Budget 2015 was yet another let-down for fiscal conservatives and opponents of big government, not that this beleaguered group have come to expect any better after five years of Conservative-LibDem coalition rule.
The fact that the Tories are actually happy that the media is reporting that government will “only” shrink back to 2000-era levels (when New Labour ruled the roost) is definitive proof that Britain is not still in thrall to Thatcherism and pro-market conservatism, as some left wing commentators suggest, but rather is clinging petulantly and fearfully to Gordon Brown-style Big Government largesse.
This blog has little sympathy with a modern Conservative Party too afraid to forcefully make the case for small government and lower public spending, and will continue to criticise David Cameron and George Osborne for their timidity in this regard for as long as they remain in office. But the Conservative Party does not operate in a vacuum, and should not bear all of the blame.
When in government, Conservatives have to deal with a public that is used to big government, collectivism and intrusive state involvement in almost every aspects of their lives. Britain never had the pioneering, fiercely independent spirit that characterises America, and the modern institutions that emerged from the post-war consensus (the welfare state and National Health Service) only shifted our political centre of gravity further to the left.
Thus, the BBC’s Robert Peston can ask with a straight face, when analysing George Osborne’s 2015 Budget (emphasis added):
The Chancellor told Jim Naughtie on the Today Prog[ramme] that the scale of austerity in the opening years of the next parliament would be broadly the same as in the current parliament – and that, by implication, the Office for Budget Responsibility (which he created) was wrong to warn of a “rollercoaster’ of public-service spending after the election.
So why are George Osborne and the OBR apparently disagreeing on something so important to all our lives – namely over whether the OBR’s projection that between 2016 and 2018 public service cuts will be more than twice as deep as anything we’ve experienced since 2010?
Apparently, public services are something “so important to all our lives” – and the clear implication is that they should be so. But why should this be the case? Why should someone earning, say, £30,000 or more a year consider public services (perhaps aside from education) essential to their life? Should doctors, accountants, London tube train drivers and high court judges really be deeply reliant on services provided by the government through general taxation? And what is the cost to our personal self-sufficiency and productivity, or to our spiritual life, of this being the case?
It is certainly possible to make an argument for generous public services for all, but it is not a universally accepted truth, and the media should refrain from blithely repeating ill-considered talking points about “essential” public services. But time and again we are told at election time that the fate of our public services hangs in the balance.
Consider this typical excerpt from Ed Miliband’s most recent re-launch speech, given back in November of 2014:
Decent public services are the foundation of who we are as a country.
And above all Britain only succeeds when working people succeed.
Basic British values.
Hard work rewarded.
Vested interests made to work in the public interest.
Public services there when you need them.
Aside from the fact that it is complete and utter drivel, a meaningless word cloud of left-wing platitudes and shibboleths, it is astounding to realise that Ed Miliband really does consider our public services to be the crown jewel of modern Britain, the most important thing in the world and our finest accomplishment as a nation.
But the “foundation of who we are as a country”? The Labour Party leader literally has no ambition for Britain other than to tear down the rich to “reduce inequality” and “promote fairness”. Ed Miliband wishes to unite us behind no grand purpose or national project, save that of reducing A&E waiting times and making the buses and trains run on time. His audition for the role of British Prime Minister is a solemn promise to be a semi-competent bureaucrat, benevolent provider of free childcare and recycling bins for all.
This is what happens when you fetishise “our NHS” and put public services on such a pedestal. There will never be a British Apollo programme, a revolution in our education standards, a British Microsoft or McDonald’s, Apple or IKEA, not so long as we cling to the belief that public services are the be-all and end-all of politics, and reward politicians who encourage us to set our aspirations so desperately low.
Yesterday’s Budget had a sprinkling of gifts for all, especially savers and drinkers, but no final flourish. There was a trade-off of a heavier tax burden on banks and the wealthiest pensioners to pay for an increase in personal tax allowances for everyone else. While Osborne eased back on austerity, he chose to pay down the national debt instead of funding a pre-election spree.
Pay down the national debt? Even unlettered sit-at-home bloggers like yours truly know that the Conservative-LibDem coalition government have failed spectacularly in their objective of eliminating Britain’s budget deficit, and that so long as the deficit persists our national debt is rising, not being “paid down”. James Ashton, author of the Evening Standard editorial, should certainly know this.
But it is precisely because so few voters (and apparently journalists) understand how government borrowing and budget deficits work that the Conservative Party is able to prance around pretending to be staunch practitioners of fiscal responsibility who successfully brought Britain’s public finances back under control, when in reality they are not, and have done no such thing.
These typical examples of press coverage of the 2015 Budget – from mainstream sources, the BBC and Evening Standard – are so revealing, for they lay bare the deeply inhospitable climate in which British conservatism has to operate.
Swimming against the tide of growing government dependency and wilting national ambition, a modern British Conservative government can find itself simultaneously criticised for “cutting” public spending when public spending has been relentlessly rising, and praised for “paying down the national debt” while actually racking it up.
Considering the British public’s dim understanding of economics and general disinterest in personal liberty, compounded by the fact that we are informed by a domestic media which makes almost no effort to bring truth where there is error, George Osborne’s budget does indeed begin to look like the very model of fiscal rectitude.
If only nations prospered on the back of glib perceptions rather than cold, hard facts.