The coalition will leave more debt than all Labour governments since 1900

Christopher Goodfellow: The government's claims to be balancing the books don't stack up.
Christopher Goodfellow: The government's claims to be balancing the books don't stack up.

By Christopher Goodfellow

The coalition has so far run up more public debt than all the Labour governments since 1900 combined.

The current government’s now responsible for £517 billion of the trillion-plus-pound UK public debt, compared to £472 billion accrued during the 33 years Labour led the country since the turn of the twentieth century.

And the figures look even worse when you adjust for inflation. When you do that, the coalition’s share jumps to nearly half of the total debt.

Whatever happens with the economy it’s almost certain the debt will still be growing come the 2015 election and it’s somewhat ironic that the coalition could be responsible for such a huge legacy of borrowing given the deficit dictated so much of this government's policy.

Should the coalition have lost the debate about debt? Is it possible to reconcile this performance with the Chancellor’s claims that he’s dealing with the deficit and taking the tough choices to clear up Labour’s mess?

There’s some truth to the narrative that Labour as a party have been irresponsible, but perhaps not that they were particularly bad in their last term in office.

The previous Labour and Conservative governments saw just two periods of budget surplus (two years under Thatcher and four under Blair), a pretty dismal record from both camps.

That said, Labour governments accrued debt at almost three times the pace of conservative governments over the last hundred years. On top of that, the Conservative governments of the 20s and late 80s did some work at getting the debt as a percentage of GDP under control.

The problem with pointing the finger at Labour’s last term in office is governments of all political stripes tend to spend years wrestling with deficits after economic downturns.

The Tories did in 1996 while still recovering from the recession of the early 90s, handing over a sizeable deficit. Labour did after the decline in economic activity in the early 00s that would, in terms of government spending deficits, cascaded into the start of the global financial crisis. The coalition will too.

We’ve borrowed a staggering amount of money to get through the recession and its aftermath in spite of the government’s tough stance on spending.

It’s good that the Chancellor George Osborne wants to get a handle on the debt because it has a tendency to keep increasing, but it’s been doing that as our economy expands anyway and there's been very few times in past 100 years when this hasn’t been the case.

The Queen's speech gave a nod to the debt issue that used to dominate politics, but there's nothing about the mountain of debt this government will leave behind that suggests they've got to grips with the situation.

The coalition missed their own borrowing targets and is at best left clinging to the flimsy claim that they may have slightly mitigated an event that was going to have a catastrophic effect on our finances regardless of who was in charge.

This didn't start out as an exercise in laying the blame with a particular party. We can have the debate about where we would be if Labour was in power until we're red-faced and stuttering at the dispatch box.

What I'm trying to get across is two-fold: to put the sheer extent of the recession's impact on the country’s finances in historical context; and to play down the idea Labour caused it and the Conservatives cleared it up. Neither of those two arguments carries much weight.

Christopher Goodfellow is a freelance political and business journalist. You can follow him on Twitter, visit his blog, or read his work in the likes of the Guardian and Vice magazine.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


Load in comments