Leading article: The burden must be distributed fairly

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russell Brand makes an appearance at the People's March for the NHS  

If you think Russell Brand’s new book is confused, you should read what his critics have to say about it

Mark Steel
George Bush Snr and his adviser Lee Atwater  

Perception is reality: The facts won't matter in next year's general election

Simon Kelner
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain