As the Budget looms, Labour’s slogan that reductions in public spending go ‘too far, too fast’ has regrettably developed resonance. Not simply because it has been repeated ad nauseam – though the discipline with which it has been should also act as a salutary reminder to the Coalition.
The reason this soundbite strikes a chord is because it seems plausible. Whether Conservatives like it or not there is in truth an alternative to the immediate cutbacks in public expenditure (after all if there were not, it would have been impossible for the Coalition to perform the u-turns it has over controversial items earmarked for savings such as forestry, school books and sports). The Treasury’s colossal borrowing over recent years probably means that the odd additional £5 billion or so in annual public spending really is neither here nor there. The benefit derived by the Coalition government from its deficit-reduction strategy from the international capital markets has been hard-fought, richly deserved, but in truth relatively marginal.
Unlike the Irish and Greek governments (whose strict spending programmes for years to come have been drawn up under the watchful eye of the IMF and EU) here in the UK we have had and continue to have some choice over these matters. It would, in the short term, be possible to revert to the last government’s policy of delaying the day of financial reckoning. But it would come at the expense of the next generation.
As a result it is essential that Conservatives make the unashamedly moral case for an urgent restoration of stability to the public finances. It simply cannot be justifiable to saddle future generations of taxpayers with the debt created by over-consumption by those of us who have been British electors and beneficiaries of public spending in recent decades.
This intergenerational conflict will very shortly become the clear dividing line in Western politics. When I left university almost a quarter of a century ago I was convinced that the UK was a place of infinite possibilities. I set up my first business as an undergraduate, got myself professionally qualified, sold that business, set up a second enterprise – all by the age of 29 and here in the UK. Today even our most talented young Britons graduate with substantial debt and poorer employment prospects in a higher tax, less competitive domestic economy as they start to help paying off our nation’s terrifying collective borrowing.
Essentially the unpalatable truth to today’s most talented young Britons is that in return for British citizenship they are being offered only the prospect of meeting the cost of clearing up my generation’s debts.
Unless we contrive to present the brightest and best that our nation produces a more attractive financial proposition we should not be surprised if they leave these shores. Their highly globally mobile skills make it all the more crucial that we convince them that this nation offers the opportunities and limitless potential that I took for granted in the late 1980s.
We should not flinch from making the case that there is an alternative to an urgent deficit reduction – but taking that choice is a path that does not bear contemplation.
The coalition faces one other rhetorical hurdle. Soon it will face deep unpopularity as spending cuts begin to bite – yet simultaneously it lacks any explicit electoral mandate for its actions. In contrast to the increasingly stark economic pain being felt by millions of Britons ‘in the real world,’ the coalition may come to be seen by many as appearing a little too comfortable. The risk in preaching to the public that everything government is doing is firmly ‘in the national interest’ is that voters may feel progressively cheated that they no longer have a say in these matters. As a corollary, they may even begin to suspect that ‘in the national interest’ is little more than a device to close off any reasonable debate about the real choices we collectively face.
While the notion of consensus has hitherto been regarded positively by a general public tired of politicians’ synthetic dividing lines, it might easily come to be despised either as a conspiracy against the expression of choice by the voters or as a convenient mechanism for the jettisoning of manifesto commitments. That sense of democratic illegitimacy when compounded by a Labour narrative of Coalition economic recklessness could prove compelling.
The economy faces rocky waters ahead. We should not underestimate the power of rhetoric in keeping a disorientated public on board. Warning them repeatedly that there is no alternative to the course we have chosen will not be enough – indeed it may be seen not only as increasingly implausible, but as little more than a conspiracy against the electorate by the governing class. Instead, we require a convincing moral purpose as the backdrop to our actions.
Even in a coalition, politics remains fundamentally about choices. Conservatives make those choices not because they are unavoidable but because we believe them to be right.