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Political and Discursive Characteristics of the Austerity Consensus in the UK and in France since 1975

Clémence Fourton
p. 91-109

Résumé

Since the mid-seventies, austerity has become a hegemonic tool of economic crisis management. French and British governments, of diverging political tradition, have thus implemented parallel austerity programmes to cope with periodic global recessions. This austerity consensus operates on two levels: economic policies are implemented nationally, but the consensus transcends national borders. The austerity rhetoric that has come about to legitimise the consensus also operates on these two levels. Austerity rhetoric is grounded in national contexts, and builds on historical and political references specific to either France or Britain. But it also displays transnational features, in the form of references and topoi which are shared by both countries and appear in both languages and contexts. The duality of the rhetoric has contributed to establishing and maintaining the hegemony of austerity, by presenting it as inevitable and universal.

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Introduction

  • 1 Farnsworth, K., Irving, Z., “Varieties of crisis, varieties of austerity: social policy in challeng (...)
  • 2 Blyth, M., Austerity – The History of a Dangerous Idea, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • 3 Schui, F., Austerity: the Great Failure, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2014.

1In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, most European countries have implemented austerity programmes with national variations in scale and duration.1 This has prompted interest in the genealogy of austerity. Blyth2 and Schui3 have thus provided accounts of the long-term intellectual history of austerity and concluded on the irrelevance of the policy in its current form. This article intends to complement this diachronic perspective by studying the political and discursive characteristics of the austerity consensus which has prevailed since 1975. It focuses on the national dynamics of austerity in France and in the UK, as well as on transnational dynamics, the combination of which contributes to explaining the strength of the consensus.

2By austerity, I mean a whole set of macroeconomic policies whose main objectives are to achieve a balanced budget and to keep inflation rates at a minimum. The use of austerity as a tool of macroeconomic management has been generalised since the 1970s, and has replaced the consensual use of Keynesian policies, which amounted to supporting demand in periods of economic recession. The rationale is as follows. High levels of inflation maintain economic instability and undermine the value of savings and assets, in other words of capital. Slowing inflation requires putting a brake on public spending to slow down growth of the monetary supply in circulation. A high level of State involvement in infrastructural spending also crowds out private investors, as public borrowing has a tendency to raise interest rates which deters private borrowing and investment.

3Both French and British governments since 1975 have presented a number of budgets displaying a wide range of austerity measures. These include reductions in current public expenditure (notably public sector pay and benefits), regressive tax redistribution, and privatisations. Privatisations are here included in the analysis of austerity measures because they constitute one of the strategies devised by governments to balance their budgets, by first obtaining immediate access to cash and then decreasing public spending on infrastructure through the transfer of responsibility to private actors.

4Although they have had diverging views on what constitutes the right level of public spending and on the type of social model that they should accommodate, French and British governments have on the whole shared this rationale, so it is possible to speak of an austerity consensus. The first section of this article establishes the existence of such a consensus, which crosses party lines. The austerity consensus operates on two levels, as austerity is regarded as inevitable and beyond political and national borders. Yet at the same time, it is still implemented in specific political contexts. The rise of austerity as a hegemonic tool of crisis management has been accompanied by the development of a specific austerity rhetoric. The rhetoric, like the economic consensus itself, operates on both national and transnational levels: it has both specific national dynamics and common transnational features to which I will turn in the second and third sections of this article.

A Short History of the Austerity Consensus

5In the face of economic hardship, both French and British governments have resorted to austerity measures since the mid-1970s. In order to show that austerity has been favoured in diverging political contexts, this section looks at the fiscal response of French and British governments to the four episodes which the International Monetary Fund has described as global recessions”.4 These occurred between 1960 and 2010, when the world gross domestic product per capita decreased from one year to the next: 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2009. These global recessions have been reflected by national falls in GDP per capita.5 In the UK, the growth rate of GDP per capita was negative in 1974-1975, 1981-1982, 1991, and 2008-2009. In France, it was below zero in 1975, 1993 and 2008-2009 (in 1981, it went down to 0.6% but remained positive). These four recessionary episodes triggered austerity programmes in both countries, regardless of the political party in power.

6The first global recession after 1960 occurred in the wake of the first oil shock, in 1975. To manage domestic difficulties, Labour Chancellor Denis Healey presented a budget in 1975 which included tax increases and spending cuts. He then proceeded to ask a loan from the IMF in the autumn of 1976. After two months of negotiations on the conditions of the loan, he eventually presented an emergency budget in December 1976, which contained the spending reductions that the IMF had required. Meanwhile, Raymond Barre, the French Prime Minister, presented his own austerity plan in September 1976, which included a sharp increase of income tax and petrol prices. These years appear as a turning point, with both a British Labour government and a French centre-right one promoting austerity measures as the way out of recession.

