Show Hide image

Osborne tells the same old story but this isn't a "Same Old Tory" Budget

The Chancellor wants to sound as if he has stuck to a plan. But he's made it up as he goes along, which is why Labour attacks miss their target.

Much of politics is about telling stories and one of the most successful tales woven in recent years is the one by the Chancellor about the spendthrift Labour government and the frugal coalition. The metaphors change – sometimes Gordon Brown didn’t mend the roof; sometimes he maxed out the national credit card; sometimes he crashed a car – but the underlying message is simple and it works. It is that Britain has no money because the last government spent it all, which explains why we are all feeling the pinch now, why life has been tough and, above all, why it would be a terrible idea to vote for Ed Miliband.

In historical and economic terms this account is silly and mendacious. It has proved, however, to be bloody effective. Crucially, it permitted an alignment of people’s understanding of their domestic finances – when you’ve borrowed too much you have to stop spending – with an accessible narration of the national financial challenge. It made sense of the need for austerity.

Now, at this point the Keynesians tear out their hair. The opposite is true, they cry. When the private sector retrenches, government must step in. If everyone stopped spending all at once, including the state, there would be a shortage of demand and the economy would grind to a halt. As indeed it did in the early years of this parliament. But as has been written countless times, Keynes’s Paradox of Thrift is a lot harder to explain in pithy soundbites than Osborne’s Parable of Paying Down Debts, (which, incidentally, he hasn’t done).

There was a moment in 2012 when it looked very much as if Osborne’s plan was over. The economy was stagnant; all of his original targets for deficit reduction and debt containment had been abandoned. At the time, the Treasury was saying that eurozone turbulence and other unforeseen events - snow; extra bank holidays - had blown things off course a little but the underlying programme was the right one and everything would be alright in time. Labour derided the Tories for suffocating growth by cutting “too far, too fast.” As it turns out, senior Tories were much more anxious at that time than they were letting on. (“Shitting themselves that growth wasn’t coming back,” is how one former advisor recently described the mood to me. Perhaps this is what Osborne had in mind when he boasted today that “we held our nerve.”)

All of that preamble helps make sense of the big political message in today’s Budget.

Labour somehow failed to pin the blame for stagnation on the government. Or rather, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband didn’t manage to scrub themselves clean of the pre-emptive blame that had been heaped on Labour. And now the economy is recovering, with growth established and unemployment falling. Osborne slipped the noose, which means he is free to tell the next chapter of his story. This time it is about saving. The Chancellor’s most significant announcements today were aimed at people – mostly but not exclusively pensioners – whose biggest complaint in recent years has been that interest rates are too low. For anyone with a variable rate mortgage, that has been a blessing and, as Osborne said in his speech, keeping money cheap has been a very deliberate strategy to support the economy. But it does mean savers and anyone planning to retire on the basis of their savings has felt pretty ripped off. Hence new super ISAs, special pensioner bonds, tax cuts and reliefs that make it easier for older people to earn better rates on their money and access more of their pension pot without being stung by HMRC.

At one level this is a straightforward pitch to older, middle class voters who were once reliably Tory but might now be leaning towards Ukip. It is the Chancellor looking after his party’s people, which is exactly what Chancellor’s always do. But the clever part is how it fits into the bigger narrative of national repair. It is a technical move – complex enough that many political journalists’ faces dropped as the prospect of an afternoon of numerical intricacy loomed. But it is also a thematic gesture, supporting Osborne’s longer narrative of prudence and frugality in implicit contrast with Labour’s wastefulness. He is renewing his domestic simile. He wants people to continue thinking of the national economy as they think of their own finances – after the belt-tightening comes the saving for a rainy day.

Although the Chancellor was careful not to declare that his austerity mission is anything like accomplished, he does claim that progress so far has been substantial and that only the Conservatives can be trusted not to blow it all. Osborne spoke about “gains that were hard-won by the British people” and warned against “going back to square one.” This  plea to let the incumbent  team (minus Lib Dems, ideally) finish the job is the central plank of the Tories 2015 general election offer.

To reinforce that message the Chancellor had to sound as if he was thinking for the long term. Much of the budget was dedicated to the ambition to rebalance the economy, which is something all parties claim they want to do. It means supporting regional growth, boosting exports and helping manufacturers, thus ending Britain’s traditional reliance on financial services and credit-fuelled consumer spending.

The interesting thing here is that Osborne’s language was all about intervention. He wants to build houses, underwrite exports, found research centres, fund local enterprise zones, fill pot holes and lay train tracks. This is more Heseltine than Thatcher (a feature of Treasury thinking I’ve written about before). Of course Labour will say it's all for show – too little, too late, old announcements recycled and rehashed etc. Yet it is significant that the Chancellor is not anywhere near as dogmatically laissez faire as many of his critics presume. His recognition that the hand of government can and should be involved in the task of making Britain competitive would have been quite sacrilegious in top Tory circles before the last election.  But then again, this is the man who racked up deficit spending and borrowing at the bottom of a recession while bringing forward infrastructure investment in a desperate bid to kick-start growth.

Osborne’s little intellectual secret is that, back in 2012, when Treasury pants were being soiled about the state of the economy, Keynesian methods made a discreet, modest comeback. The Chancellor’s plan is now nothing like the one he had four years ago. It has been mangled and rewritten as a peculiar hybrid of Peter Mandelson-style “strategic state” intervention, orthodox tax-cutting dry Thatcherism and a bit of Gordon Brown-esque technical jiggery-pokery.

That is one reason why Labour finds it consistently difficult to attack. Ed Miliband’s response in parliament didn’t even bother with the detail of what had just been announced. (Fair enough, really, given that didn’t get to see any of it in advance.) The opposition leader instead played out the greatest hits album of Labour attack lines: out of touch Etonians, tax cuts for millionaires, cost of living crisis and the all time classic Same Old Tories. Except it didn’t work on this occasion because, much though he looks and sounds the part, Osborne isn’t the typical old Tory from central casting. His thinking and his policy are more subtle than that and more complex. What disorients and enrages Labour is his capacity to sell it as a simple story.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era