The Sunday Times

March 20th, 2011

Our cupboard is bare, save for those wild fantasists on the left

Imagine that you were publicly accused by a well-known figure of deliberately trying to drive all the black, brown, poor and Muslim women out of your street, simply because you didn’t want them there. Presumably, through a red mist of fury, you would ring a solicitor at once and start legal proceedings. For that public figure would be accusing you of serious crimes as well as of racism itself — illegal racist and sexist discrimination — and putting you at serious risk of a police inquiry and public disgrace.

That accusation, astonishingly, is exactly what the frontbench Labour MP Karen Buck has just made. In a speech last week in Islington, that London left-wing haven, she suggested to a public Labour party meeting that the government’s proposed £400-a-week cap on housing benefit, which will come into force next month, is a politically motivated policy intended to drive Muslims and ethnic minorities out of London in a kind of social and ethnic cleansing.

Ministers, she said, “do not want lower-income women, families and children living in London. Above all, let us be very clear — because we know where the impact is hitting — they don’t want black women, they don’t want ethnic minority women and they don’t want Muslim women living in central London. They just don’t.”

This disgraceful outburst must, presumably, have been authorised by her political masters and their spin doctors, since she is shadow minister for work and pensions. If it wasn’t, they should immediately say so and distance themselves from her. It is disgraceful and wrong for an opposition frontbencher to accuse the government of deliberately doing such things (just as it was wrong and abominably disloyal of Boris Johnson to say something similar a few months ago). Understandably, there have been calls for her resignation. The Muslim Conservative peer Baroness Warsi demanded that Ed Miliband remove her from the front bench. He hasn’t.

It was irresponsible scaremongering and borders on incitement to racial or religious hatred. Buck has incited minorities to see their government as largely white, anti-minority and anti-Muslim. Highly inflammatory stuff. Her apology, saying she was wrong to impute such motives to the government, will not undo the harm she has done. David Cameron would have grounds to sue the woman.

One can only guess at what Buck really meant. Either she believed what she was saying or, in that weasel phrase, she “misspoke herself”, or else she was just trying in a particularly nasty and incompetent way to smear the government while sucking up to her own London voters.

If she was being at all sincere, one can only wonder, yet again, why the left so deeply loathes politicians to its right. Can it truly believe that all centre-right politicians (and now the entire government) are really heartless, self-interested and indifferent to other people’s hardships? There seems to be a general assumption in fashionable left-wing circles that people who think differently from them — people to the right of them politically — are not just wrong but also morally despicable.

I suspect this is because the left cannot understand real economic necessities. I suspect it does not, for example, really believe how very indebted and how very poor this country now is. No matter how often the figures are put before those on the left, they don’t believe the cupboard is bare. From that disbelief it follows that politicians who say, for instance, that generous housing top-ups or expensive new schools or better pensions cannot be afforded are not telling the truth: they must be making cuts for entirely different political reasons — some of them perhaps sinister.

In the case of housing benefit, it should be obvious that in a time of great austerity it is not possible (and it is not fair) to subsidise people to pay rent of more than £400 a week (nearly £21,000 a year) in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Apart from anything else, it inflates rents for those who otherwise could pay, without subsidy. This has nothing to do with what colour these tenants are, or how hard they work or how deserving they might be. It just isn’t affordable. The same is true of the huge number of public sector jobs. Whether or not they are non-jobs or politically correct jobs or useful jobs, this country cannot afford to pay for its bloated public sector and its bloated pensions, whether it wants to or not.

The same is true of the National Health Service. On Friday a study by the National Cancer Intelligence Network (set up by the Department of Health) revealed that thousands of older cancer patients are being denied surgery that might save their lives; this is because of a general reluctance, which varies across the country, to operate on the elderly and even on the middle-aged. It will come as a shock to most people that cancer surgery is being rationed in this ad hoc way, but in truth the only question for the future of advanced medical treatments on the NHS is how the rationing should be done.

It is impossible to give everyone all the new and sophisticated medical treatments that are available. Age is merely one way of rationing in a country with an exploding elderly population. I will never forget the terrible black comedy I saw in a well-run surgical ward: a very old and very sick lady, recovering from an intestinal operation in great pain and fear, was comforted by a kind nurse. “You’re doing so well now,” said the nurse, “that tomorrow you will be well enough to go back to the hospice.”

In a special report last week on the slimming of the state called Taming Leviathan, The Economist magazine argued that with an ageing population to care for and unlimited demands upon the state for all kinds of services, “many rich-world governments are on course for bankruptcy — unless they raise taxes to levels that would wreck their economies”. This is the economic reality facing this relatively rich country, whose cupboards are bare. The international banking scandal has merely helped to empty those cupboards more quickly.

It means the services demanded of, and offered by, the state will have to be cut back in this country and all over the developed world. It is a mystery to me why the supposedly brilliant Gordon Brown didn’t understand this obvious economic fact. Throwing around ignorant accusations of ethnic cleansing, as Buck has, will only add social disquiet to the economic hardship to come. That is what is contemptible.