Why Osborne’s assault on the state matters a lot more than the TV debates

Now the Chancellor has published his spending plans for all of us to view, there is no confusion or ambiguity

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Where were we before we were rudely interrupted? Ah, yes, towards the end of last year we were debating the size and role of the state, pivotal issues that will impact on the lives of every voter.

George Osborne’s Autumn Statement triggered the debate when he envisaged a quick leap to a smaller state in order to achieve a budget surplus. But then other matters which seem more important than they are diverted attention – the TV debates question, plus the rise of the SNP.

In comparison with the future of the state, the TV debates are a trivial matter, although the lack of them in any credible form is a blow for Ed Miliband. The Labour leader believes that David Cameron’s absence from them will damage the Prime Minister during the campaign; even so, debates with Cameron would have suited Miliband, with its relentless focus on policy in a rigidly structured two hours. Miliband could have expected to be deemed the winner, which would make Cameron’s decision to disrupt the debates, made long ago, entirely sensible from the PM’s perspective. Why take part in an event that will benefit your main opponent?

Scotland is altogether a bigger interruption to the focus on Osborne’s spending plans. I have argued here before that referendums solve nothing. The one on the UK’s membership of Europe in 1975 calmed everyone down for around 10 seconds before calls for us to leave the EU erupted again. The plebiscite in Scotland last September provided calm for less than 10 seconds. Even so, it is quite a contortion for voters in Scotland to refight the referendum in a general election.

If an army of SNP MPs descend on Westminster, as seems likely, neither Miliband nor Cameron will offer another referendum in the next few years. In the intervening period, some of the current nationalist fervour will probably subside as more voters in Scotland recognise they are already in a strong position, with desperate UK leaders giving them more or less whatever they seek.

Tax-raising powers? Take your pick. Generous funding in the form of the Barnett formula? You can have that as well. As for the apparent dilemma facing Miliband about whether or not to rule out any agreement with the SNP, it is no dilemma at all. He should declare that he is fighting to win a majority, and that is it. I suspect the Conservatives’ star strategist, Lynton Crosby, overestimates the fear in England of an arrangement with the SNP at Westminster. Tory posters of Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond convey a message that, if not reassuring, is far from frightening.


Osborne conveyed a more worrying message in his Autumn Statement. He was justifiably annoyed when his fetish for moving at breakneck speed towards a budget surplus was portrayed as a trip down the road to Wigan Pier, a form of 1930s hell. But even Osborne’s own interpretation is alarming. In an attempt to address the misleading evocation of 1930s darkness, the Chancellor has said that he planned merely to return to the spending levels of the late 1990s. Merely? Those levels were before the last Labour government began to invest in decrepit, decaying public services. Osborne seeks to return to these levels in the next few years when demands on hospitals, elderly care, schools and transport are much higher than they were then.

Or at least he does in theory. Some Cabinet ministers do not believe he will meet his absurd surplus target or has any intention of doing so. There is some evidence to back up this theory. Osborne has not met his target to wipe out the deficit in this parliament and does not seem especially troubled by his failure to do so.

The Chancellor is known to enjoy playing political games and perhaps the stringent targets were devised solely in order to catch out Labour. Osborne spends a lot of time in the north of England where he conjures up images of a northern powerhouse in which public transport connects major conurbations in the way that it does in other countries where the virtues of public investment are more readily recognised. While most Conservatives and the London-based media support sweeping spending cuts in theory, they oppose specific reductions.

Meanwhile, David Cameron announces plans for a big expansion of so-called Free Schools, schools that tend to be generously funded and in being accountable to the Department of Education are subject to statist centralisation while the state supposedly shrinks.

Such disparate developments point to a confused view at the top of the Conservative party on the size and role of the state. But the Chancellor has published his spending plans for all of us to view. There is no confusion or ambiguity. The shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, warns of £70bn worth of cuts. No doubt such a claim will be dismissed as scaremongering but Balls’ calculations are based on what Osborne proclaimed last December – the cuts required to reach a surplus, the uncosted tax cuts and the ring-fenced budgets. The scale of the cuts proposed shows that this election has in some respects echoes with the one fought in 2001 – when public spending was a key issue – as much as 1992 when the Conservatives last won an overall majority.

The outcome in May will not be the same as 2001 or 1992, because of Scotland, Ukip, the rest of the smaller parties, and a thousand other reasons. Nonetheless, the debate about the size and function of the state is more pivotal than the one about whether Scotland will leave the UK or whether the UK will leave Europe. Those apocalyptic scenarios will not be decided at this election. The future size of the state will be. Curiously, nearly all the leaders who will now take part in the TV debates oppose Osborne’s spending plans. Perhaps a progressive coalition will form in front of our eyes, although I doubt it.