As regular readers of this blog will doubtless be aware, Mediolana’s CSO is one busy bunny these days and rarely has time to watch any television unless it is truly essential viewing (the progress of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the 2013 African Nations Cup just about falls into this category). However, between the end of his evening shift and the commencement of a session of late-night staring at the World in 2013 earlier this week, he found that someone on another floor had left on the latest edition of Question Time (BBC 1, 24th January 2013). A few minutes of watching this programme left him wondering what any outside observers – including but not limited to the Communist Party of China, United Russia and Partai Demokrat - must think of the United Kingdom.
The key moment revolved around the issue of the ‘austerity’ policies currently being pursued by the Conservative Party-Liberal Democrats coalition. This set of policies has seen the implementation of some cuts to various elements of the UK’s budget in an attempt to reduce the country’s stupefying debt, which was estimated by US investment banking behemoth Morgan Stanley at just under 1,000% of GDP towards the end of 2011 – the highest debt load proportionate to output of any country in the G10. However, this approach has not been enough to stop the growth in borrowing, with the budget deficit reported as being £15.4bn in December 2012 – £0.6bn higher than at the same point in 2011.
Anna Soubry – a Conservative MP and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health – was challenged on this point by the Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP and former cabinet minister who ascended to public office at the start of Tony Blair first administration. But instead of berating Soubry for not reducing the deficit, Bradshaw advocated that Britain follow Barack Obama’s lead by imitating the United States’ ‘growth-oriented’ path – by borrowing yet more money. A few minutes later, the MP for Exeter – to general approval – argued against cuts to the armed services, despite the fact that the United Kingdom has the world’s fourth largest military expenditure budget yet is placed only 22nd internationally in terms of population; is surrounded by neighbours with which it has no territorial disputes; and, as underlined by the Barack Obama-Hamid Karzai meeting of 13th January 2013, has an ever-diminishing role in Afghanistan.
The choice the British public are being presented with – and will be presented with for the foreseeable future – is that between (a) reduced government spending which fails to stop the escalation in indebtedness and (b) increased government spending which ratchets up the escalation in indebtedness; in other words, two varieties of hitting the wall. The comedy value of British politics has rarely been so apparent; the joke is unlikely to be lost in translation.