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19 February 2020

First Thoughts: Taming the Treasury, the BBC licence fee and the demise of the Daily Telegraph

Some of the biggest policy blunders of the past 250 years can be blamed on Whitehall’s dominant department.

“You cannot have such people in government,” sniffs the Guardian of Andrew Sabisky, the 27-year-old hired as a Downing Street adviser. Sabisky resigned after the emergence of his claims in 2014 that “the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin” and “you will see a far greater percentage of blacks than whites in the range of IQs 75 or below”. On other occasions, he wrote that women’s sport was “more comparable to the Paralympics than it is to men’s” and allegedly that it was a wife’s place to obey.  

Bad, for sure. But should the Guardian attend to motes in its own eye? After the ministerial reshuffle, John Crace, its parliamentary sketch writer, described Suella Braverman, the new attorney general, as “one of the dimmest of all Tory MPs” and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, as “both vicious and stupid”. Marina Hyde, another Guardian columnist, described Braverman as “mesmerically dim”. She could be “outperformed” by “any… item of furniture in the Palace of Westminster”.

I know these are humorous columns. Ho, ho! But since Braverman and Patel are the only women of colour attending cabinet meetings, is the Guardian sure it can claim the moral high ground over Sabisky?

Failing for 250 years

Boris Johnson’s motives in forcing Sajid Javid to resign as chancellor – and whether he intended for him to resign at all – remain unclear. But if he wanted to curb the Treasury’s power, he deserves a ripple of applause. Some of the biggest policy blunders of the past 250 years can be blamed on the Treasury, the dominant department in Whitehall, responsible for managing the economy and supervising the state’s finances.

The Treasury’s 1773 Tea Act, for example, precipitated the loss of the American colonies. Its return to the gold standard in 1925 – in effect revaluing the pound and making exports uncompetitively expensive – led to mass unemployment. Its assessment in the 1950s that we should keep out of the European Common Market because it would fail put Britain at an economic disadvantage for the next two decades. In the 2010s, it propelled Britain towards Brexit through its austerity measures. Where there’s a right and a wrong, the Treasury nearly always chooses the latter.

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Several premiers, including Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, tried to cut it down to size. But the Treasury always bounces back. Johnson seems unlikely to succeed where his predecessors failed.

Threatening the corporation

Egged on by his chief aide Dominic Cummings, Johnson is mounting a campaign of low-level harassment against the BBC. The Sunday Times, which will print any old rubbish from Downing Street, reports that the government intends to scrap the licence fee, forcing the corporation to sell most of its radio stations, reduce its TV channels and switch to a subscription system. Such threats may persuade the more timid BBC reporters and presenters to go easy on the Tories. But is even this government really going to cripple Britain’s biggest player in the global media and entertainment market? And upset, for example, millions of BBC One viewers whose demographic (average age: 61) has striking similarities to that of Tory voters? 

Over the hill

Another group with an average age of 61 is Daily Telegraph readers. The paper’s circulation, more than a million at the turn of the century, is now barely 300,000. Embarrassed, it no longer has its monthly print sales audited. Its annual pre-tax profits are down from £14.3m to £900,000. Its owners, the billionaire Barclay twins, want to sell it, but nobody seems terribly interested in buying.

Now the paper is no longer being sold in WHSmith’s train station branches. In the chain’s high street stores, it has been moved to the magazine section and replaced in the newspaper rack by extra copies of the Times. The retailer won’t explain why. Perhaps it thinks having the paper’s elderly and reactionary readers wandering around its shops is bad for its image.

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics