Coffee House

Just 6pc of the British realise that the national debt is rising

4 December 2012

And while we’re on the subject of scandals in the British media, a pre-Budget ComRes poll just released by ITV News shows that just 6 per cent of the public realise what’s happening to the national debt. You can (and I do) blame politicians who don’t admit that the debt is rising massively – and then confuse “debt” with “deficit”. We at Coffee House have called out David Cameron and poor old Nick Clegg for this. But the real responsibility lies with the media. Most people don’t listen to politicians speeches, but depend on the way these speeches are reported.

I suspect you can listen to ever single BBC News outlet tomorrow (save for Five Live and BBC2 Daily Politics) without being given an inkling that the debt is rising. The word “deficit” is to blame. It’s a wonk word, that normal people don’t use – at home or at work. If most people had to guess, they’d say “deficit” is another term for “government debt.” When MPs say “we’re cutting the deficit,” most people hear “we’re cutting the debt.”

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In America, broadcasters tend to use more straightforward vocabulary like “balance the books” and “stem the rise in debt.” Jeff Randall at Sky News speaks with exemplary clarity on such issues. ITV, of course, commissioned this ComRes poll. Can you imagine BBC News doing that?

So tomorrow, you can make your own checklist. Will the Chancellor quantify the cuts, or the extent at which debt is rising? Or even mention the fact that debt is rising? Or will anyone on the BBC Six O’Clock News? Don’t bet on it.

Here’s the poll, sample 2,002 adults…

Which of these statements do you believe to be the most accurate?

The Coalition Government is planning to REDUCE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015


The Coalition Government is planning NEITHER TO REDUCE NOR INCREASE the national debt between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015


The Coalition Government is planning to INCREASE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015


Don’t know


There has been a bunch of these polls, and today’s 6pc figure is the lowest I’ve seen. Not enough people read Coffee House!  Strip away the figures, and ask simply if debt is rising or falling, then it rises to about 16pc which is still paltry. My colleagues at the Centre for Policy Studies made this  video which gets the point across rather elegantly.

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Show comments
  • mucky

    Is there a website that shows the running total on a day to day basis?

  • sir_graphus

    I think we knew this from election results and opinion polls.

  • racyrich

    Don’t suppose the figures were split by type of schooling, were they?
    It’s never a surprise to find the great unwashed don’t understand something when their monopoly educator is the government. Ignorance is bliss has been institutionalised.

  • Roberto Machado

    wait. so the media is to blame? not the system which allows banks to create money out of thin air. not a system which relies on debt to create wealth. the entire system is dependant on debt. cut debt and you cut growth. what is neded is a complete overhall of the financial system and how money is created.

  • Q46

    Time was when the deficit used to be termed, the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR) – of course that is less easily confused with ‘debt’, and borrowing is a bit obvious, so easy to see why the political tribe prefer ‘deficit’ in order not to give the game away.

  • Kevin

    “Just 6pc of the British realise that the national debt is rising”

    I thought the British were just the spectators at Wimbledon. Why would you expect them to be able to play tennis?

  • TomTom

    The Mass Electorate DON’T WANT to know what is going on. They have no idea how the system works whether Council or Government or Bank of England. It shows the disaster of universal suffrage and why it ends in sovereign bankruptcy. The level of ignorance of those studying Politics at school is inculcated by ignorant teachers and comic textbooks. The idea is that they know smatterings of superficial drivel and never learn to question. The Authority Structures want Compliance and a floundering voter population swayed only by sentimentality and greed. The System is designed to allow a self-perpetuating elite to rule unmolested. It is a Lord Stevenson of HBOS Syndrome

  • startledcod

    Surely the best idea is to go back to using the good ol’ PSBR for that it what the deficit is, the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement.

    Is there anything more infuriating than hearing a politician (OK Nick Clegg) talking about paying down the deficit; you cannot pay down a deficit, you just stop it rising and even if they were talking about debt in this country we pay back debt.

  • wrinkledweasel

    If you follow the rules of propaganda the perceptions of man in the street have clearly been formed by Labour banging on about cuts. (Keep it simple, tell big, fat lies) The Tories, the nasty bastard Tories are cutting everything and taking sweeties from your children.

    The thing is, if you read the Guardian comments there are people who actually believe this.

    Sad as it may be, the war is a war of perception and I am afraid that Cameron and co are far too polite to come out and tell it like it is and far too gutless to do anything about it.