7At the time of the second global recession in 1982, the political context had changed in both countries. The 1981 French presidential elections seemed to herald a lasting return to Keynesian economics. In May 1981, François Mitterrand of the French Socialist Party was elected on the Common Programme (Programme Commun), a manifesto drafted ten years earlier with the Communist Party. In the following months, despite an inflation rate above 10%, socialist Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy nationalised banks and favoured demand rather than supply side policies. But as soon as 1982, his government backtracked on this programme and announced what has remained in French collective memory as the Austerity Turn (Tournant de la rigueur). It took the form, in the following years, of spending cuts, and increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and later large-scale privatisations,. While 1981 in the French context thus stands out as an exception in this history of austerity, the British 1981 budget appears as one of the most emblematic of austerity. Following the return of the Conservatives to power in 1979, the British recession of the early 1980s was dealt with in resolute monetarist fashion. Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 budget thus included strict deficit targets, spending cuts, and a regressive redistribution of taxation as personal allowances were frozen. Eventually the early 1980s thus saw both Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative and Pierre Mauroy’s left-wing government embrace austerity-inspired policies.

  • 6 Muet, P.-A., “La récession de 1993 réexaminée”, Revue de l'OFCE, 1994, 49, p. 103-123.
  • 7 Both belonged to right-wing party Rassemblement Pour la République (1976-2002), which later came to (...)

8The 1991 global recession hit both countries differently.6 In the UK, GDP per capita growth rate was very close to zero in 1990 and clearly negative in 1991, whereas France did experience an economic contraction until 1993. On both sides of the channel, right-wing parties presided over this new round of austerity measures. Conservative Chancellors Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke actually allowed the deficit to rise in the short run, but implement strong fiscal austerity from 1994 onwards, setting a cap on public spending and raising taxes. In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected President, and appointed Alain Juppé Prime Minister,7 who announced a programme of structural reforms and public spending reductions which targeted public pensions in particular, and which he eventually had to partly renounce following sustained popular opposition.

  • 8 Heyer, É., Cochard, M., Ducoudré, B., Péléraux, H., “France : moins d'austérité, plus de croissance (...)

9Finally, in the wake of the 2009 Great Recession, after the initial bank bail-outs and expansionary measures, both the UK and France implemented austerity programmes from 2010 onwards, in the context of Greece’s and Ireland’s debt crisis and increased pressure to do so from the European Commission.8 In 2010, George Osborne, Chancellor of the newly elected Coalition, announced amongst other things that current public expenditure would be drastically reduced, that the cap on university tuition fees would be lifted and that benefit conditionality would be tightened. France’s own programme was announced by François Fillon in 2011 with two successive austerity budgets (plans de rigueur), one in August and one in November. Both countries adopted follow-up budgets which carried on with these initial austerity programmes with further measures defended by Manuel Valls in 2014 and George Osborne in 2015.

10Looking at these four recessionary episodes, it thus appears that all the parties that have been in power since 1974 have yielded to austerity: the British Labour Party and the French centre-right in the mid-1970s, the British Conservatives and the French Socialist Party in the early 1980s, the British Conservatives and the French right in the 1990s, and finally the Conservative/LibDem Coalition and the French right as of 2010. They have often done so simultaneously, in diverging political contexts and at various moments of the electoral cycle. They have thus both acknowledged and reinforced the austerity consensus.

Austerity Rhetoric in Its National Political Context

  • 9 Kelsey, D., Mueller, F., Whittle, A., and Khosravinik, “Financial crisis and austerity: interdiscip (...)
  • 10 Schmidt, V., “Discursive institutionalism: the explanatory power of ideas and discourse”, Annual Re (...)
  • 11 Kelsey, D., Mueller, F., Whittle, A., and Khosravinik, Op. Cit., p. 10.

11The generalised use of austerity as a tool of crisis management has been accompanied by a specific rhetoric, a morality tale”,9 which constitutes the discursive side of economic austerity. Following Schmidt and her discursive institutionalism approach,10 I look at discursive productions as contributing to normalising and legitimising policies such as austerity. In their introduction to the 2016 issue of Critical Discourse Studies on the discourse of crisis and austerity, Kelsey et al. stress the fact that this legitimizing rhetoric has to be contextualised, and that it is “embedded in different discursive corners and niches of society”.11 As such, the austerity rhetoric which has been used since the 1970s needs to be analysed on the two scales on which it operates. This section looks at how national contexts shape austerity rhetoric, while the next one explores transnational characteristics of austerity rhetoric.

