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I agree with Jonathan Evans over Tata, but the one thing that cannot be said about the economy under this Chancellor is that it has recovered quickly from the shock of the global financial crisis. Total output still has not reached pre-crisis 2008 levels, quite unlike in the USA and Germany both of which passed their 2008 peak back in 2011. What took them three years to achieve is taking the British economy under this Chancellor six years, and the reason is the savage cuts since 2010, a far tighter squeeze than in the USA or the eurozone. Under Labour, recovery was already well under way in the first half of 2010 when the Chancellor came into office. It was his policies that choked it off and the British people have been paying a heavy price ever since.
Today we have an unsustainable, out-of-balance recovery. The Chancellor acknowledged that neither investment nor exports are high enough. We already knew that higher consumer spending has come out of reduced savings, not out of higher incomes, because real incomes have been stagnating for years. It is a short-term recovery that cannot last. The ex-chair of the Financial Services Authority and ex-director general of the CBI Adair Turner said so in January at Davos when he warned:
“We have spent the last few years talking about the need to rebalance the economy away from a focus on property and financial services and towards investment and exports. We are now back to growth without any rebalancing at all…If you chuck enough monetary stimulus at an economy something happens. It is as if we have had a cracking great hangover, had a stiff drink and off we go again.”
A second factor making the situation unsustainable is that UK productivity has been flat for years. This pushes up unit costs and keeps our export prices higher. Our export predicament is dire. On top of that, we are witnessing a housing bubble again, with property prices rocketing in London in particular. In short, nothing fundamental has changed to avoid a rerun of a financial crisis brought on by a debt-financed consumer boom and a Government-backed housing bubble that sooner or later will burst, because bubbles always do burst.
Yes, the economy is recovering faster than forecast last year, but growth is forecast to be slower next year than this. The Chancellor expects the economy to run out of steam almost as soon as it starts to grow again, yet there is plenty of scope for much faster growth, and faster growth would mean less need for spending cuts and a quicker reduction in the Budget deficit.
The austerity programme, which this Budget continues to drive forward is based upon what I call the big deceit of British politics: that Labour “overspending” left the country with the mountainous levels of debt and borrowing which the Tory-Lib Dem Government inherited after the 2010 election. [Interruption.] The idea that the global credit crunch was caused by Labour’s public investment in Britain is risible. [Interruption.] The proposition that by building new hospitals and new schools, and by recruiting tens of thousands of extra nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers in Britain, Labour caused the sub-prime mortgage defaults in the US that ricocheted throughout the world’s financial institutions is preposterous. [Interruption.]