Now that David Cameron has stumbled over the burning issue of more, more cuts, is there any chance of holding a sensible local debate on the subject before or even after the election? With a couple of honourable exceptions the local MSM seem lack the analytical skills and editorial ambition to take it on. Politicians in all three devolved areas are in denial and are pinning their hopes on a hung parliament to try to blackmail a weak central government to provide extra cushions in coming years. They can dream on. Different parts of Cameron’s politics pull in opposite directions. But the overwhelmingly majority of English of all parties will unite against any hung parliament that gives the Celts an unfair deal at their expense.
The politics are incredibly difficult. David Cameron’s toughish talk on cuts clashes with his soft “respect” pitch to the Scots, and the N Irish where the Tories are politically weak , and in Wales where their position has improved. How to arrive at fair cuts all round may be at odds with Cameron’s main plank as the Conservatives, the party of the Union.
In the Bel Tel the admirable John Simpson spelt out the challenges facing Sammy over the present round of £370 million cuts. What about the next round, the possible Cameron cuts coming in the autumn or even as early as June? My colleague Alan Trench in his great blog Devolution Matters critiques Cameron’s remarks. This is a start. Anyone out there willing to take up the challenge? Professor Barnett again? Can we get extend the discussion beyond process reforms and more government contracts for small businesses?
From Alan Trench on “The Tories and regional spending cuts”
It’s worth noting that there has already been a considerable reduction in public spending in Northern Ireland since 1999. In 2003-04, it was 126 per cent of UK average per capita spending; the estimate for 2008-09 was 122 per cent. Part of the rationale for some of the Treasury’s generosity toward Northern Ireland (as with the financing deal for devolving justice and policing) is that it is a way of sharing that ‘peace dividend’ between the North and the UK
Targetting public spending in regions where the public sector is ‘over-large’ is at odds with adopting a needs-based approach to public spending, as David Cameron has said they Tories will (reported best by the Western Mail here).
Helping the economy as a whole to grow so that the public sector is a smaller part of it is a laudable ambition and need not involve public spending cuts. But this is very hard to achieve; Labour policy since 1997 has to been to try to do this, by various means, including (in England) establishing regional development agencies and a public service agreement target. None of these initiatives has been very successful. Securing real, private-sector-led, economic growth in lagging parts of the UK is very tough indeed, and will require a careful plan, not just rhetoric.
Beyond this, it’s hard to reconcile what are clearly two different directions of Tory thinking – ‘reining back’ the state on one hand, and equity in allocation of public spending on the other. The relationship between these two strands appears to be a weak one. This may just be a matter of presentation, but it may also suggest that they’ve simply not understood the complex interaction of these issues, and developed a coherent, thought-through approach to them.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London