The public were willing to embrace change in 1979. Today, I fear that the electorate have been less willing to accept the seriousness of the national economic situation. The breathless relentless media coverage over the past two years charting stock market swings, house price
crashes and global turbulence has convinced many that the worst is already behind us when, really, the reckoning has yet to begin.
I have felt that the past couple of years have been uncompromisingly ugly-we have seen that in many of the speeches from Opposition Members today-for those of us who support capitalism, free markets and open trade. Once again I am delighted that this Budget starts to make the case for empowering people, the smaller state and individual responsibility.
The election is now of course behind us. I remain concerned that our coalition Government do in all fairness lack the critical and explicit mandate to make some of the very tough economic decisions that are required as a matter of urgency to get the public finances back on track, for this Parliament-indeed probably for the entire decade-stands to be dominated domestically by the need to take a firm grip of the public finances.
This year's public budget deficit of some £155 billion represents 11 per cent. of GDP and means that we continue to borrow fully £1 in every £4 that we spend. This colossal living beyond our means is made up of consumption rather than investment in any meaningful sense of the word. Correcting that imbalance will necessitate diminished living standards for the generation of taxpayers yet to enter the workplace. In a large measure, that means that we have to take an axe to public spending, and that has of course been a remarkably rare event.
I am delighted by the generally positive media response to the Budget, but I should point out to my hon. Friends that the pain of the tax rises accounts for only 23 per cent. of the overall measures. Details of the adjustments to public expenditure will be hammered home in the months to come and will become fully apparent only in 2011-12. That is when the real logistic and political tests will come.
There is much to learn from history about those very few previous episodes when we have needed to make a substantial cut in public spending. The single most significant period of efficiencies and reductions in public spending came in the aftermath of the first world war and, perhaps significantly, was also in a time of peacetime coalition between the Liberals and Conservatives under Lloyd George. The wartime economy at that juncture was characterised by huge unprecedented state control, so much so that when the conflict came to an end, there was a massive upswing in the economy as pent-up demand, wartime savings and the removal of wartime controls caused a boom. However, the first peacetime Budget in 1919 actually led to a budget deficit of 6 per cent. of GDP after the then Chancellor concentrated on building homes fit for heroes and embarking on an ambitious social programme rather than balancing books.
Hot on the heels of that boom, however, was a grim slump. Having been one of the world's largest overseas investors before the first world war, Britain became one of the biggest debtors with interest payments taking up some 40 per cent. of all Government expenditure. The value of the pound was depressed, yet the anticipated export boom failed to materialise. Even preceding the slump there had been a public outcry at the Government's extravagance. As the economic gloom descended and tax increased, the outcry against Government waste became a thundering clamour.
It was against that background of public pressure and economic misery that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed Sir Eric Geddes to chair an independent review of Government spending in the bitter year of 1921, the aim being drastically to cut spending by eliminating the waste that had been identified. The Geddes committee was to become the most thorough and rigorous outside investigation of public expenditure ever conducted in Britain. It was also, of course, highly controversial. Its membership consisted of only a single elected MP and five unelected business leaders, and while it was lauded by the world of commerce and Conservatives and taxpayers, it was attacked by the fledgling Labour party and the trade unions.
In the end, Geddes was able to slice some £54 million off Government expenditure. That seems an almost risibly small sum today, but in those days it amounted to a 10% reduction. We should soberly remember that, once ring-fencing is accounted for, departmental cuts of about 25% are likely to be required next year.
Back in the 1920s, a clear message was sent to Ministers, Whitehall and the general public that spending in any form would be very closely scrutinised like never before. The committee's work marked a crucial turning point in rebalancing the public finances from a distorted war basis to a peacetime basis. It is a lesson we need to learn in the months ahead as we go about the work of ensuring that these departmental changes happen.
The committee's success in rapidly achieving its goal was due to a number of factors: it had professional and respected committee members; it enjoyed unstinting political support; it worked to a very swift timetable, which I think we will have to do again this time; there was widespread public support for its aims; and it was willing to compromise on proposals that proved to be politically unfeasible-I think we will find ourselves in that situation again in the months to come. The experience of nine decades also has demonstrated that while securing public expenditure cuts is very politically difficult, it is far from an impossible task, as is often claimed. We undoubtedly need to try to achieve great public support. The experience of the 1920s showed that while voters might agree in general with cuts, they almost never agree with specific cuts that directly affect them. To put it simply, we need to ensure that the cuts are fair, focused and effective.