    • TomTom

      I don’t think anyone outside MediaLoop talks about “Cuts” because unless they work in a sector where they are taking place they have no idea there are any. The air of unreality in this country is bizarre – many people see no cuts and have no idea that things are dire

      • TomTom

        In fact do read Allister Heath in today’s Daily Telegraph for a quality article on this very issue

  • Daniel Maris

    We’re pretty much f***ed aren’t we?

    Personally I would say we need a really big increase in the tax take to rebalance our finances. And we need to let loose the dogs of inflation.

    In parallel we need what I would call a “real economy” programme directed at benefitting the bulk of the population, focussed on energy infrastructure, home production, innovation and an export drive.

    • TomTom

      Let loose the dogs of inflation ? You are hilarious Daniel. How do you intend to do that with China ready to export you anything. You need Import Controls to create Inflation and to have the Balance of Payments controlled or it will spiral out of control as the currency collapses. If the Gilts Market tumbled it would wipe out Banks, Insurers, Pension Funds and collapse the financial system. The problem is simply too big for your cookie-cutter solutions. I suggest you think about Hungary 1946. You wil need a much bigger army to deal with civil disorder and martial law

      • Daniel Maris

        Well I am just trying to get a debate started here. You seem to be saying it’s OK to add £600billion to the debt…£27,000 per household. That can’t continue long term, can it?

        I may have been putting things a little starkly, but I am not sure doing things this way is helping in the long run. If the £600billion were really going into infrastructure investmnet that wouldn’t be so bad. But in effect it seems to be going into propping up the government’s finances. That’s why I say we need to increase the tax take. Sweden can live with taxes about a third higher than here. So can we, at least for a limited period while we rebalance our finances.

        And we should be looking to inflation to help reduce our debt.

        • TomTom

          For a start there has always been a National Debt since 1694 which is why the Bank of England was founded. It would be barmy to put £600 billion into infrastructure unless you want to concrete half the country. It would be a huge Misallocation of Capital just as putting £1000 billion behind the Banks was stupid. If you had Tax Increases and Inflation you would simply drive people to eat their children and scavenge on the streets. Do you think Germany 1946 was such a lovely place Daniel with people scavening for food and living in bombed out ruins ? You are completely off the wall. You are a real old-line Socialist boasting about Sweden: >50% Swedish exports are engineering products and it has natural resources and 9.5 million people in an area almost the size of Britain. Now explain how you want to create inflation……the Treasury has TREBLED the money supply in 3 years but the Banks are NOT creating CREDIT. Do you understand Daniel or do you need to read Steve Keen ? The Japanese have tried for 20 years to get out of their mess and now they run trade deficits and are the most bankrupt economy on earth. Stop looking up ancient school textbooks this is a Brave New World and your old-fashioned Closed Economy Economics does not function under Globalisation and Derivatives

          • Daniel Maris

            I wasn’t suggesting we attempt to eliminate the national debt entirely. But I am suggesting a few years of tax-focussed pain will help us get control of the problem.

            The position of Japan is somewhat different as virtually all their debt is owed to indigenous Japanese – meaning it isn’t really debt at all (just like giving yourself a loan).

            If you keep printing money, you will eventually get inflation.

            My point about Sweden is that it can function with a tax take much higher than ours. Of course it has advantages, but it also has disadvantages e.g. its climate.

  • HooksLaw

    The point to make here is that the British public are careless about debt and deficit. If push came to shove they would vote for jam today and tomorrow and the day after that as well. They would be open to it all being paid off later at the expense of common sense today.

    The public did not mind how much Brown borrowed before the crash, because they were anaesthetised by the drug of spending with apparent impunity.

    This a real danger and there are likely to be no votes in being sensible – perversely the Spectator wants to push the govt into even more austerity to reduce the deficit even more quickly, something which is likely to be even more unpopular.

  • Lupulco

    The debt will not be reduced until the Government, of which ever party, balances its annual budget. Only then can they start to reduce the actual debt.

    The People in their collective wisdom gave the three main parties the chance for a National Government in the last election. But all the Parties ignored the People, they will now reap their collective reward in the next election. With a] either less then 25% turn-out, hence no moral ground to form a Government, or b] a mass vote for an extreme party, or parties.

