Alex Massie

How to Cut Spending and Frame the Argument

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A characteristically interesting column from Rachel Sylvester in The Times today, in which she describes how the Tories are looking to how the Liberal Party in Canada managed to slash public spending a decade ago. As Sylvester describes it, our Canadian friends lopped 20% of their public spending bill and dismissed as many as a fifth of all state employees.

In other words, cutting spending can be done, even if it's never easy and always controversial. But unless you tackle welfare and the NHS then - absent a fundamental rethink of government needs and priorities - it's unlikely that many of the other measures - charging for museum entry! - will make much of a difference. Of course, the Tories say they are committed to that sort of Big Thinking.

Momentum is on their side. When even the Prime Minister is forced to retreat and admit that even a Labour government will be forced to cut public spending then the tide is running fast and true on the Tory station.

How to play it politically, though? The public may respect a tough love approach but they won't love it and some will certainly fear it. In that respect, John Major's intervention at the weekend - proposing that public spending be reduced by a third - was helpful, not a hindrance. For it opens the door to a vital argument against Labour: all this extra money spent and to what purpose?

As the ASI points out - and as I've blogged before - cutting public spending by a third would reduce it to £450bn and that is, in real terms, roughtly what the government spent in 2000. So, even these swingeing cuts only take usback to where were were lessa than a decade ago.

Put in that context, the Tories can counter Labour's "Tory cuts" agenda with the observation that we're only asking the government to live within its means and cut back its spending to the level it was three or four years ago. Framed like that, the spending argument begins to take on an almost trivial air: is that all it's about? But then that's also about all this exhausted, crippled government has left. The Tory cuts arguments supposes that the recent past was a grim and brutal place to which the Tories are eager to return us all. But it wasn't and people can understand that, just as families are enduring a period of spending restraint, so must th egovernment. Indeed, they have every right to expect, even demand, that the state adopt a similarly prudent approach.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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