History also provides important perspectives and pointers to the future. Wisely, the coalition Government have an even more recent precedent in mind. The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) rightly pointed out that the Canadian model of deficit reduction in the first half of the 1990s took place in an era of great global growth and plenty. We should not underestimate how much easier that made its very painful readjustments, under which a quarter of public sector employees in the country lost their jobs. By contrast, today's reductions in the head count will, to an extent, be tomorrow's unemployment rise.
In Canada in the 1990s, the Government had already levelled with the voters over a period of time. They then proceeded to provide very clear evidence, on a year-by-year basis, of the gains as expenditure was reduced. They also made the moral case that the living standards of future generations of taxpayers should not be diminished to pick up the tab for the consumption and debts of current taxpayers. That is absolutely crucial.
This has been an extremely brave Budget from the Chancellor. The fact is that despite the-at times contrived-anger from Opposition Members, those who are most likely to suffer are middle England voters, who are the very people the Conservative party has relied upon for electoral support. The Budget's promise to be tough but fair is largely borne out, especially in its protection for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Indeed, I have been calling for some years now for the removal of the very lowest earners from income tax altogether, and I am very pleased about the steps that have been taken in that regard.
I sound only two notes of caution. First, I believe that the Office for Budget Responsibility unemployment projections have been over-optimistic. Indeed, such has been the unreliability of economic forecasting over recent years, that I think that unemployment will not peak this year, but that it will be higher in both 2011 and 2012. Secondly, I fear that there is a real risk of serious sovereign default in the eurozone, as has been discussed.
I do, in part, accept the Opposition's view that there is a significant element of risk in this Budget, with many of the toughest measures coming in next year when the coldest winds may well be sweeping across the continent. However, for the sake of this nation's economic welfare, I believe this calculated judgment is well worth taking. Given that denial, debt and delay are part of the problem, I cannot see that they will be the solution to this crisis.
One of the first things that we need to say about the Budget is that it is quite clear that the underlying narrative is an assault on the size of the state. It is not merely an attempt to deal with the deficit following what has been described as a profligate former Labour Government. It is an ideological assault on the state based on the belief that reducing the size of the public sector will create space and that the private sector will inevitably grow and fill the vacuum. Without question, this Budget is-apart, perhaps from the absence of the NHS from the cuts-the Budget that Margaret Thatcher always wanted to introduce. But who would have thought it would be the Liberal Democrats who would give the Conservatives the power to wield the axe?
The Deputy Prime Minister sat through the Budget nodding in support of every swing. We all remember the warnings that he gave during the election about what the Conservatives would do if they got into power-the VAT bombshell-but what changed? I think he is suffering from Stockholm syndrome, which is what happens when a hostage becomes emotionally attached to the people who are holding him captive. It is quite clear from his response to the Budget that there is something going on. He has now collaborated in the biggest robbery since Patty Hearst just went to the bank.
Perhaps I am being unfair. It could be that the Liberal Democrats just cannot help themselves. I am reminded of an experiment at Stanford university-the Stanford prison experiment-in which students were
given the roles of prisoners and jailers. Very quickly, two thirds of the jailers became very sadistic, but the peculiar thing was that the prisoners, although they were free to leave at any time, decided to stay and take the sadistic treatment being dished out. I think that something is going on here. The Liberal Democrats who have taken the thirty pieces of silver and the Toyota Prius cars are clearly taking on the role of the sadistic jailers who have adopted the policies in the Budget. The Liberal Democrats who are left-I do not know what the collective term for them should be, but perhaps it could be dupes, as that is a term that someone has used recently-are unable to free themselves. They have internalised their grief and they are going along for the rollercoaster ride on the track that has been laid by the Conservatives in this Budget; they are hanging on for a white-knuckle ride.
There are endless quotes from the general election in which Liberals warned us about the Conservatives and what they would do in government, so there is no mandate for the Liberal Democrats to support the Budget. The majority of people who voted at the last general election voted for the parties that opposed the sort of cuts that are in the Budget.
The fact that we need to address the deficit is without doubt. If Labour were in government we would be cutting public services, and people would feel the consequences of those cuts; there is no doubt about that. However, the size and scale of what we have got from the coalition Government is beyond anything that anyone has attempted in the UK before. In one Budget, they are cutting back the size of the state, over six years, beyond what it was when Labour came into power 13 years ago. Under the guise of reducing the deficit they have set about reducing the size of the state, with an enthusiasm that Margaret Thatcher could only look on in wonder.
