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Friday, 18 November 2011

The True Meaning of Austerity

Do the people who protest about “austerity measures” being introduced by the governments of Europe really know the meaning of the word “austerity”?

Governments around Europe are responding to the economic crisis of 2009 to 2012 by introducing so called austerity measures. I believe that neither the governments nor the people who are protesting so loudly really understand the meaning of the expression.

I am of a generation that grew up during World War 2 and the decade that followed. People like me remember a time when working for 48 hours a week was the minimum, not the maximum ordained by statute; when most workers had only two weeks annual leave and that often unpaid. When 95% of young people left school at fifteen or earlier and not only worked 48 hours but, if they sought advancement, went to night school two or three evenings a week.

This was a time when very few homes were centrally heated and none had adequate insulation; you woke up on a winter morning to scrape ice from the inside of your bedroom window. The majority of families did not have access to a motor car so had to rely on public transport. Most did not have a land-line telephone; mobiles were the stuff of science fiction.

Bathing Once a Week
Only a lucky few had one of the new fangled television sets in their home; those sets broadcast a single channel of programming for four hours or less each evening. The images were in barely discernable black and white. Many homes still did not have access to mains electricity, water or sewage disposal. Baths were taken once a week and often the whole family shared the bath water.

Homelessness really did mean that whole families had lost their homes, destroyed by bombs or shells. Their only recourse was to share with relatives in over-crowded houses or apartments or, as many did in the years immediately after the war, establish squats in abandoned military buildings.

Food was still rationed well into the 1950s and the fruit and vegetables on display in greengrocers’ shops were only those available in season. You only had salad in summer and it consisted of lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes. In Britain olive oil was sold in tiny bottles in chemist’s shops, used for medicinal purposes only.

Restaurant Menus Restricted
People dined out in restaurants only on special occasions and the menus in such establishments were extremely limited thanks in part to the rationing already referred to and the non-availability of unseasonal produce. At home only the wealthy could afford to drink wine and eat steak. Most ordinary folk were happy to take whatever cheap cuts of meat and offal they could obtain.

I have pointed out in a previous blog that much of the affluence enjoyed in Europe in recent years was obtained on the backs of abject poverty in the developing world. Now the tables are turning, countries in what used to be called “the third world” are achieving new levels of affluence themselves. We have nothing to offer them and must fall back on our own resources. That need not mean a return to post war austerity but it does mean that in the future we will have to meet the real cost of everything we consume.

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