Dividing Lines: The economy

Continuing his series on the major policy divisions in politics, Rafael Behr tackles the economy.

What’s the issue?
This is the big one. When the coalition was formed it claimed its governing purpose was to rescue Britain from an economic emergency. The remedy devised by George Osborne was an immediate course of spending cuts to reduce the Budget deficit and limit the rise in public debt as a proportion of gross domestic product. The theory was that a shock-and-awe display of fiscal discipline would reassure international investors that Britain was a “safe haven” from global turbulence. Cutting the public sector is also meant to release growth potential in the private sector, which was thought to have been “crowded out” by state expansion under Labour.

Is it working?
No. The economy didn’t grow at all last year. It is 3.3 per cent smaller than at its boom-time peak. Osborne is on course to fail his self-imposed tests of credibility – eliminating the “structural” deficit (the part of government overspend that doesn’t vanish automatically when the economy is operating at full capacity) and reducing public debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament.

What went wrong?
The government says its inheritance from Labour was worse than previously thought and that the eurozone crisis has blown recovery off course. Labour says the rush to austerity has drained demand out of the economy; when companies and households were too indebted or too frightened to spend, the government should have stepped in to stimulate activity – hitting the gas instead of slamming on the brakes.

So, Labour would turn on the money taps again?
Economically, that is the logic of Ed Balls’s position but politically he is in a bind. Lots of people are persuaded that an underlying cause of the crisis was “Gordon Brown spending all the money”. Whenever Balls attempts to make his macroeconomic argument, he ends up trying to rehabilitate the reputation of a period in Labour’s record that even many on his own side think is better off left for dead. Besides, by the time of the next election, the public finances will be in such a woeful state that there will be no spare capacity to increase spending. The campaign will be about who cuts what and with what end in mind.

Couldn’t the government borrow to spend?
Yes. And it is quietly doing just that, because there is no growth. There is a case for saying that the low long-term interest rates available now make it a good time to borrow for investment in such things as housing and transport that would create jobs and strengthen our economic capacity.

Even Osborne has discreetly conceded the point that cuts alone won’t kick-start growth. In his Autumn Statement last year, the Chancellor said he would find £5bn for infrastructure investment, but the money has to be carved out by making cuts to other budgets. He has painted himself into a corner, insisting any dilution of austerity would be a disaster and portraying borrowing as inherently wicked. So, to be true to their own political script, the Tories have to pretend to be less reliant on borrowing than they are. It is higher now than at the last election, and rising. David Cameron recently claimed that the government is “paying down the debt” but by any measure it simply isn’t.

That’s a bit sneaky, isn’t it?
Very. The question is how long they’ll get away with it. There is a strong expectation that the credit-rating agencies will downgrade the UK this year, torpedoing Osborne’s “safe haven” claim. Balls’s problem is that he struggles to call out the Tories for relying on debt: his core macroeconomic analysis demands the same fiscal remedy. Intellectually, his position can be made coherent but it relies on a distinction between “good” Labour borrowing – premeditated to spur growth – and “bad” Tory borrowing – accidental, driven by a failed austerity plan. The difference is not immediately obvious to many voters.

Besides, no one doubts that the Tories at least want to limit public spending, while Labour risks looking like it wants to duck that challenge altogether. In order to reassure swing voters that it is a careful steward of taxpayers’ money, the opposition could end up accepting spending restraints that don’t permit the kind of stimulus that has been central to its macroeconomic prescription.

So Labour thinks we should be borrowing more but doesn’t feel comfortable admitting it, and the Tories are borrowing more but pretend they aren’t?
Pretty much. A vital difference is that many Conservatives think the government isn’t cutting budgets deeply enough. The Tory hawks think the way out of the growth impasse is on the “supply side”– cutting back on regulations and employment rights in the belief that excessive bureaucracy is stifling enterprise. Labour sees that as a sign the Tories are using the financial crisis as a pretext to pursue an old agenda of shrinking the role of government in public life. It doesn’t, Labour says, tackle the underlying problem of inadequate demand.

