After all the hype and debate, today was finally George Osborne’s chance to stand up as Chancellor of the Exchequer and spell out how the UK intends to balance its books. £150 billion of borrowing every year, running at around 11% of GDP, was unsustainable and now the cuts have to be made.
I suspect he probably had mixed feelings as he stood up at the Dispatch Box to announce the detail. On one hand, no Chancellor of any party likes delivering bad news; it tends to result in lost votes, after all. And he must have felt frustrated to have been placed in this dire financial, and electorally unpopular, position immediately after the general election. It’s a very different position to the very benign macroeconomic landscape in 1997 when the reins of power last changed hands.
On the other hand, there’s nothing like being in control of the decision-making process, and the current environment does offer some rare opportunities as well as risks. The last 10+ years have seen ever-increasing public expenditure, with a corresponding enlargement of the public sector. To those who believe that the state should only do what the private sector cannot or will not, the massive and unsustainable budget deficit offers the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: rebalance the books, but also rebalance the role of the state.
It’s worth noting that the average cuts of 19% across the five-year Parliament are actually not that different – even a touch less – than the proposed 20% cuts hinted at by Labour back in March of this year, before they lost the General Election, despite the howls of protest from their benches today. The difference is not the headline figure, but the nature of the cuts and their presentation.
In this light, the Comprehensive Spending Review and today’s announcements may allow Osborne, and the coalition government the chance to alter the accepted paradigm of British political thinking, in a similar way to Attlee in the post-war period or Thatcher in the 1980s. It holds out the prospect of effecting not just an economic change, but a sociocultural one too.
The cuts are necessary to balance the books. But the method of cutting and its presentation is about rebranding the role of the state versus the role of the private sector. It is a bold attempt to redefine the social and cultural framework of the country. As President Sarkozy is finding out in France, whenever politicians attempt to alter cultural paradigms in this manner there is usually a significant backlash from entrenched vested interests in the status quo. If politicians are to succeed in their aims, they must acknowledge the resistance by consistently and clearly selling their message directly to the general public.
Politics is not all that different to advertising; those with the most effective and convincing message tend to gain market share. And the reward of gaining market share in this context is not just a few transient extra votes in one particular electoral cycle, but altering the terrain of the battleground for many cycles to come. The post-war Labour government created the welfare state, nationalised industries, and in doing so, set the terms of engagement for the next 30 years. Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, by taking on the unions and privatising industry, set the terms of engagement for the next 30 years. Tony Blair was forced to fight on her territory even while winning landslide Labour party victories in 1997 and 2001. Blair never fundamentally altered those terms of engagement during his time in office; he was too careful not to lose votes through risk-taking (with the sole exception of his military interventionism). Brown, being less attuned to the electorate’s sensitivities, may just have managed such a shift if he had won the 2010 election.
Instead, Osborne has the opportunity. It is a risky route to take; massive public unpopularity is almost guaranteed in the short-term, and if the budgetary medicine does not work to reverse the deficit by 2015, that unpopularity will be sustained, probably resulting in a change of government. But the potential reward is massive: restoring fiscal stability and a sustainable approach to government spending, and perhaps even more importantly, altering the basic sociopolitical cultural landscape for years to come.
Those on both sides of the political divide recognise this. Expect the fireworks from today’s announcements to last way beyond the 5th of November…