Clegg is wrong: these cuts will be much worse than Thatcher’s

Spending actually rose during Thatcher's premiership.

"There will need to be cuts, cuts that are savage and bold."

Nick Clegg, 19 September 2009

"We're going to do this differently. We're not going to do it the way we did in the 80s."

Nick Clegg, 6 June 2010

Before the election, Nick Clegg made much of his willingness to implement "savage and bold" spending cuts. In an interview with the Spectator, he pledged to reduce the Budget deficit through cuts alone, a position that put him to the right of David Cameron.

Now, with George Osborne's emergency Budget just weeks away, Clegg reassures us that there will be no repeat of the savage cuts of the 1980s, no return to "sink-or-swim economics". But the truth is that the cuts the coalition is planning will be much worse than anything we saw under Margaret Thatcher.

Many on the left, apparently including Clegg, are unaware that, despite her neoliberal ideology, spending actually rose during Thatcher's premiership. While education and health were neglected, spending on defence, law and order and welfare payments (thanks to mass unemployment) continued to grow. Overall, public spending under Thatcher -- from 1978-79 to 1989-90 -- rose by 1.1 per cent a year on average.

And as this IFS chart shows, spending fell in real terms in two years only: 1985-86 and 1988-89.

thatchermajorblairspending

The same body has forecast that the coalition will have to cut non-ring-fenced Budgets by at least 25 per cent to meet its deficit targets. Clegg's platitudes do nothing to prepare voters for the tightest spending squeeze since the Second World War.

The Lib Dem leader may attempt to redistribute wealth through the tax system, but it remains the case that it is those most reliant on the state -- the poor, the young, the elderly -- who will be hardest hit by the cuts.

But on one point he is right: it's not going to be like the 1980s. It's going to be much worse.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.