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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.