Til debt us do part

An interview with Stewart Lee.

What do Meat Loaf, Walt Disney, Oscar Wilde and Burt Reynolds have in common? Yes, they achieved success in their chosen fields but that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Give up? They have all been declared insolvent. I should surely take some comfort in being member of a club that has such established and varied members.

I’ve recently finished putting together a radio series about debt. It is the culmination of an Arts Council England project I have been working on that was prompted by my own attempts to understand and talk on stage about my insolvency. Over the past eight months I have been speaking to economists and academics as well as writers and performers to see what their views are on economics and debt as well as how one might talk about such subjects in an artistic way.

It turns out the latter isn’t easy. Talking about the economics of my trip into negative equity and trying to be entertaining at the same time is pretty difficult. It’s why – among many reasons - you don’t see stand-up economists. The abstractness of modern day economics pulls in the opposite direction to being interesting and fun on stage. But that’s not to say it can’t be done.

To look at how to do that I talked to some of the most successful performers, academics and writers who engage with politics and some aspect of economics in their work.

In a recent attempt to do this I spoke to the comedian Stewart Lee about how he approaches political material in his act as well as what he thinks about the cuts to arts funding announced in 2011 and, amongst other things, the current trend to put an economic price on art.

You can listen to the show, originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, below:

Sean Gittins is a stand-up comedian, writer and broadcaster. You can find out more about his Arts Council England project Til Debt Do Us Part and his other work at and @sean_gittins.

Stewart Lee, centre, at the 2012 British Academy Television Awards (Photograph: Getty Images)
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.