Belfast Telegraph

First share the pain, then we can all share the gain

We need the wartime spirit of togetherness to help get us through the impending savage spending cuts, argues Owen Polley

Are people today unwilling to make sacrifices for the greater good? It can certainly seem that way. The debt crisis has not been greeted universally by steely determination to sort out our collective financial woes.

Although most people accept that the deficit should be cut, or everyone will suffer the consequences, the blame and the buck are too often passed elsewhere. The attitude is that someone else, anyone else, can take our share of the pain.

Don't touch my water rates, my pension, my pay rise or the services my family use. Another sector, another department or another region can foot more of the bill. Even modest economies are fiercely contested. The message that a little restraint today will ensure a brighter future tomorrow cuts little ice.

It's a trite comparison, but one wonders how the United Kingdom would have defended itself had the current crop of Britons been responsible for keeping the home fires burning in the 1940s. The current Government has responded quickly to a crisis it inherited but, despite warning about cuts ahead, there's been little to inspire citizens to do their bit willingly. David Cameron and Nick Clegg speak about society sharing the pain, but their rhetoric is hardly Churchillian.

Meanwhile, Labour castigates the coalition for making the self-same cuts which it put in train before the election. Shorn of its responsibilities, Labour can now compound its mismanagement by haranguing from the sidelines those charged with putting things right.

The unions, actively hostile to the new Government, are getting restive and, when industrial disputes break out, they are unlikely to be condemned by Labour, however much damage they might inflict on the country and its economy.

At Westminster, although there is stiff resistance, the arguments for belt-tightening are at least winning.

At Stormont, realism is lacking, never mind a sense of collective responsibility. Even within parties which strongly profess their British allegiance, there is a consensus that cuts should be resisted, rather than applied judiciously.

The Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, cuts a lonely figure in the Executive, attempting to persuade his colleagues to revisit their budgets. There's little sign that they will deliver sufficient savings voluntarily and Wilson's own party leader slapped him down for suggesting that water charges could be introduced to balance the books.

No minister wants to preside over job losses or the closure of amenities, but members of the Executive are employed by the taxpayer to take difficult decisions rather than pass the buck. They are also setting an example which, so far, the public has followed.

This week an outcry from parents saw a series of summer schemes for special needs children, which had been cut from two weeks to one, reinstated by education authorities.

The notion that private firms could more cheaply perform some security tasks, currently undertaken by the PSNI, was likewise rejected by the policing board.

There are no doubt legitimate arguments to be raised against both cuts, but every efficiency can occasion special pleading. Government at national and regional level has to decide its priorities and the public should accept that it is necessary to swallow some nasty medicine, for everyone's long-term benefit.

Phillip Hammond, the Conservative Transport Minister, this week tentatively suggested people over 60 might do their bit by voluntarily refraining from using a free bus pass, if they could afford a ticket.

It would be nice to believe that such small but significant gestures might become commonplace. They would signal a resurgence of the type of social cohesion and common purpose which would put the United Kingdom on the road to recovery.

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