Sunday, 2 February 2014

Whatever happened to the 'austerity Chancellor'?

The last few years have seen economic debates conducted around the idea of 'austerity'. Back at the start of this Parliament, some of us warned that we'd never seen anything like the spending cuts we were going to get - that they were going to make living in Britain fundamentally different to what we'd experienced before.

Now the experts tell us that the cuts, while real and large, might be a little smaller as a share of Gross Domestic Product (if anything) than those the Government imposed in the 1980s. They're still massive if we're talkin raw cash, of course - even in real terms, they're larger than anything we've seen in peacetime since the 1920s - but that's partly because the economy's much bigger.

So what explains the difference between rhetoric and macroeconomic 'reality'?

Well, for one thing, the British state is a very different thing to that which carried through massive cuts in the early 1920s and the early 1940s. Military spending, for instance, forms a much, much smaller share of the budget than it used to, and the public sector in the UK has basically become a service and a welfare provider - transfer payments to citizens and the National Health Service being two massive slices of the budget. What that means is that protecting hospitals and schools from the cuts feels very, very harsh elsewhere - particularly in local authority budgets that are falling fast. So the overall austerity can be only a bit harsher than previous bouts since the Second World War, but that 25 per cent quoted in the summer of 2010 can still go through and amount to 'unprecedented' spending restraints in some areas that voters really care about - youth clubs, libraries, or elderly care, for instance.

But here's the major reason why the warnings of 2010 are not entirely borne out in the numbers as crunched in 2014: the Chancellor, George Osborne (above) didn't go through with lots of his promises. He turned aside from his 'fiscal mandate'. Faced with slowing growth and a looming economic disaster, he let out his austerity waist-line. He'd promised to get to budgetary balance in one Parliament, leaving aside the effect of temporary downturns and the like, and that debt would be falling by 2015. Those targets would have seen the really savage cuts that we warned of in 2010. But first he started talking about 2017. Then 2018. Now 2020 is mentioned.

In other words, make us virtuous, Lord: but not yet.

So the apparently intemperate language at the start of this Parliament might have been a bit overheated. With hindsight, the protection granted to schools, the NHS and the international aid budget (and, in practice, benefits for elderly Britons) means that the 25 per cent cuts outside those areas look a bit less radical than they did when we look at the picture overall - which isn't to say that they're not hurting, and reshaping the way we live our national life, because they are.

And some of the numbers bandied around in the Treasury were as unrealistic as their opponents' fears. They didn't materialise because they weren't capable of delivery.

Austerity is still there. It's just a bit more of a matter of humdrum grimness and endless greyness than doomsday. Which is not much of an accolade, when you come to think about it.

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