12The following analysis of a corpus of British parliamentary transcripts provides an example of how a national context shapes austerity rhetoric by grounding it in a specific language and political history. The corpus gathers texts dating from March 2007 to November 2015, and includes Budget Statements, Emergency Budget Statements, and Autumn Statements or their equivalents, known as Pre-Budget Reports until 2009, the Autumn Forecast in 2010, and the Autumn Statement and Spending Review in 2015. The analysis includes the initial statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the response made by the Leader of the Opposition in the case of Budgets and by the Shadow Chancellor in the case of Autumn Statements. Budget and Autumn Statements are carefully prepared speeches in which the government exposes and justifies its economic policy. It therefore appears as a relevant corpus to study the rhetorical work aimed at legitimising budget orientations such as austerity. The response made by the Leader of the Opposition or the Shadow Chancellor highlights the main points of debate that the opposition has decided to identify, either by reusing the terms imposed by the government or by challenging them altogether. The analysis focuses on the circulation of one specific statement and idea initially pronounced by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan at the Labour Party Conference in September 1976:

  • 12 Labour Party, Report of the 75th Annual Conference, London, 1976, p. 188, emphasis ours. Quoted in (...)

We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending.12

13This speech has been quoted by commentators as signalling the abandonment of Keynesian policies, with the leader of the Labour Party qualifying measures supporting demand as reckless and inefficient. It appears that speakers in Budget and Autumn Statements between 2007 and 2015 frequently resort to similar constructions (known grammatically as resultative constructions) which constitute variations on the statement by Callaghan (see Figure). These variations on Callaghan’s original wording are notable for several reasons.

14Firstly, they constitute a remarkably concise expression of the speaker’s attitude towards fiscal policy. Out of a total of 36 occurrences, the most commonly used expressions are spend one’s way out of a recession (3), grow one’s way out of a recession (3), pay one’s way in the world (9) and earn one’s way in the world (13). We can also note unique occurrences of build one’s way out, spin one’s way out, and deflate one’s way out. Speakers have their favourite expressions, which they use both to hammer home their fiscal stance and to discredit the opponent’s programme. George Osborne, when Shadow Chancellor, used the phrases spend one’s way out (3) and borrow one’s way out (1) to refer to the economic policy of the Labour Party and discredit it. When he became Chancellor in 2010, he abandoned this phrase and replaced it with two programmatic variations: earn one’s way in (11) and pay one’s way in (8), both mostly used to refer to the attitude that he prescribed for Britain on the international stage.

  • 13 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 22 April 2009, Column 250.

15Secondly, these statements historicise the policies of crisis management that are favoured by each government, by positioning them against the blueprint formed by Callaghan’s 1976 statement. Alistair Darling positioned himself against the consensus which has prevailed since the 1970s and which was first put in practice by the Labour Government. His and Gordon Brown’s management of the 2008 crisis temporarily revived Keynesian tools as they counted on automatic stabilisers and postponed a return to budget equilibrium. The peroration of Darling’s 2009 budget sums up his expansionary stance in a striking formula: “You can grow your way out of recession; you cannot cut your way out of it.”13

16These variations on Callaghan’s statement refer to a founding moment in recent British political history. Their references, as well as the circulation of the phrases between the different speakers in the budget debates show that austerity and its rhetoric are grounded in the national history of the UK. Both Labour and Conservative politicians indirectly describe their economic policy in relation with this inaugural austerity speech, in order to discredit their political opponents, to embrace the monetarist view or to distance themselves from it. The frequency with which speakers use the phrase also gives an indication of the rhetorical work they perform in order to convince their listeners of the merits of their politics: George Osborne is most active in such a legitimisation exercise.

Figure : Variations on Callaghan’s Statement in Budget and Autumn Statements (2007-2015)

Figure : Variations on Callaghan’s Statement in Budget and Autumn Statements (2007-2015)
  • 14 Boyer, H., “« La rigueur pour moderniser la France ! »… « dans la solidarité. » Contribution socio- (...)
  • 15 For a press review of such articles, see “Rigueur et austérité pour l'Europe”, Le Nouvel Observateu (...)

