Death, taxes and football
Dodgy deficits, fickle focus groups, royal abuses, class rules and more football truths.
In an essay here last week, George Walden, drawing on the insights of the late Jean Baudrillard, suggested that David Cameron is a simulacrum, an "imperfect imitation of reality". The same might be said of George Osborne's emergency Budget. Some economists have already suggested that cuts on the scale proposed cannot and will not happen, and that Osborne knows this perfectly well. But there is another possibility: that the Budget deficit the cuts are supposed to tackle doesn't actually exist - at least not on the scale we have been told.
In his brilliant book on the 1970s, When the Lights Went Out, the Guardian journalist Andy Beckett recalls the 1976 sterling crisis, when the Labour government agreed, in return for a loan from the International Monetary Fund, to cut public spending by £2.5bn. The then chancellor, Denis Healey, told Beckett that, six months later, he discovered "we didn't really need the money at all". The public-sector borrowing requirement for 1977-78, which was pivotal in the IMF negotiations, turned out to be £5.6bn, not the £10.5bn predicted by the Treasury. Bernard (now Lord) Donoughue - nobody's idea of a loony lefty conspiracy theorist - even hinted that the error was deliberate. "The Treasury and the Bank of England wanted cuts," he told Beckett. "They were exaggerating everything."
In the past, this kind of thing happened frequently. The loss of gold and currency reserves that persuaded Anthony Eden to pull out of Suez in 1956 turned out to be a third of what the Treasury and the chancellor Harold Macmillan claimed. But statistics are now more thoroughly and independently scrutinised. If there were any funny business, people like Vince Cable would know. So it can't be true. Can it?
Lack of focus
I do not know whether Baudrillard ever considered focus groups but they, too, strike me as imperfect imitations of reality. In a newly published memoir, Talking to a Brick Wall, Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown's polling queen, recalls how she found focus groups becoming "more frequent and intense" in their opposition to inheritance tax. She advised the Brown government to act immediately on her findings; if it had, she theorises, it would have stolen the Tories' thunder (Osborne, then shadow chancellor, proposed exempting all estates worth less than £1m) and the autumn 2007 election could have gone ahead.
“Death tax", as the right christened it in a brilliant propaganda coup, is, to my mind, an issue got up largely by pollsters. I doubt it influences sizeable numbers of voters. According to Mattinson, the strongest views came from those who bought council houses under Margaret Thatcher and hoped to make their children first-generation inheritors of wealth. She could have told her focus groupies that few former council houses are worth more than £300,000 and that the tax applies only to the fraction above the threshold. Mattinson's methodology doesn't allow the intrusion of reality, I suppose.
Now that a judge has denounced Prince Charles's "unwelcome" interference in a London planning application, perhaps somebody should look at his educational activities. Not his speeches backing more traditional English and history teaching - after all, heads and teachers can ignore him if they wish - but the Prince's Teaching Institute, started in 2006 to promote "the importance of in-depth subject knowledge". It invites schools to show "a clear commitment to subject specialism", stating "objectives" for improving provision, and interviews department heads. Schools that "pass" (nearly 150 so far) may use the institute's logo. In other words, the prince, who is accountable to nobody, has set himself up as an accrediting body with direct influence over contentious curriculum issues. Organising teaching around subject specialisms isn't "common sense" as educational conservatives imply. According to many teachers and researchers, it alienates thousands of children from school. Schools, competing for parental custom, will find value in the prince's seal of approval. He is exploiting the royal brand to determine the curriculum, an even greater abuse of his position than intervention in a planning application.
Tory politicians and journalists often protest about old ladies in large houses being forced to sell up to pay council tax, rising heating bills or care costs. How cruel to force people to leave their family homes so late in life. But it is cruel, it seems, only for middle-class owner occupiers, not for poor, working-class folk who rent social housing. Iain Duncan Smith tells the Sunday Telegraph that "tons of elderly people" should move out of "underoccupied" council houses so that young families in search of work can move in. I still await the outrage.
Rejoice, rejoice at Germany's emphatic World Cup victory over England! Stefan Szymanski, an economist, NS contributor (see page 26) and co-author of a book called Why England Lose, pointed out in the Times that the English Premier League, from which most England players are drawn, is "the child of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism": highly priced, barely regulated, controlled by plutocrats, marketed worldwide, full of extravagantly remunerated foreigners. The Bundesliga, on the other hand, comprises highly regulated clubs (subject to strict national rules on what they spend) owned by local fans. The players include a large proportion of home-grown products.
The World Cup match, concluded Szymanski, was a contest between "the liberal British model" and "the German model of social democracy". Thank God our side won. The left doesn't have much to celebrate these days.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005.