Osborne’s Malice

Ross McKibbin

The budget details had been so widely leaked that there were few surprises. The chancellor had little room for manoeuvre and resisted the temptation to go for broke. (That probably comes next year, just before the election.) The Lib Dems got their £10,500 tax threshold – which won’t make much difference. The drinkers and bingo players got something; but other betters and smokers did not. There was a little for small business. Those who pay a 40 per cent marginal rate saw the threshold at which they pay it raised a little, but probably not as much as they expected. Older people with savings do well. Changes to pension arrangements, the introduction of more ‘generous’ ISAs and the pensioner bond do something to restore income to those whose savings in the last few years had received negligible returns. It is apparent that the budget is meant to appeal primarily to older voters – who are more likely to vote than any other age group.

There was one odd provision: that members of the emergency services who lose their lives ‘protecting us’ will no longer pay inheritance tax. It is a nice gesture. But how many members of the emergency services actually pay inheritance tax? Osborne’s speech was one of modest self-satisfaction. The worst was over, even if the good times might still be a little way off. This was a budget for ‘makers, doers and savers’.

There has been a remarkable change in Osborne’s reputation since the ‘2012 omnishambles’ budget, even in the non-Tory broadsheets. He is now seen as having a ‘good story to tell’. But the story, however good, is not straightforward; nor is the government’s part in it. The economy is unquestionably growing. Living standards, which have been falling since 2010, may eventually start to rise. ‘Austerity’ is thus said to have its reward. But that cannot be true. There is nothing in present economic or financial circumstances by which ‘austerity’ can promote growth. The main argument for cuts in public spending is that government borrowing, by forcing up interest rates, drives private borrowing out of the market. But interest rates are almost non-existent and companies are sitting on mountains of cash. That justification, therefore, is false. The second argument is that the deficit is so large that interest payments on government debt weigh too heavily on the budget. But the deficit is not historically large and at the moment Britain has no difficulty servicing its debt. That justification is also false. All that a seriously intended austerity can do is suck demand from the economy – which it has done.

Why then is the economy growing? Partly because of the economic cycle: capitalist economies, unless conditions are very terrible or governments very foolish, do recover. At the moment all the western economies are, more or less, growing. There are, in addition, a couple of purely domestic factors. First, consumers have stopped saving and started spending. Second and more important – and here the government has played a part – the private housing market is again looking lively, especially in the south. This budget makes it livelier by extending the Help to Buy scheme to 2020. Yet neither of these is a reliable foundation for sustained recovery. Indeed, the way the private housing market has been allowed to develop is at the centre of our political culture and the heart of our economic problems. And no one seems likely to do anything about it.

Another reason for renewed growth is that the rhetoric of ‘austerity’ has always outpaced the reality. The budgetary deficit is now larger than it was in 2010. In its stated aim – to eliminate the deficit within the lifetime of the present parliament – ‘austerity’ has clearly failed. Despite the talk of fairness, ‘austerity’ has not been conceived as an element in an overall national economic programme, but targeted at those heavily dependent on welfare – people who have always been disliked by the Tory Party, which has used the banking crisis to settle scores. In case we missed the point, the budget proposes to cap welfare spending (allowing for inflation and not including pensions and job-seekers allowance) for the next five years. Osborne’s policies should then be understood as political calculation – and malice – as much as austerity. The poor have been hit hard, but government spending has not seriously fallen.

It is actually very difficult to impose a severe system of austerity on modern European welfare states. They acquire interest groups and social expectations which are very resistant to the kinds of cuts the IMF is always recommending. Even Margaret Thatcher discovered that. Pensions, excluded from the cap, constitute almost half of all benefit spending, but it is thought politically risky to tamper with them further. Ambitious ministers like Michael Gove can also be very expensive. The ‘automatic stabilisers’ in modern European states are precisely that. If levels of government spending in 2008 had been as they were in the 1930s we could really have had disaster. State spending saved us; and it is an instance of the Labour Party’s loss of confidence that it is now so reluctant to admit that.

Do the Tories care very much about this? Probably not. They have primarily been concerned to limit welfare payments to those deemed unworthy of them, and so to make a kind of moral judgment, and to devise a political rhetoric which unites the haves (or those who think they have) against those who have not: a traditional Tory policy which always favours the rich.


  • 21 March 2014 at 12:46am
    SpinningHugo says:
    "The budget details had been so widely leaked that there were few surprises."

    What a bizarre claim. In previous years that has of course been true, with accusations from both governing parties. None at all this year, which is what caught Miliband out, He had guessed that an income tax was coming. Nobody was trailing the pension annuity change (the only significant measure).

    "the deficit is not historically large"

    Err, yeah it is. It is enormous, just shy of £100m, as a % of GDP far larger than at anytime before the crash. Unless you are counting wartime?

    "The budgetary deficit is now larger than it was in 2010"

    Err, no it is not. It is far smaller, both in absolute and GDP % terms

    Shoddy. Indeed, dreadful

    • 21 March 2014 at 2:59pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ SpinningHugo
      What McKibbin presumably meant to say was that the debt is larger now than it was in 2010 - 90.0% of GDP, up from 85.5% at end of 2011 and 79.4% at end of 2010. (Those figures taken from the same source Spinning Hugo cites.)

    • 21 March 2014 at 10:05pm
      SpinningHugo says: @ Harry Stopes
      Maybe that is right (although "budgetary debt" makes no sense). Of course the debt is larger: we are running an enormous deficit.

      However, confusing debt and deficit is a pretty clear indication that you don't know what you are talking about.

    • 24 March 2014 at 11:28pm
      semitone says: @ SpinningHugo
      I'm glad you explained this, that Ross McKibbin doesn't know what he is talking about: it's all so much clearer now. I've been saying for some time, to whoever will listen, that I wish Spinning Hugo would leave the paddling pool of Comment is Free and come over to the London Review where (s)he belongs, perhaps as a feature writer or contributing editor or something.

    • 25 March 2014 at 3:18pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ SpinningHugo
      In that case, Hugo, many politicians and other commentators also don't know what they are talking about, as it is quite common to hear the budget deficit (the year-on-year shortfall in government income) confused with the cumulative government debt (what is sometimes called the National Debt).

      As Keith Smith reminds us, pre-2008 the deficit (and the debt, for that matter) were both smaller, the deficit significantly so. Perhaps we should also remember what kicked the deficit up so much in 2008. Hint: it wasn't welfare scroungers. And the component of the deficit which was generally due to the incompetence of bankers is unlikely ever to be paid back.

      It is also very likely that austerity is actually leading to an increase in the deficit, rather than helping to reduce it: reducing aggregate demand in the economy is not usually a good way of improving government revenues, but it is a good way of provoking deflation.

      If the goverment was really serious about the deficit, it would do the obvious thing, which is to increase taxation (and get better at collecting the taxes it is already due, by expanding HMRC, not cutting it). The amount which can be saved out of the welfare budget by squeezing the poor is trivial by comparison. Instead, Osborne has just increased the threshold at which the 40% tax rate kicks in and increased the basic personal allowance by £500 - both measures which ultimately are worth infinitely more to the well-off than to those who are so poor they aren't even liable for tax.

  • 24 March 2014 at 9:54am
    keith smith says:
    Surely McKibbin's point, that 'austerity' has failed to resolve either the deficit/debt issues or Britain's growth problems, is right. Both deficits and debt grew sharply in 2008 and 2009 as a result of the financial crisis (causing both recession and bank bailouts). Is the austerity policy getting us back to the pre-2008 situation? It doesn't look like it: the pre-crisis deficit was £43bn, or 3.4% of GDP (as opposed to about 6% now). We are nowhere near that. Using 2010 as the base year to rate Osborne's performance is misleading, because the deficit that year was more than three times the pre-crisis level.

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