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Centre for Policy Studies Debt Poll

ComRes polled the British public on their understanding of the national debt.

Date Published: 26 Aug 2012

Categories: Economy | Politics | Public and communities | UK



In an opinion poll conducted by ComRes for the Centre for Policy Studies, when asked what they feel is most accurate:

•    47% of British adults responding said they thought the Coalition Government is planning to REDUCE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015.
•    12% said the Coalition was planning neither to reduce nor increase the national debt
•    32% said they did not know
•    And only 10% were right in saying that the Coalition Government is planning to INCREASE the national debt by around £600 billion by the end of this Parliament

The results, together with an analysis of how little the public understands the Coalition’s economic ambitions, are analysed in A Distorted Debate: the need for clarity on Debt, Deficit and Coalition Aims by Ryan Bourne and Tim Knox published on Monday 27 August by the Centre for Policy Studies.

The Coalition came into office in 2010 with the stated aim that it would eliminate the current structural deficit by the end of this Parliament and stem the increase in public debt as a proportion of GDP.

The authors demonstrate that it now looks most unlikely that the Coalition will achieve either of these aims. Though the deficit has fallen by around a quarter since 2010, the cyclically-adjusted current deficit (the part the Coalition said it wanted to eliminate within five years), had only fallen by 13% by the end of 2011/12. The great majority of the reduction in the deficit has come from cuts to investment spending and tax increases, not from current spending cuts (the authors show that only 6% of the planned current spending contraction has so far been implemented).

The official national debt is also forecast to rise by £605 billion (in nominal terms) over the course of this Parliament, or from 53% of GDP in 2009/10 to 76% of GDP in 2014/15. This week’s growth and borrowing figures make it all the less likely that debt will be on a downward path until the next Parliament, meaning the Coalition’s hard mandate will not be met on unchanged policy.

Public confusion on debt and deficit has not been helped, either by politicians or by leading journalists, who have both at times suggested the Coalition is reducing the national debt. The authors cite numerous examples of how both the national media and politicians have repeatedly confused “debt” and “deficit” (see pages 5 to 7).

Separate polling questions also show there is confusion over what the Coalition has achieved so far. Only 39% of the public correctly identify that the budget deficit has been reduced since 2010, compared with 28% who believe this to be untrue.

Widespread failure to understand the true nature of the UK’s economic predicament matters for two reasons:

1.    The Coalition parties will be vulnerable at the next General Election when opposition parties could argue that the huge (and to many of the public, totally unexpected) increase in debt is primarily the result of economic incompetence;
2.    Ignorance of the scale of the fiscal predicament makes it difficult to win public support for the policies which are both necessary and desirable to deal with the crisis.


ComRes interviewed 2,006 British adults online from 18th to 19th July 2012.  Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults.  ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. 

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