Clive Efford: The hon. Gentleman will probably know the history of this matter. Until November 2008 there was an agreement in this House about how to deal with the deficit. The Conservatives supported what the Government of the time were doing, so I suggest that he go back and look at the facts of what was going on.
The Liberal Democrats conveniently forget the statements that they made expressing their fear of what the Tories would do. I remind the House of one that was made at the start of the general election campaign. In an interview with The Observer, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), said this about a new Conservative Government:
"They then turn around in the next week or two and say we're going to chuck up VAT to 20%, we're going to start cutting teachers, cutting police and the wage bill in the public sector. I think if you're not careful in that situation...you'd get Greek-style unrest...be careful for what you wish for."
The Government have also prayed in aid what has gone on in Greece, Sweden and Canada, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) pointed out at the Dispatch Box that comparisons with Greece are utterly ridiculous. In Sweden they cut back public expenditure by 20% over 15 years,
an approach that bears no comparison with the scale of what is being attempted here. It is true that the Canadian Government carried out a consultation exercise, but that was confined to short-term measures to deal with the deficit, and the intention was always that there would be a return to expenditure.
What we are seeing is a permanent cut-back of the state, and a withdrawal from expenditure for ever. That is what the people of this country are being asked to participate in through this consultation.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is the only Liberal Democrat in the Chamber. I am not surprised that there no others participating in this Budget debate. I have quoted the party leader as saying
"be careful what you wish for",
and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remind his friends of that, especially the ones who cheered this Thatcherite Budget. Supporting this Budget is a proclamation of an intent to reduce the size of the public sector in perpetuity. Liberal Democrat Members cannot support reducing the size of the state and say with any credibility that the axe will not swing against the NHS in the long term. This is an ideological change, and they cannot escape that fact.
Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I certainly appreciate the attention that he is giving to my party, although he fails to recognise that this is a coalition Government. There will be elements of both the Budget and the coalition agreement about which the Conservatives are especially enthusiastic, and elements about which the Liberal Democrats are especially keen. The measures in the Budget include a raising of the personal tax allowance, a significant improvement in annual increases in pensions, increases in capital gains tax and the introduction of levies on banks-all things that Labour failed to do at all.
Clive Efford: If that did not sound like an excuse, I do not know what would. A person on a low income who receives benefits or child tax credits is going to see those benefits reduced, so raising the personal tax allowance will make very little difference to household income.
It is as sure as night follows day that those who support this Budget will want to cut the NHS next. Attacks on what has been describe as an "over-bloated" public sector are attempts to soften the public up in preparation for an unprecedented attack on public sector workers and the people who rely on the services that they provide.
The public sector will be hit in three ways, with a triple whammy-a freeze on council tax, a freeze on pay, and a squeeze on workers' pensions. The claim that none of those would be necessary if the previous Government had not left the country in the state that the present Government say that they did just does not stand up to scrutiny.
In this Budget we are being asked to vote for taking away £1.8 billion from housing benefit, £1.4 million from disability benefits, £11 billion from the welfare state overall-and £2 billion from the banks. The Government say that they oppose nationalisation, but they have certainly nationalised the cost of the banking failure, and it is the poorest people in our constituencies who will pay the price.
The figures show that £1 in every £7 spent by the poorest 10% in our communities goes on VAT, but that drops to £1 in every £25 for the richest 10%. The IFS has confirmed that Labour's plans would hardly have touched the poorest 10% at all, but this Budget will reduce their income by 2.5%. Labour's proposals would have reduced the position of the richest 10% by 7%, but the Budget adds only a further 0.6% of that.
There is no mandate for this Tory Budget. Despite all the coverage that we have read about it, no one has said, "Thank God the Liberal Democrats were there to hold back the nasty Tories." Everyone says that it is a Conservative Budget-the Budget that the Conservatives would have introduced whether or not they had the rag, tag and bobtail of the Liberal Democrats tagging along behind them. This assault on our public services is founded on the misguided belief that as the pubic sector contracts, the private sector will expand and provide new jobs.
There is no intention of returning investment to the public sector. The dogma that drives the cuts is the same that drove the Tories to attempt to destroy the NHS when they were last in power. Anyone who votes for the Budget is signing up to a Thatcherite philosophy of slashing the public sector and paying no heed to the consequences for the most vulnerable people in our communities. Never again will the Liberal Democrats be able to claim that they are the party that stands up for the underprivileged and a party that is in favour of intervention. This is a Thatcherite Budget and anyone who votes for it will be a Thatcherite: Members on the Government side of the House are all Thatcherites now.