Thursday, 22 April 2010

Starkey's fairy story debated

David Starkey's film about Canada's 1995 debt reduction efforts appeared on Andrew Neil's This Week programme on the 13th of April.

Starkey's story of hope was followed by a discussion with Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo, which I summarise here:
Andrew: Why are our politicians incapable of saying to the British people what the Canadian politicians said to their people?

David: I think we got used to Tony Blair. We've had a low, dishonest 15 years. The New Labour government ... was never a government. It was a machinery for winning elections, and it won them by lying. It won them by telling people there are no hard choices, you will never have to choose, you can have booming public expenditure, and a brilliantly run private sector. Everything is yours ... it is rubbish, but we like it ... it's lovely not having to choose ...

Andrew: And you're saying, if you're right that this is what's happened, that this has contaminated the other parties as well?

David: I think completely. In fact, I think Cameron is more self-consciously an heir to Blair, much more, actually than Gordon Brown... The problem is, the Tories were mesmerised by what Tony Blair did; this is why we have no choice ... The way the two parties are behaving is they're both quarrelling for what is actually a false legacy, the legacy of Tony Blair.

Andrew: Is David right?

Michael: Yes, David is absolutely right ... And I would add to that that there's a feeling in the United Kingdom, which is shared by all the parties, that we're going to get away with this economic position. Now it's quite interesting, in countries that don't think they're going to get away with it ... Canada is a very good example from 15 years ago ... Spain is an example right now ... The Spanish Prime Minister in the Financial Times has given a blood curdling interview in which he's talking about all the cuts he's going to make, how far he's going to go, because he believes Spain could go tumbling down .. we think that we're going to get away with it, so nobody feels obliged to do the tough talk ...
Diane Abbot disagreed, but Starkey was quick to respond:
Diane: The British public is under no illusions that there are going to be cuts after the next election, whoever wins

David: I think you're wrong ... There are opinion polls which actually show that whenever a party says there will be a cut, they go down in the polls. There's perfectly clear evidence --

Andrew: We had George Osborne's "Age of Austerity" --

David: Exactly, and then a dip ... We had Alistair Darling being honest: we went down in a dip. I think one of the reasons that the Lib Dems are actually doing rather less well than you might have thought is that they have been particularly honest, in fact the leader, Clegg, cited the Canadian example, and whereupon, they started to flatline.
Neil then asked Portillo about the Conservative strategy:
Andrew: Supposing, Michael, that the Tories were to take a much tougher line ... a Canadian line ... Are they capable of selling it to the British people?

Michael: They're not capable of selling it, and the British public certainly isn't capable of buying it ... I think the public are an enormous part of the problem ... I think the public do know that there is more to this than meets the eye, but for many members of the public the recession has not been very bad so far.

Last year, if you kept your job, your pay almost certainly went up more than inflation, your mortgage interest payments came down, you ended 2009 better off than you started it. So when you tell people that there is this immense public crisis that we've got to deal with, people say "I'm entirely unaware of it" ...

The way this is always discussed, there is no idea of economic dynamism, so people say "look, if you're going to reduce taxes by this much, then you're going to have to reduce spending by this much"; there's no understanding at all that if you actually got the economy moving again, for instance lower taxes might make people do more work, which might produce more income, but there's no understanding in the media of that at all.
Abbot's response was characteristically demotic:
Diane: I have visited, unlike either of you, 20 primary schools in my area since January, and 4 secondary schools. Every single teacher I spoke to knows that big public sector cuts are coming down the pipe. Everyone.
But Starkey was not interested:
David: ... the really interesting point is the one that Michael has made. What happened in Canada is exactly what he said. The idea at the moment is if you cut in the public sector, the whole economy goes 'expletive deleted'-up. It doesn't. What happened in Canada, within 4 years, was that Canada was registering the highest rates of growth in the G7. Last year, Canada grew 5%. It's got the lowest actual debt levels in the G7. It's got the lowest current account deficit in the G7. It is effectively a booming country. And until we get back to that ... I don't frankly care what schoolteachers think
Neil steered the conversation back to the UK election:
Andrew: There's a sense in this election campaign that the debate's been very much about things that are marginal ... a tax break for toddlers may or may not be a good thing ... a tax break for marriage may or may not be a good thing ... the battle over National Insurance is about 1% of total government spending ... these are marginal issues ... but the sense I get ... is that the politicians really want it that way, they would rather talk about the marginals, than confront Mr Starkey's elephant.
Abbot was out to lunch:
Diane: They can only talk about marginal things; there's no big money to spend on anything ...
Starkey was incredulous:
David: But there's money to be saved. There's money to grow. There's an economy to be changed. So you, Diane, are part of the problem. Your party is part of the problem. You politicians are part of the problem.
Portillo acknowledged that his party, too, was part of the problem, and discussion moved on to a prospect to which I pin my hopes: that Cameron, for all his faults, will be elected, and will cut harder and deeper than he has thus far led the public to believe.
Andrew: If Mr Cameron wins ... will he do anything that David is talking about? Will he approach the scale that David thinks needs to happen?

Diane: He certainly will.

Michael: If David Cameron has a majority, he will get on with tackling the deficit, he will serve 5 years, and he will go to the next election saying "you didn't like what I did, but you know that it had to be done, and I was the man to rely on". I think the big question is, if he doesn't have a majority, will he say "oh my goodness, I have to postpone everything until I have another election", or will he say "even so, by getting on and tackling the deficit I have a better chance of winning again"...

David: I think the great problem with what Michael has said, if he wins ... with a very narrow majority, and he's lied ... will he be able to command what needs to be done? What will certainly happen will be an extraordinary wave of public sector strikes. Will he be able to face them down without a clear mandate? I think not.
I share Starkey's concern, but time will tell. At the moment, a Conservative majority is looking highly unlikely.

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