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enter image description here

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

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    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 – Phil Hannent May 4 '17 at 13:30
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    @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 '17 at 13:42
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    Obligatory smbc reference: smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-02-28 – vsz May 4 '17 at 19:24
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    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 '17 at 21:30
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    @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. – inappropriateCode May 5 '17 at 7:51
54

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...

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    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 '17 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. – DavidTheWin May 4 '17 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 '17 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 '17 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 '17 at 17:23
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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 '17 at 13:53
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    @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 '17 at 14:15
  • @Yakk: FYI the party is called "Labour". – Lightness Races with Monica May 4 '17 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. – Lightness Races with Monica May 4 '17 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 '17 at 15:09
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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).

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    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 '17 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 '17 at 14:48
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    @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 '17 at 11:32
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Yes, the debt has increased, but the annual deficit has been reduced. See this page for an historical view.

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    However the likely cause for the large deficit following the 2008 financial crisis has gone away, so that is perhaps not saying very much? – Dikran Marsupial May 5 '17 at 6:48
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Though the answers so far have done a good job of pointing out the numerical facts of the matter, the political context needs elaboration. The question cannot be answered alone by proving or disproving the stated fact, but by giving context to the things implied from this fact.

At the time of the 2010 general election the government was reeling from the financial crisis of 2007-8. The Conservatives blamed the national debt on the Labour government. They claimed it was Labour spending which had triggered the crisis (and thus created much of the debt they inherited). This then formed the basis of Conservative strategy; they would cut public spending with a policy of austerity to reduce the deficit.

However, it's more complicated than that.

Firstly, they specified that they would cut the deficit, (not the debt) and this is an important distinction. Public debt being the total the government owes, and the deficit being the fact their revenue is negative: the difference between income and spending. Of course, one needs to fix the deficit before they can service the debt; but the Conservatives only pledged to improve the deficit.

Secondly, their claim that the crisis was due to government spending was rebuked by senior civil servants, and plainly false. Before the crisis (as other answers point out) public debt was 35% of GDP, and this increased significantly after the government was forced to purchase large corporations which would otherwise have imploded - as the government feared a second great depression.

The implication that Labour are better economically than Conservatives, owing to better public debt figures, is short-sighted or deceptive. It's true that under New Labour Britain enjoyed its longest economic boom. But this is less to do with their leadership and more to do with the economic climate.

To understand this, we need to go back to the Winter of Discontent. In 1979 Margret Thatcher won the general election for the Conservative party, promising to end British socialism; hoping to reverse a prolonged period of economic disorder and decline. She liberalised the economy, selling off and closing state industries, and deregulating the financial sector.

By the time of the 1997 general election the seeds of boom and bust sown by Thatcher in 1979 had blossomed. This was the high point of economic growth between two low points of economic decline. It's also worth noting that the issue is further complicated by another unstated fact. The present leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, is an "old Labour" socialist, contrasting "new Labour" of 1997-2010. They had abandoned socialism and adopted Thatcherism. The Labour party of today is not ideologically consistent with the new Labour of the past... or even the Labour party just before Corbyn became leader.

In conclusion, the stated fact is true, but any implication drawn from it is false. Labour's boom and bust, and the consequences for the Conservative government which followed, were because of an economic environment independent of their leadership. It was a high growth environment back then, which enabled relatively low public debt.

Additionally the implication that the Labour party was better, so we should have a Labour government now, is a deceptive supposition, because the Labour party of today is not the same as then.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Thanks for your answer but a large part of it seems a bit too speculative for this site. Can you try to stick to the evidence and avoid speculating? Stuff like "If the Conservatives were in government at the time there's no evidence to suggest that the crisis wouldn't have happened to them too, or that they wouldn't have also bailed out the banks to ensure economic stability." is your own pure speculation, for example. Please review your answer for similar opinions and either specify it's your opinion or otherwise remove them, but please don't imply they are factual. – Sklivvz May 5 '17 at 10:55
  • @Sklivvz Fair point. Is that better now? – inappropriateCode May 5 '17 at 12:42

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