What do the Lib Dems think?
Their instincts are with Labour. Nick Clegg has conceded that infrastructure spending was cut too hard in the coalition’s early days. Yet within the broad outline of austerity the Lib Dems are lashed to Osborne’s mast; they sign off on his budgets.

That doesn’t sound very comfortable.
In this debate, no one is.


Rafael Behr's "Dividing Lines" series appears regularly in the New Statesman magazine.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Testing migrant children’s teeth for their age is not only immoral – it doesn’t work

Ministers have flirted with this idea for over a decade. It’s bad policy, as well as poor ethics.

This week, the Home Office finally ruled out the use of x-rays to establish the age of childhood migrants.

It’s welcome news, but this story predates the dispersal of the Calais “Jungle” camp. 

For over ten years, ministers in Conservative and Labour governments have flirted with these tests. And it’s been up to us – the practitioners who’d be expected to administer them – to pick holes in a policy that’s a great way of securing headlines, but simply cannot deliver on the claims made by its cheerleaders.

It goes without saying dentists are health professionals, not border guards. But our objections run deeper than that. And it’s worth revisiting the arguments, just in case future governments start grasping for silver bullets.

It’s ineffective

We can talk about philosophy later, but let’s start with a pretty fundamental objection: dental x-rays are simply not a reliable way of establishing age.

No two mouths are alike. I’ll add my own to that list, as I still sport two of my baby teeth.

Children and young people mature at different rates, so the level of accuracy in these tests changes with time. And these x-rays can estimate age in younger children much more accurately than in adolescents. So as children mature at different rates, the potential margin of error gets ever larger with age.

For example, the third molars, commonly known as wisdom teeth – the last permanent teeth to develop – can form any time between the ages of 16 and 23, and a small proportion of individuals never develop third molars at all (I’ll have to pop my name to that list too).

A 2010 study of 300 young people aged between 11 and 25, whose age was determined based on dental x-rays, showed this method of testing consistently over- or under-estimated age, with a two-year average difference between dental and known age.

So if you are searching for a litmus test that will tell you whether a subject is 17 or 19 years old you won’t find it here.

It’s inappropriate

A few MPs and pundits have found it hard to acknowledge the codes health practitioners sign up to, which make this test a no go.

We must always act in the best interest of our patients when providing a medical procedure. And it is beyond question that the process of radiography is a medical procedure that should be carried out only for medical purposes, and where the patient stands to benefit.

Now many people might not consider this test an invasive procedure. However, x-rays do carry a small risk of possible long-term physical impact, and current best practice in this area dictates that exposure to radiation should be kept as low as reasonably possible over a lifetime. They should be carried out sparingly and where there is a well-defined potential clinical benefit, which must always outweigh the potential clinical harm.

As taking x-rays to determine the age of an individual carries no clinical benefit, it frankly isn’t appropriate to expose a patient to the potential clinical harm it can cause.

It’s unethical

Our lawmakers cannot simply dispense with fundamentals like consent to show they are “taking action”.

It is a legal principle that before practitioners carry out any medical procedure, the recipient – or someone who can consent on their behalf – must be given a full understanding of the nature of the procedure, its significance, impact and potential consequences before signing up to it.

For the children arriving from Calais, this would be a difficult task without English as a first language. Consent may also be required from a suitable adult. Yes, these children may be unaccompanied, but it does not mean the need for valid consent and protecting the child’s best interests can simply be ignored.

The letter of the law might be inconvenient, but it is a requirement that can only be compromised where the urgency and necessity of the circumstances demand rapid action in a patient’s best interests. And even in these circumstances the validity of treatment has sometimes ended up being challenged in the courts.

Given that taking x-rays in order to determine age is not medically justifiable in the first place, the urgency justification really doesn’t come into play. And that means dental colleagues – in the absence of valid consent – could find themselves performing an act that constitutes a criminal battery.


In the past, ministers have debated whether there is a credible “public interest” case that might override these little legal or philosophical objections. But these practical and ethical concerns can’t really be separated.

But why bother constructing a case for a test that frankly isn’t much cop? Dentists can only hope the latest message from the Home Office marks the beginning of a consensus, which draws a line under a decade of wishful thinking.

Judith Husband, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Education, Ethics and the Dental Team Working Group.