George Osborne’s Budget had more to do with winning the election than with the needs of the economy or the public-sector balance sheet. I can say that with confidence even though I am writing before the Budget speech. For example, Osborne’s proposals to allow people to get their hands on the cash value of their pension funds and annuities is designed to make older voters – who are the most likely to go to the polls – feel a whole lot better off. This policy will soon be seen as a disaster. Thousands will grab the money and either blow it on round-the-world cruises or be ripped off by unscrupulous financiers promising 40 per cent returns on investments in Uzbekistani windmills or similar. Even the government admits that “for most people, retaining their annuity will be the right choice”.
In this respect, Osborne is not uniquely cynical, however. Most chancellors behave in the same way if they possibly can. Roy Jenkins was a rare exception and many blamed his relatively ungenerous 1970 Budget for Labour’s loss of that year’s election. Gordon Brown, by contrast, was a master of the pre-election bribe, packing goodies such as free TV licences for old folk into the last two budgets of each parliament.
A parliament so hopelessly hung that a government can function only through “confidence and supply” agreements with one or more minority parties would present a great opportunity to stop this nonsense. Before making an agreement, a minority party should insist that the chancellor sets tax rates and spending plans within the first 12 months and sticks with them until the following election. Changes to the plans would be approved only if the Office for Budgetary Responsibility recommends fiscal rebalancing. A government would then have to face the consequences of its chancellor’s more reckless fits of generosity before, not after, the election.
Many years ago, before the term “politically correct” was invented, I asked Trevor Phillips if he thought jokes about his Caribbean origins, made in a similar spirit to jokes about Scots or people with red hair, were ever acceptable. He said they weren’t. Now, older but perhaps not wiser, he says, to borrow the title of his Channel 4 programme, there are too many “things we won’t say about race that are true”. Right-wing newspapers are beside themselves with excitement.
I am puzzled. Most examples he gives seem to me quite frequently talked about. African-Caribbeans, he says, “are especially proficient at murdering other African-Caribbeans”. Indeed, and a search for “black-on-black crime” turns up lots of references, even on the Guardian website. Equally, the high performance of Indian and Chinese children in British schools and the underperformance of white workers’ children have become staples of educational debate.
If Phillips believes there is a conspiracy of silence about race, he has fallen for a right-wing myth. True, some people in authority have apparently excused or turned a blind eye to genital mutilation, systematic sexual abuse of underage girls and other outrages because of the perpetrators’ ethnic origins. But that is a different matter, raising quite different issues from the demand that politicians and media gratuitously highlight offenders’ racial origins. High crime rates among young black people are so well-known that, in some areas, blacks are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites. High rates of grooming and child abuse among men of Pakistani origin are now even better known. Before long, no doubt, it will be revealed that police are stopping every other minicab driven by a brown-skinned man with a white teenage girl in the back. Is that what Phillips wants?
Clarkson the BBC’s tool
Sometimes, the right’s paranoid belief that the BBC is a nest of scheming lefties goes beyond satire. Here is the most hilariously brilliant example I have yet read. It comes from the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens. “Jeremy Clarkson is a Left-wing person’s idea of what a Right-wing person is like,” he writes. “. . . That is why the BBC have for so long been so happy to give him prime time . . . If Right-wingers are all foreigner-despising petrolheads who hate cyclists and think smoking is a demonstration of personal freedom, how easy they are to dismiss.” I have no other comment on Clarkson’s suspension from the BBC and his alleged assault on the producer of his Top Gear programme.
Nor do I have anything to say about Ed Miliband’s kitchens. Except this. If the qualification for politicians is that they can willingly endure constant and critical scrutiny of their domestic decor and techniques for eating sandwiches on the street, we really shouldn’t be surprised that all our political leaders seem so weird.
My friend and occasional NS contributor Neil Clark laments that Stranger than Fiction, his biography of Edgar Wallace, the prolific thriller writer and creator of King Kong, has been reviewed in the Mail and Express but ignored by left-liberal papers. This column offers modest redress. Wallace, the illegitimate child of itinerant actors, fostered by a Billingsgate fishmonger and his wife, left school at 12 and worked, among other things, as a newspaper-seller. During military service in South Africa in the late 1890s, he decided to become a journalist. The problem, Clark reveals, was his small vocabulary. Reading a 700-word leading article in the Cape Times, he found 20 words he didn’t understand and several sentences that “conveyed nothing to me at all”. So, for six months, he rewrote every Cape Times leader in “understandable terms” and condensed it to exactly 40 words.
I cannot think of a better preparation for journalism and, as an editor, often wished more of today’s prolix scribes had trained themselves with similar exercises.