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Matthew Parris

It may be time for a collective mea culpa from the media

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

It so happened that last Friday, before my partner and I set off from Derbyshire for the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool, he drove over to Cannock, to report a meeting called to discuss the
consequences for South Staffordshire of looming spending cuts. He (his name is Julian Glover) writes for the Guardian and wanted to describe the meeting for his column that Monday. This, inter
alia, was what he wrote:

‘Education spending in Staffordshire this year is £805 million, or £4,078 per pupil — 63 per cent up on the level of 2003 to 2004. In just three years, South Staffordshire
Primary Care Trust’s resources limit has risen from £663 million to £888 million: up 44 per cent.’

Great Scot. Is that typical? I’ve had — for years — the vague feeling that public spending was edging inexorably upwards under the last government, and often heard people
suggesting as much. But the sheer scale of the increases has, I confess, quite passed me by. Gordon Brown’s self-proclaimed prudence during the early years (when he was sticking to Tory
spending plans) had lodged itself in my imagination; all the talk of the ‘Iron Chancellor’, along with his grumpy demeanour and his constant references to his ‘Presbyterian’
rigour, must have lulled many, like me, into a false sense of financial security.

Before the crash I only recall writing twice on the subject of Treasury profligacy: once in 2002, when Gordon Brown suddenly threw 50 per cent more money at a startled health service:
‘This,’ I wrote in the Times, ‘is an epoch-defining blunder, and nobody is listening.’ I began the column by predicting that to oppose this massive increase in public
spending would be all out of tune with the spirit of the times, and my column would sink without without trace or comment. It duly did.

Then in 2004 I wrote (‘There is a feeling that we are living beyond our means and deserts’) that mysterious wodges of money seemed to be coming from nowhere. It does not appear to have
occurred to me that a good deal of it was coming from mounting public sector debt.

In both cases, I let the subject go — I cannot now think why. There will be scores of national and local columnists like me who will (as I can) point to a column or two, a paragraph here or
there, fretting about public spending; but where is the columnist who made his name, founded (or ruined) his reputation, by banging on about public spending? How many commentators on politics or
economics can honestly say that a recurring theme of their journalism over the last decade has been the debauching of the public finances? Who obsessed? How many intelligent, highly educated and
well-informed men and women whose job it has been to spot the rocks beneath the surface can put their hands on their hearts this weekend and claim that what obsesses all of us now was obsessing
them before it became the no. 1 topic of political conversation that it is today? We’re always rabbiting on about how the politicians should apologise for this or that: maybe it’s time
for a collective mea culpa on the budget deficit from the national media too?

Whenever in history a great storm blows in unheralded from the horizon, it is rarely the case that it was in fact entirely unheralded. Plough through the archives on any economic crash or political
debacle and you will usually find a scattering of commentary, going some way back, mentioning the possibility. But it will be thin on the ground, and tentative, and mixed in with a great deal of
other stuff, much of it more portentous, about things that in the event never did happen.

It is of course true by definition that what catches us unprepared is unlikely to have been universally predicted. But when the rocks are as jagged and prominent as those which Britain is now
trying to negotiate, and when in principle they’ve been visible for years, then you have to wonder what is the point of contemporary analysis. When hindsight makes something look inevitable,
it’s fair to ask what happened to foresight.

I write this after emerging from Nick Clegg’s speech to his party conference on Monday. He spoke against the backdrop of a shared acceptance that Britain’s budget deficit is by far the
biggest problem the nation faces. Much of Mr Clegg’s speech was about this apparently now blindingly obvious problem. When he spoke as a new leader two years ago, I cannot recall he even
mentioned it.

We commentators will spend the next few days picking through Clegg’s speech and discussing where the coalition is heading. And, do you know, not only do I doubt we have the least idea, but
I’d bet a modest sum on the prophecy that when we get there, we’ll look back on September 2010, and realise it stared us in the face.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.

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