Why Danny Alexander's promise to keep the 45p tax rate can't be trusted

The Lib Dems says the top tax rate will be cut "over my dead body". But he said the same about the 50p rate in 2011.

Danny Alexander's decision last week to attack Labour's "borrowing bombshell" (a conspicuous echo of Conservative rhetoric) and to outline coalition spending totals until 2020-21 went down predictably badly with the Lib Dem left. Just three days before his intervention, Vince Cable had emphasised that his party was not bound to George Osborne's post-2015 deficit reduction timetable: "There are different ways of finishing the job … not all require the pace and scale of cuts set out by the chancellor. And they could allow public spending to stabilise or grow in the next parliament, whilst still getting the debt burden down." But Alexander's willingness to join the Chancellor in a united front against Ed Balls appeared to confirmed the long-held suspicion that he has gone "native" at the Treasury (the joke runs that the Lib Dem man in the Treasury has become the Treasury man in the Lib Dems). 

In response, Prateek Buch, the co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum (and a Staggers contributor), said: "Cuts on the scale planned by Osborne just cannot be delivered. So why should Lib Dems endorse the Chancellor’s straitjacket? It is beyond me why Danny would sign up to what appears to be joint Lib Dem/Tory spending plans going beyond the end of the next parliament, when no such figures have been agreed by his own party. It is unhelpful to pre-empt the party’s manifesto process in this way. Besides, the plans take no account of the need to invest, or what will happen to GDP. What happened to differentiating ourselves from the Tories?"

Perhaps unsettled by this criticism, today finds Alexander seeking to put some clear yellow water between himself and his coalition partners. He tells the Daily Mirror that a cut in the 45p tax rate (which the Tories have repeatedly refused to rule out) will happen "over my dead body" and says of the claim that he has gone "native": "If that’s what people think about me, then they are wrong. I am Liberal Democrat – full stop, end of story." 

But given past form, don't be surprised if Osborne ends up walking over Alexander's corpse on his way to deliver the Budget. In July 2011, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said of those calling for the abolition of the 50p tax rate: "The idea that we're going to somehow shift our focus to the wealthiest in the country at a time when everyone's under pressure is just in cloud cuckoo land". But eight months later, Osborne did just that (while failing to introduce the mansion tax that the Lib Dems demanded in return). While there is no sign that the Tories are considering another reduction in the top rate in this parliament (in what would be a pre-election gift to Labour), it would be unwise to take Alexander's word for it.

Asked about the subject on the Today programme this morning, Boris Johnson quipped that "the last thing I want to see is a pointless sacrifice from the Liberal Democrats, let alone the dead body of Danny Alexander" before hinting that the next Conservative manifesto would, at the very least, not commit to keeping the 45p rate. He said: "I can't believe we're going to go into an election with a tax rate so high." Since it's the Mayor's brother, Jo Johnson (the head of the No. 10 policy board) who is responsible for the manifesto, he can be assumed to speak with some authority on this matter. Finally, asked whether Alexander could be thrown over board to allow a cut in the top rate, he intriguingly remarked: "stranger things have happened at sea". 

Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage