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George Osborne’s cunning plan: how the chancellor's austerity narrative has harmed recovery

The Tories claim austerity saved the country from disaster. But Osborne's neoliberal right economics drew on discredited theories - and ultimately scuppered growth.

© Jonathan McHugh

Over their five years in power, the Conservatives have claimed their austerity policy saved the country from disaster. This purported economic competence sits at the heart of their election campaign. It needs critical scrutiny.

The coalition government has given two main reasons why austerity – cutting the Budget deficit – was necessary. The first is that its predecessor Labour government, living “beyond its means”, left the nation with a rising mountain of public debt. The only way to restore fiscal probity was to start austerity as soon as possible.

The second reason was that commitment to austerity was the only way to reassure the bond markets that the British government would not “go the way of Greece”: that is, default on its debts. Both arguments were false but they have never been properly exposed in the media; and for various reasons Labour has not attacked them with the vigour they deserve.

In economic logic, the two reasons are independent of each other. How much a government needs to borrow should be determined by the state of the economy, not by how much debt its predecessor has left it. In a slump, a government should aim to increase its deficit, not reduce it, to compensate for the fall in private-sector spending. This will normally cause the economy to grow faster than the deficit and in turn reduce the deficit, and eventually the national debt, as a share of national income. But to understand this, you need to understand that a slump is defined by the existence of spare capacity: spare because the private sector is unwilling to create the jobs to use it. Instead of borrowing to keep people in idleness, the government should borrow to create jobs. Yet this common sense was seemingly no longer the common understanding.

Linking Labour overspending with the risk of “going the way of Greece” offered the Conservatives an alternative narrative of undoubted persuasive power. Had the Labour government not left so much debt, the Conservatives said, there would have been less need for austerity to reassure bondholders. George Osborne had to be so austere because Gordon Brown had been so profligate.

This message resonated politically. The collapse of the economy in 2008 took place on Labour’s watch. So it was easy to blame Labour for it. Labour felt unable to defend its record; so the Conservative narrative became the accepted one among the punditry. However, it is far from clear that voters bought this story at the time. Labour only narrowly lost the 2010 election; most political analysts believe that Brown’s lacklustre leadership cost the party between 20 and 30 seats. So, defending Labour’s record was not a hopeless task politically. But the Labour opposition soon gave up the attempt to do so, leaving the telling of Labour’s story to the Conservatives.

In the interests of truth, we need to ask two questions. How profligate or extravagant had Labour been? And how real was the threat of a bondholder strike?

The myth of Labour profligacy

The answer to the first question can be divided into two parts: Labour’s economic record before 2008 and its record in the post-crash years 2008 to 2010.

The Labour government had committed itself to Gordon Brown’s famous fiscal rules. In its draft election manifesto of 1996, it promised to “enforce the ‘golden rule’ of public spending – over the economic cycle, we will only borrow to invest and not to fund current expenditure”. This pledge was buttressed by the “sustainable investment rule”: over the cycle, the government would hold net public debt to below 40 per cent of GDP. Significantly, Brown’s tight spending plans of 1997-98 were set against “Conservative mismanagement of the public finances” – which only goes to show that, following a change of government, the incoming government always blames its predecessor for the fiscal mess it inherits.

A detailed, and far from uncritical, analysis of Labour’s fiscal record by Malcolm Sawyer of Leeds University, dating from 2007, found that between 1997-98 and 2005-2006 Brown, as chancellor, “nearly met” his fiscal targets. The current account deficit was close to zero over the period and the national debt stayed under 40 per cent of GDP. Sawyer put this record “close to achievement of the golden rule” partly down to good luck – surpluses generated by the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, reduction in world nominal interest rates – but partly to tricky (“creative”, in the jargon) accounting. The use of the private finance initiative (PFI) to fund the building of schools and hospitals “off budget” lowered the deficit in “real time” at the cost of raising it in the future. Had this investment programme been financed by conventional borrowing, the net debt-to-GDP ratio would have been closer to 50 per cent, rather than the recorded 33.6 per cent.

Second, the Brown Treasury kept redating the “economic cycle” (a fuzzy concept at best) to make its fiscal rules easier to meet. The main effect of this redating was to postpone the achievement of the zero balance on public investment needed to meet the sustainable investment rule. It was for these reasons that in 2005 the OECD noted that Britain’s fiscal policy “required attention”.

By 2007 the Treasury admitted that it was time to slow down the public-sector growth engine. Its Comprehensive Spending Review of February 2007 cut projected public spending from 4 per cent a year to 2.1 per cent a year over the following three years, less than the expected growth of the economy, which was itself expected to be lower than in the previous boom years. This would yield a current account surplus of 0.3 per cent and cap the national debt at 39.8 per cent by 2010-11. However, Brown’s luck finally ran out: instead of slipping gently into a new economic cycle, the economy fell into a deep hole. Economic growth did not slow down – it collapsed.

