Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ken Puts His Finger On It



The man who sorted us last time*

Ken Clarke holds a number of views we don't share, but all things considered, he was a pretty reasonable Chancellor. Indeed, from the vantage point of today's blackened economic crater, his famous Golden Legacy looks a little more golden with every passing day. If only he could have stayed at the controls. If oooonly.

So when he speaks about matters fiscal, we always listen. And he's just put his finger on something that's been troubling us for months.

In some classic off-the-cuff Ken remarks, he's let slip some of the fiscal advice he's been giving to young George. He's apparently warned George against “getting too adventurous” in plans for public spending cuts before the next general election. He points out that some voters could be scared away from the Tory party if it was too specific about tax and spending plans:

“You could then wind up with a very messy outcome... I think it is very difficult to have a sensible argument. You are running enormous risks — we have not had an election like this before.”


Although emphasising that most people knew that the level of public debt was “disgraceful and unsustainable”, he said: “The population is only keen on tough measures so long as they don’t affect them and their families.”


Predicting that Labour would portray the Tories as wanting “to do the nasty stuff — you know, take away unnecessarily”, Mr Clarke said: “We will find some voters are seduced away by that if we are not careful, so there is a problem in the run-up to the election if we start getting too adventurous.”

Spot on. The veritable nub.

You see, we're back to the old problem with democratic politics and taxpayers' money. Backsliding self-serving animals that we are, we are quite happy to cut spending, but only so long as it doesn't impact on us.

Take Tyler. Although he doesn't look a day over 30, in reality he'll turn 60 next year. At which point he'll cop a free bus pass. And free prescriptions. And probably a sackful of additional goodies he hasn't yet discovered.

Now, he shouldn't get any of that. He is well able to afford it for himself, and he knows it**. But what if the Tories threaten to take it away along with a whole stack of other middle class welfare benefits? Will he get miffed? Well he might. Especially when he finds out the Tories will close his local hospital, and withdraw policing from boozed-up Guildford on Saturday nights.

Experienced politicos like Ken understand this only too well. They are principally in the business of getting elected, and there is simply no electoral upside in promising to cut spending. All cuts will hurt someone, and they are very likely to take against you.

Yes. Yes, indeed. An iron law of democratic politics.

Except where does that leave us vis-à-vis the jolly old fiscal crater? Is the plan that Cam gets in on an Obama-style promise to make everything better, and then once he's in, he... well, what exactly? Rip off the mask within days and implement savage and untrailed spending cuts? Or dither and dally Obama-style as reality gets ever uglier around him?

Which do you reckon sounds more likely?

Yes, quite.

Hmmm.... mmmm.... ohhhhh...

The ghastly truth is that we won't vote for spending cuts because we aren't yet ready. As we've noted before, we haven't yet suffered the Götterdämmerung crisis that we need to concentrate minds. We haven't yet had the outright collapse in sterling. We haven't yet had the terrifying spike up in borrowing costs and inflation. We haven't even had the real end of our property ladder fantasies.

So we're not ready. We won't yet vote for politicos who promise serious cuts because we haven't yet suffered the pain of not cutting. And even if our politicos understand the grim realities, there's no way they'll promise cuts if it means we won't vote for them.

Ggggggggggg.... guuuu.... glug....

Look, I do apologise for a week of terminal depression.

I really will try to find something upbeat to blog.

There has to be something.

*PS Yes, it's true that Ken's fiscal consolidation did involve increasing taxes as a percentage of GDP, from 32% to 35% of GDP. But the main work was done by a reduction in spending, from 43% to 38% of GDP (TME).

**Footnote Tyler's small stater sense of identity is telling him not to accept the "free" anythings. But his sense of tax victim outrage is telling him to grab whatever's going.

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