I have experienced something of a revelation. My eureka moment was somewhat unexpected – coming as it did in the middle of a conference. Rarely do you expect to be moved, inspired and experience a moment of clarity on a topic that you think you know well.
Two weeks ago we held a conference on the impact of austerity on health and well-being. We heard powerful testimonies from doctors and nurses working to give essential care. We heard from Greece and Spain, from epidemiologists and patients about the rise in suicides, HIV and the threat of diseases we thought had long left Europe, and also from the Ministry of Health in Germany on how they are working with colleagues in Greece to help cope. Many in the audience urged decision makers to remember why we fought hard for many years to build the welfare states that support human dignity, human development and act as a basis for a strong, stable society and economy. The International Monetary Fund patiently explained that they only provide recommendations on what to cut, looking at the overall numbers. How DG Economic and Monetary Affairs clearly spelled out that their own policies recommend maintaining support to essential services and investing in prevention to stave off long-term costs.
And how throughout the day the problem became glaring in two directions: the first is that this is being used as an ideological opportunity to bring in cuts to health and social spending from those who don’t understand that this is a false and dangerous game. And second, most important, that as the IMF does not see itself as leading policy decisions here, neither DG Ecfin neither, nor Germany or in fact any health ministries – then the question is who now is leading one of the most important moments of our generation…?
Then I became angry. The answer is glaringly obvious. 100 billion euros has been poured into Spain. Within hours the markets spooked. Today, talk is of yet more money needing to be found – paid out of the pockets of normal taxpayers, some of whom are in places like Poland, Estonia, Hungary which is absurd and wrong when you think about it. Who are these ‘markets’? Who has the right to take the power from legitimate, accountable governments? Who are these people leading our public policy spending decisions, in the most powerful block in the world? Overexcited detached and hedonistic men and women, driving fast cars and pocketing fat bonuses in London, Frankfurt and New York, whilst they gamble with lives, livelihoods and the hope and future of billions? Honestly? What. On. Earth. Are. We. Doing.
When our economies are based on speculation, and consumption, we are gambling with our societies and our futures. When our only strategy is to return to the unsustainable growth-driven, inequality-enducing policies of the last two decades, we are delusional and irresponsible. When there is growing evidence that inequality was a driver of our crisis, as with many crises before, the answer is glaring obvious: Equality and equity are our only way out. This is tough – a fairer tax base for both people and corporate citizens, policies that redistribute including education, support for children in poverty and those who cannot support themselves, more equality between men and women, including paying decent salaries to those parts of our economies such as the care sector that are fundamental to creating decent societies, parts of the economy that are dominated by women.
A society that pays young gamblers in the City more than those who choose to dedicate their life to serving and caring for others seems to me to be quite absurd. A society where 1 billion of us go to bed hungry, and another 1.4 billion are overweight and obese is immoral. A society where we look for the next big industrial bubble to fuel our unsustainable lifestyles and aspirations is just stupid. The economists were wrong. You do not need inequalities in order to develop. You need to get rid of them. Look to Sweden and those economies who are proving robust, resilient and still high on places where people are happy and well.
Stand up Mrs. Merkel, we are applaud your nerves of steel and unwavering sense of the urgent need to reform. Stand up Mr. Hollande and take the floor to show us that people are at the centre of political vision. Stand up Mr. Cameron and find your way back to the leadership role that the UK deserves. Stand up Mr. Van Rompuy, Mr. Barroso, and serve the people who hold you to account. Stand up editors and journalists, stop spreading fear and take up your role as challengers of power structures and failed policies. Hold your head high Ms. Beres, keep us focussed with your calm and compelling vision. We hear you Mr. Cercas, continue to inspire us with your powerful sense of justice. We must stand up, those of us who serve others, and who believe that the value of our societies is those values that make life worth living – equity, solidarity, universality and justice. Let us create policies that defend and thrive on those values. Let us value those policies that in times of crisis allow the strong to support the weak, the rich to reach out to the poor and let us put hope, vision and leadership back into our political debates.
I was truly humbled by the sense of solidarity in the room on 6 June, the reinforcement and the manifestation of those values which makes European society great. Equity, solidarity, universality – the underpinning of welfare systems, to bring hope to people at times when life deals them a shoddy card, to keep the heads above water of people who work hard to support their families and give the children of our societies the best possible future. This is not just the time for better policies, this is a time for better politics. Leaders of Europe, give us the leadership that we deserve.
In memory of Sir Alexander Macara who died yesterday morning on 21 June 2012. Sandy you inspired, you led and you will be sorely missed.