For all their gray hair and off-the-rack suits, the politicians of Westminster can be as herdlike in their behavior as a gaggle of Justin Bieber fans. Try to discuss policy with an MP and you’ll probably get back a string of two-word phrases. Raise the subject of economics and chances are you’ll hear the words “growth strategy.” A “growth strategy” is precisely what Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t have, says the opposition—he’s just obsessed with making spending cuts. What he needs is (two-word-phrase alert) a "Plan B." Nonsense, retort ministers; the first priority is our (here comes another) “deficit reduction” plan. Party spin doctors compact serious ideological disagreements into lines bounced to MPs’ BlackBerrys and parroted in BBC discussions.
Laughable? Of course. But sad, too, because the Battle of Pithy Economic Euphemisms conflates two subjects of vital importance—and trivializes them both.
The first is obvious and immediate: how the British economy gets well again. Britain and the United States look somewhat similar at the moment: an anemic recovery, with unemployment high and the housing market still heading south. But the treatment prescribed by Britain’s ten-month-old center-right coalition is very different. However timid, and watered-down, and downright unsatisfactory his stimulus measures, Barack Obama is not by conviction a deficit hawk. In Downing Street, by contrast, they really do believe that Britain needs the economic policy equivalent of leeches. Cameron will soon begin the biggest cuts to public spending Britain has seen since World War II. Government departments will be slashed by 19 percent over the next four years, while half a million public sector jobs will be lost. This is bloodletting on so vast a scale it alarms even orthodox economists and business groups. By the government’s own projections, it will depress growth every year until 2013—even as the country struggles to emerge from its deepest and longest postwar recession.
Just as Victorian quacks used to do, Cameron acknowledges his treatment will be painful. But he claims it is necessary if Britain is not just to get out of recession but have a sustainable future. In making this argument, he is raising a second, longer-term question: how should the economy change? Ask a senior politician from left or right where Britain went wrong during its long boom of the past two decades and eventually his or her answer will boil down to this: the country went finance crazy. The economy and the government depended on revenues from the banking industry. And voters without high-rolling jobs in the City or Canary Wharf racked up massive debt and used their homes as speculative assets, to be bought and tarted up and sold on, sometimes within months.
After years of giddy excess, post-crash Britain is a chastened creature, its people full of solemn vows of sobriety. In Westminster the consensus is that the country needs fewer banks and more factories, or what one former cabinet minister summed up as “less financial engineering and a lot more real engineering.” There’s no reason why this perfectly sound long-term objective should be lumped in with the more pressing concern of ensuring that Britain doesn’t lapse into another painful recession. But that shallow Westminster debate, the noisy back-and-forth of policy bullet-points, has fused the two arguments while ensuring that neither gets a proper airing.