Understandably, most of the headlines about David Cameron’s new book have been dominated by other angles – be it his views on the EU referendum, on Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or, thanks to the Guardian, the question of whether ‘privilege’ dulls the pain of loss – but it strikes me that when the current news agenda has subsided, some of the most lasting elements of the book are likely to be his reflections on public spending and austerity.
Here’s the crucial passage (with my emphasis):
‘Looking back over our first few months at the helm of Britain’s economy in 2010, what do I think? Did we cut too much?
My assessment now is that we probably didn’t cut enough. We could have done more, even more quickly, as smaller countries like Ireland had done successfully, to get Britain back in the black and then get the economy moving.
Those who were opposed to austerity were going to be opposed — and pretty hysterically — to whatever we did. Given all the hype and hostility, and yes, sometimes hatred, we might as well have ripped the plaster off with more cuts early on. We were taking the flak for them anyway. We should have taken advantage of the window of public support for cuts when it was open.’
It’s 2019, so the immediate reaction from various people has been to fire up the Outrage Bus about the very idea, which incidentally rather demonstrates his point about hysterical opposition regardless of the facts of an argument.
But ignore the ranters and consider the implications of Cameron’s conclusion. This was a live and controversial debate throughout his time as Leader of the Opposition, and well into the Coalition years. As Campaign Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance between 2007 and 2010 I saw some of it first-hand.
Remember that despite the retrospective demonisation he has since been subjected to, Cameron was never desperate to reduce public spending. He didn’t see it as inherently wise or responsible to balance the books – or, at least, not sufficiently so to make it a priority.
In his 2019 account of events he writes that:
‘It doesn’t require a degree in economics to appreciate that if you keep spending faster than the economy grows, and faster than tax revenue grows, eventually you will be in trouble. Which Britain had been doing…’
but back in the first few years of his leadership he did not seem to appreciate this truth.
In 2007, George Osborne committed the Conservatives to matching Labour’s spending plans, whatever they might be, in Government. That could never have happened without Cameron’s consent, and the thinking was quite clear: they saw fiscal discipline as a reputational risk, and were keen to square it away by reusing the tactic Blair used a decade earlier to square away concerns about Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility. To reiterated: they felt that pledging to mimic Gordon Brown’s approach to fiscal policy was safer electorally than espousing the more traditional conservative view that Cameron now says was obvious.
If you doubt that, consider that it took until the second half of November 2008 before the Conservative leadership was finally willing to abandon that pledge. Then, Cameron argued that
‘The world has moved on. People are not fools… after 11 years of waste and broken promises from Labour, [voters] can see that spending more and more alone does not guarantee that things get better.’
What had ‘moved on’ most fundamentally was the start of the financial crisis, of course. By the time Cameron and Osborne changed policy, banks had started collapsing, the economy had been shrinking for months, and the crisis was well underway. Just as they had ignored the urgings of fiscal conservatives before pledging to match Labour’s spending plans, so they had resisted the growing pressure to abandon the pledge. They did so in the end, but it took months before the inherent truth of a conservative position became obvious to the point of being irresistible.
After that battle came a new disagreement about the scale and pace of fiscal restraint if and when the Conservatives got into power. Given the context above, it isn’t hard to imagine that there was still heavy reluctance to be radical in the scale or the pace of spending reductions. And yet there was a strong case to do so – in September 2009 the Institute of Directors and the TaxPayers’ Alliance produced a report proposing savings of £50 billion and explicitly arguing that the UK ought to follow the example of Canada in achieving a ‘rapid and durable fiscal consolidation’.
The political argument was precisely that which Cameron now espouses: that it is harder to go slow than to go quickly on such measures. Just as the original spending policy appeared to assume that voters and conditions would not change between 1997 and 2010, Cameron’s recognition in 2008 that ‘the world has moved on’ seemed to neglect the possibility that people might start to change their minds yet again once an austerity programme had been underway for some years.
He is correct now that there was a ‘window of public support for cuts’ that was not inevitably going to stay open forever. But there were voices telling him this at the time; they just weren’t listened to. It reflects well on him that he is willing and able to recognise – on this topic, at least – that error. (It’s notable, by the way, that George Osborne does not seem to have done so.)
The change in the former Prime Minister’s opinion has consequences today, beyond some people now having the right to say ‘I told you so’.
For a start, it’s a simple reminder that fundamental fiscal conservative principles exist for a reason, and are wise to follow. Imagine the political impact had Cameron already been arguing before the financial crisis that Brown was living beyond his means, rather than promising to do the same.
More specifically, it’s a lesson in the practical politics of doing what voters often call on the Conservatives to do: take the tough decisions after Labour mess things up. Such permission is powerful, but it can also be temporary. Fail to recognise that there is a ticking clock, and you risk failing to deliver on the mission you have been given.
Finally, it throws into relief the fact that there currently isn’t much discussion of fiscal policy in any direction on the centre right. What is the current fiscal policy, and what are the alternatives? Stian Westlake and Sam Bowman’s recent pamphlet on ‘Reviving Economic Thinking on the Right‘ is a rare example of people engaging in the necessary thought and debate which is required to answer those questions, but more should follow their lead and get stuck in. That’s the best way to avoid repeating the errors of a decade ago.