17Similarly, in France, the political discourse surrounding austerity has its own national dynamics. One notable example is the lexical competition between austerité and rigueur, which has its roots in the 1976 austerity plan. In 1982-1983 Pierre Mauroy’s government tried to present their austerity measures without scaring public opinion, and without the Socialist Party’s budget being conflated with Raymond Barre’s fiscal measures of 1976. The political identity of the party was at stake, and Pierre Mauroy was therefore keen to speak of rigueur rather than austerité, then associated with Raymond Barre.14 A similar situation appeared in 2011 when François Fillon stuck to rigueur rather than austerité, more harshly connoted. In this context, the press prided itself on revealing the true face of his policies by exposing them as austerity under another name.15

18These two examples illustrate the fact that austerity rhetoric operates in a defined and defining national context, with its own linguistic and political dynamics. In both cases, the initial austerity programme, which was adopted in the wake of the global recession of 1975 during Callaghan and Barre’s time in office, constitutes a blueprint in reference to which later austerity policies and rhetoric are built. This emphasises the fact that austerity programmes are implemented and perceived in relation with previous recessionary episodes. Past political decisions can thus grant them weight, either by presenting current leaders as dutiful heirs of previous ones, or on the contrary by contrasting them with former, sometimes discarded leaders.

Transnational References and Topoi in Austerity Rhetoric

19These national logics coexist and combine with transnational dynamics of different forms, two of which will be analysed here: the reference to other countries in austerity rhetoric and the use of common topoi, that is to say common ideas, tropes or metaphors. Firstly, both French and British politicians refer to other countries either as foils or as models to justify the implementation of austerity measures that they advocate. As far as models are concerned, Raymond Barre provides a striking example in the parliamentary speech he delivered on 5th October 1976, in which he evoked the cuts in public spending that he was promoting:

How do German socialists fight inflation? And American Republicans? And Dutch socialists? And Japanese liberal-democrats? And the British Labour Party? They all took action on the same elements: budget, credit, prices and pay. Do these governments, of various political traditions, unanimously lack imagination? They haven’t been afraid to display what some call ‘classicism’ and it did them good.16

20Raymond Barre uses international comparisons to demonstrate the legitimacy of his proposals, by insisting on the commonality of the rationale. Since many major governments share a consensus concerning the source of economic problems and the remedies to be implemented, it must be the right thing to do. By placing his actions within an international framework, Raymond Barre also contributes to the construction of the international dimension of austerity, which is granted a character of universal self-evidence.

21But international comparisons also function as a foil, destined to subdue political resistance by using alternative economic situations as a strong incentive to implement austerity measures here and now. Blyth has thus noted the role played by Greece in the rhetoric of the British Conservative Party in 2010:

  • 17 Blyth, M., Op. Cit., p. 72.

It is worth noting the timing of events. Opposition to Keynesian policies intensified in spring 2010 just as the Greek crisis became newsworthy despite Greece’s accounting for only 2.5 percent of total Eurozone GDP. In the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States, politicians in favour of austerity zeroed in on the Greek crisis as a metaphor for the perils of Keynesianism. “Becoming Greece” became a scare story to justify cutting back at home.17

22This analysis can be extended to 2015, when Britain’s public finances were again compared to those of Greece in order to legitimate the further £ 37bn of cuts over the duration of the new Parliament announced by the Chancellor during the Emergency Budget of July 8th, 2010:

  • 18 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 8 July 2015, Column 321.

We have only to look at the crisis unfolding in Greece as I speak to realise that, if a country is not in control of its borrowing, the borrowing takes control of the country.18

23Greece is used by the Chancellor to embody the risks that Britain would run were the country not to follow the Budget he is presenting. The chiasmus (country / control / borrowing / borrowing / control / country) supports the idea that excessive borrowing is a trap which is to be avoided at any cost. Referring to the example given by foreign countries can therefore work either as an incentive or as a deterrent, both rhetorical mechanisms aiming at legitimising the measures under current scrutiny.

24Secondly, beyond explicit mentions of foreign countries, British and French politicians also share several topoi in their austerity rhetoric. These include especially the notion of inevitability; the idea that the country is not living within its means; and the reference to past times of hardship and solidarity. The first of the topoi under study, the idea that austerity is inevitable, is best remembered in Margaret Thatcher’s words “there is no alternative”, by which she meant that fighting inflation had to be the number one macroeconomic priority, not matter what it took. She was not the only one to use this rhetoric evoking an obstructed field of possibilities. Raymond Barre, in the already quoted speech he gave on television on 22nd September 1976, declared that austerity was the only available option. In both cases, the topos of inevitability leaves no room for contradiction, and contributes to the naturalisation of austerity, which seems to be part of the unquestionable political order of the world.

  • 19 For examples of such analyses, see the following references. Soares da Silva, A., “The persuasive ( (...)

25The second topos which is present in both countries is the idea that the country is not living within its means. Commentators have insisted on the implicit comparison on which the phrase rests, which likens the country to a household and appeals to a sense of individual responsibility to run a balanced family budget.19 This frames austerity measures as being part of common sense economics, and bears moral connotations used for manipulative purposes. Examples are plenty, with remarkable homogeneity in the use of the phrase in the two languages:

    • 20 Barre, R., cited speech. “We need to understand that the main reason for our current predicament ca (...)

    Il faut que nous comprenions que la raison essentielle de la situation que nous connaissons tient en une seule formule : la France vit au-dessus de ses moyens. (Raymond Barre, 1976)20

  1. J’ai dit, tout au long de ma campagne, que la France vivait au-dessus de ses moyens et qu’il était indispensable de réduire nos déficits pour réduire le chômage. [...] Je n’ai pas changé d’avis. (Jacques Chirac, 1995)21

    • 22 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 24 November 2008, Column 489.

    My aim is […] to put in place the measures necessary to ensure sound public finances in the medium term, so that as a country we live within our means. (Alistair Darling, 2008)22

    • 23 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 22 June 2010, Column 171.

    The truth is that the country was living beyond its means when the recession came. (George Osborne, 2010)23

    • 24 Labour Party Conference 2011: as it happened 27 September”, The Telegraph, 27 September 2011, http: (...)

    I am determined to prove to you that the next Labour Government will only spend what it can afford. That we will live within our means. (Ed Miliband, 2011)24

  1. [N]otre pays ne peut pas vivre éternellement au-dessus de ses moyens, au risque de briser son pacte républicain. (François Fillon, 2011)25

26The topos transcends party lines, as Raymond Barre was close to the Union pour la Démocratie Française, a centre-right party; Chirac and Fillon belonged to the same right-wing party despite its change of name; and both Conservatives (Thatcher and Osborne) and Labour politicians (Darling and Miliband) use it. This stability, despite linguistic, political and national differences, again points at the hegemonic status of the austerity rhetoric and ideology.

  • 26 Bramall, R., The Cultural Politics of Austerity – Past and Present in Austere Times, London, Palgra (...)

27The third and last topos that will be explored here is the reference to past hardships. Politicians and journalists evoke images and motifs strongly associated with either the Second World War or the immediate post-war period to discuss austerity. In the UK, since 2010, references to post-war Austerity Britain have constituted a subtext of the austerity rhetoric of the Coalition and then of the Conservative governments. Bramall has thus noted that images of Austerity Britain, the post-war period of rationing (1945-1954), continue to inform the current discourse about austerity.26 According to her, the discourse surrounding key events of 2011-2012 (the royal wedding, the jubilee and the Summer Olympics) framed them as a re-enactment of events of 1947-1953 (Elizabeth II’s wedding and coronation, the Summer Olympics of 1948). This sense of repetition appeals to the feeling of national unity and hope which is retrospectively regarded as having characterised the post-war period.

28A similar dynamic is at play in France, where the Second World War appears as a key reference to nourish the later austerity discourse. Raymond Barre, in his 1976 speech, thus makes an allusion to De Gaulle's 18 June Appeal (of 1940):

  • 27 Barre, R., quoted speech. “L'effort qui vous est demandé n'est pas au-delà de vos possibilités. [.. (...)

The effort you are asked to make is not beyond your possibilities. […] In the past, and in other difficult circumstances, you have answered to the appeals which were sent to you. You don't know much, if anything, about the man who tonight makes a similar appeal. Please be assured that I stand beyond party-politics, and that my sole ambition is to serve my country under the authority of the President and with the trust he grants me.27

29This interpretation is supported by elements of French political history, for the 1970s were marked by a competition between right-wing figures to claim De Gaulle's heritage. This can account for the fact that Barre, like De Gaulle, presented himself as being above party-politics, and included in his speech an “appeal” that echoed the General's. This example shows that French politicians, just like British ones, make references to past, magnified periods of hardship and grandeur to make austerity more palatable.

