Toil, tears and sweat, but where's the victory?


Realism is necessary in facing hard times, but so too is offering hope. Our leaders haven’t done this, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

IN 1940, when Winston Churchill became prime minister of the UK at one of the darkest moments in its history, he famously declared to the House of Commons that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Though Churchill’s grim phrase is remembered, it is often forgotten that he went on to offer much more.

He promised “victory in spite of all terrors” and announced that “I take up my task in buoyancy and hope.”

Take away the blood, and you have the package that the Irish people are being offered by their Government at a moment of national crisis – toil, tears and sweat. But where’s the victory? Where’s the buoyancy? Where’s the hope? Churchill was wily enough as a politician and brave enough as a leader to know that at a moment of great crisis, bleak realism is both necessary and insufficient. You have to tell the truth – that years of sacrifice and suffering lie ahead. But you also have to hold out hope. You have to articulate a vision of what the struggle is for.

The current state of Ireland is in no way comparable to the existential crisis that faced the UK in 1940. It is pretty bleak nonetheless, and the task of leadership is essentially the same. We have to be made to face up to highly unpalatable necessities. We also have to be told what we’re fighting for. After a wasted year of evasion and denial, the Government is finally getting to grips with the first part of this job. It is so far from even understanding the necessity for the second part that it is impossible to believe that it will ever be capable of addressing it.

The public mood after last week’s Budget is not seething outrage or wild anger. It is simple, down-home, dumbstruck despair. There is, quite plainly, nothing to look forward to. There is no narrative of pain and gain. The pain is up-front, obvious and laid out before us in an orderly multi-annual menu of misery. It is the future. But where’s the gain? Look out behind you – we’ve had it already. We are expunging the sins of the past. We are making sacrifices, not for a better future, but to pay for the greed, stupidity and corruption of our betters. We are not in purgatory, where a period of torment will be followed by a trip to paradise, but in a peculiarly nasty hell where we and our children must suffer for the sins of others as well as for our own.

When the Greek gods really wanted to punish the cunning Sisyphus for being too smart for his own good, they devised an exquisitely excruciating torment. He has to spend an eternity rolling a huge boulder up a hill all day, only to watch as it rolled back down to the bottom. Sisyphus is our new patron saint. Last week, we were told that we must agonisingly roll a few billion of debt up the hill only for an avalanche of tens of billions to sweep it, and us, right back down again. While we’re to take all this pain to control the national debt, the Government is simultaneously doubling the national debt by taking on liability for the gambling losses of the high rollers.

This is a perfect formula for collective despair. If we’re stuck with it, as we appear to be, the articulation of some kind of a better future isn’t an optional indulgence. It’s an urgent necessity.

What we need most desperately is a sense of security. Fear is the most socially corrosive and economically disabling of emotions, and right now people are terrified. Security has replaced status and consumption as our Holy Grail. And only government can provide it. Intelligent, ambitious government can use the crisis to focus on the basics of a decent society – housing, health, education, pensions, child care.

The good news is that even in straitened circumstances, Ireland can provide a decent level of these basic necessities for every citizen. If we stop the market-driven madness of having three health systems – public, private not-for-profit, private for-profit – we can have one good one. If we combine the huge subsidies for private pensions with the costs of the current public sector and State pensions, there’s enough money to provide a decent universal pension that will not be at risk of being wiped out overnight. We can apply the same principles across a range of areas as the Government has rightly now applied to childcare.

Scarified as we are by the collapse of an entire set of assumptions about the economy and society, the Irish people are ready to trade greed for security.

If a government could tell us that within two or three years, each of us will have guaranteed access to healthcare, to housing, to a decent education for our children and a basic level of comfort for our old age, the effects would be electrifying. Instead of scrabbling around in a fog of despair, we’d be struggling up a hill that has a fine view at the top.