In 1948, despite the massive debt amassed during the Second World War, the British government of the day introduced the Health Service Act, creating the NHS and laying the foundation for the ‘welfare state’ as we know it today. (Though, like the Education Act of the same period, it had to be introduced into the Six Counties over the opposition of many within the unionist regime at Stormont.)
Sixty years later, and the British government of today, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, is working to take the welfare state apart. The legacy of Margaret Thatcher is being evoked often by Tory MPs, with a proud acclamation that the government of David Cameron is going further than Thatcher’s ever did, and faster. They are able to safely use the issue of dealing with the current deficit as a cover for their ideological mission.
They can also use the ‘common sense’ arguments that are regularly peddled in the mainstream media without question, such as cuts being inevitable or the public sector being too big and in need of trimming, giving the Tory-led government free rein for its slash and burn policies.
The attack on the welfare state is out in the open. Despite the fact that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits continues to rise in the Six Counties, over 500 social security jobs are due to be cut by the end of next March. The British work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has also suggested that that the unemployed would have to work in order to get their benefits. The outworkings of this have been seen recently, when it came out that fifteen unemployed people had been sent to work in a local retail store for their dole, while the permanent staff in the store had their hours slashed from 36 per week to 20.
Conservative estimates have it that around 40,000 jobs will be lost over the next four years in the Six Counties, 30,000 of them in the public sector as a result of the British government’s plans. It’s being predicted that the British government will cut the block grant, which acts as the Six-County assembly’s budget, by around £2 billion [€2.4 billion], though the full extent of the cuts won’t be apparent until British chancellor George Osbourne announces his four-year comprehensive spending review in late October. However, the prospect of increasing numbers of unemployed people forced to work for minimal pay, while undermining the livelihoods of other workers, should be enough to stir anyone into action.
The trade union movement in the Six Counties has begun to rally over the past few months against the Tory attack on the welfare state and on working people. The work has begun with awareness-raising campaigns to challenge the myths on the necessity of cuts. On August 12, members of NIPSA across the Six Counties engaged in lunchtime pickets against public service cuts. They have produced a leaflet entitled ‘Who suffers most from public spending cuts?’.
Unison has produced its own alternative budget, ‘We can afford a fairer society’, which challenges the received wisdom that cuts are necessary and desirable, and argues that proper investment must be made into essential services to ensure economic recovery. And the Six-County committee of ICTU has produced a leaflet entitled ‘Cuts Myths Debunked’ that exposes many of the common myths used to support cutting jobs and public services.
In the Six-County context, the biggest myth that needs to be challenged is that the public sector here is somehow much too large. The public sector does make up two-thirds of the Six-County economy, however public sector workers in the Six Counties represent only 12.5 per cent of the population, compared with 11.2 per cent for Scotland, 10.5 for Wales and 9.1 for England. The public sector in the Six Counties is not bloated at all, the issue is merely that the private sector is so small, made up predominantly by small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) that are themselves dependant on the public sector to a large extent.
Public spending in Britain and occupied Ireland is not particularly big when compared to other countries as well. Among the European countries, public spending in Britain and occupied Ireland is lower than that of Slovenia, Hungary, Norway, Luxemburg, Portugal, Finland, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, France, and Sweden.
The European Trade Union Confederation has called for a day of action for September 29th in opposition to austerity measures and attacks on the working class being imposed throughout Europe. As part of this day, and as part of the developing campaign against the Tory axemen, unions in the Six Counties will be organising lunchtime rallies in both Belfast and Derry.
There will be more rallies and protests when Osbourne’s spending review is announced in October. These large events will only make up a small part of the campaign against the Tory onslaught though, a campaign that will without doubt last the lifetime of the current British government. The unions must not dismiss widescale industrial action as a tactic in this fight. And, if we are to be successful, the fight must be taken up by every constituency in the community, by workers inside and outside of the unions, by local community activists, by the unemployed, by students and by the retired.
A message must be sent clearly to the Tories and their Lib Dem partners, and those in the banks and the multinational corporations who are behind the neoliberal agenda they serve, a message must be sent that healthcare and education, and welfare, are a right for all people, and not a privilege only for those who can afford it.
Different Name, Same Aim
Campaign for British withdrawal
We Only Want the Earth!
No British Royal Visits!
Workers in Struggle
Reclaim The Republic
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