The Parade of Bleeding Stumps

As public spending becomes an increasingly important issue for the November elections, be prepared to see the left engaging in hysterical scare-mongering about the potential effect of spending cuts. This has been seen recently in Britain, where such scare-mongering already has its own label -- "The Parade of the Bleeding Stumps."

This unsavory phrase originates in British government bureaucracy and darkly refers to the Civil Service's clever response to the threat of spending cuts. The idea is that whenever cuts in a department are demanded by elected ministers, civil service bureaucrats respond by ignoring the many cases of waste, inefficiency, or general uselessness in the department, and instead tell the minister that the only way to cut spending is to axe necessary or politically important services and initiatives. So for example, when a government minister demands cuts to a hospital, the bureaucrats hide the two hundred administrators in a back room and haul out the battered and bruised hospital patients (aka the "bleeding stumps") to show the minister "who will be hurt most by spending cuts." The hope is that the minister will then back down, realizing that cutting funding would be politically unfeasible.

This sneaky little tactic has been incredibly effective, and it is partly for this reason that Civil Service jobs are widely perceived to be the safest jobs in Great Britain. Since 2005, it has been estimated that there is a 0.005% chance of losing your job if you are a civil servant. The political left has picked up on this tactic and has no fear of using it on a much broader scale.

So when, a few weeks ago, Chancellor George Osborne announced the new Emergency Budget -- a budget designed to deal with out-of-control public spending approaching 50% of GDP -- the left were furious and started drawing up apocalyptic visions of Britain's future.  The relatively modest spending cuts (this graph shows that by 2015, spending will be cut only to 2008 levels) have been met by left-wing media pundits screaming hysterically about "savage" spending cuts that will leave our children uneducated, our public transport defunct, and our poor starving. Take this article by left-wing columnist Mary Riddell, who puts forth the following vision of what will happen because of Osborne's spending cuts.

Elderly people struggling to live at home may go hungry and unwashed, and reform of incapacity benefit means the sick and even the dying being forced to seek work.  The voiceless and the vulnerable will not be the only sufferers...Crimes will go unsolved, bins unemptied and potholes unfilled. Rural bus services may dwindle away, fares will rise, school-age children will struggle to find a university place, and graduates will search in vain for work in a pitiless new world.

The idea that a 4% cut in public spending will turn Britain into some sort of Dickensian nightmare is of course nonsense, and it barely needs to be argued against. For instance, what is the horrific policy that (according to Mary Riddell) means the "sick and dying" will be forced to seek work or starve? From 2013, claimants of incapacity benefit will have to undergo a medical assessment in order to make sure their claim is legitimate, therefore saving the country millions of pounds in fraudulent claims, all without harming the genuinely sick as Riddell claims. 

But while the argument is not based in fact, it is a cunning argument. The aim is twofold: first to terrify the poor and the weak into thinking their benefits and services are going to be taken away from them by evil, rich Conservatives, thereby reinforcing the left-wing vote. Second, the left know that if they talk long enough about "savage" cuts affecting the poor, the weak, the dispossessed, the voiceless, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the vulnerable, and the usual parade of "bleeding stumps," then the issue will become politically toxic, and those who would cut spending will be scared of being seen as "heartless" and will back down.

It is this debate that is being shaped for the November elections in America. The Republicans want to cut spending, while Obama and Co. will argue for more tax hikes. Yet Obama and his cronies are not stupid; they know that the debate as currently framed is one they will lose. An election fought on "small state, low tax vs. big state, high tax" will result in Republican landslides. Therefore, the Democrats will imitate the British left and organize a parade of bleeding stumps -- a parade that conservatives should be prepared for.

They will seek to frame the fight not on ideological grounds, but on soft emotional terms. So expect to see reasoned debate about debt levels and a stagnant economy drowned out by the Dems' flood of "impassioned pleas" (or hysterical scare-mongering) to voters -- not to vote for spending cuts that will "hurt the most vulnerable in our society," but instead to vote for "a compassionate society that will make sure no American is overlooked, and that the weakest are provided for."

The American left know that a November election fought on principle and economics will be one in which they are soundly beaten. However, if they convince the public that the election is not about the size of the state, but about whether or not to provide for the poor and the weak, then they might just sneak it. We are seeing the groundwork for such a shift already being prepared. In the last week, America has had panic-stricken warnings of 16 million children facing a summer of hunger, HuffPo headlines of "Desperation, Panic," and Rep. Lewis weeping on the House floor, decrying Republicans for their lack of compassion for daring to question a further extension of welfare benefits. No doubt this rhetoric will accelerate over the coming months.

It is vitally important that American conservatives spot this and make sure that the debate stays rooted in reality and economics, not in emotion, hysteria, and false choices between compassion or suffering. Here in Britain, we let the left have their parade of bloody stumps, and they have successfully shaped the debate in their favor. In America this November, it is important that conservatives rain on the left's parade.

Adam Shaw is a writer based in Manchester, England and can be contacted at He specializes in religion and politics and is seeking work in both the U.S. and the U.K.