The politics of TINA
TINA has been responsible for some of the most far-reaching political decisions of the last two decades or more. You’ve never heard of her? TINA is the popular abbreviation of ‘There Is No Alternative.’ A political catchphrase made famous by Margaret Thatcher when explaining economic liberalism, which was picked up almost two decades later by Tony Blair when justifying military action in Iraq. As Polly Toynbee has recently pointed out, TINA is being used again – this time when outlining the government approach to the financial crisis. At the Liberal Democrat party conference yesterday, Nick Clegg invoked TINA when trying to ingratiate party members to huge spending cuts.
Whatever your opinion of Thatcher, the Iraq war or the coalition government’s economic plans, we should be suspicious of people who tell us that TINA is justification enough for any political decision. There are always alternatives. There are alternatives to free market liberalism, to war and to coalition, whether or not you agree with them. When Labour introduced a minimum wage in 1999, many businesses argued this would force redundancies and that there was no alternative to painfully low wages. But there was an alternative, and in this case a very effective one, which business has now come to embrace.
TINA is too often used as a means of sidelining real debate and avoiding difficult conversations. But avoiding these conversations does a disservice to citizens and prevents us from getting to heart of the social, political and economic problems we face.
Take spending cuts as an example. Whilst there is unquestionably a need for action in the face of a £148 billion shortfall between government expenditure and government revenue, it is not the case that there is no long-term alternative to tackling our spending habits by cutting services. As is often quoted, the British public want “Swedish” welfare for “American” taxes. At the moment, the government has decided to get rid of Swedish welfare. But there is a long-term alternative in challenging our American rates of tax and opening up a conversation with the public about how much they are willing to pay for the services they want.
This short post is not necessarily an argument in favour of the alternatives, but it is an argument in favour of acknowledging them. Our society and communities are faced with a range of alternative futures at the moment: now is not the time to avert our gaze.