Coffee House

Lies, damn lies, Nick Clegg and debt

4 December 2012

Is Nick Clegg lying about what he’s doing to our national debt? The L-word is seldom used in politics, and in spite of their reputation most politicians try to get it right. To lie is to deliberately mislead — but it’s hard to think of any other word to describe what the Deputy Prime Minister is now doing about our national debt. He is trying to give the impression that the debt is being reduced, when in fact it is rising faster than almost any European country. Here’s what he said today:

‘We now know it’s going to take longer to clear up the mess left by Labour than we once hoped. And that’s why we’re even more determined as a coalition government to do it as fairly as possible, to spread the burden as evenly as possible so that we can wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren.’

And the audio (apologies for the quality):

The below is what Clegg’s government is doing to our national debt.

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By what stretch of the English language is this ‘wiping the slate clean’? We at Coffee House have put a call into the Lib Dem press office to ask them. I’ll update you on the response. This matters because, according to opinion polls, just 10 per cent of the public realise that the national debt is going up. Given that 100 per cent of us will be repaying this debt which Clegg is running up like a drunken Keynesian, it’s very concerning. The public seem to have no idea about the debt being foisted on them by government. And when you listen to the language used by figures like Clegg, no wonder. It’s a puzzle, especially because I regard Clegg as unusually honest for a politician. I suspect he is just being badly advised.

UPDATE A LibDem press officer tells me he made the comment in his role as Deputy Prime Minister, so it’s a question for the Cabinet Office. An official later called up and explained that the Chambers dictionary definition involves “to start anew” which is what the government is doing with the deficit. I’m not sure how many viewers will reach for Chambers when hearing the DPM speak, but there we go. As the official said, the DPM was trying to use language that ordinary people can understand. My concern is that, if you focus grouped 20 people and told them the slate of debt was being wiped clean, how many would realise that debt was rising? It’s a very clear image, but indicates the opposite of what’s happening.

P.S. For CoffeeHousers wondering if Clegg really is doing it deliberately, he debuted his ‘wipe the slate clean’ line in May: here’s the Guardian calling him out on it. If it had been a slip of the tongue, you’d think he’d have noticed the Guardian piece and not repeated it. Yet he repeated it in October:

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Show comments
  • Soup Waiter

    Not really fair criticism, it’s not his job to fix the debt problem or the economy or any of that civil service stuff about schools and roads and whatnot. Clegg is a politician, his job is to get elected, to do that he has to tell people what they want to hear. In terms of doing his job he is easily the best of his generation. Faced with the opportunity of Deputy PM he didn’t hesitate to destroy his party utterly. After the next election all those mugs will be left to pick up the pieces while he will be away mixing it in the city. Nick Clegg doesn’t give two hoots if you call him liar, this “story” isn’t worth the ink.

  • Jenny Barnes

    Conservatives….failed to win the 2010 election.

  • Alex Wasyliw

    Nick is not saying that the burden and pain we are going through with austerity is reducing the national debt. Nor is he saying that debt is reducing. What he IS saying is that the burden of being able to pay off the debt must be borne in a fair way.

    As anyone who understands how debt and deficits work will know, the burden/pain of financial austerity is only (arguably) necessary whilst reducing the DEFICIT. Once the deficit is reversed and more money is coming in than we are spending, then the debt can start to be paid of with no further reductions in state spending. Nick is saying that the burden must be borne fairly… and the burden we are bearing now is paying off the deficit, which is proving more difficult to achieve than thought, definitely due to external international financial pressures, with domestic policy being argued as helping or not helping depending on your political outlook. His statement is entirely accurate when it comes to talking about sharing the burden of removing our debt, as this burden is tied in with deficit reduction, not debt reduction, which happens once the deficit is removed without further financial burden.

    I’m surprised the author of this post complains about people not understanding the difference between debt and deficit, yet seems to fail to understand the links between debt, deficit and austerity.

  • Stan Collins

    ” Given that 100 per cent of us will be repaying this debt which Clegg is
    running up like a drunken Keynesian, it’s very concerning.” I’m interested to know which taxes Fraser Nelson wishes the chancellor (George Osborne, not Nick Clegg) to put up to ‘balance’ the budget. The cuts so far have proved to be far less effective than promised so the other side of the equation must be looked at.

  • Alex Wasyliw

    Sooo… no time scale mentioned and no reference to wiping the debt? How is this lying?

