Tory minister: Thatcher only “dreamt of” our cuts

Conservative minister Greg Baker admits: “We are making cuts that Thatcher could only have dreamt of

Finally, a member of the government has admitted what David Cameron and George Osborne will not: that the cuts are worse than anything we saw under Margaret Thatcher. Speaking away from home at an event at the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina, the climate change minister Greg Barker said:

We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of.

An examination of the data on the subject proves that he is right. As I have repeatedly pointed out, it is a myth to claim that spending was cut under Thatcher. Total public spending rose by 1.1 per cent a year on average and fell in real terms in two years only: 1985-86 and 1988-89.

By contrast, the coalition plans to reduce overall public spending by 3.7 per cent by 2014-2015, an average cut of 0.9 per cent a year. If that figure seems small to you, it's because the government will have to spend more on welfare benefits and debt interest.

But the graph below, which excludes non-discretionary spending, shows that the coalition is planning, in the words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, "the longest, and deepest sustained, period of cuts to public spending since (at least) WWII". In total, departmental spending will be cut by 11.7 per cent.

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It's for this reason that it was so foolish for Nick Clegg to claim that the coalition would avoid the "savage cuts" of the 1980s. Unlike the Deputy PM, Barker has done his homework.

PS: The local US paper the Daily Gamecock claims that Barker said his colleagues "plan to cut spending by 75 per cent". It's entirely unclear what this figure refers to and, as the newspaper doesn't quote Barker directly, I'd give it a wide berth.

UPDATE: Mehdi rightly points out that Labour shouldn't get too excited. Their cuts would have been worse than Thatcher's as well.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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