Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Accept That We're Ruined, Plan How To Rebuild...

Following this morning's Spectator Business function - and the subsequent damp-squib budget announcement - you could not help but conclude that the UK's public finances are in ruins, yet politicians on all sides want us to wait until after the General Election before they begin to take any action (the Lib Dems would wait til 2011). They're in denial, and anxious that the electorate remains in denial too.

But there is no point waiting for the politicians. We're missing a golden opportunity. The election should not be about expressing anger and blame for New Labour's systematic destruction of the public finances. Instead, the election should be a choice between competing visions for how to rebuild the economy. All sides must be forced into saying how they would do it.

To make the most of this opportunity, we must first resign ourselves to the parlous state of our finances and accept the world has changed.

So let's accept that Britain isn't simply 'facing economic disaster'. It is one. Britain is not 'in decline'. It has fallen. There is nothing more we can do to 'save the country's finances', because there are none to save. Politicians can't make 'savings' here that may be 'spent' there. As Liam Halligan pointed out, the only choice is between more appalling over-expenditure, or less of it.

Let's also accept this wasn't an accident that might somehow rectify itself. Patience Wheatcroft (now at the Wall Street Journal), rightly points out that David Cameron has been too nice in merely saying Gordon Brown has merely failed to repair the roof. He should've been constantly and furiously berating Gordon for "removing the roof tile-by-tile": grabbing pension money, auctioning mobile spectrum for insane prices that damaged telco balance sheets, concealing public infrastructure costs in government-guaranteed PFI programmes, growing the public workforce by 20%, and deliberately borrowing more and more so that, in the bitter end, the Bank of England was forced to print £200bn.

But Cameron blew his chance. The time for anger and blame is over. We have to resign ourselves to the fact that we are stuck - our kids are stuck - with a £170bn public deficit, £80bn of which is a seemingly immovable millstone...

In planning how to proceed, we should not be distracted by hand-wringing about "cuts" and "higher taxes", and the timing of those. They must happen. But there are other critical issues that remain unaddressed. For instance, where is the incentive for investment in new export markets to redress the ever-widening trade deficit and the fact our biggest export market (the Eurozone) is in a similar, and worsening economic state? The UK must have some strengths and opportunities, and we need the political leadership focusing on those rather than playing for time.

Rant ends, for now ;-)
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