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Careful management of our clients’ expectations needed

by
01 January 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

AEONS ago, when the Rolling Stones had completed 25 years of working together, Charlie Watts was interviewed and asked how that had been. “As I remember it,” he said, “there was five years of hard work and 20 years of hanging about.”

As we enter the period of the political silly season in the run-up to the next general election, we too will be faced with long periods of inactivity and frenzied bursts of excitement.

That’s what we’re doing now, really, waiting through the next few months until we’re faced with the inevitable requirement to make a choice about who governs us for the next few years.

The date of the next general election was set for 7th May 2015 after the Fixed Term Parliament Act was passed on 15th September 2011. The act provides for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years and so, over the next few months, we will see each party set out its stall towards a gradually heightening crescendo of promise, critical dismissal and blame.

Massaging the numbers

Those of us who have ever worked in industry know that, when faced with a set of uninspiring numbers, it’s the way you present them that makes all the difference and, in a recent article in The Guardian, Gaby Hinscliff wrote: “Bad ideas refuse to die, they just wait patiently for the next manifesto.”

Whether or not it’s a bad idea, the need for continuing austerity continues well into the next Parliament but one could forgive a voter from Mars for being just a little confused.

For months, our leaders have been positive and encouraging about the state of the British economy and, in the PM’s autumn party conference speech, we learned that Britain has the fastest growing economy in the world.

Yet, suddenly and just two months or so later, we heard at the Brisbane G20 summit that a possible third recession in the Eurozone, the Ebola crisis and a slowing of growth in emerging markets could all threaten the long-awaited recovery in our collective fortunes. Red lights, we hear, are flashing on the dashboard.

The problem with this political free-for-all is that it’s even harder than usual to know what to believe. Clearly the Government has to prepare the way for a return to power by balancing hope and promise against harsh reality, while parties in opposition can line up their brickbats and rotten eggs and gleefully wind up their trebuchets for an almost mediaeval display of juggling with the truth.

The unadorned facts are becoming harder to find in a media that now sees a responsibility to serve up the news garnished with opinion and likes nothing more than to find a political hot potato to make a meal of.

Yet some things remain clear; things are still far from well in monetary terms around the world; Japan – the world’s third largest economy – has just slipped back into recession; economic growth in China is the lowest it has been for any time in the last five years; political sanctions and lower oil prices are damaging the Russian economy; and the Eurozone appears to be sliding into a deflationary spiral with all the nationalistic social sequelae that one might expect.

The UK growth is higher than most other nations partly because our borrowing has remained high to finance the spending to fuel that growth and while, short term, that’s been an effective strategy, it’s not a sustainable approach for us to be placed equal with Spain in having the largest budget deficit in the EU and, at 5.5% of GDP, almost double that of the Eurozone as a whole.

Whoever wins the next election will need not just to continue the austerity measures in Britain but to step them up significantly and to make huge cuts in public spending.

What’s in store for this year?

If we try to relate that back to real life at the veterinary practice coal-face, what should we expect from 2015?

Recent growth in our economy should give us some advantage over EU partners but political posturing in the pre-election period could lead to a worsening of relations with those EU countries to whom we hope to export our goods and services.

While we might want to see the return of some sovereignty in our decision-making, we need also to maintain a good working relationship with l’homme in the strasse if we hope to continue growth in exports.

That growth is vital to keeping the income flowing with which to pay for public borrowing but when we make further, inevitable cuts in public spending, the brunt of those cuts will be borne by those people providing public services and there are very few areas where further cuts can be made without increasing social unrest.

Thankfully, I will never have to make a Chancellor’s autumn statement (as is about to happen as I write this), but I don’t envy his position in having to explain why the UK is still borrowing £5 billion more than at this time last year.

To a public that suffers from collective amnesia it will not be easy to balance the need to continue to borrow to meet the interest payments on what had been borrowed earlier with the promises that would ensure an electoral victory – and all this against the inevitable backdrop of media negativity and heightening criticism.

Realistically, 2015 will have its challenges for the veterinary profession. The SPVS salary survey shows a widening gap between salaries in veterinary practice and industry and between the veterinary profession and our colleagues in human medicine.

In both cases this is because veterinary practice is funded by the pounds in our clients’ wallets and because we have allowed small animal veterinary practice to become a commodity based on price.

In easier times that may have held us back but as cuts in public services continue to accelerate, as they must during 2015, careful management of our clients’ expectations and ability to afford our services may well see a redress in that fiscal disparity and we may be glad not to be funded out of a public purse which may well become more threadbare as the year unfolds.