  • 28 Brézet, A., “Sang, labeur, larmes et sueur”, Le Figaro, 28 October 2011, <http://www.lefigaro.fr/le (...)
  • 29 Joffrin, L., “Le piège de la rigueur”, Le Nouvel Observateur, 9 November 2011, <http://tempsreel.no (...)
  • 30 Hausalter, L., “François Fillon : du sang, des larmes… et quelques paillettes”, Marianne, 4 May 201 (...)
  • 31 Schwyter, A., “Fiscalité, retraites, 35 heures... François Fillon ou le ‘Thatcher de la Sarthe’”, C (...)

30During the 2011 period of austerity in France, another type of war reference was repeatedly made by the French press around François Fillon, who has come to incarnate a Churchillian figure. A great number of articles described his austerity discourse along the lines of “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, although Fillon's statements did not actually include such references. “Fillon only offers blood and tears” is thus a journalistic topos, which appeared in several mainstream newspapers. Between the two plans de rigueur announced by the Prime Minister in 2011, right-wing newspaper Le Figaro published an article entitled “Blood, toil, tears and sweat”, in which it nuanced François Fillon's economic courage.28 Meanwhile, centre-left magazine Le Nouvel Observateur vilified austerity programmes in an article entitled “The Trap of Austerity”, with Laurent Joffrin sketching an idiosyncratic and rather derogatory portrait of the Prime Minister: “Fillon, the Droopy of the crisis, promises blood and tears”.29 More recently, on 4th May, 2016, the centre-left magazine Marianne used yet again the same phrase to describe Fillon’s programme for the presidential primaries with a sarcastic headline: “François Fillon: blood, tears... and some glitter.”30 Fillon, elsewhere explicitly compared to Thatcher,31 evoked in a speech in 2015 the frequent depiction of his policies in Churchillian terms. He implied that he had never actually used the words, and then proceeded to reclaim the rhetoric by shifting its implications:

I am sometimes accused of speaking the language of blood and tears. But blood and tears are today the lot of 6 million unemployed French people, blood and tears are today the lot of 2 million of young French people who are not at school, not in training, not in work. […] To fight blood and tears, I choose truth, action and freedom.32

31This semantic reworking shifts the blame away from Fillon's policies and places it on the economic reality, which, according to him, justifies the austerity policies he advocates. Fillon therefore retains the original reference to the Second World War, but frames the reference so as not to be identified as the wrong-doer. The references to Churchill (and occasionally to Thatcher) made by the French press to present Fillon's austerity policies also show that national austerity figures can sometimes be pooled internationally. Such cross-referencing contributes further to the legitimisation of domestic austerity by giving the impression that austerity belongs to an international cultural landscape.

Conclusion : challenging the resilience of the consensus

32The austerity consensus that came about in the 1970s has fared well over the past 40 years, despite critical voices speaking out time and again to temper, if not downright discard, the dogma. By way of conclusion, two factors contributing to the resilience of the austerity consensus may be emphasised.

33First, the austerity consensus has prevailed in France and in the UK even when the two countries were ruled by very different political parties, from the social-democratic left to the authoritative right. This makes it harder to question austerity programmes, as they appear not as the monopoly of a specific political trend, but rather as a common characteristic, given substrate with which different parties then construct their programmes. Such programmes have also been implemented under various euphemistic labels (fiscal consolidation, balancing the books, a common effort, etc.), and presented as radically new. The consensus thus benefits from this illusion of variety and novelty, when in reality the measures featured in the austerity packages always borrow from a very narrow repertoire, whose objectives of deficit reduction and low inflation trump other socio-economic aims, such as progressive redistribution.

34Finally, the dual dimension of austerity, both national and transnational, which is mirrored in its rhetoric, has contributed to maintaining austerity as a hegemonic tool of macroeconomic management: it enjoys both the depth of national history and the universality of international cultural references. The consensus also thrives on positive reinforcement as time goes on and austerity becomes further entrenched in economic institutions. These elements give the impression that austerity is an almost natural mechanism which is part of the political and cultural order of the world. Exposing the discursive mechanisms of the austerity consensus therefore appears as a necessary operation of deconstruction and historicisation. As such, the role that international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission play in creating and circulating key rhetorical elements requires further investigation. Austerity, both in its economic and discursive dimensions, is nothing but a contingent consensus.

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Lowe, R. and Jones, M., From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty Years of Britain's Welfare State, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002.

Muet, P.-A., “La récession de 1993 réexaminée”, Revue de l'OFCE, 1994, 49, p. 103-123.