    What could have been done just after the last election, was;

    a] A real freeze on Government spending [in actual £=values] not real terms.

    b] High property values could have been used to good effect, abolish Council Tax, bringing in a simple Property Tax of 1% of Property/Land Values. [Values could be obtained, in 80% of properties, from the Land Registry.

    c] Serve notice that the MLR will start to rise to its historic norms over the life of the Parliament, at increments of 0.5% per 6 months.

    d] Serve notice on the Banks that Credit [debt] Cards can only charge % at a max of 3xMLR, %rates on current cards to be reduced by 1% every 6 months till this achieved.

    If Credit Card providers don’t like it they can always close their lucrative business down? Unlikely.

    e] Yes, Pensioners etc, would not like it, but as it is only a sort term measure they would have to accept, but at least % rates on their saving would start to rise.

    Most Pensioners have seen their income from savings drop by 90%, how many wage earners, apart from those who have lost their jobs, have seen this.

    But as i stated at the start. The Politicians have missed the opportunity offered to them by the British People, due to their greed for Power, or otherwise?

  • David B

    And we have not even opened the debate on the “Enron” style national accounting policies that keeps PFI debt and Bank Bailouts of the national balance sheet.

    If these accounting policies had been adopted by a company it’s directors would be under investigation by the DTI and be at risk of imprisment.

    • Madame Merle

      But there’s going to be PF2, didn’t you hear?
      This time the taxpayer will be sharing the profits, yipee!

      • David B

        Oh joy what will spend your tax refund on? Oh there is not going to be a refund!

      • TomTom

        Osborne is a Knave or a Fool. There are NO “profits” in PFI the profits are in the “costs” and Civil Servants cannot even auction a train franchise……Osborne is “Tim Nice But Dim”

    • TomTom

      Noone investigated Enron until it folded.

      • David B

        And if they investigated the national accounting policies the auditors probably would not sign off on them and our debt fuelled government machine would collapse.

        The liabilities that exist “off balance sheet” are vast and the probable contingent liabilities are worse eg the future pension liability.

        These liabilities were inflated by Brown (abelly supported by his two advisors the two Eds).

        • telemachus

          Please explain why the off balance sheet liabilities matter
          It is the dynamic forward movement of the economy that is paramount and without focus on this considerations of debt and deficit will founder

          • TomTom

            Rubbish. Don’t you pay bills unless they are under your nose ? You don’t think Off-Sheet Liabilities matter because you don’t pay interest on them ? Barmy. They are hidden to stop the public from knowing just how lucrative such deals are to the favoured who sign up to them. It is done to hide it from Parliament and Voters and reward friends. How can the economy move forward if large parts of it are in “dark pools” ? You really are naive.

            • TomTom

              In fact it is these Off-Sheet Deals that have made the Banks insolvent which is why they cannot lend. Their Liabilities > GDP so the economy is simply a subset of Bank Debt

            • telemachus

              The economy moves forwar when 1000% focus is put on growth
              Obama learned this and his economy is powering ahead

              • TomTom

                You are an Amusing troll. Obama’s Economy will raise its Debt Ceiling soon so it can go BUST. Geithner even wants to remove the issue from Congress so Obama can make Executive decisions to simply borrow ad infinitum. This is hilarious. Congress is becoming irrelevant and can be sent home as Charles I did 1629-1640.with Parliament. Obama’s Economy is a basket case dependent upon Japan and China to prop it up with places like Detroit as a model for any British city. Telemachus the TRoll Has Not A Clue !

          • David B

            Of balance sheet finance is the original form of derivative. By keeping the asset and liabilities off the national balance sheet we are unable to assess the economic value of the asset and whether the value of the benefit actually exceed the liability.

            Enron, RBS, Bank of Scotland, etc used exactly the same procedure and eventually the risks of the liabilities held off balance sheet exceed the value of their assets.

            What is the impact on the country? Very simple, by
            hiding the true level of borrowing, we cannot assess the level of future repayments. In part it was the total misjudgement of this
            formula that lead Gordon Brown to create such a large structural deficit (as even Ed Balls now accepts after the IMF told him so). Therefore off balance sheet finance represents a future drain on the countries revenues or will require hyper inflation to reduce the present value of the future debt burden we leave to our

            Ultimately Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and the rest of the treasury worked on the assumption that the tax payer could support every increasing levels of debt without the risk of bankrupt. The Euro crises has taught socialists (monetarists always knew) that this assumption is wrong and that if a country takes on more
            debt than it can service it will go bankrupt.