    The first step to wiping debt is to reduce the deficit… that is being tackled. The slate can only start to be wiped clean when we are not paying more each year than we have coming in.

    “to spread the burden as evenly as possible so that we can wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren.”

    The pain is only present when you are reducing spending. you don’t need to reduce spending once the deficit is wiped out and we start paying off the debt, you just need to make sure spending does not increase above a level that puts us back in to a positive deficit. Conversely we can only reduce the burden on people by borrowing more and increasing the ‘deficit’. When talking about how we bear the burden to be able to pay off our debt, it is entirely reasonable to be talking about how we share the pain of reducing the deficit, because it is the deficit reduction which causes the pain.

    Also, just as an aside, given inflation factors, national debt and deficit’s are far better expressed as a % of GDP.

  • David Ossitt

    “To lie is to deliberately mislead — but it’s hard to think
    of any other word to describe what the Deputy Prime Minister is now doing about
    our national debt.”

    A lie, any statement that deviates from or perverts the

    To lie, to tell an untruth; pretend with intent to deceive.

    This clown, this apology for a man lives a permanent lie, he
    is an utter disgrace and will receive his just deserts at the next general

    • Soup Waiter

      he doesn’t say “we have wiped the slate clean” he says they’re going to it. He doesn’t say when, or how. It’s not a lie, it’s a meaningless statement, or “spin” if you like, or you can call it politics. I don’t see what the problem is at all.

  • Mathsy

    I suppose he could argue clearing the debt is their long term aim. Although with that size debt it might take a while to actually start clearing it once they stop adding to it….

  • doggywoggy

    If 10% of the population do not understand the difference between deficit and debt, and cannot understand that whilst the deficit is coming down, debt will continue to rise, then the mainstream media (and especially the monster which is the BBC) must take a large part of the blame, for failing to inform the public of a very basic situation.

    Well done Fraser for pointing this out. The rest of the mainstream media should point this out much more clearly every time any politician, or political commentator makes the basic mistake of conflating deficit and debt.

  • MarinerAncien

    Saw the clown pontificating at a school yesterday, his words were, that money is tight.
    Not apparently when you can lobby and get £12M for your Spanish wife’s favourite charity?

    • Soup Waiter

      Spanish eh? So that’s their game is it, we’ll see about that,…etc.

  • Iain Donaldson

    Surely even the spectator understands that reducing the deficit is merely reducing the amount by which you are overspending. The debt will continue to rise until such time as the deficit is eliminated and the country is earning more than it is spending.

    Do you really think that your readers are too thick to understand that?

  • slyblade

    Nick Clegg would lie with a dog full of fleas if he thought it would get him votes

    • Soup Waiter

      Yep, he’s very good at this politics lark. Lib Dem Deputy PM? I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

  • John Smith

    Have we not just taken on the Royal Mail Pension liability as well?
    So much debt off the books, all coming home to roost one day
    How much was that liability?

  • ATF


    An interesting point and a valid one to make in terms of the government’s inability to reduce the debt, but look closer at what Clegg is saying:

    “to spread the burden as evenly as possible so that we can wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren.’”

    “So that we can” are the key words. He isn’t saying that the government is currently eliminating debt but is instead in the process of trying to “clear up the mess left by Labour”.

    A semantic point? Perhaps. But an important one.

    If he was saying that as of today the government was reducing the debt he would be, of course, lying, but he isn’t saying that so I feel that your judgement, in this case, is out of step.

    Should we greatly concerned about the debt and push politicians to speak with greater clarity about these issues? On these issues I’m sure we’d both answer in the affirmative.

  • redrum

    It’s a lie. Global politicians are so cowed by “focus groups” and so little driven by conviction that they find it impossible to tell grown-ups grown-up truths. Unfortunately not enough of the sheeple are making it their business to find the facts which allows politician manipulation to flourish. what I would expect is that mainstream media would “call” the political class on this (no, not the spectator – BBC, ITV et al) but no – they perpetuate misinformation. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

  • michael

    he’s just regurgitating labour’s favorite debt/deficit confidence wheeze. No doubt probing to see if the electorate will keep swallowing it… Has it really come down to this?

  • Thomas Paine

    He gave a similar interview with Martha Kearney on R4 last year, prattling on about ‘dealing with the debt’ which as well all know is complete and utter tosh. She let him off with it as well which was utterly disgraceful.

