Today was the day it all came home to people in the UK. The whole public service was out on strike, across the nation. In London, there were posters and banners on every public building, dingy Victorian office, shabby ’60s block, and the new glass-and-steel numbers going up everywhere, which I hate the most of all.

Like some city-wide village fair/pilgrimage, one kept coming across processions — motley groups of dozens and hundreds, with home-made banners mingling with placards printed by the UK mega-unions that all sound like happy-clappy churches: UNISON, UNITE, and of course NUT (the National Union of Teachers).

Occasionally, somewhere, someone had brought out one of the old, lovingly restored Edwardian, livery-style banners, ancient, multi-hued depiction of toil and militancy by the Amalgamated Frittlers and Throckshuttlers, proud women and handle-barred men from ancient Movembers, depicted beneath now retro fonts. The government said only 30% of the UK’s public employees had come out; the unions put it at 50 or 60% and accused the government of lying.

Whatever the final numbers, it was not, as some more excitable figures suggested, a re-run of the 1926 general strike (although it was the largest single strike since then, amazingly). But it could only be seen as an instalment on a later confrontation.

The strike was called after the public sector in the UK was made an offer the government thought they couldn’t refused — a package of harsher conditions (more employee contribution, later retirement age, indexing to a lower inflation index, etc) with much of the immediate savings going into the government’s coffers.

The alternative was that, if not accepted, the government would take it off the table, and impose a harsher package next year. The affirmative strike vote across all unions appears to have taken them by surprise. They nevertheless believe themselves to be on firm ground, because public service pension and retirement conditions are considerably better than in the private sector.

Sympathy from that quarter is limited when people complain that age 60 retirement, on highest level salary, is being moved to age 68, on averaged salary. They were right to strike and defend what’s been gained, but most know that the government is daring them to do it, and thus create division between public-private workers, at a time when everyone is batshit-scared of what’s going on.

They’re all batshit-scared because of the double-whammy that preceded the strike. That was the announcement that the UK would have no real growth for the next two years, and would not return to 2006 levels of economic functioning until 2016, and possibly far beyond — and the mini-budget delivered by chancellor George Osborne in response to it, which mixed some mild spending initiatives, with a further series of cuts to a whole range of programs directly aimed at the poor.

It was estimated that the new measures would push an additional 100,000 children into poverty, something to be proud of. Meanwhile the landing tax on private jets was removed.

The government sought to steer the conversation to the £5 billion infrastructure projects they were funding, to quell the panic in the streets. But that is nothing compared to the panic in the Tory Party at the new growth figures. The swagger has rather gone out of the Cameroons as they approach the dispatch box these days.

Dutiful Tory boys and girls, faithfully believe the business school mantras, they appear to be genuinely shocked that the economy hasn’t bounced back from austerity, cuts and allegedly restored confidence.

Their demeanour is not one of remorse or reflection — nothing fakeable — they’ve simply had the stuffing kicked out of them, and there’s no plan B. The fact that their borrowings forecast is now worse than the 2010 Labour forecast they derided is a very bad look for them indeed — or would be, if Labour had any capacity to project power or challenge.

Yet Labour offers, as an alternative, not a hard man, but an Aardman figure, Ed ‘Wallace’ Miliband. Day after day its demoralised, second rate frontbench shamble on the news programs to give it to the Tories — and barely land a blow.

They’ve been hollowed out by Blairism, which so deeply concurred with the “austerity” strategy, and by Brown’s addled belief that financial services could be plugged into a welfare state, and endless growth would result. Now there’s nothing else in their armoury, and no sign that the party centre has much interest in developing any.

Nevertheless such petty squabbles may be the least of their worries. And ours. And yours. Today, the ECB and other euro banks announced a whole series of liquidity measures to help cash-strapped European banks. It’s a sign that the euro crisis has begun, and that it was getting close to the point where people would really notice — at the ATM.

We were here in September-October 2008, and now we’re back again — with no guarantee that a real crunch can be averted this time, and no guarantee that people will be as passive and bewildered as they were then either. The chickens are roosting, the wolf is at the door, and they’re bringing it all back home.

Peter Fray

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