Sean O'Grady: Hey big spender – how's your hangover?

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The Independent Online

Have you ever had a really bad hangover? If so you will appreciate the wave of queasiness now overwhelming the UK's public finances. As any heavy drinker will tell you, while one "cure" for a hangover may be to have another drink – a "hair of the dog" – that will surely result in a worse headache in due course.

So it is with the Government's borrowing right now; they had one hell of a party, but, as a Labour minister once wearily told his free spending friends in local government three decades ago, "the party's over". We're resorting to the rough equivalent of a hair of the dog. It is true that borrowing lots more may well be the right thing to do to stave off a slump, but it will still catch up with us.

Extending our boozy analogy a little, you could say that we simply got too drunk in the last stages of the party. That 3am whisky that seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time was maybe a drink too far, we now see. If we'd have gone to bed at midnight, things would not be so dicey today.

As the Governor of the Bank of England has said, we entered this recession borrowing too much annually – despite a relatively small total of national debt, thanks to the prudence of the old 1997 model "Mark One" Gordon Brown. The public spending binge that started in 2001 is now costing us. We have better schools and hospitals to show for it, but we should not be under any illusion that they came for free. The ones built under the private finance initiative will be even costlier in years to come, as will our generous provision of public sector pensions.

In other words, don't believe ministers who say that our lousy public finances are purely down to the recession.

Never mind the recession, then; it is the recovery we need to worry about. Burdened by the need to pay off public and private sector debt, UK growth will be sluggish for years to come; more like 1 per cent than the 3 per cent we've been used to lately. Things will feel a lot more like the similarly cash strapped 1970s; constant strains and strikes to secure minimal rises in living standards; resentment of private sector by the public sector, and vice versa; lots of crises; the pound under incessant pressure.

Now, remind me, who actually wants to win the next election?