Even to ask the question seems absurd. We all know the answer: we have heard it so many times.
As David Cameron put it,
“To every mother, father, grandparent, uncle, aunt – I would ask this question. When you look at the children you love, do you want to land them with a legacy of huge debts?”
Who could fail to be moved?
Or as Edward Winder wrote in The Independent in 2015,
“Economic circumstances dictate that ‘austerity’ is absolutely necessary. Britain’s national debt currently stands at a horrifying £1.5 trillion. When interest rates inevitably rise, continuing to ‘borrow to invest’ will quickly become unsustainable as this number rockets ever higher; it should not be controversial to assert that this is downright irresponsible.”
And when supported by charts like these, the argument seems irrefutable.
But what about when supported by a chart like this?
The chart shows that the debt spikes up whenever there is a major economic shock. You can see the Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars and the Global Financial Crisis. But critically, having spiked up is no barrier to economic growth: Debt to GDP was over 200% before the Industrial Revolution really took hold and over 250% before the Golden Age of Capitalism. In neither case did the much higher debt levels slow down the economy.
The national debt is not, and was not, “huge” or “horrifying”; it was not even rather high; it was not average; it was below the average level for the last 300 years. It certainly did not justify almost a decade of destructive austerity. No wonder most economists believe that austerity was a dreadful mistake.
Austerity was a political choice. It was not an economic necessity.