  • Colonel Mustard

    The only dishonest thing is the desire to continue to fund big government when it can no longer afford to. How much does the government pay out in subsidies to lobby itself and/or nanny the public? Instead of ruthlessly cutting out unnecessary expenditure by going for the most cancerous top line figures the government tries to tweak the tax intake and limit expenditure increases across a broad front. It is the economic equivalent of Monty vs Ike (and I don’t mean Market Garden) and the war ain’t going to be over by Christmas.

  • maxiboy

    He’s a liar, obviously, from the party that makes disingenuity an art form (vide David Laws, etc etc)

  • dalai guevara

    The BoE printed £2,800 per head this year (175bn/63m heads). Osborne is on record that he will be short of £81bn, so on top of what he already intended to print, he will have to print another £1,300 per head (81bn/63m heads) to balance the books.

    The only way not to shovel this debt burden onto your kids is…not to have any.

    • Soup Waiter

      But then the immigrants and the EU inherit the debt. Scandalous.

  • Kevin T

    I’ll never forget the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Billion Pound Horror Story, which demonstrated most MP’s have no idea what the debt figure is and many don’t know the difference between debt and deficit. Which if you think about it is terrifying.

  • Archimedes

    Clegg is that absent minded sort of chap that doesn’t really think these things very important. His political persuasions are to politics what alternative medicine is to healthcare. He believes that all answers lie in the abstract, so he doesn’t really pay much attention to these arcane rules of the global financial system.

  • Weygand

    Hang on – Mr Nelson has created this argument out of nothing.

    Clegg makes no claim at all about actually having wiped the slate clean or indeed of achieved any reduction in the debt (In either quote).

    He says that the AIM of his policies is to wipe the slate clean – and that is no doubt the aim of all political parties. He may have made no progress (but he would probably say that the debt would have been even worse without the coalition policies). Even if he is wrong, it is far from being a lie.

    Mr Nelson should read more carefully what Clegg actually said and withdraw his allegation asap.

    • Fraser Nelson

      no party proposes cutting debt

      • HJ777

        Fraser, to be fair, it’s not the monetary value of the debt that is important, it is the size of the debt relative to GDP.

        This government did have the aim of reducing the deficit to the point where it represents a smaller percentage of GDP than the growth expressed as a percentage of GDP – at which point debt would start to fall as a percentage of GDP. This is now probably not possible within the term of this parliament, but it remains their stated aim.

        I do not think it unreasonable to talk about “cutting the debt” when you mean cutting it as a proportion of GDP, as this means that the burden that the debt represents would be falling.

        • Alex Wasyliw

          Nick Clegg is not even talking about the burden of cutting the debt, he doesn’t even use the word debt. Anyone who knows how the system works would know that the burden and pain experienced from austerity relates to cutting the deficit, not the debt. He is also right to say that the aim of the pain/burden is to wipe the slate clean, once the deficit is dealt with the debt starts to reduce… there is no mention of a timescale for wiping that slate and no claim that the current austerity measures are actually reducing the debt, which would be a lie.

          To be fair I think the problem is in the author’s interpretation of the comment based on a poor understanding of the relationships between debt, deficit and austerity.

      • Weygand

        Given that the interest on the debt contributes to the deficit – and your graph shows how high that debt has become – there must be an implicit aim to reduce the debt in the long term. If such is not a specific policy at the present time it is only because it would be impossible to achieve as things stand.

      • FF42

        All parties propose to cut debt eventually. (“For our children and grandchildren” gives them plenty of time). Whether there’s any real prospect of this happening is entirely a matter of opinion. Mr Clegg’s words might, in your opinion, be fantasy but not objectively a lie. What you wrote, though, is libellous.

        • Tosquis

          That graph shows that debt has risen greatly in the last couple of years, and will rise a bit more, before eventually declining somewhat. But it still ends up a lot higher than when the Coalition started. So how is that cutting the debt, which is the impression the Coalition have managed to give?

          Those figures are simply fantasy anyway. And of course a fantasy can be a lie, when the holder of the fantasy knows that there is very little chance of the fantasy coming true.

          • Alex Wasyliw

            The coalition have given no such impression. They have never said they are currently cutting the debt, they set out by saying they aimed to START cutting the debt from 2015. It’s hardly their fault if the press fail spectacularly to inform the public of how our economy works.

            • Tosquis

              Who are you trying to kid? The govt have been very careful to use language that obscures the issue. They’re also perfectly happy for the media to get this wrong. When you do you ever hear them correcting this impression?

