Crisis – what crisis? This crisis: A National Debt standing at more than 200% of Gross Domestic Product; a Tory Government of wealthy individuals in thrall to the City of London, more concerned with the defence of property than rising poverty, instigating ever-more punitive punishments to curb civil liberties, interfering with the process of the law and suspending Habeas Corpus; a weak and divided Opposition.
This was the state of affairs exactly two-hundred years ago, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Yes, wars cost money; and that particular long-running conflict was expensive not merely in terms of the high price paid by human lives. Compare the post-Waterloo financial crisis to the present day one: at the end of the last calendar year, Britain’s National Debt stood at 75.7% of GDP. Still a long way to go to match 1815, but the current Debt is being added to on average by about £2 billion a week. The National Debt is increasing courtesy of the government budget deficit, but the two are not one and the same; however, if politicians occasionally confuse the two (including our Dave), then it’s no wonder the layman does likewise. And, not being an economist or even especially good at maths, I’d count myself as a layman.
But, fear not, you haven’t wandered on to the FT website; I confess to losing concentration within a matter of seconds when confronted by the markets. The only markets I’ve ever been familiar with are ones containing stalls run by men who look like Bachman Turner Overdrive roadies asking me ‘Ave ye got any copies of Fangoria?’ when offloading old magazines onto them for a couple of quid. If I hear of Euro Lottery winners scooping £28 million, the numbers are rendered meaningless. Would those lucky bastards really notice if they received £18 million instead? Would the loss of £10 million from their bank account make much difference to their plans for ‘helping out the grandchildren’? Once amounts of money bypass the paltry limits I’m accustomed to, I tend to get lost. If I were in their shoes, I’d probably go the way poor old Viv Nicholson went when she won the pools in the 60s and famously proceeded to spend, spend, spend; it’s bound to send you a little round the twist when facing such an inconceivable increase to your ready cash. So, when I hear the National Debt stands around £1.56 trillion, it may as well be £1.56 zillion. All I know for sure is that we’re talking quite a lot of money. Perhaps if it were laid out before me in nice, neatly stacked notes I’d have a clearer idea.
The Coalition Government has spent the past five years telling us the coffers installed by their predecessors were manufactured by Old Mother Hubbard; endless references to the infamous note left behind by the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne (despite echoing similar sentiments expressed by Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling to his Labour successor Jim Callaghan in 1964) have supported the blame game; and half-a-decade of austerity cuts we were told were necessary because of the deficit haven’t enabled the government to meet its targets. Miraculously, however, there is suddenly a surplus of money that will fund the manifesto promises, such as £8 billion for the NHS promised by the Tories. Where the hell did that come from? Andrew Marr attempted to ask George Osborne where it came from last weekend – eighteen times in one interview (beat that, Paxman!); and he still didn’t receive an adequate answer.
Mind you, a government eager to keep the keys to their sumptuous official residences will invariably promise the earth in order to achieve their aim. Opposition parties will do likewise to get their hands on those keys; and we’re currently in the middle of a bidding war in which money is seemingly no objective. It feels as those desperate to govern us are no better than compulsive gamblers prepared to put the family silver on the 3.30 at Kempton Park or ITV desperately pouring their resources into tired old game-show formats under a ‘Super Saturday’ banner in the hope that they can hoodwink the viewers into tuning in every week. Those more knowledgeable than me have emphasised the sums don’t add up, and I can’t quite decide if it’s comforting or worrying that some of the people making these promises appear to be as bad at maths as I am.
It must be acknowledged that Gideon isn’t alone when struggling to provide answers to perfectly reasonable questions, though; even before the election campaign got officially underway, Green leader Natalie Bennett coughed her way through a notorious Nick Ferrari radio interview in which she couldn’t explain how her party would fund the building of 500,000 new homes. Politicians long ago mastered the art of evading the kind of straightforward replies you or I would expect during ordinary conversation, so it’s no surprise that they recycle the same old hackneyed phrases and platitudes when placed on the spot; but their inability to convincingly explain where the money they’re offering to throw our way actually emanates from hardly makes it a great surprise that the public is responding to their promises with a cynical mistrust of what they’re hearing.
On the dependably perennial subject of the NHS, Labour have promised £2.5 billion, which they say will come from a mansion tax, a levy on tobacco firms and ‘tackling tax avoidance’; the Liberal Democrats promise the same as their Coalition partners, though in a laudable attempt to invest in mental health care they’ve gone a little bit…er…well, mental – promising £500 million; the Greens (cough) have promised (cough) £20 (cough) billion for the (cough) NHS, whereas UKIP have offered up a mere £3 billion for it, though one suspects higher taxes on fags and booze won’t figure in raising the money.
As history has shown us, the ambitious spending plans of governments can often be derailed by external circumstances that ultimately render them and their good intentions powerless. What happens in the US or Europe or the Middle East can have a domino effect on the British economy, regardless of every eventuality being taken into account when the new administration’s grand plans are implemented; luck and fate can be crucially overlooked elements of a successful political career. Ted Heath evidently wasn’t in possession of a crystal ball when the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 set a chain of both international and domestic catastrophes in motion that culminated in the curtailment of his time in office, whereas one suspects Tony Blair may have had one stashed away somewhere at No.10 when he shrewdly bailed out a year before the crash of 2008. Or maybe God told him to go.
Last week’s ‘challengers’ debate on the BBC was more entertaining than the one in which Cameron and Clegg figured, if only for the fact that two fewer participants gave the contestants more time to argue with each other. Ironically, Miliband and Farage were united in marginalisation, both playing the punch-bag at different moments of the debate. Natalie Bennett did come across as a bit of a squawking parrot, whereas Nicola Sturgeon again underlined her undoubted talent for forcefully stating her case and Leanne Wood I found to be similarly effective by utilising her gently persuasive Welsh lilt whilst sporting another impressive beehive. But at the end of it, we were none the wiser as to what roles (if any) the five would play in our collective future after May 7.
And if the nation’s piggy bank is as empty as we’ve been constantly told since 2010, whatever riches the respective manifestoes promise to conjure up does suggest the party leaders would be better off auditioning for the Magic Circle than the Cabinet.