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AUDIO BLOG – The Biggest Lie in British Politics

March 30, 2011

I wanted to post something by way of Addendum to Johann Hari’s excellent article The Biggest Lie in British Politics; a damning consolidation of information that has been floating around in blogs and articles. It challenges the government’s single narrative of cuts being necessary, because this is the direst fiscal position in which the country has ever found itself.

What Mr Hari says is vital and I encourage everyone to read his article. I wish to add something, however, to avoid any doubts. George Osborne knows this is a lie. It has been pointed out to him unequivocally and he accepts it. Yet he continues to propagate it. I want to ensure that anyone reading this blog knows that this is not a mistake on the part of the government and not subject to debate. I wish to do so in Osborne’s own words to make sure there is no room for misunderstanding.

During his very first press conference on 17 May 2010, George Osborne said:

These are the Global Finance figures. Use the slider to see how they all move in tandem.

George Osborne makes a similar claim, with regard to National Debt this time, in a Press Release on the Conservative Party website with regard to the National Debt:

“Responding to the release of ONS figures showing the true scale of UK national debt, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne said: ‘It’s official – Britain now has the highest national debt in the developed world.'”

A few months later on 4 November 2010, giving evidence in front of the HoC Treasury Committee, George Osborne is challenged by John Mann on these assertions and concedes:

So we can all agree that at this point the government has been put on notice, as it were. They know this is a warped and misleading line. They continue to scare-monger at full pace. A small smattering of examples, concentrating on cabinet members:

Let us compare that with what Labour left behind: a trillion pounds of debt for the first time ever, the largest deficit in the G20 and in our peacetime history, and the deepest and longest recession in the G20.Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons 27 January 2011 – Hansard link

“In the difficult economic circumstances that the coalition inherited, with all parts of society having to make sacrifices, repairing the covenant will not be easy or straightforward. The previous Government left us not only a record national debt that is increasing day in, day out because of the deficit, but a hole in the defence budget itself.” Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for Defence 3 March 2011 – Hansard Link

Today, however, there has been not a word of apology from the Opposition for getting us into that enormous financial mess that meant that this country had the highest deficit of any country in the western world-of any OECD top 20 country. Do they recognise that as a fact?” Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing and Local Government 9 February 2011 – Hansard link

There are some tough decisions, but for what reason do hon. Members believe that we must take those decisions? It might have something to do with the fact that the previous Labour Government left us with the biggest deficit in our peacetime history and we must pick up the pieces.” Chris Grayling, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 9 March 2011 – Hansard link

It sounds as though some on the Opposition Benches would like to wash away the past few years and drown out their bitter legacy: record national debt; unsustainable public spending; and a crushing burden on ordinary families.Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 28 March 2011 – Hansard link

My Lords, very difficult choices have to be made at a time when we have been left with the biggest deficit in our peacetime history.” Lord Sassoon, Commercial Secretary to the Treasury 28 February 2011 – Hansard link

“In conclusion, we want to treat motorists fairly, but we must also act responsibly by ensuring that we tackle our record national debt and the financial deficit, which will not be easy.” Justine Greening, Economic Secretary to the Treasury 7 February 2011 – Hansard link

Finally the amendment to a motion that “the Government inherited the largest deficit in UK peacetime history” was tabled on 16 March 2011. It was signed, among others, by David Cameron, Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Vince Cable, Business Secretary Hansard link

George Osborne himself, repeated the lie addressing the Conservative Party Spring Forum on 5 March 2011:

He repeated the lie on the Andrew Marr show ten days ago, on 20 March 2011:

So, the question is, what reason would the government have for repeating this lie? It is not, after all, the smartest move in terms of restoring confidence in markets, both domestic and international. Answer: it allows them to push ahead with an ideologically led assault on our public services. It also means that they can answer any difficult questions by reference to the lie. A textual analysis of Prime Minister’s Questions from the last month reveals that, when questioned on any economical issue, David Cameron has used the words “inherited”, “left to us” and “bequeathed”, with reference to the lie, an astonishing 112 (one hundred and twelve) times.

So, as every economic indicator is moving in the opposite-than-desired direction, where does this lie stop? I think the government has the answer. This is what Cabinet Minister, Francis Maude had to say to the newly elected Labour government in June 1998:

“We always said that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy. After only 14 months, it is coming apart. Its economic policies are in disarray and the public finances are unravelling… It is time for Labour to take responsibility for its actions and stop blaming everyone else. This is the Government’s strategy. These are their choices and decisions. As the economy flags, it will be the Government’s fault. It will be a downturn made in Downing street.” Hansard link

Is that fair enough Mr Maude?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew McKie permalink
    March 30, 2011 6:16 pm

    Unfortunately for this argument, the deficit is not National Debt, and the National Debt does not now include most of the state’s liabilities, after Gordon Brown removed pensions & PFI expenditure from it. These are a couple of straightforward rebuttals of some of the arguments:

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/682533/memo-to-johann-hari-this-government-isnt-planning-to-pay-off-our-debt-rapidly-if-only-it-could.thtml

    http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/economics/2011/03/johann-haris-convenient-lie.html

  2. March 31, 2011 8:50 am

    Just to clarify: some of those refer to *deficit* which as far as I can tell is the highest in the G20 (though I would be delighted to find stats to the contrary). So the Shapps quote, for example, while scaremongering (and in my view a red-herring) isn’t necessarily inaccurate since neither Ireland nor Greece is in the G20.

