Leader: George Osborne may end up inheriting the wind

By refusing to contemplate any major changes to fiscal policy, Mr Osborne hopes to make a political virtue of his obstinacy.

According to George Osborne’s original plan, the £11.5bn of cuts he announced in the Spending Review on Wednesday 26 June should not have been necessary. When he published his deficitreduction programme in 2010, the Chancellor assured voters that austerity would not stretch beyond 2015. “We have already asked the British people for what is needed,” he declared in the 2011 Budget, “and we do not need to ask for more.” However, because of the near absence of growth since the election that resulted in the creation of a coalition government, the axeman is still swinging his blade. Mr Osborne is expected not to meet his chosen target of eliminating the so-called structural deficit until 2018. It is likely that Britain will experience a full decade of austerity before relief is in sight.

The results of Mr Osborne’s strategy were both predictable and predicted. As early as October 2009, when he was being lauded by much of the British press as the country’s potential economic saviour, the New Statesman warned that “the only economic plan he seems to have is for attempting to balance the books. He does not have a plan for growth. He has a plan for a lack of growth.” But Mr Osborne caricatured his opponents as “deficit deniers” and dismissed calls for a “plan B”, led by our economics editor, David Blanchflower, as Keynesian dogma. Despite the return of growth, the economy remains 2.6 percentage points below its pre-recession peak; this is the slowest recovery since the 1870s.

The Chancellor’s decision to hold the review nearly two years before the end of the current spending period had more to do with politics than economics. By announcing spending limits for the first year after the next election, the Conservatives’ chief political strategist sought to draw the battle lines in his party’s favour. He knew that if Labour accepted his plans it would be accused of ideological surrender and that if it rejected them it would be accused of fiscal recklessness.

As apprentices of Gordon Brown, who similarly used the baseline as a weapon of political war, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were well prepared for this trap. Their response was to accept Mr Osborne’s current spending limits, while leaving open the possibility of greater capital investment. For political and economic reasons, it was the right decision. While the public remains sceptical of the Keynesian case for higher borrowing, polls show that it recognises the benefits of investing in areas such as housebuilding that boost output in the short and long run, generate employment and aid deficit reduction. Because of its independent monetary policy and above-average debt maturity, Britain can afford to borrow for growth without fear of a dangerous rise in bond yields. The risks of inaction, in the forms of permanently lower growth and higher unemployment, far outweigh the risks of action.

In his NSessay in March, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, urged Mr Osborne to borrow to invest, rightly noting that this would not “undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit” (a measure that excludes capital spending) and could even assist it “by reviving growth”. The Chancellor’s response fell far short of what was required. By choosing to fund capital spending increases through cuts elsewhere, rather than borrowing, and by delaying the greater part of the investment until after 2015, he has denied the economy the stimulus it desperately needs.

For political purposes, the Chancellor has postponed most of the remaining cuts until after the next general election. Based on current projections, according to the Resolution Foundation, £26bn of further reductions will be needed between 2016 and 2018 to eliminate the structural deficit, a figure that would require the next government to accelerate the cuts by nearly 50 per cent. Should the current ring fences around Health, International Development and Education remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by 2018, with a 55 per cent cut to Communities and Local Government and a 64 per cent cut to the Foreign Office, as well as a 46 per cent cut to the Home Office and a 38 per cent cut to Defence. Alternatively, the present pace of cuts could be maintained but only through an additional £10bn of welfare cuts or tax rises.

At the last election, the Conservatives and Labour engaged in a mutual conspiracy of silence. David Cameron told voters that he had “no plans” to raise VAT, that he “wouldn’t means-test” child benefit and that he would send away any cabinet minister who proposed “front-line reductions” to services. While pledging to halve the deficit over four years, Gordon Brown could rarely bring himself even to mention the word “cuts”.

If the next government is to win the legitimacy required to justify further sacrifices, this grand deception must not be repeated. The Labour Party should not avoid making the case for a significant increase in taxes on static assets, such as property and land, and on environmental “bads”, to help create a more resilient tax base. A crackdown on tax avoidance by corporations and individuals is essential.

By refusing to contemplate any major changes to fiscal policy, Mr Osborne hopes to make a political virtue of his obstinacy.His message of fiscal discipline may well prove enough to carry the Conservatives to a narrow victory – but he may end up inheriting the wind.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt