Contrary to the Chancellor’s mantra, Britain’s return to recession was not made in Europe. It was made in Britain by the severe fiscal squeeze that the Chancellor launched nearly three years ago. Problems in the eurozone spell trouble for the UK economy—of course they do—but the Chancellor never mentions the fact that Britain has benefited from the recovery of the USA economy, which accounts for 20% of our trade, and is currently growing four times faster than the eurozone is slowing, because the USA took the route of economic stimulus and stuck to it. Britain set out on the same path under Labour after the banking crisis, and the economy began to pick up. However, the coalition veered off as soon as the Tories and Lib Dems took office, turning the road to recovery under Labour into the road to ruin.
Cutting too far and too fast means that the Chancellor has missed all his key targets. In the year that is ending, his target deficit—the cyclically adjusted current deficit as a share of gross domestic product—is twice what he originally said it would be. Next year, the Office for Budget Responsibility expects it to be four times what he planned. He has also missed his public sector debt target: instead of falling to 67% of GDP in 2015-16, under the Budget it will fall to 85% two years later, in 2017-18. That is a surreal definition of success: debt falling upwards. Salvador Dali would be proud.
Zero growth has forced the Chancellor to accept higher borrowing targets—more than £200 billion higher over five years than he planned in 2010. Most of the cuts that have been announced have yet to hit home. Cuts and austerity will continue Britain’s economic inertia, with more disastrous, scorched earth economics to come. Growth, not cuts, should be the priority. Sadly, there is plenty of spare capacity in the UK economy, which could easily grow quite quickly for a few years by taking up the slack, with borrowing, the deficit and debt falling. Jonathan Portes, former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, said:
“A few years of 3% growth—and given the amount of spare capacity in the UK economy, there is no reason that should be infeasible…—and much of the problem will simply vanish”.
Growth is the magic bullet for overcoming our deficit and debt problems.