David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Uncomfortable Budget Trade-offs in Britain


For weeks, the Conservative and Liberal coalition in government has been making the British shiver with warnings that the economy is in so frightful a mess that savage cuts will be necessary in practically every area of public spending. £83 billion was the magic figure for these cuts. Everybody, every budget for entitlements, welfare provisions that make it financially more rewarding to be unemployed than in a job, every special interest was to suffer. Trade-union leaders representing the work force and their benefits have been promising to let none of this through. Why, in France the mere proposal to raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62 has been enough to cause riots and mayhem in 300 towns and cities. British unions are positively itching to show they can do the same.

Well, George Osborne, the man supposed to be wielding the knife as Chancellor of the Exchequer, has spoken, and it turns out that the cuts will return the country’s public spending to the level of 2007. Moreover, by 2014–15, public spending is projected actually to have risen. There are areas of Britain where two-thirds and more of the population is employed by the state, which is close to a sovietized command economy. The National Health Service is the biggest employer in Europe, so sacred a cow that its budget and indeed the whole collective system is beyond the root-and-branch reform it requires. (Rather inspirationally, I originally mistyped this as “rot-and-branch.”) Socialism is a fool-proof agent of general impoverization, and once it has entered the society’s bloodstream, disinfection is practically impossible short of a Gorbachev-type collapse.

A very uncomfortable trade-off is that the defense budget is being cut while foreign aid is actually increasing. The details of the defense cuts seem to be drawn straight from Lewis Carroll. For instance, there are to be two aircraft carriers but no aircraft to put on them. One of the carriers will be moth-balled as soon as it is launched. In future, Britain would be unable to recover the Falkland Islands, or repeat the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The moment seems to have arrived when Britain has accepted that steady decline and political ineptitude have left it a second-rank power.

Such a decline places Britain on the same footing as every European country. The entire continent sees no need to have real means of self-defense, as though no other countries might ever create a genuine security crisis. Iran, Turkey, Russia, could probably invade almost unopposed. Given the feebleness, the money spent on foreign aid openly serves the purpose of buying friends. Recipients of aid, however, are never grateful. Maintaining foreign aid while cutting defense is only glorified appeasement, and it will rightly earn international contempt.


Subscribe to National Review