The Fanatical, Inept George Osborne Can’t Write Himself into History as a Centrist

The re-emergence of the far right has been one of the more unpleasant surprises of recent years. In the face of Trumps and Le Pens, it’s easy to grow wistful for those simple left vs. right days of old. Battles over welfare, tax, the NHS and unions are increasingly looked back on in a rosy hue; at least they didn’t contain as much brazen hatred.

You know things have gotten weird when George W. Bush becomes a voice of reason, but it’s even tempting to reflect on his administration nostalgically – if nothing else, there was a lower chance of nuclear war with North Korea.

On this side of the Atlantic, another person being subject to reappraisal is former Chancellor and outgoing MP George Osborne. In the face of Brexit he has made multiple appeals for sensible centrism, which he believes needs to assert itself against inward-looking “extremes”. He may not be some ardent Brexiteer, but critics shouldn’t be hoodwinked by his rhetoric. Nor should they allow his account of himself as a champion of the “liberal mainstream” to enter the history books.

Let’s be clear: George Osborne was never a centrist. He was never a moderniser, nor a ‘compassionate Conservative’. His convictions were no more than re-heated versions of age-old Tory edicts: he wanted to shrink the state, sell public goods into private hands and lower taxes for the wealthiest. As for ordinary workers, well, they weren’t a concern. Corporations deserve subsidies to encourage their entrepreneurism, said Osborne, but the feckless poor should lose every social safety net – from tax credits to public libraries – to encourage them to work harder.

The true impact of these austerity policies upon working Britons is only just being felt. One million children risk falling into poverty in coming years due to in-work benefit cuts, while wages in 2025 are likely to be little higher than they were in 2004, equalling the longest sustained drop in living standards in centuries. But as Nick Clegg said, for Osborne “it didn’t really matter what the human consequences were… welfare was just a bottomless pit of savings”.

Not only were such measures callous; by any measure, they failed abysmally.

his beliefs are far from common sense

Here’s another thing we should be clear on: George Osborne was economically inept. His ideologically-driven austerity refuted reams of evidence that you can’t cut your way to growth, meaning that he erased only a third of the deficit he promised to eradicate by 2015. His public borrowing in that time exceeded that of every Labour government combined, and cost the UK its AAA credit rating.

Now he’s decided to stand down as an MP. This reveals just how little he cares for his constituency – now that it won’t boost him up to a top job, he’s ditched it for whatever's more lucrative, be that speaking engagements, advising the investment management firm BlackRock, or editing the Evening Standard. He is perhaps the epitome of the upper middle-class boy who entered politics not because he had a grand vision or wanted to better people’s lives, but simply because he could.

History is written by the winners. Osborne might not be remembered as a Churchill or Attlee-level winner, but he’s undoubtedly had an easy ride given his calamitous record. He is now duly trying to write a history where being socially liberal somehow pulls him back to the centre-ground, despite his fanatically Thatcherite economics.

One luxury of power is being able to assume that your beliefs are mainstream; that your own firmly ideological views are mere common sense. Osborne revels in this luxury, yet his beliefs are far from common sense. It is up to critics and politicos to ensure that this retroactive watering-down of his record doesn’t fly. This isn’t just for the sake of the millions whose fortunes have been dented by Osborne’s ineptitude. It is important because, when right-wing populism eventually burns itself out, the likes of Osborne will be lurking in the wings, hoping to be re-embraced as the sensible moderates they never really were. We should steel ourselves against this.

Osborne already convinced the electorate that he was fiscally responsible. If he now manages to style himself as a mainstream centrist, it will be his last great con.


More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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