Mehdi Hasan: Borrowing is bad - unless Gideon's doing it

Not only has growth stalled and austerity failed but the Tories can't even win the economic argument.

As I watched the Chancellor deliver his Autumn Statement to MPs yesterday, I couldn't help but remember his 2010 conference speech in Birmingham and, in particular, this bit of the speech:

Imagine, if I were to stand up in the House of Commons in two weeks time and say: I'm cancelling the deficit plan.

I agree with Ed Miliband.

Let's delay the tough decisions.

Let's borrow more.

Let's go on adding to our debt.

Imagine if I said that.

Now imagine what would follow.

The market turmoil.

The flight of investors.

The dismay of business.

The loss of confidence.

The credit downgrade.

The sharp rise in real interest rates.

The extra debt interest.

The lost jobs. The cancelled investment. The businesses destroyed. The recovery halted.

The return of crippling economic instability.

Britain back on the brink.

Hmm. Yesterday, George Osborne stood up in the Commons to reluctantly reveal that he would indeed be borrowing more - an astonishing £158bn more than he had planned to in last October's Spending Review and an embarrassing £37bn more than the much-mocked Labour plan (or "Darling plan") to cut the deficit in half over the lifetime of this parliament (as outlined in the March 2010 budget).

The Opposition has put together these two tables below, based on yesterday's OBR figures:

OBR's forecasts for public sector net borrowing (£bn)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
November 2010 117 91 60 35 18
November 2011 127 120 100 79 53
Change since Nov 2010 +10 +29 +40 +44 +35






OBR's forecasts for public sector net borrowing (£ bn)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
June 2010 (pre-Emergency Budget) 127 106 85 71 n/a
November 2011 127 120 100 79 53
Change since before Emergency Budget 0 +14 +15 +8 n/a

 

Then there is the graph (number 2) put together by our friends at the Spectator which shows that public sector net debt, as a percentage of GPD, will be higher in 2014/2015 than it was forecast to have been under - yep, you guessed it! - the afore-mentioned Darling plan. ("We are sinking in a sea of debt," shrieked the Chancellor in his conference speech in 2009. Now we know that, despite his savage cuts, we'll still be "sinking" in an ever-greater "sea of debt" at the next election.)

So what I'm wondering is: why isn't "Britain back on the brink"? If the country was on the verge of defaulting on its debts and being downgraded by the credit rating agencies when borrowing was forecast to be lower and growth higher - under the Darling plan - back in 2009 and 2010, why don't the latest OBR figures - which also downgrade growth for the fourth (!) time since Osborne took over at the Treasury - presage financial and economic armageddon? Isn't this the best evidence for the claim by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, that the then shadow chancellor was guilty of "scaremongering" about borrowing and debt in an interview in the New Statesman in February 2010?

Referring to Cameron and Osborne as modern-day "Hooverites", Stiglitz said:

I say you're crazy -- economically you clearly have the capacity to pay. The debt situation has been worse in other countries at other times. This is all scaremongering, perhaps linked to politics, perhaps rigged to an economic agenda, but it's out of touch with reality.

Before the Tory trolls arrive below the line to shout about bond markets, confidence and low interest rates, I don't deny Osborne's contention that "debt interest payments over the Parliament are forecast to be £22 billion less than predicted". But I do dispute his description of Britain as a "safe haven". And I ask the deficit fetishists: if low rates are a sign of economic success and market confidence, why then did Japan enjoy such low rates in the mid-90s, during its "lost decade"? Why have borrowing costs in the United States, in the aftermath of its fiscal stimulus, the failure to sign off on spending cuts and its credit-downgrade by Standard & Poors, plummeted to historic lows?

Sticking with the subject of "confidence, the eminent economist, former Tory frontbencher and biographer of Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, writes in today's Guardian:

We come to the question of confidence. The chancellor has repeatedly claimed the deficit reduction programme was, and is, necessary to maintain investor confidence in government finances. Confidence is very important, but also mysterious: the bond markets can believe a dozen contradictory things before breakfast. The main point is that confidence cannot be separated from the economy's performance. As it stalls, the creditworthiness of governments declines as their debt increases, raising the likelihood of default.

A year ago bond traders, having forgotten what little economic theory they knew, were inclined to believe that deficit reduction would in itself generate recovery. For several months the Osbornites fed them the fantasy of "expansionary fiscal contraction", the idea that as the deficit falls the economy would expand. This story is now exploded. It's the economy that determines the size of the deficit, not the deficit that determines the size of the economy.

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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.