John Osborne (playwright); George Osborne (financial adviser and part-time politician). Both products of austerity. One, a dissident, the other a celebrant.
The last great period of British austerity, post-World War II, ended in a cultural explosion. When John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger (1956), John Braine Room at the Top (1957) and Alan Sillitoe Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), all aspects of social repression were laid bare—threadbare. With this suit of dramas and others a key was turned to open a hatch into the explosion of imagination that was ‘the 1960s’. In Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a woman says to her procrustean father of her rebellious husband, Jimmy Porter: “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same.” Each of these dramas was ignited by an acute sense of their positioning in social change, of living on a cusp—actually a precipice—with society itself in flux:
♫ “the times they are a‘changing.”
What Osborne and Braine were reacting with was an economic austerity imposed after WW2 which had led to a social and cultural austerity – a silencing of argument, democracy dormant. The caution stimulated by economic vulnerability led, inevitably, it seems, to an austerity of imagination (the theme of Room at the Top). When times are hard and those who manage are those with the stomach for it we are persuaded to rein-in our creativity, to take refuge in safe, familiar thoughts. People, they say, vote Labour in times of plenty. Osborne was not an ‘angry young man’, but someone had to carry the label to legitimise the loss of patience for the catastrophic suppression of creative freedom, and it was given to him.
George Osborne, son of a wealthy Baron, emerged from a very different context. His formative years were spent in that mean-spirited social milieu in which the rich were fast tiring of giving up their wealth to support a welfare state. Once Margaret Thatcher had declared herself against the idea of ‘society’ the wealthy received their permit to free themselves of moral obligation. Much of the welfare state was, in any event, built on the need to sustain a healthy working class to fill the ranks of the army. (The School Health Service was founded as a result of the near-loss of the Crimean War owing to an army made up of sickly and unfit servicemen. The NHS was, arguably, the gift to the working classes for winning WW2.) Modern armies are less labour-intensive.
In such a zeitgeist George found it as easy to switch his early ‘Conservative modernising’ agenda for his poor-bashing austerity policies as he did to change his name by deed-poll from Gideon. He wasn’t rebelling. His schooling had taught him all about conformity as the basis of establishment rule. He became the Cardinal Richelieu of austerity and insisted on compliance. Even Parliamentary opposition parties were coerced into becoming collaborateurs. A new Great Silence was fostered. The ‘single narrative’ of austerity and deficit-cutting fell like a blanket over political discourse. The unpleasentness (the cruelty) of cutting welfare was trumped by the alleged necessity.*
From time-to-time it seems that austerity has run its course – even the IMF, the great fetishist of enforced economic austerity, wants it to end. But each time there has been a resurgence until, in 2014, Osborne Geoge announced that it was to be a permanent feature of the British economy. It is certainly a permanent (and still unchallenged) feature of Westminster vocabulary – the ‘new normal’. Economic austerity seems like it is here to stay; creative austerity follows; social change is suppressed.
Unlike in 1956 there is no sense of ‘living on a cusp’, no whiff of social change in the air, little feeling of historical tension. We are yet to see a John Osborne moment, a lurch at a precipice, a recrimination by the young to the older generation for allowing ‘The Great Silence’ to persist.
“♫ Teach your children well
their father’s hell did slowly go by” ♫.
Of course, it will come – Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and others notwithstanding. Someone, somewhere is penning those same Osborne angers, waiting for a change in barometric pressure that signals a willingness to hear the shout. ‘Look Back in Anger’, ‘Room at the Top’, ‘Cathy Come Home’, ‘Boys from the Black Stuff’, ‘This is England’, ‘I Daniel Blake’ are all strident, insisting calls to break the silence. But right now they are messages in a bottle.
* see Kushner, B. & Kushner, S. (2014) Who needs the cuts: myths of economic crisis, London: Hesperus