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We have a choice to make about our fiscal future. Do we want to keep living beyond our means, or do we want to balance the books?

This isn’t just a mathematical or an economic question – it’s one which determines how politicians explain and defend their work.

Gordon Brown had a clear understanding of what he wanted to do. As a believe in high spending, he matched his rhetoric to his actions. At every budget he would measure his success by how much he was spending, reeling off a screed of statistics like Stalin boasting of improved tractor production.

In Brown’s world, if the cost of a service rose that was evidence that it had improved. He even hijacked the word “investment” to make it synonymous with “expenditure”.

It was a crazy way to govern. In any other walk of life, the quality of something is not simply measured by its cost – otherwise ripoffs would be a good thing. We will still be paying the price for such stupidity many years from now.

The Coalition has made a start on addressing the symptoms of that damaging approach by reducing the deficit, but there are troubling signs that ministers are yet to fully appreciate what is needed to do the job properly.

Take the debate on floods, for example. It’s obvious that the Environment Agency’s decision to abandon dredging was a dreadful error. But rather than accept the wrong policy was in place, or ask whether an unaccountable quango is the right home for such important powers, the Government has instead got itself into an argument about money.

Their rebuttal to criticism from the Opposition and from people affected in Somerset has been to say that they are spending more money on flood prevention than Labour did.

For a start, it isn’t really true once you take inflation into account, but that’s by the by.

The more worrying aspect is that they have resorted to this discredited Brownian logic: we must be doing the right thing, see, because we’re spending lots. Millions of gallons of water inundating Somerset rather disprove that point, and the argument is insulting to those who are cut off or evacuating their homes.

Just as serious is the harm this does to the principle of austerity.

To balance the books, we must demolish the idea that expensive = good. It is challenging enough to persuade the electorate that it really is possible to do more with less, without ministers rushing to spout old fallacies as soon as they come under fire.

39 comments for: When will ministers get it? It’s not how much you spend, it’s what you do with it that counts

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