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Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico: With £27bn more cuts to find, something's gotta give. Why not the NHS ringfence?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that on the government's own figures (if you believe those - and presumably the government does?) there are still a further £27bn of unspecified additional tax rises and spending cuts to find in the next Parliament.  They don't mean there are £27bn of tax rises and spending cuts next Parliament - there are way more than that!  They mean that, in addition to those already set out, there are still £27bn more to find, on the government's own plans (which, observe, fail to meet the original deficit and debt reduction targets, rely on no disasters along the way, and are probably still a bit optimistic even then).

If there were to be no further tax rises or benefits cuts and the NHS, Schools and overseas development ringfences were maintained - so the cuts fell on those departments already being cut 20-odd percent - the total cuts for non-fenced departments would exceed 30%.  The IFS describes that as "close to inconceivable".  It suggests that there would be scope for £7bn of extra tax rises whilst maintaining the 80:20 spending cuts to tax rises rule.  But that still leaves £20bn extra spending cuts.

To be realistic, there are just three kinds of places an extra £20bn could come from: pensioner benefits; schools; and the NHS.  Those are all areas Cameron promised not to cut.

Barring some unlikely saving event - men from Mars arriving to dole out free fusion energy for all would be nice, but still might not be enough - in the end, for all its wriggling and hoping and wishing it were otherwise, if it isn't either to default on its debts, see banks go bust, or allow high inflation, the government is going to have to cut in some or all of the areas of pensioner benefits, schools, and the NHS.

I'm perfectly happy to say "I told you so".  In my view, the notion that we should have massive spending cuts whilst ringfencing the departments where spending went up the most - health and schools - so that, instead, there were huge spending cuts where spending hadn't risen, was ridiculous for the start.  It also meant that cuts could only be done slowly.  Whilst it would have been straightforward to say to the NHS that it had got by only as recently as 2007 with 15% less spending and we'd never accepted it was a good idea to raise it that much so quickly under those circumstances, so you'll have to get by with 15% the day after tomorrow, that couldn't be done in departments where a 15% spending cut meant going back to resource levels last seen a decade and a half ago.  Cutting where spending hadn't risen meant slow cutting.

The sense of political priorities is all screwed up.  How do people think it's absolutely harmless - indeed, a matter of political virtue - to cut the benefits of the poor from what were already (one presumes by definition) subsistence levels whilst at the same time politically inconceivable to cut the pay of a doctor on £110,000 per year (the average GP salary)?  I see, politically, how it has happened.  But I really don't get how policymakers with those priorities look themselves in the mirror.  I don't pretend that defence spending is efficient or that benefits couldn't be cut at all.  But the political priorities - slash departments where spending hadn't risen; slash the benefits of the poorest; still fail to maintain the country's credit rating; under no circumstances contemplate cutting in the departments the spending rises in which were the key drivers of excessive public spending and an important cause of low economic growth - seem totally bizarre to me.

In some animist societies, in response to bad harvests and other poor economic circumstances, they gather all their resources together and build expensive totem polls or exotic golden bejewelled shamanic shakers.  Westerners look on at these practices with bewilderment - how are such quasi-religious totems their expenditure priorities?  I feel much the same about the NHS.  I can observe that the rest of you think that's the thing to spend your limited resources on.  I can track the history of how that developed, and find it sociologically and politically interesting.  But from a personal ethical viewpoint, and the viewpoint of rational priorities, I remain bewildered and alienated by your quasi-religious totemic attachment to it. 


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