Are Britain's public finances becoming unmanageable? The ratings agency Standard & Poor's certainly judge them so, downgrading the UK's credit worthiness with a warning of further humiliation to come if the nation does not mend its ways. Although the news startled the markets, perhaps the most surprising thing was why it took Standard & Poor's so long to state what has been perfectly apparent for some time – that Britain's public finances are out of control. They will remain so until a government is returned after a general election with a clear mandate to tackle the underlying structural problems that have developed in the years since Gordon Brown left the taps running on public spending. To vary the metaphor, we should have left the boom and entered this recession with a war chest – a surplus on the public finances that could now be used to protect the poorest from the effects of the downturn. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr Brown decided such prudent provision was no longer necessary because he had started to believe his own silly claim that he had abolished "boom and bust".
The recession, the cost of rescuing our faltering banks and the emergency stimulus to the economy administered in last November's Pre Budget Report have all added to the scale of the debt. Perhaps without those expensive complications, Standard and Poor's would have left the UK's debt rating unmolested. Perhaps not, though. For S&P joins the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research and scores of City economists in highlighting the political as well as the financial issue we face: that no political leader has yet summoned the guts to tell the British people the ugly truths about what will have to be sacrificed if we are not to end up in a situation where the very size of the burden of public debt prevents the economy from growing fast enough to begin paying it off. Whatever else, an early general election fought around the absurdities of MPs' expenses would be an exercise in distraction. A measured debate about the generosity of public pensions, the state's role in health and education, and the fairest way of raising tax must wait for a less fevered time.