“There will need to be cuts, cuts that are savage and bold.”
Nick Clegg, 19 September 2009
“We’re going to do this differently. We’re not going to do it the way we did in the 80s.”
Nick Clegg, 6 June 2010
Before the election, Nick Clegg made much of his willingness to implement “savage and bold” spending cuts. In an interview with the Spectator, he pledged to reduce the Budget deficit through cuts alone, a position that put him to the right of David Cameron.
Now, with George Osborne’s emergency Budget just weeks away, Clegg reassures us that there will be no repeat of the savage cuts of the 1980s, no return to “sink-or-swim economics”. But the truth is that the cuts the coalition is planning will be much worse than anything we saw under Margaret Thatcher.
Many on the left, apparently including Clegg, are unaware that, despite her neoliberal ideology, spending actually rose during Thatcher’s premiership. While education and health were neglected, spending on defence, law and order and welfare payments (thanks to mass unemployment) continued to grow. Overall, public spending under Thatcher — from 1978-79 to 1989-90 — rose by 1.1 per cent a year on average.
And as this IFS chart shows, spending fell in real terms in two years only: 1985-86 and 1988-89.
The same body has forecast that the coalition will have to cut non-ring-fenced Budgets by at least 25 per cent to meet its deficit targets. Clegg’s platitudes do nothing to prepare voters for the tightest spending squeeze since the Second World War.
The Lib Dem leader may attempt to redistribute wealth through the tax system, but it remains the case that it is those most reliant on the state — the poor, the young, the elderly — who will be hardest hit by the cuts.
But on one point he is right: it’s not going to be like the 1980s. It’s going to be much worse.