A "nightmare" experience?

The Tories' economic adviser on the Thatcher years.

Sir Alan Budd, an economic adviser to the Conservatives, warns (as my colleague George Eaton has pointed out) that an incoming Tory government would have to raise taxes, despite the party's attempts to reassure potential voters otherwise.

As luck would have it, Budd pops up in an episode from Adam Curtis's 1992 documentary series Pandora's Box that explores the influence of economic ideas on British politics. Budd reflects on the Thatcher government's dalliance with monetarism in the early 1980s, a policy that led to record unemployment figures and the devastation of Britain's industrial centres, many of which have never recovered:

CURTIS: For some economists who were involved in this story, there is a further question: were their theories used to disguise political policies that would have otherwise been very difficult to implement in Britain?

BUDD: The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.

They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes -- if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.

You can see that Budd is very cautious about expressing his own views -- but you might wonder, perhaps, how they square with a shadow chancellor who promises to be "tougher than Thatcher", or with the recent New Statesman/ComRes poll in which 34 per cent of Tory parliamentary candidates named Margaret Thatcher as their political hero.

The episode of Pandora's Box is available to view here in full, along with a thoughtful blog post by Curtis himself.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.