One of the worst features of minority governments is that they’re inescapably extravagant. Parliamentary votes become pricey, pork-barrelling affairs. Every pay-out invites a dozen fresh demands. “If you can afford HS2, you can afford a billion pounds for Ulster!” “If you can afford a billion pounds for Ulster, you can afford the winter fuel allowance!” “If you can afford the winter fuel allowance, you can afford a proper public-sector pay rise!” And so on.
With each new concession, the notion of sound finances is weakened, and voters become habituated to the idea that there is a pot of gold somewhere. It’s not anyone’s fault, in particular; it’s just what happens when there is no overall majority.
Now for something that shouldn’t really need saying but that, in the present climate, plainly does. There is no pot of gold. We are getting deeper into debt at the rate of £46 billion a year. That hard, clunking fact should be at the centre of our political debate; but, at some point in the past year, politicians more or less stopped talking about it.
Not talking about it didn’t make it go away, of course. As Ayn Rand once said, we can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality. We may have removed the deficit from our political debate, but we have not removed it from our budget.
I don’t particularly enjoy having to point this out. The people who want to spend more money are, for the most part, decent and well-intentioned citizens. They are looking at their particular cause rather than at the overall picture. In their own terms, they often have a perfectly good argument. Everyone – certainly every politician – will have some worthy projects to fund. Home Secretaries, by and large, want the police to be paid more, Defence Secretaries want the same for soldiers, Health Secretaries for nurses, Education Secretaries for teachers. But – to repeat – we are still borrowing more than we raise to the tune of nearly a billion pounds a week.
Our whole vocabulary is wrong. Austerity, in its non-political definition, is a trait, not a condition. An austere person is frugal, Spartan. Whether you find these characteristics admirable will depend on your point of view, but they are precisely that – characteristics. They are not a response to external circumstances.
By talking of “austerity” rather than of “living within our means”, we suggest that the restraint of public spending is essentially a choice. Hence the jejune slogan that Leftists have taken up the world over, namely: “Growth not austerity”. Seriously, comrades, if it were that easy, don’t you think someone would have done it by now?
Do coppers and soldiers and teachers deserve a pay rise? Most of them do, yes. If we happened to have £9.2 billion lying around, they’d have as strong claim to it as anyone. Indeed, I’d like, in a perfect world, to see wages rise for everyone. As Tim Worstall has pointed out, private sector pay has lagged behind that of state employees: Gordon Brown’s profligacy punished almost all of us. But, for the last time, we don’t have the dosh. We have run up more debt in the past decade than in the previous 30 decades put together.
I’m sorry to bang on about it, but the implication in much of the media coverage is that politicians who oppose these pay rises are stingy, as though it were their own money they were refusing to hand over. It isn’t: it’s money they’d be taking from what our national poet calls “your children yet unborn and unbegot”.
Who is being unselfish here? The claimant who insists that the rest of us get further into debt so as to give him more – or the MP who is prepared to withstand protests and criticism in order to stand up for the rights of people who will never thank him?
Not that there are many such MPs at present. Arguing for more spending is always tempting and, since the election, there has been precious little discipline – fiscal, political or personal. Every measure that might have constrained expenditure was dropped from the Queen’s Speech; every measure that will indebt us further, from retaining the pensions triple lock to increasing defence spending, was retained.
Eventually, though, accounts have to be settled; debts have to be paid. Imagine that you have been lending me a thousand pounds a week for several years, and that I have been using it to fund a lavish lifestyle. If you stop lending me the cash – I say nothing of repaying it, simply no longer getting as much of it – my lifestyle is bound to change. I can go on as many anti-cuts marches as I like; I can write articles demanding “Growth not austerity!”; I can call you a heartless, sociopathic Tory bastard. But, in the end, I will have to fit my spending to my income. That isn’t austerity; it’s reality.