Constraining our debt is not about left-wing or right-wing politics

We must avoid the potential devastation of compound interest.

The Roman Emperor Caligula knew about keeping people on his side – he would literally shower them with money, spraying specially minted coins from the first floor of the Forum onto an adoring crowd. But Caligula also knew that you shouldn’t do too much of it. It’s a lesson that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls would do well to listen to.

Balls is arguably one of the most controversial politicians at work today. Every part of his sensibilities appears to lie with increasing government expenditure, which translates into higher and higher government borrowing. The unholy truce he has negotiated with Labour party leader Ed Miliband to stick to the coalition’s post-2015 spending plan is nothing more than a tissue-thin tactic to get the pair, and the Labour Party, past the finishing line of the next General Election without spooking the markets.

Balls’ approach to spending was forged in the heat of the administration of Gordon Brown, himself no stranger to the idea that the public purse could be extended infinitely as long as the tax take was coming in – even if it was from the City of London. But when the spring tide of money went out in 2008, the abandoned shopping carts and tangled web of detritus that is our public finances were obvious for all to see, and with it the budget deficit ballooned. The total size of our national stock of debt has been trundling steadily upwards ever since and in the next couple of years its value will hit £2trn. That’s about 120 per cent of our annual national income.

But this doesn’t satisfy the shadow chancellor. Even when George Osborne announces that the deficit has not reduced as expected, Balls performs that most elegant of political pirouettes that sees him telling us that our borrowing is both shockingly large and, simultaneously, not enough. In the City the collective slapping of foreheads is audible – political rhetoric and word play doesn’t really have a place for those trying to work their way through delicately balanced financial markets that are – simultaneously – incredulous and credulous that we are where we are or that our current borrowing can be sustained.

Advocating government spending control is more than usually associated with "being right wing". But "the right wing" have lots to gain from increased government debt; company profits rise and with it the value of shares. City traders could "short" our currency and bond markets in order to make a profit as they fall.

So it’s frustrating that the debate over government spending is lazily classified as a "right versus left" clash.  In fact the main goal of the Deficit Constrainers is to stop the God of Compound Interest from taking over our public finances; when you have to start borrowing to pay your interest bill you don’t have to be a customer of Wonga.com to understand you are in trouble.

And that is where the UK is. Deficit Constrainers, by and large, want a situation that is out of control brought under control, because in their view the ultimate cost to society of an ever-increasing interest bill is greater than standing back and wilfully ignoring that it is happening. For a graphic illustration of  where this ends take a look at the images of Greece and Argentina that have flitted across our screens in recent years – societies devastated by the effects of a national debt out of control when compounding took over.

You think it can’t happen here? Think again – because it isn’t political, it’s mathematics. And this is why Ed Balls is so dangerous – he appears to treat our national finances and the debate around them as a vehicle for political power rather than the national good. From the apparent policy tensions and by Balls’ own recent Commons performances it is conceivable that he could split from the Labour Party and join a new left-leaning organization whose main agenda is expanding public expenditure leaving behind a party struggling to differentiate itself from the others. Alternatively, he could stay in the Labour Party, who are then elected in 2015 on the basis of who they aren’t, and begin a Caligulaean campaign to increase expenditure from within government. Either way, after the silly season and the post-Carney carnival has moved on and we are faced once more with our realities, the attitude of Ed Balls towards government expenditure will have much more significance for how the markets view us than we are currently allowing for.

It’s frustrating that the debate over government spending is lazily classified as a "right versus left" clash. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder