Chutzpah and Labour’s Government Debt Clock.

The word Chutzpah, as Channel 4’s Economics Editor, Faisal Islam suggests, is not potent enough to describe the Labour party’s government debt clock. In fact, ‘the Labour party government debt clock’ is the actual word, or phrase, we should use instead when referring to something done or said with utter nerve.

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes, ‘Brazen impudence, gall,’ as its meaning, derived from the Yiddish. We might add ‘cheek’ and ‘audacity’ to our definition, but my favourite is from the usage references a little way down the page, citing, ‘You wanna be a crook…?’

But I’m sure Faisal Islam wasn’t meaning that now. He couldn’t! He wouldn’t! No, he’s got a career to worry about, and anyway, he said ‘chutzpah,’ which is good enough for me. Not that I’d say ‘crook.’ In fact, hold on there; I might say it, but I wouldn’t mean it, and I certainly wouldn’t direct it at the people behind this clock thing.

So what’s the point here? The point is this: I agree with Faisal Islam. I’ll explain.

The people from the Labour party, in their strategic wisdom, have put up a website showing government borrowing. They say how the Cameron/Osborne plan to get the deficit down ‘isn’t working,’ and they mention the ‘longest double-dip recession since the Second World War,’ and that ‘borrowing is £10.6 billion higher so far this year than last year.’

Now, I’m not going to quibble over the facts as they see them. This is mainly because I don’t have the inclination just now to dig out figures, but it’s also because the veracity (and we’re talking political veracity here: the sort of truth the Devil tells you when he want’s you for something) is irrelevant to the chutzpah point Faisal Islam is making, if I understand him right.

The Labour party might have forgotten the reason for the deficit: you know, the increase in government spending based on those synthetic GDP figures created by the credit bubble brought about in large part by Gordon Brown. They might also have forgotten the Keynesian idea of running budget surpluses in the good years to allow for deficits in the bad years, and that they ignored Keynes’ ideas when it suited them, and that they invoke his ideas now because it suits them also. But I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t seem credible that they just forgot, both then and now. It doesn’t seem credible that they don’t know that the legacy of their years in government, the problem in the Eurozone, and various other things that have nothing to do with the present government, form the foundations of our present debt, deficit and poor growth problems. They know all this, of course. But they thought up this wheeze of a debt/borrowing clock thing anyway. So, just to be clear, the galling bit is that Labour has the audacity to blame other people for the things they mostly did.

It’s also chutzpah-ish that they seem to have nicked the idea from their fiscal nemesis, the Taxpayer’s Alliance. But pilfering ideas seems in vogue lately.  Just last week it was the Conservative idea of One Nation politics used so brazenly (and perhaps a little cleverly) in Ed Miliband’s conference speech, and now this – the Taxpayer’s Alliance is hardly an ally of Labour.

But I suppose the leavening of the audacity, or boldness, is this: Labour does have a point. The present government is adding to debt, the deficit is not going down as they argued it would, and growth is rubbish. And stealing the very clothes the Conservatives – and this is who they are really directing their campaigns against – used to wear might well leave them feeling a little naked, not quite knowing where to put their hands.

In life, fortune favours the brave, but in politics, perhaps fortune favours the chutzpah. We shall see.

Squeezing defence carries little political risk

Defence restructuring (otherwise known as defence cutting) is one of the more pain-free political activities out there today.  Service personnel are generally a well disciplined lot, and when asked or told to do something they do it.  After all, when compared with their willingness to risk their lives, risking a mere job doesn’t seem so important.

This can-do, will-do attitude is something of a double edged sword.  On the one hand it is an essential characteristic of a professional, capable, democratically accountable force, but on the other it can lead them into doing things they might not agree with.  Sometimes I wonder if both they and the country might not be better served by defying politicians a little more – or at least questioning their decisions more robustly.

General Sir Richard Dannatt tried this when Chief of the General Staff in 2006.  He commented, in less than wholehearted fashion, on our continuing involvement in Iraq, the military covenant and the moral and spiritual vacuum opening up in Britain.  But he did so with great delicacy.  No bullishness, no populism, just points made with consideration and subtlety.

Yet even this restrained engagement induced criticism from those who seemed to think a service chief had no right to comment on things that were in fact very much his business.  Some of this disapproval certainly came from within the military (though much exaggerated by commentators), but most came from outside.  They were quick to cry terror at the impending military coup, revealing only their suppressed suspicion of the military class or their misunderstanding of the true restraint shown by military personnel.  I may have exaggerated that last point, but Dannatt really was shocked by the uproarious response from some quarters.

To be fair, the government has an unenviable task.  The budget is in a right mess.  The first problem is the immense pressure to reduce spending across the board (except those preserved areas of health and international development), and the second is the existing deficit in the defence budget.  The Economist speaks of a £38 billion hole that needs to be filled.  It seems that financial commitments have been made without knowing where the money is going to come from.

There are, of course, arguments for delaying fiscal consolidation until the economy is growing strongly again.  Punk- or selective-Keynesians argue that any squeeze on public spending at a time of recession is self-defeating, and in normal circumstances they might have a bit of a point.  But these are not normal circumstances and they ignore two crucial points: an increase in the demand for borrowing puts upwards pressure on the cost of borrowing, and, considering our debts, we should probably keep an eye on that; and the Keynesian approach requires budget surpluses to be run on the up-side.  I do not think Keynes ever planned for governments to run permanent deficits.  And the government is therefore caught between the rock and hard place of keeping the markets happy and not throttling the economy into permanent recession.

The old orthodoxy of balancing budgets has been much criticised since the 1940s, and still is today, but growth induced by government spending (if real growth is ever induced by this alone) is not going to generate the revenues to eliminate the budget deficit.  Sometimes a hit just has to be taken.

But the point stands.  There is far less political risk in squeezing defence than almost any other area of public spending.  And before long we will be back discussing the NHS, education, welfare and Lords reform apparently, and servicemen and women will go back to serving the national interest in their own selfless, unassuming way.