But I am not sure it would be a good thing …
For entirely innocent reasons I found myself trying to remember what I thought Liberal Democrat fiscal policy was before the last election. Entirely innocent, I assure you. I came across my post discussing the endorsements of the Guardian and the Economist for the LibDems and Tories respectively. The Guardian’s endorsement was perhaps of less historic significance than I felt at the time, though their caveat about Vince now reads satirically: “So admirable and exemplary on the banks, nevertheless remains a deficit hawk, committed to tax cuts which could imply an even deeper slashing of public services”.
It is the Economist piece that most interests me here, and their reasons NOT for supporting the party most ostensibly attuned to the magazine’s liberal instincts.
But look at the policies, rather than the man, and the Lib Dems seem less appealing. In the event of another European treaty, they would hold a referendum not on that treaty but on whether to stay in or leave the EU; odd, given that they also (wrongly) want to take Britain into the euro. They are flirting with giving up Britain’s nuclear deterrent. They would abolish tuition fees for universities, which would mean either letting the quality of British higher education slide still further or raising the subsidy to mostly well-off students by increasing state funding. They are worried about climate change but oppose the expansion of nuclear power, which is the most plausible way of cutting emissions. Their policies towards business are arguably to the left of Labour’s. A 50% capital-gains tax, getting rid of higher-rate relief on pensions and a toff-bashing mansion tax are not going to induce the entrepreneurial vim Britain needs.
Of the policies highlighted, I am not sure whether the LibDems still have any of them, bar the mansion tax. And on that subject, the Economist itself seems to have woken up (or rather, lost the particular correspondent likely to have pushed in those words).
So, what is left to win the Economist’s endorsement for 2015? This leads us to turn to their positive reasons for supporting the Conservatives. I would be interested to see whether they feel Cameron still deserves the brownie points for environmentalism, social liberalism and ending the Europe-bashing. Their instinct to reform the public sector should arguably still garner the magazine’s praise, and “waffle about a Big Society” now needs an assiduous historic Google search to unearth. But the core of their recommendation comes here: “For Britain to thrive, this liberty-destroying Leviathan has to be tackled. The Conservatives, for all their shortcomings, are keenest to do that”.
If you think Britain has a Liberty Destroying Leviathan, I will have a few hundred charts over the next few years to disabuse you. I doubt I will ever do as good at job as FlipChartRick here. The really big and largely undiscussed story of the next five years of fiscal policy should concern quite how far – and how unnecessarily far – some parties’ current fiscal plans go in destroying a Leviathan that is more Calvin than Hobbes. The Economist is run by brilliant writers who are fixed on this idea (an interesting recent book by the Economist editors, “The Global Race to Reinvent the State”, is ably reviewed and opposed by Philip Stephens here). It is an idea whose time did come. And it also passed.
People need to fixate on levels as well as rates of change. The levels of public spending per head projected for 2019 look like being a third down in real terms in just a decade from when that endorsement was written. If the LibDems have the sort of plans that the Economist in that frame of mind may want to endorse, we should worry.