Campaigners arguing for action on tax avoidance yesterday. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

The scariest bit of the budget — the one graph you need to know

Today's headlines hide the most important, and least reassuring, fact in yesterday’s Budget.

Read this piece on our election site, May2015.com.

“Sun shines on savers”, “UK booming…Jobs at record high”, “The comeback king”, “End of tax on savings”. The four papers likely to back the Tories in May – the Mail, the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph – have delivered their verdict on the Budget, and they paint a pleasant picture.

But the headlines hide the most important, and least reassuring, fact in yesterday’s Budget: to eliminate the deficit, Osborne is going to cut spending more severely in the next two years than the coalition has in any year so far.

Here’s the key graph. It’s as trustworthy as they come. It was made by the Office for Budget Responsibility – an independent body that exists to analyse the public finances.

The Tories are planning to cut spending by 5.1 per cent in 2016-17 and 4.6 per cent in 2017-18. That’s greater than in any year since austerity began in 2010, and nearly twice as much as the average cut over the past five years (2.8 per cent).

The cuts scheduled for next year are more than four times greater than the cuts Britain is facing over the next twelve months.

Next year's cuts will be four times greater than those Britain is facing this year.

After two years of deep cuts (2016-17 and 2017-18), Osborne plans to return to this year’s more moderate levels of austerity in 2018-19, before increasing spending dramatically in 2019-20 (by 4.3 per cent). [1]

This is purely political. By cutting spending sharply at first, Osborne can deliver a final dose of medicine and then suddenly start spending just before the 2020 election.

There is no economic basis for this. As the FT put it, an “ever more annoyed” Robert Chote, chair of the OBR, tersely described Osborne’s plan as a “rollercoaster”. The Times, in contrast to their front-page, concurred, with a double page spread on how “Experts warn of a rollercoaster ride in row over public spending”.


FullSizeRender (1)

Instead of this “bonkers” approach (the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour), Osborne could balance the cuts across all four years. The austerity in each year would be lower than the average over the past five years, and far more manageable for the services set to be slashed.

Government spending isn’t abstract. Osborne can’t just take a few pennies of one year, add them back in the next, and easily replace the services he’s crippled.

[1] These figures are on p.129 of the report.

Explore May2015.com.

May2015 is the New Statesman's new elections site. Explore it for data, interviews and ideas on the general election.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia