The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has spoken. They are certainly a clever bunch, feared across the political spectrum and venerated by the mainstream media. But there is something amiss when political debate is reduced to the question of whose sums add up.
It is on this basis that I opened the IFS’s manifesto analysis – and surveyed the media storm it inevitably whipped up – with a degree of scepticism. The people of course deserve to be told the truth; it is absolutely right that parties’ fiscal plans are subject to expert scrutiny. But does anybody really believe that any party can engineer precisely what public spending and borrowing levels are going to be five years from now? These documents offer us a sense of the character of a particular party’s approach to government. The specific measures they contain – and certainly the numbers attached to these measures – have to be taken with a pinch of salt. And this, as Jonathan Portes has argued, that the value of the IFS analysis is limited.
I am not saying that we should accept the culture of misdirection that characterises how our politicians speak to us. But the IFS analysis – unwittingly, for the most part – goes much further than correcting falsehoods and exposing ambiguities. In presenting itself as the objective umpire of fiscal policy, it disciplines our politics.
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