              And how on Earth are they going to start cutting the debt by 2015? No chance. Perhaps they really believed this a couple of years ago, but do you really think they believe it now? Like every other govt they just want to kick the can down the road for a few more years and hope we can somehow muddle through.

  • HellforLeather

    Perhaps The Spectator/Coffee House should restore the national Debt Clock which I seem to recall it ran on its web site during the rundown of Brown’s government. That might serve as a reality check for any ignorant Spads who choose to browse at the site.

  • Edward Harkins

    Crikey Fraser I don’t hold with Clegg or the Coalition mess, but surely your reading of what he said is a tad too contrived as a basis for stating that he’s lying? He was speaking about ‘wiping the slate clean’ going forwards and in a future context.That’s baloney anyway, but it’s not what you base your ‘Lying’ accusation on. There are good reasons why, as you say, the L word is seldom used in politics; one reason is that if you use it wrongly that is a Very Bad Thing…

  • Jayarava

    Meh. The government have mislead us in a more fundamental way by misdirecting attention away from private debt totalling upwards of 490% of GDP, according to a McKinsey report; but the govt produced a similar figure in the 2011 Budget Report . Public debt at 60 or 70% is perfectly manageable.

    490% of £1.5 trillion is about £7.4 trillion, and the current net worth of the UK is £6.8 trillion. The 2011 Budget Report acknowledged this, but offered no actions let alone solutions. After that it has been quietly dropped as a subject for discussion, Mainstream pundits usually fail to mention it. Peston did once last year, but never again.

    Let me ask the question I ask all economists (with no answer yet forthcoming): How much is the is the annual interest on £7.4 trillion owed? If the total is ~ 5 x GDP then for every 1% of interest owed, it costs 5% of GDP to pay it. The maths is not hard. Our private debt is sucking up, I guess, somewhere between 25-50% of GDP just in interest payments, let alone paying off principle.

    Is anyone still confused about why the economy is not recovering? Why demand is low? Why the government is borrowing more?

    No doubt we have other problems. But none on the scale of the private debt problem. Though the ConDems will be happy to know that we can blame this on Labour too (well and Major) Over the 20 years from 1990 – 2010 GDP increased by about 260%; net worth increased by about 210%; while debt increased by about 700%.

    • Dimoto

      Ha-ha, Kevin T is worried that most MPs don’t understand the size of the public debt (why would they, most are lawyers manque ?) then we get this internet conspiracy nut posting his drivel which gets 7 approvals.

  • HooksLaw

    You are desperate to, undermine the govt. In my view its you that is lying. Its hard to not draw the conclusion that with every post you come more infantile and imbecilic.
    Just where is the lie in ‘to spread the burden as evenly as possible so that we can… wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren.’’

    The govt want to cut out the structural deficit and as and when start to pay down debt, ie run surpluses.
    The above conforms with that and does not say they the govt are cutting the debt now.

    Currently the whole Eurozone is going into recession and the IMF are cutting growth rates everywhere the world over. You chose not to emphasise this scenario and continually attack the govt for existing in hard times.

    • Dimoto

      You really shouldn’t take these “projections” of the OECD, IMF, BCC, random
      ‘finance houses’ etc. seriously. They change on a quarterly basis, are always wrong, and are just some bureaucrats’ guess (after consulting other bureaucrats).

      They are NOT the result of some superior wisdom and insight.
      With the exception of the Eurozone and a couple of Latin American countries, fundamentals are improving elsewhere. Sorry to wreck the so-beloved doom mongery.

    • Slibs

      >Just where is the lie in ‘to spread the burden as evenly as possible so
      that we can… wipe the slate clean for our children and our

      Er… the lie is in the claim that the slate is being wiped clean. It isn’t. Debt is increasingly remorselessly, with little hope of ever being paid off. Nor does ‘spreading the burden evenly’, which is vague rhetoric anyway, help to wipe the slate clean.

  • LB Page 4.

    4.7 trillion of debt hidden off the books.

    Is Nick Clegg

    a) Ignorant.
    b) A Fraudster.

    If he knows about the off book debts, he’s a fraudster under section 2 of the Fraud act.
    Or his ignorant

  • Arthur Dent

    The Speccie is another clown that doesn’t understand the difference between the deficit which is indeed falling substantially and the debt which not un between naturally continues to rise and will continue to do so until the deficit has been eliminated.