  • Archimedes

    No media outlet is going to attempt to sit down with their audiences and explain to them the difference between debt and deficit, and then go onto the difference between a structural deficit and a cyclical deficit. If you can sum it all up in about fifty words, or ideally ten if you want to drive it home, then maybe things will change, but media outlets rely on repeat customers so don’t count on them doing it otherwise – unless of course the opportunity presents itself.

    • Fraser Nelson

      Jeff Randal once opened his Budget coverage programme by doing exactly that, actually

      • Archimedes

        Did it stick? Does he make a habit of it?

        • David B

          Just because it is difficult or complex is not a good reason for politicians not to try and explain it. Though I suspect there is large number of current MP’s who don’t understand the difference.

          • Archimedes

            Before the election George Osborne used to talk about £1 in every 6 being borrowed. The media used the same language. I had no interest in these things back then, and didn’t intentionally follow politics at all but the message was pretty clear to me – even Have I Got News For You used the same language.

            I’m sure a much larger portion of the electorate understand the meaning of “deficit” than the portion that understand it in a financial context. Voters have adapted to political language and so they no longer listen to it – they derive the message from the theme. This is where Fraser is right that Clegg shouldn’t be sending the message of equating what they are doing with wiping the debt.

            It’s actually not all that difficult to explain the concepts here – it’s difficult for an interviewer to hold a politician to account on it at the same time as keeping the attention of their audience, because interviewers can’t really send a message and they can’t manipulate language in the same way as a politician without allowing themselves to be biased. It’s a job for the print media.

            On MPs: I think you’re right, but more depressing is the lack of curiosity on their part to even investigate it. These are mostly intelligent people, and a quick Google would embue them with the correct definition.

            • dalai guevara

              Andrew Neil used to grill his ‘contestants’ on this subject, but then he is also found waffling with Portillo about how Europe is dragging us down, it being all their fault and so on. It just does not wash.

  • Magnolia

    It looks like we’re going to go bust then because the first rule of debt is to know how much you owe and how you’re going to pay it back.
    Could a Labour ( Ed governing by victimhood ?) win in 2015 drive us back in to the arms of the IMF with the begging bowl?
    Even then debts have to be paid. if not in actual wealth then in economic pariah status for years to come.

    People are thick and ignorant and weak. Nice just got very nasty.

    • rubyduck

      People aren’t thick and ignorant and weak. They are busy doing their jobs, looking after their families, minding their own business.On what planet are they expected to be as clued up on the details of the job their elected representatives are supposed to be doing as those elected representatives are supposed to be? How much time are they expected to spend researching the causes of the financial crisis and evaluating the various (inadequate and conflicting) prescriptions for recovery? If a set of politicians claims there is a third way where they can have the cake they ate in 2007 because “running a national economy is not like managing the household budget”, why would it be thick, ignorant and weak to think there could be something in it?

      • Magnolia

        Fraser has already told us that most people have no idea that the country’s debts are increasing. That’s a path to bankruptcy. We already know that newspaper sales are in rapid decline and that people have more choice than ever before of media to ‘educate’ themselves but they still don’t know about the true state of the country’s finances. In the past, say the fifties to eighties during the last century, then yes I think people would have been more informed about our true financial state because they would have read about it in a newspaper and broadcasting was more honest. Nowadays it’s easier to be pig ignorant because the general public has been taught by the left and the lefty dominated BBC that the state will provide and that there is always a supply of rich people to blame or tax. It’s a broken model and it will end in economic and social breakdown if it’s not corrected. So yes people are thick because they have had such a poor education from Labour’s schools that they don’t understand the maths of a country’s economy and yes they are ignorant because they choose to read trashy magazines instead of the business pages of any newspaper and yes they are weak because they keep voting for governments which dish out more and more of the ever shrinking pot of taxpayers money to themselves.
        They need help and it doesn’t do to cover up the nasty problem with nice platitudes.

  • Daniel Maris

    The media could do a lot more to improve understanding. The public knows £600billion is big but they don’t really know what it means. If you said something like “£27,000 per household” – which I think it means if I have got my maths right – they would no doubt be horrified .

  • dalai guevara

    Hahaha – what has that got to do with the chap in the picture? There is no government, it ceased to exist since the HoL/boundary reform debacle, ever since then, each party is making their own statements.

    We are experiencing the ‘Belgian syndrome’, only that less than 6% have noticed…

  • the viceroy’s gin

    “…just 6 per cent of the public realise what’s happening to the national
    debt. You can (and I do) blame politicians who don’t admit that the debt
    is rising massively – and then confuse “debt” with “deficit”. We at
    Coffee House have called out David Cameron and poor old Nick Clegg for
    this. But the real responsibility lies with the media. Most people don’t
    listen to politicians speeches, but the way these speeches are


    Wow. So much to address here.

