enter image description here

I saw this image being shared on my Facebook feed, and I was wondering the truth (if any) to it.

  • 7
    I am not sure what that image is meant to be telling people, I don't know if this is left or right propaganda? Labour for the last 7 years have been pushing for an increase in public spending to drive growth. Whilst the Conservatives agreed with public spending, the argument was about how much. This graphic implies that the Conservatives are doing what Labour want: bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-39392683 May 4, 2017 at 13:30
  • 12
    @PhilHannent - It's (probably, in my opinion) trying to tell people that the conservatives are irresponsible and hence should be removed. Its aimed at voters who don't (or can't be bothered to) understand what causes these figures, or question how the Opposition plan to change them. In that it reminds me of campaigning for my local election: the opposition complain that the incumbents should both decrease taxes and increase spending on schools, but doesn't provide any explanation of how both could possibly be feasible.
    – AndyT
    May 4, 2017 at 13:42
  • 2
    Obligatory smbc reference: smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-02-28
    – vsz
    May 4, 2017 at 19:24
  • 4
    It's telling me the conservatives grew the GDP by a factor of several hundred. Since I haven't heard any complaints of hyperinflation, I'm going to say that's pretty darn impressive (or false, which is more likely).
    – user253751
    May 4, 2017 at 21:30
  • 2
    @MohammadSakibArifin like any debt, the bigger it is the higher your repayments. Which is money that could have gone towards tax cuts or public services. National debt also takes a long time to clear, and although a government's commitment to paying off debt is rarely in question, if they keep taking out more debt, like a private citizen, their credit rating is negatively affected and the cost of borrowing increases, and borrowing options start to become limited. It's unrealistic to expect government to be debt free, but it's a good idea to try and lower debts where possible.
    – user34550
    May 5, 2017 at 7:51

4 Answers 4


The debt figures as a proportion of GDP appear to be correct according to the Office of National Statistics, which can be considered the official source.

enter image description here (Thanks @Henry for helping with the upload.)

However, the national debt appears to start rising rapidly in early 2008 under a Labour government (presumably in response to the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis), when it was 35%, and has been rising at a lower rate since 2010 under the Conservatives, so it is at the same time a bit disingenuous in my opinion, plus ca change...

  • 41
    The only thing I would consider modifying with this would be to emphasize that, while the numbers are strictly correct, they are A. cherry-picked and B. not representative of either liberal or conservative policies. I would imagine that EVERY Debt/GDP chart for EVERY country looks extremely similar for this given time frame, irregardless of whether a liberal or conservative government was in power.
    – DenisS
    May 4, 2017 at 13:23
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    The claim is also referring to the Chancellor at the time, George Osborne's 2010 aims to eliminate the deficit by 2015, then revised to 2020, then abandoned altogether. May 4, 2017 at 14:34
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    @DikranMarsupial maybe cherry-picked was the incorrect term. I meant more along the lines of provided without context, which you are correct in saying you did so. I was probably incorrectly thinking about the US, where presidential elections happened in 2008 and 2012, but not 2010. I guess for the second part I would have personally gone with a compare and contrast of other countries, showing that it wasn't a ideological switch in UK government that caused the debt explosion.
    – DenisS
    May 4, 2017 at 14:34
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    I disagree with the editorializing. Saying that one government is better than another with respect to debt because the rate at which the debt increases is marginally lower seems absurd. Both have increased the debt, and whether the rate of increase is due to policy or external factors (like the GFC) is basically impossible to decipher. The objective truth is that the debt increased. The disingenuous claim is that either party performed better on that measure.
    – aroth
    May 5, 2017 at 12:12
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    The problem with this answer and many of the folliow-up comments is that they confuse "rate at which the debt increases" with "rate at which the quantity (debt divided by GDP) changes". The slope of the graph is the latter, the relationship between the two is the quotient rule, not a direct proportion. And so conclusions about the deficit made using a graph of debt:GDP ratio are incorrect.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 5, 2017 at 17:23

This is the chart from the Office for National Statistics Dikran Marsupial may have been trying to upload:

enter image description here

It gives numbers of

  • 65.7% in May 2010
  • 86.6% in March 2017

For values an equivalent chart is

enter image description here

with values

  • £1030 billion in May 2010
  • £1729.5 billion in March 2017

so close to but not the same as your Facebook images

  • The range of values in 2010 under labor (not just a sample) might point out of the value above is in error, or just approximate.
    – Yakk
    May 4, 2017 at 13:53
  • 2
    @Yakk: In fact a more interesting issue is that the ONS regularly updates both the historic debt numbers and historic GDP, so the percentage for a particular point in time can change. So for example in November 2015, the ONS said the May 2010 number was 63.0% compared with them now saying 65.7%, and 65% in the Facebook image. For me these are close enough not to worry about
    – Henry
    May 4, 2017 at 14:15
  • @Yakk: FYI the party is called "Labour". May 4, 2017 at 15:05
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    "so close to but not the same as your Facebook images" Indeed, the Facebook image has a value three orders of magnitude different. May 4, 2017 at 15:06
  • @BoundaryImposition You could state "facebook image uses trillion instead of billion for conservative debt", but that would be useful instead of snarky. ;)
    – Yakk
    May 4, 2017 at 15:09

The image gives a value for 2010 of £979.8 billion, and a value for 2016 of £1,731.4 trillion. One trillion* (1,000,000,000,000) is one thousand billion, so rather than the 2016 value being roughly 1.7 times that of 2010 (Dikran Marsupial and Henry's answers seem to suggest this is largely accurate), it's actually saying that the UK's national debt has increased by more than a thousandfold.

As ever, relevant on XKCD.

*Assuming short scale, which the UK uses - see Long and short scales (Wikipedia).

  • 8
    That seems to be a typo more than an indictment of the numbers itself, unless the writers are implying that the GDP of the UK has also increased a thousandfold.
    – DenisS
    May 4, 2017 at 14:44
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    @DenisStallings - Yeah, I assume it's either a typo or just the image maker getting confused over decimal points vs commas. Pretty sure I'd have heard something on the news if our GDP had gone up that much!
    – gbradley92
    May 4, 2017 at 14:48
  • 1
    @DenisStallings To be fair, it does raise more questions on the accuracy of the graphic if they were willing to let something so obvious slip through.
    – JMac
    May 5, 2017 at 11:32

Yes, the debt has increased, but the annual deficit has been reduced. See this page for an historical view.

  • 2
    However the likely cause for the large deficit following the 2008 financial crisis has gone away, so that is perhaps not saying very much?
    – user18604
    May 5, 2017 at 6:48

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