    The deficit is the difference between income and expenditure, if this is negative the difference adds to the debt. The first challenge for the government is to get the deficit under control i.e. to balance the budget only then can the debt be reduced

  • Jen The Blue

    As a nation we have got so used to racking up debt politicians have no concept of the idea of national debt. They just care about the deficit.

    Mind you, that’s going up too. If only there was a painless solution……….oh yes, there is. Mr. Balls has been telling us. If we spend even more all our problems will magically disappear and everyday will be the first day of spring.

    Someone remind me of what Jim Callaghan said about spending your way out of a recession….

    • ButcombeMan

      James Callaghan is the precursor who haunts Gordon Brown. His famous words must be ringing in Mr Brown’s ears: “We used to think that you could just spend your way out of a recession. I tell you, in all candour, that that option no longer exists.”

    • doggywoggy

      “They just care about the deficit.

      Mind you, that’s going up too.”

      In point of fact, the annual deficit is going down each year. It is just not going down as fast as the Government planned.

      • Jen The Blue

        Well there was some dispute about that, but listening to the Chancellor giving the OBR figures as I write this it seems you are correct.

        Which is good, but we should still be cutting much faster.

  • OWStirling

    I don’t doubt for a second you’re correct in your allegation. However, you are aware that Osborne, Cameron et al are saying the same thing, aren’t you?

  • RealTory

    Balls was conflating the deficit and the debt on Andrew Marr on Sunday as if they were one and the same – actually lying out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. Osborne on the same programme didn’t mention debt at all. I can’t recall Cameron ever being honest about it. Clegg is just a lying, out-of-depth prat. The reason they are not honest about it is not just that they are all liars, they just think we are all too stupid to know the difference. The problem is, they are right judging by your comment that only 10% of the population are aware the debt is increasing. As Dick said on 3rd Rock from the Sun (paraphrased) ‘What do you mean you have the same vote as me when I am so much more intelligent than you?’ We are doomed I tell you, doomed.

    • dalai guevara

      Selling the imminent discovery of UK shale gas to South Korea to balance our books? Is that our only hope?

  • ArtificialIntelligence

    The plan would have worked if it wasn’t for that pesky growth (lack of).

  • the viceroy’s gin

    By what stretch of the English language is this ‘wiping the slate
    clean?’ We at Coffee House have put a call into the Lib Dem press office
    to ask them. I’ll update you on the response. This matters because,
    according to opinion polls, just 10 per cent of the public realise that the national debt is going up.


    It’s probably by the same stretch of the English language that you Speccie teenagers once shrieked giddily of the Cameroonian “austerity” and “cuts”, of which we now know that either you were stupid or you were lying. Fine that you’ve climbed down and recognized one or the other of those 2, and are accepting reality, but you should also accept responsibility for the public of today not understanding that the debt is going up, since you were stupid and/or lying in explaining it all to them, heretofore.

  • John Moss

    Politician, lips moving……

  • Geoff103

    I don’t think he’s deliberately lying. Just too thick to understand.

    • John_Page

      He’s not thick – he can speak several languages. This isn’t hard. So it has to be a lie.

      • Jeremy Poynton

        A lot of “intelligent” people are not at all smart.

        • Alex Wasyliw

          Take this comments section for example…

      • Ian Beckett

        not difficult to speak several languages when your family is dutch and your wife spanish and you have spend your post public school education in banking and as a Eurocrat

      • Alex Wasyliw

        Or a massive failure in comprehension (or more likely a deliberate distortion) of what is being said by the author

    • telemachus

      It is the listener and the listeners interpretation.
      Nick is a smoothie without the Moral Compass of Gordon and Ed but not a Liar

      • Dicky14


      • Andy

        ‘but not a Liar’. Well that’s not something one can say of Gordon the moron Brown or Ed I made a Balls.

    • Dimoto

      A trivial debate about whether Clegg is a “liar”.

      How about debating how many times this low creep has prevented the government from moving on the deficit, with his petty blackmail and “differentiation strategy” ?

  • itdoesntaddup

    Check out the numbers here:—public-sector-finances-tables-1—12.xls

    Look at series RUTN, rather than HF6W, in PSF1. Net debt is at £2,166.2bn, and has been falling. It’s much worse than your chart shows, but at least it is getting a little better than it was. Clegg is being optimistic if he thinks we can get back to say 35% of GDP before he has grandchildren.

  • Bluesman

    Is Nick Clegg a liar?

    Hmm, tough one.

    • Andy

      Does he ever tell the truth ??

      That’s an easier one.

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