A decade of Tory spending cuts left the country vulnerable to the external shocks of the past two years

Source: Financial Times

John Burn-Murdoch

 DECEMBER 23 2022

When Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s infamous “mini” Budget sent Britain’s finances into turmoil in September, it was pilloried as an egregious example of putting ideology over evidence. Both of its architects were gone within a matter of weeks, and a chastened Conservative party announced a series of U-turns. The damage was done, but it was relatively shortlived.

This makes it all the more tragic that a previous catastrophic policy did not meet the same timely fate. The effects of the Conservative austerity programme during the Cameron-Osborne years have been steadily accumulating over the past decade, but this winter that trickle has become a torrent.

Chart showing that the Tories’ austerity program made deep and lasting cuts to public spending, especially investment, eroding Britain’s state capacity

If you’re lucky, you can get away with cutting investment for a few years. Everything gets a bit more fragile, but as long as there are no nasty external shocks, you might be able to avoid disaster. The effects of slashing public services are a little harder to hide, but you might get away with gradual deterioration.

The problem is, when you’re hit by a pandemic, an energy crisis and an act of gross economic self-sabotage in short order, your now brittle and exhausted public services will buckle where a healthy system would have taken the strain.

Twelve years on from the start of austerity, the data paint a damning picture, from stagnant wages and frozen productivity to rising chronic illness and a health service on its knees.

Chart showing that UK real wages are lower today than 18 years ago, and have fared much worse than any peer nation

Real wages in the UK are below where they were 18 years ago(opens a new window). Life expectancy has stagnated(opens a new window), with Britain arcing away below most other developed countries, and avoidable mortality(opens a new window) — premature deaths that should not occur with timely and effective healthcare — rising to the highest level among its peers, other than the US whose opioid crisis renders it peerless.

Yes, the NHS budget was protected throughout, but the ringfencing of health spending masked disastrous missteps beneath the surface.

With a rapidly ageing and ailing population, merely maintaining spending was insufficient. In the last decade Britain has dropped away from its peers on overall health spend(opens a new window), while investment in healthcare infrastructure(opens a new window) halved between 2010 and 2013. This left the NHS with less spare capacity than any other developed country when the pandemic hit. This proved a huge drag on productivity, leaving UK health workers hamstrung by shortages of beds and equipment.

Chart showing that the impacts of austerity have been stark, from ballooning waiting lists and worsening A&E performance, to a rise in avoidable deaths and stalling life expectancy

The implicit assumption that the only spending that protects and promotes population health sits within the NHS budget has also proved a false economy. Cuts to housing and communities budgets have left Britain’s dwellings in such a dire state that they are now causing deaths among children.

Lives lost, earnings lost, years lost. Unlike Trussonomics, austerity is a slow and silent killer. For the best part of twelve years, the Conservatives sowed the seeds. This year they’re reaping the harvest.