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The Conceits of Modern Conservatism

16/03/2013 22:42 GMT | Updated 15/04/2015 17:59 BST

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Conservatives often claim to be non ideological, above such fleeting whims and subjective folly. And consequently they regard themselves as less susceptible to the irrationality of dogma. In general terms, there may have been some truth in this assertion prior to the 1980's. But the legacy of Thatcherism, the  cult it generated, has surely made that claim perverse. Indeed, there was a time when Conservatives had some basic decency.

David Cameron did a good job of changing the way the Conservatives were perceived. He made them electable by painting the picture of a more centre ground, caring, inclusive political party. But this portrait, so carefully rendered, has turned out to be a highly idealised one. A great disparity, a deficit you may say, exists between those soft edges, perfect proportions, of a compassionate conservatism, and the reality of the last 2 and a half years.

This government, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, have embarked on a program of cuts and austerity which has been presented in dramatic terms - as unavoidable, a necessity, rather than a choice. Prisoners of circumstance, they have been constrained by a terrible inheritance, the 'mess' left by Labour. This depiction sits very comfortably with the types of policies that instinctively appeal to Conservatives, and there appears to be a rather convenient congruence between events and policy. 

Coincidence?

A closer analysis raises the question of whether this government narrative of debt and deficit is an accurate representation of our country's finances.  During a recent Conservative Party political broadcast David Cameron proudly claimed to be 'paying down Britain's debt'. He was rebuked, and reminded by the ONS to be correct about the terms he was using, having muddled his deficit with his debt. To be absolutely clear the 'deficit' is the difference between government expenditure and government income. Debt is the total money borrowed, and national debt has in fact, risen from 55% of GDP in the second quarter of 2010, to 70% of GDP at the end of December 2012.

A central tenet of the government narrative has been that Labour left an exceptional debt burden. To establish the credibility of these claims, let us consider just how outstanding UK debt is.  

The UK has had debt exceeding 100% of GDP in 81 of the last 170 years, and the present national debt, as a percentage of GDP, is LOW by historical standards.  Yes, Low. In terms of clearing national debt, UK loans have a long maturity date. The average time frame,by which it needs to be paid back is longer for the UK, meaning there is less pressure to repay or refinance UK debt. In any case, there has never been a time when national debt suddenly all had to be paid back.  

So the first premise of this government narrative is false.  

Secondly, was the previous government culpable for the debt which does exist, through profligate over spending?

Looking at official statistics, we see the deficit was relatively stable until 2008 when there was a marked upward fluctuation. Was it due to a public overspend? No. It coincided with the financial crisis. Why did this affect the uk so badly? Because the finance sector in our economy accounted for 9% of GDP. Because, uk tax revenues were heavily reliant on financial services. Income was reduced, so the gap between government income and spending went up.

So the second premise is also false. 

It can be reasonably deduced that the national debt is certainly not at crisis level. So why have the government promoted this myth? Incompetence? Ignorance? Misunderstanding? Deception? The whole narrative sits very comfortably with Thatcherite instincts. Cutting spending not for the health of the nation, but for ideological reasons.

What further supports this is that the Government is refusing to deviate from their deficit reduction plan, despite clear evidence that it has been self defeating. Debt has risen. And we are in the midst of recession.  Their absolute commitment to this course has led to one simple economic principal being neglected - you cannot reduce debt without income, and government income is falling. If growth is low, it is more difficult to reduce debt to GDP ratio. Cuts in spending at this particular economic moment, have held back growth, led to lower demand, lower employment, and  damaged consumer confidence.

But given its dubious provenance why has the debt narrative been so successful in shaping public opinion? Polls show that Labour still has problems regarding public trust in their economic competence - Osborne and Cameron still have greater credibility than their Labour adversaries, Balls and Miliband.

The debt narrative has been a relentless feature of government rhetoric, endlessly repeated, and established in the wider public consciousness, regardless of it's truth. It has been presented in easily digestible terms, clichés and reductions that betray the true nature of the reality it describes.

In particular, the analogy of government finance with household economics has been highly effective, but totally inappropriate. Government debt is completely different from household debt and any comparison, wilful obfuscation. Macro economics is highly abstract and remote, specialised knowledge - and the coalition have taken advantage of the general public's economic illiteracy.

The debt narrative has been nothing more than a good old fashioned program of misinformation, designed to groom the population into accepting a plan, which has functioned as nothing more than a   Trojan Horse - delivering clandestine policy, presented as being in the wider public interest but serving an entirely different agenda.

Halfway through this parliament, Conservative MPs are emboldened, impatient that the deficit reduction plan has been too pedestrian, cuts in expenditure too tame, trust in the dictates of the free market too tepid. They demand more cuts,  a smaller state, less government, no 'sacred cows' (Conservative code for nhs), tax cuts for corporations, deregulation of the labour market. All sounds very familiar. And why do they feel so confident? Because they are preaching to the converted. Because deep down they share the same instincts. 

Which brings us back to Thatcher. She changed the party indelibly. Cameron and Osborne have shown that her legacy is very much alive and well, her spell enduring. For it is the hubristic  belief in a free market utopia which makes the modern Conservative's heart beat and blood pump. Their actions have proved it. One of Thatchers' heroes, Friedrich von Hayek wrote about the conceits of socialism. What we see today is the conceits of modern Conservatism. And the deceit upon which it lives.