Hara conveys the lives of everyday people throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—through their own words—who have been adversely affected by the tough austerity measures. She spent years on the ground in various parts of the UK talking to working people, taking their temperature on the recent cuts to social and welfare programs in the UK, and championing their every day lives (and opinions) over the din of politicians and pundit-class puffery.

O’Hara recently relocated to Los Angeles, and although she now lives thousands of miles away and at a nine-hour time delay from London, she keeps her eyes peeled for breaking news about what’s happening in the UK, and her ears trained on the Labour and Conservative party conventions, which have been happening across England over the past two weeks. She is now my neighbor; we spoke recently in the front room of her apartment in Beachwood Canyon.


In your view, did the centrist Labour Party, first with Tony Blair then with Gordon Brown, spoil things for all three major parties in Britain by trending toward the middle?

Absolutely. A lot of the evolution of what has been possible under the Tories in Britain is only possible because of what New Labour set in motion before them. The same could be said of Bill Clinton, in that sense: the minute you have someone who is a supposed Democrat, or supposedly on the left, passing overwhelmingly conservative legislation or buddying up with Wall Street bankers, that narrative of “scroungers”— or “welfare queens” as they’re called here— only buys into that. When you have people on the so-called left buying into that as a framework for how you understand your society, then basically it’s carte blanche for people to move that agenda even further to the right.

It’s why, if you look at austerity in isolation, if you look at it as a four-year project, you miss an awful lot of the story, because it’s only possible on the back of the previous fifteen or twenty years. Similarly in the U.S., a lot of the strategies the republicans are using are only possible because the Democrats didn’t necessarily defend their corner as much when they needed to.

The irony, of course, is that the republicans have moved further toward the right in this country, but it’s not right enough for the Tea Party movement—who have sprung up to challenge Republicans in primaries or through unbridled grass-roots lobbying. The Tea Party’s platform seems to be based on the notion of permanent austerity, or what we were calling “sequestration” in the U.S. Is there an equivalent to the Tea Party in the UK?

There’s always been a kernel of that kind of right-wing radicalism in America. That extreme has always been here, but it’s only really in the past ten years that it’s been regarded as a force to be reckoned with, whether you call it the Tea Party or something else. Moderate Republicans, it seems, are an extinct breed in the U.S. The Tea Party’s views have managed to infiltrate the mainstream.

One of the big differences here compared to the UK is the religious right, which doesn’t exist in the UK. It often channels its energy into right-wing politics here, tapping into a moral dimension in the American political system that isn’t necessarily the case in the UK—the battle about abortion or gay rights, for instance. Remember that Britain is not a very religious country. Many, many more people as a proportion of the population in the U.S. are regular churchgoers and say they believe in God. That moral imperative isn’t there in the same way. But there is UKIP, the “UK Independence Party,” which is similar to the Tea Party in the States: They are free-market-minded, anti-immigrant activists.[*]

What drives the move to the right? You’ve got the economic hawks in this country; you’ve got those in Britain as well. Britain has been protecting those guys for a long time by this consensus around the welfare state and the National Health Service.

If you take a close look at David Cameron and Barack Obama’s platforms, the Tory leader resembles the liberal Democrat in many ways, does he not?

That would definitely not be the view from the UK. To people on the left or even in the middle in the UK, Cameron is ostensibly an elitist. He’s a millionaire; he comes from a very privileged background. People see him as utterly unrepresentative of regular people. Cameron tried to morph himself into the leader of the Tory party, which had become known as the Toxic Party because its policies pre-1997 were deemed to be anti-poor—in fact, “anti-ordinary person.” So he very self-consciously marketed himself—and remember, his career was PR before politics—as a more “likable” Tory. He called himself “Dave,” that kind of thing. So a lot of people gave him the benefit of the doubt at the time.

It didn’t take long, once Cameron was in power, for him to give in to the very right of his party. “Dave” would position himself and I think most people would say that he’s very liberal on social issues. For instance, he campaigned for gay marriage. But I think he’ll be judged in history as well as a weak leader because he has succumbed to the right of his own party once he got into power. That became very clear to everybody right away.

He is a diehard Tory. He painted himself a certain way. He’s not likable “Dave.” He actually is all sheen and no substance, which is a really dangerous thing in a party leader at a time of radical change because he does not have the courage to stand up to the people he disagrees with, for instance the anti-Europeans in the Tory party. Cameron has always been, more or less, pro-European. Yet he’s allowed a drift toward that right-wing radicalism in the past few years, which has then given rise to UKIP. They are being seen as this business-minded, libertarian fantasist protest party. They are fighting an anti-Europe agenda.

David Cameron dismissed UKIP only a few years ago as “nutters,” and people who shouldn’t even be taken seriously. The lack of leadership he has shown in the Tory party has helped give rise to UKIP, but what has also ironically given rise to UKIP is that neither him nor Ed Milliband, the leader of the Labour Party, have actually created a climate in which people in working class and poorer communities feel like they have a voice that represents them in parliament. These people are sick of being patronized, sick of not being represented. It used to be thought that UKIP was taking right-wingers from the Tories, but now they’re actually taking working-class voters away from the Labour Party. And in that sense, they are like the Tea Party in the U.S.

There is a huge historical legacy that is really important, and it’s why you can’t just view it in terms of just a few years of change. Social policy takes time to prove effective or ineffective.

What can the average person do to combat the propaganda of austerity? Is there any hope things will turn the corner for the better? 

As I traveled the country I encountered all kinds of people who were challenging the austerity narrative—from lawyers to disabled people to organized groups, including Occupy and the People’s Assembly. There is a counter-movement. The problem is that it is fragmented. It doesn’t mean it will stay that way though. What encourages me most is how many people resist what is happening. It’s often hidden from view, and not reported in most media, but they are there and with any luck, what they have to say will break through. That is ultimately what this book is about—giving voice to those who most need it and yet have none. These are the poorest and most marginalized in society. Whether in the UK or in the U.S., these people should be heard, listened to, and their concerns acted upon.


[*] Correction: this post originally misstated the name of the political party as the “United Kingdom Independent Party.” This has since been corrected; we regret the error.