Leading article: Mr Osborne's case for cuts by consent

Related Topics

It was with the three words "Education, education, education" that the architect of New Labour first defined his priorities in government. By the time Tony Blair left office, a jaded public was more likely to be heard muttering "Presentation, presentation, presentation". The lavish use of "spin" to control the message rebounded on the Labour government in a very big way, creating a climate of deep and corrosive distrust between power and people.

Thirteen years on, it is perhaps not surprising that a government headed by two men who have spent a part of their working lives in public relations so clearly appreciates the need to prepare the ground before elaborating unpopular measures. Nor is it surprising, with the example of New Labour so fresh, that the coalition is going about it in a very different way. As the Chancellor, George Osborne, set out his intentions yesterday, the idea is for a "collective discussion" involving as many sectors and individuals as possible, to meet what he described as the "great national challenge of our generation" – getting Britain to live within its means.

Now it may be that ministers, from the Prime Minister down, are painting the financial situation in more apocalyptic colours than strictly necessary in the hope that the emergency Budget will be received with sighs of relief. But we cannot, and should not, bank on that. The figures for the country's indebtedness speak for themselves. If, as David Cameron said earlier this week, Britain stands to be paying £70bn in debt interest within five years, that is, as he said, "a terrible, terrible waste of money" and a liability to be shrunk as swiftly and substantially as possible. To this end, the coalition's new and thoroughly welcome themes are transparency and participation. Winding up the debate on the Queen's Speech in the Commons, Mr Osborne introduced the criteria the Government would use for establishing value for money and set out a timetable for what is being described as "a period of external engagement between the Government and all parts of society", and that includes the general public.

It is easy to be cynical about such efforts. Experience of broad consultation exercises suggests that they can soon descend into futility at one end of the scale, or become fig-leaves for politicians to slough off responsibility for difficult decisions at the other. And those who forecast that the consultation process could cost more money than it saves may in the end be vindicated. But the Government's stated desire to open up the process and harness as wide a constituency as possible to an evolving austerity drive designed almost as a national crusade does not deserve a knee-jerk rejection.

The Government has done at least some of its homework, studying how other countries, such as Canada, managed to slash their debts. And its apparent determination to reassess the justification for all aspects of public spending, rather than identifying familiar targets or trimming across the board, is promising and something only a new government can do. It is hard to escape the impression that at least some parts of government spending have become ritualised and flabby. The question that has to be answered is which.

There are, of course, risks in this approach. One – already evident from internet chat-rooms – is popular suspicion that the Chancellor's only purpose is to spread the blame and pass the buck. Another is that the "national discussion" could turn divisive, as one group tries to save itself at the expense of others. We hope these risks can be avoided. For while it is true that taking difficult decisions is what we elect governments for, those decisions will be far more palatable if the rationale for them is clear and the widest possible range of views has been heard. This is why it is in everyone's interests that, at least for now, Mr Osborne's invitation should be accepted in good faith.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate Web Developer

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Graduate Database Developer (SQL)

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Day In a Page

Read Next
lowers, candles and other tributes in front of the Netherlands Embassy in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17  

To punish Putin for the MH17 disaster we must boycott Russia 2018

Jack Gilbert

The daily catch-up: Joe on Vlad, banks of the Jordan and Blair's radicalism

John Rentoul
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor