Published on December 9th, 2013 |
by Eleanor Newis
Osborne is a Politician not an Economist.
“Mr Speaker, Britain’s economic plan is working. But the job is not done. We need to secure the economy for the long term. And the biggest risk to that comes from those who abandon the plan”: so said Osborne in his 2013 Autumn Statement last week. First off, if anyone apart from me has been masochistic enough to read the entire speech, they would have noticed the rather worrying repetition of the word “plan”… just sounds a tiny bit “1984” to me. This is ironically appropriate. In its report accompanying the statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted that by 2018 government spending will be no larger than in 1948 (the year 1984 was written). 1948: a mere three years after World War II ended.
Now, if you are one of the many people who think this is a good idea, please just hold on a minute; allow me to draw your attention to a few things. This year’s Autumn Statement is important. For many it represents the outlining of a state-shrinking austerity plan, and there is a split between those who support this and those who don’t (and those waiting for Russell Brand’s spiritual revolution of course.) However, more than this, Osborne’s 2013 Autumn Statement clearly shows that he is a political Chancellor. He is not a number-crunching nerd – unfortunately for us – instead he is a politician. The speech is rhetoric, and not numbers. Read the thing, and then read “Politics and the English Language” by Orwell.
Osborne is going against recommendations of the IMF who, after assessing 107 countries between 1980 and 2012, have stated that there should be a balance between tax increases and spending reductions. In the world of Osborne, more than 95% of the recovery grand “plan” is to come from spending cuts.
Whilst the OBR also shares concerns that the government is cutting too fast too soon, they have provided some positive news. They have recently revised their UK growth forecasts for 2013 and 2014 from 0.6% to 1.4% and 1.8% to 2.4% respectively. But these figures should taken with a pinch of salt. These numbers are inextricably tied to international economics and the Eurozone (the Euro is forecasted to shrink by 0.4% this year) and this is not due to Osborne’s hacking at the UK state. These are the only vaguely promising statistics, but there is plenty of room for criticism. When Osborne argues that the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen by over 200, 000 in the last six months, one can’t help but wonder if this is due to more people getting jobs, or to the crack down on benefit “scroungers” rolled out earlier in the year. Not to mention those zero hours contracts pushed in government job centres, and the rumours of claimants being legally unable to turn them down. But, of course, Osborne doesn’t address this.
The clear focus on political rhetoric and the glossing over of fiscal figures is best exemplified by Osborne’s line on pensions: “let’s not upset those who’ve worked hard all their lives because the costs on, say, housing benefits for young people had got out of control.” Hence, the “plan” is to cut everything except pensions and unemployment benefit – so that’s anything from tax credits to income support, to the vast majority of housing benefits, to quote the statement. So, why are pensions being left alone? Is it because our great leader and his cohort feel terribly sorry for all the poor old people shivering in flats they can’t afford to heat? Well, it could be that. Or, more probably, this cohort have been watching Newsnight and cottoned on to the reality that the majority of “young people” are distant from politics, and being made more distant by the recent cultural movement , headed up by the flirtatious post-drug-addiction ramblings of dear Russell, and aren’t worth the money, or speech-writing time. Plus, these same young people will have to work till they’re at least 68 or 70 anyway, so why worry about their financial future? In the meantime, better keep the pensioners happy: they’re already entrenched in the habit of voting, so are definitely worth a few million pounds and a bit of rhetoric.
Maybe this is too cynical. But maybe everyone else should be a bit more cynical. When Osborne says “Britain is moving again; let’s keep going”, I can’t help but worry about the direction of this movement. And not just because I’m naturally inclined to want to live in a country with a functioning welfare system and financial support for those who need it: I recognise that in Osborne-land these are totally unreasonable demands. I am worried because I don’t want to live in a country where such massive economic decisions seem to be made on the basis of vote snatching and 2015 election predictions. Andy Hamilton recently commented on Radio 4 that the Autumn Statement has transformed from a mini budget to a sort of American State of the Union Address: just as the President doesn’t stand up and say he’s going to take up landscape gardening instead of politics, so the Chancellor will predictably laud his own achievements and take his round of applause. Yet I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Osborne had taken the words of Hamilton: “This amusing pastime has been a pleasing diversion from my destiny of title and leisure, but I tire of the cyclical nature of the market and the plaintive cries of the unfortunate. Farewell!” It would have at least left the numbers for someone who takes notice of them, got the attention of some young voters, and prevented a throwback to a post World War II British state.