Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Borrowing could destroy our way of life within 45 minutes

I was very taken with this analogy by Steve Richards:

The way the Government is attempting to manipulate voters into accepting savage spending cuts reminds me of the build-up to the war in Iraq. There was then, and is now, an attempt to create a sense of… inevitability.

And after a while I remembered that I’ve used a similar one myself, three months ago:

The quality of public services should be treated… not a sad but inevitable piece of collateral damage in the War on Debt. Intelligence reports suggesting that the ratings agencies possess weapons of mass destruction are deeply dodgy. And so is the argument that we have to inflict the mass destruction on ourselves to appease them.

Now, Richards has obviously come up with this independently, and he’s done more with it than I did. And, now I think about it a bit more, there are quite a few parallels between the anti-war narrative and the current situation:

  • Something that everyone agrees is a problem but not on how urgently or how forcefully it needs dealing with.
  • A government whose motives stretch more broadly than the official ones.
  • A favoured approach that could end up harming us rather than making us more secure.
  • Official reports showing that some progress is being made and is indeed accelerating, but provoking angry impatience from the government.
  • Monstrous yet dubious warnings about the dangers of delay.
  • A coalition, the smaller partner of which is clearly less happy about the way things are going.

In this narrative, someone like Fraser Nelson (via Bob and Luke and Will) plays the role of the hawkish ideologue who’s not really concerned about UN resolutions, and even fears a peaceful, diplomatic solution, because he just wants a righteous war:

Sir Alan [Budd] said yesterday that Alistair Darling was being too pessimistic: on almost every measure, the public finances look like being in better shape. Unemployment, he said, will be almost 200,000 lower than had been feared. Economic growth will not be quite as strong but the tax revenues – which are far more important – will come in much more strongly than Mr Darling gloomily forecast. Something is going badly right.
In many areas that were not included in Sir Alan's report, the British economy is doing remarkably well. Manufacturing is bouncing back – helped, of course, by the weak pound. The Bank of England is no longer buying British government debt, but demand remains strong – keeping bond yields low. Banks are lending, and money supply is increasing. Just as the economy sprang a volley of nasty surprises as we entered the crash, it's yielding pleasant surprises now.
So when Mr Osborne declared yesterday that "it's worse than we thought" he had precious little to point to. The so-called structural deficit (the amount of overspend that will not be eliminated by an economic recovery) is a little bigger than had been estimated. But crucially, Mr Osborne's election goal – to abolish "the bulk" of the structural deficit by 2014 – would have been easily achieved had Mr Darling remained in place. No more taxes need to be raised, or budgets cut, to honour this Tory manifesto pledge.

But Mr Osborne will have to change tactics. He cannot credibly play the worse-than-we-thought card if Sir Alan's team – on whom he has bestowed Delphic authority – disagrees. Instead, he will have to focus on something from which he shied away in opposition: the moral case for cuts; to argue, on Budget day, that even if Britain could keep on borrowing it would be reckless and wrong to do so.

No analogy is perfect, and it’d be easy to take this one too seriously. But there’s a more general reason that there’s some ring of truth in it; it’s the same as the reason I was never particularly surprised about the revelations of dodgy government manoeuvres pre-war. I think that almost any major contentious policy, with some definite downsides and the risk of others, gets justified to the public with some level of dishonesty. It’s deplorable, but hardly exceptional.

Anyway, cue George Osborne’s Mansion House speech tonight.

1 comment:

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