One of the most common deceptions of contemporary politicians is to create a straw man and then proceed to knock him down. Stating that someone believes in something when they patently do not, or that something is happening where the evidence demonstrates the contrary, allows the accuser to create a false divide where the electorate is asked to join in condemning the straw man.
Nicola Sturgeon’s argument that she will bring about an end of economic austerity if her party wins enough Scottish constituencies to make her a kingmaker is the largest straw man in this general election. It is a straw man not because her party’s policies would make austerity actually last longer – although the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown that they will. It is a straw man because the concept of austerity is in fact a chimera, a mirage that Nicola Sturgeon and others have created to beat-up on the hated Tories and the “Tory-Lite” Labour Party.
To some extent this is the fault of David Cameron and George Osborne, for they have themselves used the language and mood music of austerity to justify reductions in public spending as they grapple with the appalling deficit and the ballooning national debt they inherited. In 2010 they explained the country needed to wear a hair shirt to regain control of its finances. They said they would take economically austere actions through severe spending reductions across departments, with the exception of schools, the NHS and foreign aid – all of which would be protected or in the case of the latter two enhanced.
To a great extent the public bought into that narrative and endorsed it at the last general election. The coalition government was dully formed, found the note from Labour’s former chief secretary to the Treasury stating, “There’s no more money” and introduced an emergency budget. This has helped build the perception of an austere economic policy, an apparition that Nicola Sturgeon now claims she can exorcise. But it is just that, a perception, and perceptions are not necessarily the reality.
The truth is that total government spending continues to rise at a time of little or no inflation. That cannot in any way be described as austerity. The economic policies of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats have if anything been expansionary, relying on softly falling deficits (often achieved by selling assets or introducing new sources of income) rather than making brutal, vicious cuts.
That is not to say that some departments have not suffered spending reductions of around 25 per cent, defence, justice and other government services have indeed been forced to reduce spending by such amounts over the past few years. But so long as resources have been increased in other departments and commitments remain for political vanity projects, such as HS2, so the spending of government is increasing and is planned to increase further. This is not austerity.
In countries such as Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy they have known austerity. There, not only has spending been sharply reversed and many public servants lost their jobs but most of those still fortunate to be in employment have seen their earnings cut by at least 10 per cent. That is austerity.
So when Nicola Sturgeon talks of ending austerity she is talking of a straw man that she wants us all to condemn. Cameron, Osbourne – and now also Labour’s Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – have been complicit in creating this straw man and, having told the public that they were going to take the tough decisions, cannot now admit that they have been deceiving us. Their expansionary economic policies are the antithesis of austerity and Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal to expand borrowing more for even longer is therefore a deceit built upon a lie.
The reality is that our political parties are seeking, and hoping with fingers crossed, to grow the economy from deficit into surplus and then begin to pay down the national debt. The irony is that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition is achieving just that – with tax revenues climbing, more than two million jobs created, the highest ever number of people in work and the largest number of vacancies – but that Sturgeon’s extended austerity would actually put all of that achievement at risk.
This should come as no surprise, for Nicola Sturgeon clearly does not care about the impact of her illogical economic policies, for if she did she would have taken greater care than to propose Scotland move to full fiscal autonomy. An immediate additional deficit transfer of £7.6 billion owing to Whitehall would throw Scotland into real austerity, making Greece look like a land of milk and honey based upon government munificence.
If Nicola Sturgeon cared about the impact of real austerity she would not be making promises to expand the welfare state further in areas such as childcare that, contrary to her claims, is not self-financing but instead has been shown to be hugely costly. Offering more free services that are paid for by deferred taxes – the taxes of our children and their children without their consent is immoral and unjust.
Even if the electoral outcome might allow it, Nicola Sturgeon will not be ending austerity any time soon. She is in fact proposing to contribute to it becoming worse and last far longer – while fully knowing future voters will not be able to hold her to account for her actions. That seems pretty objectionable, reprehensible even, to me.
Instead of talking about ending austerity politicians should be talking about ending the government living beyond its means.
When Nicola Sturgeon goes into her local shops does she not work to a budget, does she propose to spend more than she has in her purse or beyond her credit limit? Does she expect the children in the street to bail her out and pay for her ready meal for two? Does she expect the children of those children to pay for her new twin-set in 18 or more years? Theft from that generation is what Sturgeon is proposing the UK and Scottish governments do and this has to be fully understood before people vote.
Of course the election is a Hobson’s choice, for the other parties are proposing a weaker approach of electoral bribes and a softer end to “austerity” – but it would be truly absurd to vote for the most extreme of all political deceptions and consign our children to greater debt they never asked for.