23 April 2009

Adding it all up

I'm trying to find a theme in this year's Budget. The tax increase on the wealthier slice of society? It's better than the tax increase on the working poor that Gordon Brown unveiled in his final Budget, but it's not the big thing. It still doesn't keep the national debt in check, and in any case, pundits discussing the symbolic death of New Labour ought to keep a cool head: New Labour was a slogan, a buzzword, nothing more. They may as well have called it 'Diet Labour'. And in any case, New Labour as was managed some radical things: The first Blair term (the zenith of New Labour) did get a national minimum wage (radical), did sign up to the Social Chapter (shouldn't be radical, but there you go) and did establish devolution (a policy which had been gathering dust in Labour Party offices for decades). So the idea that New Labour was afraid to do some very Old Labour things (like increase taxes) doesn't wash. No, the tax change is not what we're looking for.

The so-called "efficiency savings"? Well, aside from the fact that the Scottish Government has already gone down that road and these "savings" represent, in real terms, money that would have been available - and could have been planned for following the last CSR - being withdrawn. That the Government hasn't yet had a chance to spend it is irrelevant. That cash was supposed to be heading north. It is no longer heading north, and plans have to be redrawn. It's that revision of future plans that is the key to that story, and for all the arguments now, this one will reach its key point come the next Scottish Budget, when its effects will be felt. Until then, this argument isn't the big story.

The overoptimistic predictions? No, they've been a hallmark of Treasury presentations for years. Reality will bite soon enough: focus on that.

The spiralling levels of national debt? Ironic that the Government's solution to a crisis started when too many people found borrowed large amounts of money that ripped a hole in personal (and ultimately the banks') finances is to borrow large amounts of money that will rip a hole in public finances. Otherwise, we knew this was coming, and anyway, what else can they do? A more widespread increase in general taxation? No. Harsher cuts in public spending? Definitely not. No, this, believe it or not, is the least bad option. Shame that the Scottish Government can't use the same strategy, but there you are. In any case, this, again, isn't the signature piece of the Budget.

Individually, none of those things make the Budget what it is. Put them together.

What I see is this: a Government that can't really do all that much (which, thanks to the 'triumph' of the market, is the reality: Government tinkering is exactly that, most factors are beyond the Government's control and all they can really do is try and make sure that people don't get hit too badly during tougher times), but has to be seen to be doing something. A Government that is at the mercy of world events (evidenced by the continued use of the phrase "global recession").

What I see is, when you think about it, what we've seen from the UK Government since Gordon Brown's appointment to the Premiership almost two years ago. There is no common thread, there is no narrative - just a few things put together in the hope that they work. What was this Budget all about? What has this Government been about? Blair I had a new agenda, a theme. Blair II was overshadowed by 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we can still see that as the mark of that period. Blair III saw the War at Home take centre-stage, and the final ebbing away of political strength. What will be the defining subject of Gordon Brown's Premiership?

Here's the thing: Gordon Brown has had since 1994 to prepare for office, to work out his vision, and his course of action. Yet we have seen no evidence of that: while the Blair administrations were far more pro-active, the Brown Premiership has been consistently re-active. The UK seems to have spent two years bouncing from fad to fiasco to crisis and back again, like a ping-pong ball in a tumble dryer.

And that, sadly, is the only image I get from the Brown Government. No coherence, no order, no purpose, just the hope that if we throw a few things together, they'll all work out.

That is the defining point of the Budget: it is a microcosm of the Government as a whole.

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