Schmidt, V.,Discursive institutionalism: the explanatory power of ideas and discourse”, Annual Review of Political Science, 2008, 11, p. 303-326.

Schui, F., Austerity: the Great Failure, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2014.

Schwyter, A., “Fiscalité, retraites, 35 heures... François Fillon ou le ‘Thatcher de la Sarthe’”, Challenges, 14 September 2016, <http://www.challenges.fr/challenges-soir/fiscalite-retraites-35-heures-francois-fillon-ou-le-thatcher-de-la-sarthe_426109>, accessed 27 October 2016.

Soares da Silva, A., “The persuasive (and manipulative) power of metaphor in ‘austerity’ discourse”, Romano, M., Porto, M. D., (eds), Exploring Discourse Strategies in Social and Interaction: Multimodal and cross-linguistic perspectives, Amsterdam / Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2016, p. 79-108.

The Telegraph, “Labour Party Conference 2011: as it happened 27 September”, 27 September 2011, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/8793422/Labour-Party-Conference-2011-as-it-happened-27-September..html>, accessed 27 October 2016.

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Notes

1 Farnsworth, K., Irving, Z., “Varieties of crisis, varieties of austerity: social policy in challenging times”, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 2012, 22 (2), p. 133-147.

2 Blyth, M., Austerity – The History of a Dangerous Idea, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

3 Schui, F., Austerity: the Great Failure, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2014.

4 International Monetary Fund,World Economic Outlook - Crisis and Recovery, IMF, 24 April 2009, p. 11-14, <https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2009/01/pdf/text.pdf>, accessed 18 March 2017.

5 World Bank Data, GDP per capita growth (annual %), <http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.KD.ZG?locations=FR-1W-GB&view=chart>, accessed 18 March 2017.

6 Muet, P.-A., “La récession de 1993 réexaminée”, Revue de l'OFCE, 1994, 49, p. 103-123.

7 Both belonged to right-wing party Rassemblement Pour la République (1976-2002), which later came to be known as Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (2002-2015) and Les Républicains (2015-present).

8 Heyer, É., Cochard, M., Ducoudré, B., Péléraux, H., “France : moins d'austérité, plus de croissance. Perspectives 2013-2014 pour l'économie française”, Revue de l'OFCE, 2013, 130 (4), p. 97-153.

9 Kelsey, D., Mueller, F., Whittle, A., and Khosravinik, “Financial crisis and austerity: interdisciplinary concerns in critical discourse studies”, Critical Discourse Studies, 2016, 13 (1), p. 5.

10 Schmidt, V., “Discursive institutionalism: the explanatory power of ideas and discourse”, Annual Review of Political Science, 2008, 11, p. 303-326.

11 Kelsey, D., Mueller, F., Whittle, A., and Khosravinik, Op. Cit., p. 10.

12 Labour Party, Report of the 75th Annual Conference, London, 1976, p. 188, emphasis ours. Quoted in Lowe, R. and Jones, M., From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty Years of Britain's Welfare State, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 9.

13 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 22 April 2009, Column 250.

14 Boyer, H., “« La rigueur pour moderniser la France ! »… « dans la solidarité. » Contribution socio-pragmatique à l'étude des mots-slogans du septennat (1981-1988)”, Mots, 1988, 17 (1), p. 219-229.

15 For a press review of such articles, see “Rigueur et austérité pour l'Europe”, Le Nouvel Observateur, 11 May 2010, <http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/economie/20100511.OBS3771/rigueur-et-austerite-pour-l-europe.html>, accessed 18 March 2017.

16 Barre, R., Speech on Télévision Française 1, 22 September 1976, http://www.ina.fr/video/CAA76009614, accessed 27 October 2016. All translations are mine. “Comment les socialistes allemands luttent-ils contre l'inflation ? Et les républicains américains ? Et les socialistes néerlandais ? Et les démocrates libéraux japonais ? Et les travaillistes britanniques ? Tous ont agi sur les mêmes points: budget, crédit, prix et rémunérations. Ces gouvernements, d'horizons politiques aussi variés, manquent-ils d'imagination avec une telle unanimité ? Ils n'ont pas craint de faire preuve de ce que d'aucuns appellent le ‘classicisme’; ils en ont retiré le succès.”

17 Blyth, M., Op. Cit., p. 72.

18 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 8 July 2015, Column 321.

