From the June 24, 2009 Spectator
June 24, 2009
by Irwin Stelzer
Where is the clear blue water? MPs in both the Labour and the Tory parties have engaged in behaviour that is illegal, or tawdry, or both. Both parties are responsible for the dire financial condition in which the country finds itself, Labour by spending and spending during the fat years, the Tories by promising to spend just as much if given the chance, instead of calling for restraint. Both parties will have to cut spending in the future, although the Prime Minister continues to denounce ‘Tory cuts’, either because he is ‘delusional as well as dishonest’, to quote Matthew d’Ancona, or ‘has a weakness for inexactitude when it come to figures’, to borrow Andrew Rawnsley’s delicious phrase. Both parties have their scissors at the ready as they approach a review of the already inadequate military budget. Both parties think it is a good idea to levy extra taxes on foreigners who have helped to make London a world-class financial centre. Both parties say they will spare the NHS, which accounts for 15 per cent of all government spending, from any cuts, increasing the burdens that will be put on other public services.
So are voters faced with an echo, rather than a choice? If so, how to choose?
There are only two ways of deciding which party is most likely to lead the nation from the darkness of the current night into a bright new morning. The first is to ask whether you are satisfied with the condition of the nation. In America, Ronald Reagan virtually clinched the 1980 election by urging voters, ‘Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?’ when they put Jimmy Carter into the White House. With inflation and interest rates in double digits and a social revolution in progress that appalled most of the blue-collar workers who had been the core of the Democratic party, most voters answered ‘no’, and the Reagan Revolution of lower taxes, ‘morning in America’ instead of the malaise in which Carter seemed to revel, and a renewal of American military power was under way.
Here in Britain, the question is whether you are better off than you were in 1997, when New Labour took over. For a while, the Blair–Brown team reaped the benefits of the Thatcher Revolution, and to its credit preserved them by holding Prudence close. Then came spending, stealth taxes, the sort of social revolution that Jimmy Carter and his followers favoured, with the predictable results of rising crime, social disharmony, a decline of patriotism, and the growth of the welfare-dependent underclass of feral children that the sociologist Charles Murray so presciently predicted in the Sunday Times 20 years ago.
On the other side of the ledger is what must be described as Brown’s brilliant, if belated (remember Northern Rock) reaction to the financial crisis. As the Economist notes, ‘Without bank bail-outs the financial crash would have been even more of a catastrophe. Without stimulus the global recession would be deeper and longer…’. It is reasonable to wonder whether the anti-Keynesian ideology of the Tories, and the inexperience of David Cameron and George Osborne, would have permitted such an intelligent and decisive response to the recession.
Moreover, before joining the anti-Brown lynch mob it is well to remember that he helped to inter Clause Four, permanently preserved key parts of the Thatcher programme by declining to reverse privatisation or many of the laws that reined in the trade unions, and prevented the adoption of the euro.
That was then and this is now, when a second question must be asked: which party is most likely to make me feel better about the nation’s prospects some five years hence?
Not an easy call, given the similarities I laid out earlier, and the budget constraints that will bind both parties as they try to dig out of the fiscal mess into which recession and Labour have plunged the country. Brown persists in insisting that what he calls ‘investment’ go on and on, and would undoubtedly install Ed Balls in Number 11. Balls disagrees with Alistair Darling’s view that spending must be reined in, and instead of having another whirl around the floor with Prudence, he would choose her evil sister, Profligacy, as his dancing partner.
Which makes the Tories the party more likely to seek an exit strategy that would include bringing spending on the overmanned, overpensioned public sector into line with the new fiscal reality, rather than raise taxes from levels that already threaten to stifle economic growth. But the Tories have ring-fenced the cash-guzzling NHS and, bizarrely, the rat hole called overseas aid, into which they will continue to pour money that might instead provide life-saving kit to an overstretched military, or be used to moderate inevitable and painful cuts in education, policing and other essential services.
Both parties are promising savings through increased ‘efficiencies’, Brown by issuing still more rules, regulations and controls over spending departments, Cameron by increasing competition and widening the range of consumer choice available to patients and parents. It will be a long while before these ‘efficiencies’ are realised and produce significant savings, but the different methods proposed for attaining them do present voters with an opportunity to choose between more control from Whitehall, or greater reliance on individual choice.
They will also have an opportunity to decide just which lot they trust to inflict the least pain while bringing the nation’s finances under control. It is a good bet that Labour will rely more on tax increases, and less on spending cuts, more on reductions in military spending and on prison construction and less on cuts in benefit payments to the mounting number of ‘disabled’, more on borrowing that will drive interest rates up and the pound down than on reducing welfare entitlements.
The Tories are more likely to tip the balance away from the ‘rights’ of criminals and towards the rights of their victims; away from class-warfare and its accompanying counter-productive income and wealth redistribution, and towards a recognition that Britain is in many ways indeed ‘broken’ and in need of fixing; away from the tyranny of tin-pot dictators who run many town councils and towards a more reasonable balance of community needs and individual freedom.
And, Ken Clarke notwithstanding, to arrest the transfer of sovereignty to the EU, a project near and dear to the heart of Peter Mandelson, twice-risen from the political grave. If you believe that Britain is better served by having its own Parliament, rather than eurocrats, determine such matters as how long medical interns are allowed to work and the nature of the much-needed reforms of the financial system, David Cameron & Co. are probably for you.
So the echo-politics of the boom years are no more. Now voters can choose on which of the shores separated by clear water they wish to land.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.