Is Trident New Labour’s shibboleth?

Fear of a return to the 1980s has prevented an open debate on nuclear weapons.

On 25 September, the next leader of the Labour Party will be announced. This is the person Labour believes should hold the keys to Britain's nuclear arsenal.

Yet, despite one of the longest leadership campaigns in memory, there has been no detailed debate about the role and scale of Trident, Britain's continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

The clearest positions have been adopted by Diane Abbott, who supports unilateral nuclear disarmament, and David Miliband, who argues that a full renewal of Trident is the only minimal deterrent option Britain has.

To many Labour observers, David Miliband's views represent the head and Abbott's the heart of their party's attitude to nuclear deterrence -- that Britain gets behind Trident or gets out of the nuclear game.

This is a missed opportunity, as a growing number of military experts are voicing scepticism about the current cost and strategic benefit of a defence system designed for the cold war era.

In July, the leading military think tank Rusi published the excellent report Continuous at Sea Deterrence: Costs and Alternatives (PDF). Written by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, one of Britain's foremost nuclear experts, the report lays out four clear options short of full renewal.

According to Chalmers, simply delaying the decision to renew fully for another five years could save as much as £5bn over the next decade. This at a time of severe government debt. Other options considered, such as reducing the number of submarines, could make even more savings while maintaining an appropriate deterrent.

In response to claims that anything less than the immediate renewal of Trident endangers Britain's ability to retaliate to a nuclear attack, Chalmers says it is a matter of "balancing the risk".

He makes the case that Britain's nuclear response is at present maintained in anticipation of a massive surprise attack, which could destroy that response outright. By contrast, the rest of Britain's armed forces are designed on the assumption that the UK would have a long warning period of threat to its homeland. This has allowed conventional forces to be designed primarily to fight expeditionary wars abroad.

Chalmers argues that if a cold-war-type threat to the UK re-emerged in the next 20 or 30 years, then Britain could re-equip as that threat began to loom on the horizon.

The failure to discuss the full range of options on Trident renewal properly suggests Labour leadership candidates are still defined by the battles of the 1980s. Eric Joyce MP, a former PPS to the defence secretary, has observed that Labour's "strict nuclear line" comes from the perception that advocating unilateral disarmament was a key failing in Labour's 1983 manifesto -- nicknamed the "longest suicide note in history".

Since then, Britain's nuclear deterrent has become a shibboleth for those in the party to define themselves against.

But it is easy to overemphasise the importance of this policy to Labour's wilderness years. Given issues such as the Falklands victory, the split that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party and the miners' strikes, the role of nuclear disarmament in losing Labour elections was perhaps more emblematic than critical. When the policy was dropped after the 1987 defeat, Labour appeared no more electable for it in 1992.

It is also important to remember that Labour in the 1980s was not simply made up of a unilateral disarmament left and a pro-nuclear right. A third way was followed by a group of more than 60 Labour MPs who supported the European Nuclear Disarmament Campaign (END).

While END never captured the public consciousness in the manner of CND, it successfully built a broad coalition of unions, politicians and civil society groups across the continent in favour of a European nuclear-free zone "from Poland to Portugal" (PDF). The main focus was to rid Europe of short-range "battlefield" or tactical nuclear weapons, which were seen as increasing the chances of a nuclear exchange.

This was a multilateralist, pragmatic disarmament movement, mainly supported by left-leaning Labour MPs, such as Robin Cook. It could claim a tangible success in putting pressure on the superpowers for the eventual withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons by the end of the 1980s from Europe.

Such a third way is missing from the debate, which is still split between backing a maximal deterrent or unilateral disarmament. There is an opportunity for Labour's next leader to support a cost-effective, credible nuclear weapons system, built to protect against the threats of today, not the ghosts of the past.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor for Brixton Hill, Lambeth

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?