    On a separate point, Osborne has been going around saying that because of the previous government our deficit is bigger than Ireland, Greece or Portugal, but that seems only to have actually happened in 2010, i.e. at least partly since the election.

    • March 31, 2011 9:45 am

      Thank you for your comment. I Agree, of course.

      The first point is that the government seems to be using the terms in quite a confused way, in order to deliberately create fear and misinformation. Looking at the Hansard quotations above, it is clear to me that on several occasions they say debt, meaning deficit and vice-versa. I believe that the average person on the street is confused about the distinction. Certainly the tabloid press is picking up the confusion of “debt” as “deficit”; see for instance: The Mirror or the Evening Standard, both of whom refer to record National debt. This is cynical and purposefully dishonest. And it is seeping down to local campaigners’ printed and online material – for example here – and I am sure the lie will be repeated on doorstep after doorstep.

      The second point is that idea that we have the highest deficit is also very, very debatable. Certainly not “of every developed” or “of every western democracy” as has been oft quoted, unless Ireland, Greece and Portugal are now considered either Eastern or developing. But more than that, we are the only country with these independently produced transparent figures. The Tories came into government and set up the OBR to create transparency (which I think is a great and brave thing to do, incidentally), telling us that what had happened before, is that governments had fiddled the figures to make the budget fit. Certainly when the EU started looking at Greece’s. Ireland’s or Portugal’s books (and now Spain’s too) they found that the deficit had been under-stated by several percentage points. Countries have also habitually over-stated their GDP (the other side of the equation) in hard times to create confidence. Many countries, including at least two of the G20 don’t even publish budget figures (Indonesia, China or Turkey) – they are estimated by private consultancies based on scant, external figures. Isn’t it then totally naive to say that nobody else fiddles their figures?

      The reason this is told again and again, is because it fits the government’s agenda. And so, in defence of Johann Hari, what I say is: if Osborne doesn’t seem to know the difference between debt and deficit (or at the very least doesn’t care) why should JH?

      • March 31, 2011 9:53 am

        You’re absolutely right – I’ve heard Osborne use them interchangeably (I have assumed accidentally but I think there is some deliberate dissimulation going on). I’m sure plenty of govt. MPs don’t actually know the difference and are just parroting the current party line.

        And that is a key point about the lack of available data from other countries, one that should be repeated. I’ve no doubt that Ireland (see today’s Peston blog for indications of the true scale of it) will be revising its figures too.

        I do think that the left needs to just be a little bit careful of not falling into the same trap though, and to distinguish national debt, external debt (which Niall Ferguson was using interchangeably with national debt on Question Time, despite it being largely beyond the govt’s remit), and deficit.

      • March 31, 2011 10:08 am

        The third link in the main article is to a press release still on the Conservative Party website. Even if GO is confused, I don’t think the people that check his releases would have let it slide if it were not a deliberate misinformation campaign. And yes, you are right. Labour and the press need to unpick the issues and elevate the debate to the realm of reality rather than propaganda. The frustrating thing is, they are not! GO will sit there and spout this rubbish and well-respected BBC journalists just nod along.

  3. Peeeeeps permalink
    March 31, 2011 11:47 am

    It’s a very simple technique. If you repeat a lie enough times, it will start sounding like a true fact. Some of us already believe that there is a problem with our finances. GO audition t HoC Treasury Committee is quite telling. Our national debt is lower than Germany’s, and a a result of the cuts, in 5 yrs, it will be higher.

    It doesn’t help that journos on TV do not challenge politicians. You hear a lot about portugal’s financial crisis. No ever mentions that the Portugal’s problem is not national debt, buy private debt and low growth. Which are the main effects of the cuts, as certified by OBR.

  4. Dave Ratchford permalink
    April 1, 2011 11:57 am

    This is a first rate article. In particular, your point about the present Government having an ideological motive for parroting what is a deliberate and shameful misdirection is spot on.
    There may well be an absolute, cash-figure record deficit, but this is proportionately no greater than it has been in the past in comparison with our income which is the crucial fact.
    Indeed, many respected economists would argue that the Government needs to spend public monies in such a recession to stimulate the economy – not throw thousands of people out of work and create a climate of fear that militates against growth in the economy.
    But then… if you’re already a millionaire and you are looking to create a subservient and fearful labour market who will accept whatever crumbs you throw their way… …and also further pave the way for selling off juicy public assests to the private sector… maybe you would pursue this strategy, eh?

  5. Dan permalink
    April 12, 2011 9:58 pm

    This disgusting coalition government is using the deficit lie to deny some of the most vulnerable people in society their basic rights to subsistence! Government has admitted it has instructed Jobcentres to find reasons to sanction people denying them all benefits that they are legally entitled to. Those suffering the most are the very young, those with learning difficulties and those suffering from mental health issues, effectively making some of them homeless!

    The health of society shouldn’t be measured by the extra wealth gained by those that already have much, its success should be measured by how those who have the least are cared for!

    Feel ashamed Cameron, Osborne and Clegg!

  6. April 15, 2011 9:08 pm

    Amazing article. I’ve been reading contents on internet for many days but frankly speaking I never got so fascinating post to read out unlike yours.And yes i have digg your site sturdyblog.wordpress.com

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