    First, you Speccie teenagers have not called out the Cameroons. To the contrary, you are their cheerleaders. You have been part of the Cameroonian PR department, from the start. The root of your problem today is that you’re now trying to distance yourself from that previous sycophancy, and your leg tingling rooting for the fantasy Cameroonian “austerity” and “cuts”. The public is convinced that MASSIVE cuts and austerity are in play, because such as you ranted and raved to that effect. Unfortunately, either you were lying or you’re stupid. Pick one. Or both. But don’t blame “the media”. Walk over to the closest mirror, and stare into it at the person to blame here.

    Second, it’s not just “the public” that’s confused about “debt” and “deficit” and “cuts” and “austerity”. Walk right back over to that same mirror and stare at another person who’s confused about these terms and usages.

    FYI, “cuts”, in the English language which you’ve accused Clegg of misusing, is defined as year over year reductions in spending. End of. It’s not inflation adjusted increases coupled with population adders and COLA multipliers and whichever bullshit your fellow bubble denizens make up, less a couple shekels to trick people.

    Cuts are year over year reductions in spending.<———-PERIOD

    Therefore, when you were ranting about all the spectacular "cuts" and "austerity", you only confused the public, because there were no cuts. They know that's not now THEIR spending is calculated, your bubble buddies perverse process. The public assumes your buddies are doing it the same way they and every other household and business does it. They'd be wrong, of course, but they'll never know they're wrong because such as you abuse the English language at the behest of your fellow bubble denizens.

    So you're on the right track here, and fiscal sanity is within reach, and the public will even support the effort, if they don't feel they're being lied to. Unfortunately, they have been lied to. And if you want to identify the liars… take another walk over… etc.

    • HooksLaw

      Of course there are cuts. There are some 25% cuts in non discretionary spending over the parliament.

      Indeed the Chancellor seems to be announcing that actual spending levels are even lower than programmed, which is why he can formalise them and put some of it back into spending on education. Conveniently this will help construction.

      No doubt you, safe in your ivory tower, would sanction even more austerity and bring rioting to the streets like in Greece.
      The slow growth in the economy and elsewhere is what is slowing the fall in the deficit.

      • Duke of Earl

        Eeerm, why do you think the economy is slowing? It’s because the fool Osborne increased taxes! Why did he raise VAT? Why did he reduce the 40p tax threshold? Why has he kept Labour’s fuel duty escalator? Why did he do a tax grab on the North Sea that decimated oil production? Why did he keep Labour’s decimation of capital spending? Why have they crippled business and households with “green” taxes?

        Meanwhile benefits increased last year by over 5%, state pensions are inflation proof, NHS spending is STILL rising, aid is ring fenced and rising, education budget is ring fenced etc. He is still spending!

        High spending + high taxes + high debt = disaster.

        Slash the state by actually REDUCING spending, slash taxes, and watch the economy grow.

      • TomTOm

        Ho are reductions in planned spending “cuts” ? Think in CASH terms. The “cuts” in projected spending may have something to do with the GDP growth not being there that they used to justify that spending. In short they are cutting projected spending as GDP growth tanks but not as fast as GDP tanks so growth continues. The dog is chasing its tail.

      • Q46

        Obviously you are among the 6 %.

        Moving money from one part of Government spending to another is not a ‘cut’ in spending.

        If somebody spends £10 less a week on cigarettes so they can spend £10 more on booze, they have not ‘cut’ their outgoings.

        Now who would be rioting in the UK in the event of more so-called austerity? Those who find they are being taxed less and allowed to keep more of the money they earn, or those who are not productive, who take out far more than they put in, like State employees and welfare recipients?

  • itdoesntaddup

    You make the case for proper regulation of the BBC…

    • dalai guevara

      Perhaps just swap freeview slots with RT’s Keiser Report for a week? That should achieve your desired effect, at zero cost.

      • TomTom

        Very True…but note Keiser Report is not shown on any US Networks either……nor in the UK where there is no serious financial programme simply contingent drivel from BBC Nannies to the Great Unwashed

        • dalai guevara

          UK Business TV (BBC and Sky) is like the Money section in the Guardian – people don’t want you to have any…never mind understand what a shareholding is.

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