OVER the past few weeks, debates over British fiscal policy have been conducted under the shadow of George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier", a powerful description of the poverty he found in the north of England in the 1930s. On December 3rd, George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, in his Autumn Statement, announced plans to turn Britain's deficit, which stood at £108 billion ($169 billion) last year, into a surplus of £23 billion by 2020. Because the government does not want to raise taxes to fund these plans, public spending is forecast to fall from 41% of GDP today to just 35% by the end of the decade.

That has prompted accusations that the government wants the country to go back to the late-1930s—and the Britain Orwell describes in his cri de coeur against poverty. The Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain's fiscal watchdog, stated that Mr Osborne's plans would force public spending down "below the previous post-war lows reached in 1957-58 and 1999-00 to what would probably be its lowest level in 80 years". "You're back to the land of Road to Wigan Pier", one BBC journalist roared. The opposition Labour party also sensed good electioneering material; on December 17th, Ed Miliband accused the prime minister of wanting to send Britain "back to the 1930s".

The implication of these statements—and the message the Labour party probably wants to send to the electorate—is that the government not only wants to reduce the level of public spending to levels last seen in the 1930s, but also wants to return to the level of public services seen in that decade tooas well as the squalor Orwell describes. But that has left British economic historians scratching their heads. Their discipline's revered book of facts about the country's past economic performance, "Abstract of British Historical Statistics" by Brian Mitchell and Phyllis Deane, reveals a very different picture of the 1930s.

In the year with the highest rate of spending, 1939, the government consumed only 30% of national income. And almost half of that—14% of output—was spent servicing the national debt accrued during the first world war, running Britain's empire and paying for its military. That only left 16% in 1939 for everything else—health, education, social security, policing, local government, infrastructure and so oncompared to around 30% in Mr Osborne's plans for 2020. In short, the story is not that Britain will be spending as little as the 1930s—but that in 2020 it will still be spending almost twice as much as a share of national income on public services and the welfare state as it was when "The Road to Wigan Pier" was penned.

In any case, many historians think the 1930s are incorrectly remembered by the public as a bad period for the British economy. Although unemployment and poverty were very high in the early 1930s—which was primarily due to the adoption in the 1920s of an overvalued fixed exchange rate with gold that was ditched in 1931—joblessness fell by more than half over the course of the rest of the decade. The economy grew by more than 4.5% a year between 1932 and 1939—at a faster rate than it had for several decades—and output per person surged from 79% of the American level in 1929 to 97% by 1937, in effect reversing 50 years of comparative economic decline in just eight years. Outside the few areas of high unemployment Orwell visited, by the outbreak of the second world war the average British worker had never had it so good.

Stripping away the hyperbole about Mr Osborne's plans shows that in reality they only amount to a reduction to the levels of public spending seen in 2002-03 in real terms, or 2001-02 in real terms per capita. The government could, back then, clearly afford a welfare state, as it will be able to still do in 2020. That is not to deny that some of the cuts will hurt: for instance, if the health, education and foreign-aid budgets continue to be protected, spending on other departments may need to be cut by half. But there are more sensible—and progressivetargets for cuts that would preserve these departments' budgets more or less intact, such as reducing state handouts for wealthy pensioners. Although Mr Osborne's plans are tough, a return to Wigan pier they are clearly not.

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