Britain Needs a New Thatcher
It is three weeks since the British general election was called, but politicians are avoiding the only issue that really matters: how the country can avoid bankruptcy.
This year, the government will borrow pound stg. 160 billion ($265bn). Interest on government debt is already costing more than the entire British defence budget. Total government debt will soon pass pound stg. 1 trillion.
This is unprecedented in peacetime. It partly reflects the cost of the bank bailouts, but it has also come about because Prime Minister Gordon Brown believed he had abolished boom and bust.
So he kept borrowing and spending during the good times, when he should have been putting money away for a rainy day.
In Australia, the Howard government all but cleared the national debt and set up a Future Fund (which I confess I criticised at the time) to reduce public sector superannuation liabilities. But in Britain, the government just kept spending. And the more it spent, the more it stoked public expectations about what government could and should provide. The result is that no party now dares to break the bad news to the voters, that things will have to be drastically cut back.
All three main parties promise to halve the deficit in four years (this doesn't mean halving the debt, only that they will cut by 50 per cent the amount government borrows each year).
This would require a 5 per cent cut in public-sector pay, freezing welfare benefits, culling hand-outs like the pound stg. 250 winter fuel allowance for the over-60s, as well as tax rises. But this is not acknowledged on the hustings.
At last week's televised leaders debate, Brown suggested the Tories might scrap the winter fuel allowance and free eye tests for pensioners.
Conservative leader David Cameron angrily insisted these hand-outs would be secure under a Conservative government.
All parties promise front-line services will be safeguarded, and none is proposing tax increases. How will the deficit be reduced? All they tell us is they will cut waste.
The last time Britain got into a mess anywhere near as bad as this was in the 1970s. In 1976, it became the first advanced economy in history to ask the IMF for a loan.
Inflation was so high that price and wage increases were limited by law, and the Labour government encouraged people to dob in shopkeepers who raised prices. The unions were so dominant that political scientists debated whether Britain had become ungovernable. Many sectors of the economy were so inefficient they needed perpetual subsidies to cover their huge losses.
During the 1980s, most of this was put right. The public finances were brought under control (not without a lot of suffering); the unions were tamed (after bitter confrontations); the state sector dinosaurs were privatised.
By the time the Tories left office in 1997, Britain was one of the strongest economies in Europe.
Thirteen years on, with the public finances again in a mess, you might think the Conservatives would want to remind people of this history.
But since he became leader, Cameron has been distancing himself from Margaret Thatcher and her legacy.
His slogan - the Big Society - deliberately challenges Thatcher's famous comment that there is no such thing as society. Cameron says the Thatcher years were divisive and that he will be inclusive. He wants the Tories to be seen as the nice party.
Labour naturally contests this. It wants electors to see Cameron as a Thatcherite wolf in sheep's clothing. One of its posters portrays him (improbably) as the abrasive, politically incorrect detective at the centre of the BBC drama, Ashes to Ashes, set in the 1980s. The tagline warns that the Tories want to take us back to
Both parties evidently see Thatcher as a toxic brand. But why is a politician who turned around Britain's fortunes so reviled?
It makes sense for Labour to trash her reputation, but why does Cameron go along with it?
The answer is that, until the credit crunch, Cameron endorsed Labour's spending plans. Like Brown, his focus was what to spend money on, not how to cut back a profligate state running out of control. Until 2008, Cameron was planning an election strategy based on matching Labour's total expenditure!
When it all went pear-shaped, the Tories were cast adrift on the same waterlogged raft as Labour, two spendthrift parties taken unawares when the bailiffs came calling. The Liberal Democrats claim they offer a fresh alternative, but their record is no better.
Whoever wins this election will have to make cuts more draconian than Thatcher ever made.
A new report estimates cuts will need to be bigger than at any time since the 1920s and that
taxes will have to rise.
But how do you sell this to the voters when all you have been squabbling about for years is how to divvy up more generous hand-outs?