To summarise: in its first ten years Labour may have fiddled the books a bit, as all governments do, but it had certainly not created a mess. And it had built lots of hospitals and schools. The more honest charge is that New Labour overestimated the revenue flows it would go on receiving from a flaky financial services sector, whose largely unregulated expansion it had encouraged, and whose inherent instability it had ignored. But this is a judgement after the event. Most academic economists ignored the possibility of a financial crash. Nor did the Conservative opposition think the government’s finances were messed up in 2007. In September of that year, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, confirmed that he would match Brown’s spending plans and that, “under a Conservative government, there will be real increases in spending on public services, year after year”.

The mess, if that is what it was, came in the two big slump years, 2008 and 2009. Owing to the collapse of its revenues and the additional spending on social security, public-sector net borrowing shot up from 2.7 per cent to 10.2 per cent of GDP. The cost  of bailing out banks added to a national debt that ballooned from 43.6 per cent of GDP pre-crash to 76.4 per cent by 2010.

In short, the big holes in the public finances inherited by the coalition when it took office were the result not of misguided splurging, but of the sudden emergence of deep craters in the British and world economy. This is confirmed by a 2011 IMF report, which calculated that of the 37 per cent increase in UK public debt from 2007-2011, 25 per cent was due to loss of revenues, 7 per cent to support of the financial sector and only about 2 per cent to fiscal stimulus. Furthermore, it’s true that the rise in the deficit was somewhat higher than the OECD average, but this was because British governments were more dependent on revenues from the financial services sector.

The Conservative charge of Labour profligacy boils down to the claim that Labour did not start cutting spending immediately it saw its revenues falling. But Conservative spokesmen have never honestly faced up to the question: what would have happened if the government had started cutting its spending with the economy in a tailspin?

Labour did what any sane and civilised government would have done in the circumstances (and which all other governments did): continue to support the economy as best it could to limit the damage caused by the collapse in private spending.

The Greek excuse

Enter the coalition and George Osborne. The British economic collapse bottomed out at the end of 2009 and the economy started growing modestly. Then came the Greek sovereign debt crisis and the switch to austerity. Osborne made the link explicit when he declared in his “emergency” Budget of June 2010 “you can see in Greece an example of a country that didn’t face up to its problems, and that is the fate that I want to avoid”. That austerity was the only way to avoid a British sovereign debt crisis remains the official defence of austerity to this day. As the Treasury minister Paul Deighton told the House of Lords only last month, “the markets would not have allowed us to continue with the scale of deficit we had”.

But Britain was not like Greece or any other country in the eurozone. Locked into a system of nation-state debt issuers without currency-creating powers, Greece and other eurozone debtors faced a dire choice between austerity and default. But with its own currency and its own “lender of last resort” central bank to backstop its bond issues, Britain had an extra margin of freedom (secured, ironically, by the Labour government when it decided not to join the single currency) to conduct a macroeconomic policy suited to the condition of its economy. Fiscal policy was not disabled by the bond markets as in the eurozone; there was no need for “an accelerated plan” to reduce the deficit. What did happen was that Osborne’s alarmist anti-Labour rhetoric talked influential commentators who should have known better into believing that Britain was on the road to deficit-fuelled ruin.

 

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So, why did Osborne do it? Historians will debate his motives but I believe that this intensely political Chancellor saw in a manufactured crisis of confidence a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cut the size of the state. The view, long held by the neoliberal right, that state spending steals resources from the productive economy, was repackaged for the purposes of austerity as the doctrine that government spending was “crowding out” more efficient private-sector spending and therefore damaging recovery: a restatement of the Treasury view of the 1920s, which Keynes exploded with a common-sense argument – in a slump, increased government spending does not take resources from the private sector: it brings into use resources that are idle.

From his theoretical ragbag, Osborne constructed a consummate political narrative that linked folklore economics (“the government can’t spend money it hasn’t got”) to the politics of blame (“cleaning up the mess left by Labour”) to the politics of fear (“the Greek bogey”) to grand economic strategy (“reducing the deficit is a necessary condition for sustained recovery”).

There is no doubt that, aside from his basic instincts, Osborne received some very bad economic advice. “Unless we deal with debts there will be no growth,” he declared in June 2010. This echoed the briefly fashionable views of two American economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who claimed that if the ratio of public debt to GDP rose above 90 per cent, growth would go into reverse. Their headline finding was quickly discredited but Osborne said that they were the economists who most influenced him.

Another argument briefly called into use in 2010 was the theory of “expansionary fiscal consolidation”. The theory was that the boost to business confidence given by cutting welfare benefits would more than offset their contractionary effects on demand. Indeed, its main advocate, Alberto Alesina of Bocconi University in Milan, assured European finance ministers at a meeting in Madrid in April 2010 that not only would a “credible policy of fiscal consolidation” boost growth but it would do so quickly.

