Leading article: The burden must be distributed fairly

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The Independent Online

George Osborne cannot be accused of dithering over what he sees as the great, glaring ill of the British economy, the alarming structural deficit. In deference to the sensibilities of his party's Liberal Democrat allies he might have opted for a slower, more drawn-out, approach. Instead, he seems bent on inflicting maximum pain at once. It is a huge gamble and he cannot pretend to be unaware of the risk. A chorus of Keynesian voices, extending well beyond the ranks of the Labour Party seemingly to include the US President, Barack Obama, looks on the pursuit of austerity with suspicion, fearing it will choke off a weak recovery and bring with it a return to recession; the infamous "double-dip" recession of which we have heard so much.

There are precedents for such a dark scenario, not just from the 1930s. Tory austerity policies in the early 1980s sent unemployment rates soaring, placed strains on society from which Britain has never entirely recovered, and made Margaret Thatcher so unpopular that she would surely have lost the next election had not a dramatic victory in the Falklands War miraculously restored her fortunes.

Against those possibilities, Mr Osborne calculates that a now-or-never moment to cut has appeared and that the public is psychologically prepared to swallow unpleasant medicine today that it might not be ready to take tomorrow. The Chancellor may be correct in his estimation of the popular mood. But he should not confuse stoicism with masochism, for the country will only take the unpleasant medicine he is offering if it is convinced there is no alternative.

One danger, therefore, is that the public loses its nerve. Another is that the Liberal Democrats back away. So far, the Tories' greatest political success has been the relative ease with which they have brought their coalition partners along with them. Chancellor Angela Merkel, managing her own, far more fractious, centre-right coalition in Germany, would have every reason to be jealous.

But Nick Clegg's team will only stay onside if cuts are seen to fall on one and all, not just the poor. This is where Mr Osborne's percentages could cause him political trouble, because he has made it clear that he wants 80 per cent of savings to come from cuts in public spending and only 20 per cent from tax rises. This stands to hit the poor the hardest. Moreover, it appears that the tax that is to be put up is VAT, not income tax, which again, is bad news for the poor.

To sweeten the pill for Mr Clegg, Mr Osborne has said he will honour one of the Liberal Democrats' key demands, which is to lift low-wage earners out of income tax altogether. Funding this will obviously cost more money, and it isn't yet clear where the cash will be found. The Chancellor might feel tempted, therefore, to quietly forget about that pledge. He would be most unwise to do so, precisely because it is one of the Government's few fiscal promises that seems designed to help the less well-off. If the Chancellor wants to bring the whole country along with him in his drive to reduce the deficit as rapidly as possible, he should make this one of several changes that cushion the lowest-paid from the worst effects of the coming turbulence.

People are, on balance, probably ready to undergo sacrifices in order to rectify the gross imbalance in our finances. By and large they accept the logic that if drastic action is not taken, Britain's creditworthiness will be threatened while in the long term future generations will be saddled with monstrous levels of debt. At the same time, they want to see the burden shared. If rebalancing Britain's books entails a return to the kind of savage social divisions this country experienced in the 1980s, many will conclude, quite rightly, that this is a price not worth paying.