Is the high level of Government debt a justification for austerity?

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In the piece posted below, Henry Stewart exposes Osborne’s sleight of hand by using the high level of government debt to justify his cuts – the debt that has grown under Osborne’s stewardship from £960 billion in April 2010, just before the coalition government was elected, to £1.5 trillion five years later.  Nevertheless…

UK government interest payments at lowest since war

By Henry Stewart : @happyhenry

Government debt was, in 2010 and 2015, a key element in the general election. The high level of debt is the justification for austerity. Politicians on the right and left have explained that the high cost of servicing the debt prevent spending on health, education and other areas.

The natural assumption is that this has been such a key issue in 2010 and 2015 because the cost of interest payments on the debts were particular high in those years. An analysis of government statistics reveals that the opposite is the case. The cost of interest payments were, proportionately, at their lowest levels since the war in the years 2010 and 2015.

UK Interest Payments lowest as % of government spending

There are two ways of comparing the cost of interest payments: as a percentage of overall government spending or a percentage of UK GDP. Interest payments were 4.3% of government spending in 2010 and 4.9% in 2015. As the graph below shows, the level was higher in all other post-war years. At the end of the previous Conservative government, in 1997, interest payments represented 9.7% of government spending.

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UK Interest payments lowest as % of GDP

UK interest payments are also at their lowest in terms of proportion of GDP. In 2010 the figure was a post-war low of 1.7%. In 2015 the figure was 1.8%, equal lowest with the years 2003 and 2004. In this case the figure at the end of the last Conservative government in 1997 was 3.3%

A key reason for the low cost of interest payments is clearly the low interest rates at which money can currently be borrowed. However, as many economists have pointed out, the low interest rates make this the best time since the war to invest in the public infrastructure rather than cut back.

And if the main problem with debt is the cost of servicing it, why has this only become an issue when that cost is at a post-war low?

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These figures are taken directly from the PSF (Public Sector Finances) aggregates databank: http://budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/data/

Contact Details Henry Stewart can be contacted on henry@happy.co.uk,

or on Twitter: @happyhenry

Editor’s note:

William Keegan wrote in the Guardian, October 2015:

‘George Osborne is what is known in the trade as a “chancer”. Chancers often get found out. William Hill has made the chancellor hot favourite to succeed David Cameron. We shall see. The wider implications of his unnecessary policy of austerity are gradually being brought home to the middle classes and all those middle-England voters whom the new leaders of the Labour party are accused of ignoring. The “cuts” are affecting surgeons, GP surgeries, local authority social services for the old and the infirm, and reaching into many other corners of everyday life.’