Review: A Fate Worse than Debt - A Guide to Britain’s National Debt from Boadicea to Cameron

Mark Gullick reviews Dr. Lee Rotherham's 'A Fate Worse than Debt'

by Mark Gullick on 8 August 2013 18:04

Economics is High-Church Latin for the modern age; a language understood only by the elect and used to deceive the non-elect. A powerful antidote to the fog of economics through which the experts currently and cluelessly peer is provided by Dr Lee Rotherham’s punchy, informed and surprisingly funny book, A Fate Worse than Debt.

Dr Rotherham combines a plain and patient explanation of the state of current Western debt with a potted history of the phenomenon, as the book’s sub-title says, ‘from Boadicea to Cameron’. Strange bedfellows, but these are strange times. Dangerous times, too, if Dr Rotherham’s prognosis is correct.

The focal point of much of this review of the present state of the West’s coffers focuses on the way the political elite confuse deficit and debt. If your deficit is coming down, it looks like happy days, except that your national debt is still going up, just not as fast. If you are in a sealed room with two taps running, turning off one tap may seem sensible, but you will still drown. As for the solution, Dr Rotherham is admirably clear and dogmatic; cuts now, or much bigger cuts later. The public sector must be tamed.

Dr Rotherham, along with his colleague Matthew Elliott, wrote The Bumper Book of Government Waste in 2006, and so the list of suggested cuts in this book is surgically precise. Also, the problem is not just implementing cuts, it’s making genuine, effective savings rather than posturing with manipulated and insignificant statistics to create a ‘narrative’ – that very modern version of the truth – that says the government is really trying to pay off the national debt. Dr Rotherham warns that ‘Anyone who claims what is being done to try to cut back on public expenditure is radical is talking out of a rather large hat.’  Sticking-plaster cuts are deferring future collapse.

And the future is dictated by the past. Dr Rotherham’s whistle-stop tour of the history of national debt is as amusing as it is informative, moving easily from Danegeld to the South Sea Bubble, from Geddes and Keynes to World War II. Large-scale debt is not new to the West, but the drama may be reaching the final act.

What A Fate Worse than Debt reminds us is who our enemies are. Using the model of the banking system and its recent collapse as a starting-point, the book reveals that although bankers acted recklessly and in tune with their hyper-acquisitive natures, the fault line runs through politics and its corrupt modern practices. The real cause of the coming financial catastrophe is the political class. Tweedledum will take fiscal credit today for electoral advantage even if it means ruin tomorrow when, hopefully, Tweedledee will be in charge.

There is nothing sensational or revolutionary about A Fate Worse than Death, which is what makes the book essential reading as financial darkness at noon gathers across the West. The book simply presents the scale of the West’s debt dilemma in crystal-clear prose leavened with humour and set in a historical context.

All UK politicians, particularly those who hold the purse-strings, should be forced at fistpoint to read Dr Rotherham’s book, to be shown what they should – and probably do – already know. There is now no real virtue in saying what has never been said before; what must be done is to re-say what has already been said until it is finally heard. 

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