Before we went to vote I was talking about the moral case for low debt and ensuring that the servicing of that debt was as minimal as possible, to retain and support our ability to ensure economic activity in the future. It was not for nothing that Herbert Hoover intoned sarcastically:
“Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.”
In this context, perhaps we can bestow a few less blessings on them in the future.
Putting aside the morality of debt, the key issue, which should drive all politicians regarding the accretion of Government debt, is the year-on-year cost of servicing and holding it, as mentioned earlier. The proponents of unfunded spending may highlight how the markets are not that concerned with relatively high borrowing so long as it can be funded. That may be the case. Let us hope, for all of our sakes, that we do not enter a period of high interest rates in the coming decades when national debt is to be rolled over.
The opportunity cost of that funding, on an ongoing basis, is much less understood in this place than in public discourse. It comprises a tax, year on year, on today’s generation for yesterday’s spending. Unlike the total debt-to-GDP ratio, which has oscillated wildly in the last century due to wartime spending, the cost of servicing the UK’s debt has been on an upward trajectory for the last century. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of servicing that debt has risen from an average of £12 billion per annum between 1900 and 1960, to nearly £30 billion at the turn of the 21st century. Since 2009, that average has hit £43 billion every year. In total, since 1900 the UK has spent something like £2.5 trillion just on servicing its debt. About half of that has been spent since I was born—I still like to think of myself as being relatively young.
The bad news is not likely to stop there. With the continuing running of deficits until well into the 2020s, the annual cost of servicing that debt is projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility to hit more than £50 billion by the start of the next decade. In this Parliament alone, debt servicing costs are projected to be about a quarter of a trillion pounds over the five years. The sums are huge and growing. They represent a significant opportunity cost to the UK as a whole.