19 For examples of such analyses, see the following references. Soares da Silva, A., “The persuasive (and manipulative) power of metaphor in ‘austerity’ discourse”, Romano, M., Porto, M. D., (eds), Exploring Discourse Strategies in Social and Interaction: Multimodal and cross-linguistic perspectives, Amsterdam / Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2016, p. 79-108. Konzelmann, S., J., “The political economics of austerity”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2014, 38 (4), p. 701-741.

20 Barre, R., cited speech. “We need to understand that the main reason for our current predicament can be summed up in just one sentence: France is living beyond its means”.

21 Chirac, J., Interview on television channel France 2, 26 October 1995, http://www.jacqueschirac-asso.fr/archives-elysee.fr/elysee/elysee.fr/francais/interventions/interviews_articles_de_presse_et_interventions_televisees/1995/octobre/fi003773.html, accessed 27 October 2016. “I have said all along my campaign that France was living beyond its means and that we had to reduce our deficit in order to reduce unemployment. […] I haven't changed my mind.”

22 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 24 November 2008, Column 489.

23 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 22 June 2010, Column 171.

24 Labour Party Conference 2011: as it happened 27 September”, The Telegraph, 27 September 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/8793422/Labour-Party-Conference-2011-as-it-happened-27-September..html, accessed 27 October 2016.

25 Fillon, F., Press Conference in Paris, 24 August 2011, http://discours.vie-publique.fr/notices/113001857.html, accessed 27 October 2016. “[O]ur country cannot perpetually live beyond its means, or else its republican contract would be under threat.”

26 Bramall, R., The Cultural Politics of Austerity – Past and Present in Austere Times, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

27 Barre, R., quoted speech. “L'effort qui vous est demandé n'est pas au-delà de vos possibilités. [...] Dans le passé, et dans des circonstances autrement difficiles vous avez répondu aux appels qui vous étaient adressés. Celui qui vous adresse ce soir un appel analogue est peu connu, ou mal connu de vous. Sachez que libre de tout engagement partisan, je n'ai d'autre ambition que de servir mon pays sous l'autorité du président de la république et avec sa confiance.”

28 Brézet, A., “Sang, labeur, larmes et sueur”, Le Figaro, 28 October 2011, <http://www.lefigaro.fr/lefigaromagazine/2011/10/28/01006-20111028ARTFIG00706-sang-labeur-larmes-et-sueur.php>, accessed 27 October 2016.

29 Joffrin, L., “Le piège de la rigueur”, Le Nouvel Observateur, 9 November 2011, <http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/signatures/laurent-joffrin/20111108.OBS4118/le-piege-de-la-rigueur.html>, accessed 18 March 2017. “François Fillon, le Droopy de la crise, promet du sang et des larmes.”

30 Hausalter, L., “François Fillon : du sang, des larmes… et quelques paillettes”, Marianne, 4 May 2016, <http://www.marianne.net/francois-fillon-du-sang-larmes-quelques-paillettes-100242565.html>, accessed 27 Octobre 2016.

31 Schwyter, A., “Fiscalité, retraites, 35 heures... François Fillon ou le ‘Thatcher de la Sarthe’”, Challenges, 14 September 2016, <http://www.challenges.fr/challenges-soir/fiscalite-retraites-35-heures-francois-fillon-ou-le-thatcher-de-la-sarthe_426109>, accessed 27 October 2016.

32 Fillon, F., Speech at Les Répulicains' founding meeting, 30 May 2015, <http://www.force-republicaine.fr/discours-de-francois-fillon-a-loccasion-du-congres-fondateur-les-republicains/>, accessed 27 October 2016. “On m’accuse parfois d’avoir le langage du ‘sang et des larmes’. Mais le sang et les larmes, c’est aujourd’hui pour les 6 millions de français sans emploi, le sang et les larmes c’est aujourd’hui pour les deux millions de jeunes français qui ne sont ni à l’école, ni en formation, ni dans l’emploi. […] Contre le sang et les larmes, je choisis la vérité, l’action et la liberté.”

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Titre Figure : Variations on Callaghan’s Statement in Budget and Autumn Statements (2007-2015)
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Référence papier

Clémence Fourton, « Political and Discursive Characteristics of the Austerity Consensus in the UK and in France since 1975 », Observatoire de la société britannique, 19 | 2017, 91-109.

Référence électronique

Clémence Fourton, « Political and Discursive Characteristics of the Austerity Consensus in the UK and in France since 1975 », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 19 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2018, consulté le 18 juin 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/1913 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1913

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Auteur

Clémence Fourton

Diplômée de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure et doctorante en civilisation britannique à l'Université de Poitiers

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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