Only in the public sector is an increase a cut. The current debate over public spending is bogged down in the parade of the bleeding stumps, arguments over 25% cuts, and an argument over allowing the health budget to rise when most else is set to tumble.
So let’s try again. Total spending will go up by £68 billion over five years. That’s a much slower rate of growth than we have been experiencing in recent years. Some of that increase will be gobbled up in higher interest charges as the state continues to borrow on a large scale. It is not, however, the end of the world as we know it. There does not need to be a cut of 25% or anything like it in any public service which matters. It may require more than 25% cuts in spin doctors, bureaucracy, silly jobs, regional government and the rest.
The big question today should not be about allowing Health an increase in spending. Health is not going to do that much better than spending as a whole, and does face extra demand as the population gets older and as more treatments and drugs become available. The big question is why are there cuts when spendign is increasing? How do we do more for less in all areas, including health? How do we get the public sector to live in the real world, where modest cash increases are sufficient to do a good job and to keep everything that needs sustaining?
Technically running all the key public services for the £700 billion on offer should not be difficult. Politically it will be very difficult, as most of the public sector still thinks it needs to argue for more money at every turn and threaten the worst possible consequences if it does not have its way. The politicians have a duty to lead the debate with new language. They need to use the cash figures at every available opportunity, and get across that this is a tight but not a cruel or unrealistic settlement. They need to find public sector maangers with a “can do” rather than a “you must pay attitude”. They should conclude we need fewer public ector managers, and ones with a very different approach.