A little more nasty talk may yet be in order
First published in the Telegraph on 9 June 2010
WE Britons love it when our government talks nasty to us.
If you don’t believe me, consult the history books.
Every time a government has had to cut public spending, it has only done so after informing the public, in graphic detail, of the fate about to befall them.
In fact, in three of the six austerity periods of the past century, it went far further than reality, warning of cuts far deeper than those it ultimately performed.
This behaviour is in stark contrast to the attitude in foreign climes. Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands, all of which slashed their budgets in the 1990s, decided not to tell the public of the true horror they were facing.
Why are we British prone to this fiscal sado-masochism? The answer is rapidly becoming clear.
Despite David Cameron and George Osborne taking every opportunity to warn Britons that they are facing a lengthy period of austerity, the message has not sunk in. While Britons agree almost universally on the need to “do something” about the spiralling national debt, few realise what that will involve.
To some degree, this is because bad news takes time to sink in, but it is also down to the fact that few understand the scale of the task facing the Government.
For one thing, the cuts are likely to be more painful than those made by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s. Despite Nick Clegg promising that the scalpel will be applied more tenderly than back then, this is unfeasible for two reasons.
First, if as seems likely the Government follows the recommendations of the ratings agency Fitch and cuts the deficit by around £15billion more than the Treasury’s existing plans, it will imply a significantly bigger squeeze than in the 1980s, or for that matter the 1970s and 1930s.
Second, unlike in the Thatcher years, there are far fewer “low-hanging fruits” for the Treasury to lop off.
By privatising overgrown nationalised industries and selling council houses, Mrs Thatcher got away with reducing the size of the state without having to resort to cutting too many public services or welfare payments.
That luxury is not available to the Coalition.
This time, any cuts will be inflicted on departments or on the welfare state.
For the first time yesterday, the Chancellor said explicitly that benefits, tax credits and public sector pensions would be under scrutiny in the autumn spending review. But has the rather depressing message sunk in? Look out of your window and ask yourself whether this is a country aware that it is about to inflict an unprecedented blow to its own standard of living.
A little bit more nasty talk may yet be in order.