ESRC Project: When the Party's Over: The Politics of Austerity in Public Services

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Investigators

Christopher Hood, Gladstone Professor of Government Emeritus and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College.

Rozana Himaz, Department of Politics and International Relations University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University.

The Study

This three year project (2011-2015) funded by the ESRC with some supplementary funding from the British Academy aims to contribute to our understanding of the politics of austerity in public services particularly of the UK, but with a cross-national perspective as well. We look in detail at thirteen periods of significant austerity and public service cutbacks in the twentieth century in the UK between the 1915 and 2015.  To put the UK experience in comparative perspective, the project also brings together eight other historical cases of fiscal squeeze to explore what conclusions can be drawn for current debates about fiscal squeeze from earlier cases in other democracies.  The analysis is designed to contribute systematic cross-national and historical comparison to current discussions of the politics of fiscal austerity and fiscal consolidation.

Questions

The main questions asked are (a) whether the politics of austerity and fiscal consolidation  require a reversal of normal political and bureaucratic routines (b) what shapes cutback outcomes when expenditure needs to be reined in (b) what if anything is common across different cases  (c) how governments shift or avoid blame from voters, and (d) what are the effects of such cutbacks. These questions come at the intersection literatures on long-term government growth, on bureaucratic politics and budgeting behaviour, on crisis management and on blame-avoidance.

Methods

The study uses a mixture of quantitative and qualitative research methods.  The quantitative analysis of the UK case  is based on a large longitudinal database for the UK constructed using data from a mixture of official sources from 1900 to 2015 and applying modern econometric methods. The cross-national comparative analysis of nine historical cases is based on data taken from the IMF, OECD and reputed sources for historical statistics.  The qualitative research methods employed for both the UK historical analysis and the cross-national comparison includes a mixture of archival, documentary and interview based research.   For the UK, the development of a hundred and fifteen year database relevant to the analysis of the impact of fiscal squeeze provides a major potential research tool for  scholars and practitioners interested in the politics of austerity. Particular new directions taken in the development of this database include estimates of the margin of electoral victory at elections as a way of measuring voter response to cutbacks as well as the use of public opinion polls, and bringing together in one database estimates of public spending, revenue and other socio economic data from various sources. 

Project Output (link)