The failure of the “Alesina effect” to materialise in those European countries that were unwise enough to try out his remedies should have discredited austerity as a recovery policy. For nearly three years following Osborne’s 2010 deficit-cutting Budget, the British economy stagnated. The Chancellor forecast an average GDP growth of 2.7 per cent between 2011 and 2013. Actual growth in the period was 1.3 per cent. Austerity’s supporters blame the stagnation on “headwinds” – the continuing eurozone crisis, higher oil prices – but the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the watchdog that Osborne himself set up to monitor his performance, disagrees. Austerity, it says, reduced GDP growth by 1 per cent in 2010-11 and a further 1 per cent in 2011-12.

Extrapolating these OBR figures puts the cumulative cost of austerity since 2010 at 5 per cent of GDP. Some leading economists, including Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University, consider 10-15 per cent a more realistic figure. That means between 5 and 15 per cent of British output has been permanently lost. The lowest estimate, 5 per cent, indicates £100bn, or £1,500 for every citizen. The truth is that austerity stopped the recovery in 2010 and caused the economy and society unnecessary damage.

Growth’s failure to materialise dished the Chancellor’s five-year timetable for cutting borrowing. With government revenues failing to recover, Osborne quietly slowed down the speed of his cuts, eventually declaring that a further £35bn of consolidation would be needed in the next parliament. The Bank of England injected a further £175bn into the economy between October 2011 and July 2012. In 2012, the government started subsidising bank lending for mortgages through its “Help to Buy” scheme. The shaky recovery that the easing of austerity brought about in 2013 made possible the Chancellor’s rhetorical masterstroke: we are growing faster than any country in Europe. This shows austerity works!

 

Labour’s weakness

Conservative rhetoric has left Labour floundering. The Conservatives have been able to take the narrative of the crisis away from Labour and turn their disastrous economic stewardship to political advantage. Their surprising weakness in the polls suggests their story is not entirely believed. This may yet enable Labour to form a minority government. Osborne does not deserve another go. He has done his best and worst.

Could Labour have done better? Its first, and probably decisive failure, was in mounting a convincing defence of its own record. Yet there was much to be proud of and particularly in the crisis years of 2008-2010 – the very years in which, according to the Conservatives, they messed up the public finances. In fact, the Labour government’s decent and principled reluctance to cut public spending in the crisis years was what kept the economy going; to which must be added Gordon Brown’s exceptional leadership in co-ordinating the global recovery effort in 2009. But the chance to establish this as the story of the crisis was missed; and after the electorate had given its verdict in 2010, it could not be resurrected politically.

Once Osborne had put his strategy for recovery into place, it would have required not only exceptional rhetorical skill to have countered it, but economic understanding of a high order. The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, a professional economist, has shown how important it is to have at least one political leader who combines rhetorical power with a solid knowledge of macroeconomics. For Varoufakis has the knowledge and confidence to confront the banalities that pass for economic wisdom in the temples of power and finance. Has anyone in these august places, one wonders, heard of the paradox of thrift? But no one in the post-2010 Labour leadership could have done that job except the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and his inability or unwillingness to make a decisive attack weakened Labour’s intellectual firepower and in effect let Osborne get away with it. It is pretty scandalous that it is left to the SNP to make the case Labour should have been making.

The opposition to austerity was also weakened by a factor outside Labour’s control, namely the rapid reassertion of macroeconomic orthodoxy in treasuries, central banks, international organisations such as the IMF and much economic journalism, following their brief flirtation with Keynesianism in 2008-2009. Why, after the economies of the world had fallen into a hole, did these people start turning their guns on the governments that had rescued their economies from another Great Depression? That is something historians and political analysts will have to puzzle out.

One baleful consequence of the return to orthodoxy was that the statistical basis for policymaking was consistently slanted in the wrong direction. There was a systematic underestimate of spare capacity in the period 2010-11 and a systematic overoptimism about growth prospects.

Keynes said: “When statistics do not make sense, I find it generally wiser to prefer sense to statistics.” Common sense should have told policymakers that the financial system and economy had been deeply damaged by the crash of 2008 and needed a very strong stimulus from government to avoid years of waste and stagnation. Prudence should now tell policymakers that the promise to cut the welfare state to the bone will not only inflict further economic damage but cause social resentment on a scale not seen since the 1980s.

Little of this common sense of the matter has emerged so far in the general election. The Conservatives have spun their familiar yarn of rescuing Britain from “Labour’s Great Recession”, restoring “confidence” by borrowing less, pledging to start “paying down debt”. Labour has mostly tried to be plus royaliste que le roi: it will “cut the deficit” every year; it will impose a “Budget Responsibility Lock” to stop governments fiddling the accounts. More promisingly, it will set up a “British Investment Bank” but has said nothing about its funding or powers. Perhaps the voters will see through Labour’s disordered head to its humane heart. But with so little to choose between the big parties on the main issue of the day, it is not surprising that the election remains too close to call.

Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and a leading biographer of J M Keynes. His most recent book is “Britain Since 1900: a Success Story?” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?