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23 June 2010

George Osborne v William Gladstone

How good was the Chancellor’s Budget speech?

By Mehdi Hasan

George Osborne has received much praise from the press for his so-called emergency Budget yesterday — and not just from the usual suspects on the right. The BBC’s Robert Peston said he had displayed “courage” (a curious word to use: how is cutting benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society courageous or bold?).

My own take on Slasher George’s austerity package will be in tomorrow’s magazine (and make sure you buy it to read David Blanchflower‘s critique of the coalition’s cuts). But I thought I’d do a quick blog post this morning, before we go to press with the latest issue, to ask the following, perhaps cheeky, question: how does Osborne’s first Budget speech compare to the classic Budget speech delivered by William Gladstone in 1853? (The new Chancellor, incidentally, was very keen to ensure he could pose with Gladstone’s battered old Budget box before it was hidden away for ever by the National Archive.)

Here is how the contemporary diarist Charles Greville described Gladstone’s five-hour (!) speech:

. . . by universal consent it was one of the grandest displays and most able financial statements that ever was heard in the House of Commons; a great scheme, boldly, skilfully, and honestly devised, disdaining popular clamour and pressure from without, and the execution of it absolute perfection. Even those who do not admire the Budget, or who are injured by it, admit the merit of the performance. It has raised Gladstone to a great political elevation, and, what is of far greater consequence than the measure itself, has given the country assurance of a man equal to great political necessities, and fit to lead parties and direct governments.

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I’m not sure even Lady Osborne — George’s mum — would dare heap such unstinting praise on the Chancellor’s performance at the despatch box yesterday.