More claptrap on “cuts”

This time from the Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

I blogged earlier about how disappointed I was to listen to Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- someone I like and admire -- heap praise on David Cameron.

I also like Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary and former Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, and have long regarded him as one of the brightest and ablest politicians in Westminster. He is a former economist who worked for the Fitch Ratings agency and as business editor for the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. He is also a former member of the Labour Party.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was to see him join the coalition cabinet in May and then appear on BBC1's Question Time last night to defend the Con-Dem coalition's growing number of spending cuts.

The Lib Dems, remember, spent the election campaign opposing the Tories' plans for early spending cuts, which Vince Cable described in April as a "smokescreen for job cuts".

Huhne's fellow panellists were quick to pounce on his party's abrupt and embarrassing fiscal U-turn. "You are providing the sheep's clothing for a very rapacious government that is going to cut spending," said the Labour peer Helena Kennedy, to audience applause.

Depressingly, however, Huhne chose to rehearse Tory talking points, claiming:

You cannot spend public money you don't have.

Um. Er. Yes you can. It's called borrowing. It's what governments have always done in crises. As the FT's Samuel Brittan wrote last year:

Of one thing I am sure. If we had the misfortune to engage in a major war, we would have far higher deficits and debts than anything now in prospect and few except some pacifists would worry. The Second World War was financed in the UK with a 0.5 per cent bank rate. Why should it be more alarming for governments to get into debt to put people into useful work satisfying human needs than to borrow for guns and tanks whose only aim is to kill other human beings?

Huhne even pushed the Greece analogy -- an analogy so ludicrous and discredited that even David Cameron has backtracked on deploying it.

But not Huhne:

If we go on like that, we'll end up like Greece.

As his fellow panellist and former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain responded, in perhaps the best line of the night:

No serious economic commentator, and you used to be one before you got into government, believes our economy is anything like Greece.

Hain is right. For a detailed and incisive critique of the "UK is like Greece" non-argument, check out this Comment Is Free piece from the new Labour MP (and former Bank of England economist) Rachel Reeves, who writes:

The UK has less debt than Greece, has a stronger economy and as a result is not regarded by financial markets in the way Greece is. With the right economic policies, Britain's economy could grow strongly in the next few years. We are different from Greece in three key areas: the sustainability of our fiscal position, our policy flexibility and the origins of the debt crisis.

UPDATE: Chris Huhne used to be, as Helena Kennedy pointed out last night, an admirer of Keynes and Keynesian economics. He should, therefore, remember how Keynes described the deficit hawks of his own era:

Every person in this country of super-asinine propensities, everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every form of economic activity, we can all become prosperous again.

(Via Robert Skidelsy in yesterday's FT)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood