Why Britain is not Portugal

George Osborne is wrong to argue that Portugal’s woes make the case for his spending cuts.

Demonstrating once again that he is much better at politics than he is at economics, George Osborne has cited Portugal's request for an EU bailout as further evidence that those opposed to his excessive spending cuts are playing "Russian roulette" with Britain's national sovereignty.

"Today, of all days, we can see the risks that would face Britain if we were not dealing with our debts and paying off our national credit card. These risks are not imaginary," he said.

What the Chancellor refuses to acknowledge is that Britain, unlike Portugal, Greece and Ireland, can afford to meet its debts over a sustained period of time (even under his plans, debt will be 68.8 per cent of GDP in 2014-2015). As Duncan Weldon points out, the average maturity of UK government debt is currently around 14 years, while Portugal's is 6.8.

Indeed, the Barclays Capital Fiscal Vulnerability Index (see Table 3.1 of the IFS Green Budget), ranks the UK first for public debt duration and as joint first on the percentage of borrowing that is in domestic currency (leaving it less exposed to the foreign bond markets).

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Britain's large structural deficit means that its overall rating is worse, but even then we're ranked 32nd, next to Japan (31st) and the United States (30th), and above India (35), France (39), Poland (40), Spain (42) and Italy (51). What's more, Osborne's premature cuts and the resultant collapse in economic growth have prompted the Office for Budget Responsibility to revise its borrowing forecasts up by £44.5bn. The Chancellor may claim that Labour lacks a "credible deficit reduction plan" but, without growth, so does he.

There is, however, one big similarity between Portugal and the UK. They were both among just five EU countries to suffer negative growth in the final quarter of 2010 (the others were Greece, Ireland and Denmark).

This week's economic survey by the British Chambers of Commerce suggests that the situation may be even worse than thought. According to the BCC, the economy may have grown by just 0.1-0.2 per cent in the six months to March.

Osborne's fixation on deficit reduction, rather than growth, means that he deserves neither and will lose both.

UPDATE: The excellent Will Straw points out that the OECD's new report includes even more evidence that Britain is not Portugal.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland