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14 June 2023

Letter of the week: The Treasury tyranny

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By New Statesman

The contradiction between the two Rachels (Cover Story, 9 June) is also a debilitating contradiction of the UK Treasury. Few other countries have such a powerful department that is, in effect, a budgetary, financial and economics ministry rolled into one. In perhaps the most centralised state in Europe, we also have the most centralised decision-making power within a government.

The Treasury’s focus on short-term spending control – or Reeves’ “iron grip on public spending and tax receipts” – is in direct contradiction with the need for a state investment-led long-term economic strategy. As was suggested in the New Statesman last year, Labour should commit to breaking up the Treasury and allowing a creative tension to flourish at the heart of economic policy. Watering down the £28bn-a-year climate pledge is short-sighted and fails to see the greater cost further down the line. Investing in the social infrastructure required to transform Britain and level out our regional inequalities will mean giving both Rachel 1 and Rachel 2 their own separate offices where they can play to their individual strengths.
Tom Ockendon, Glasgow

[See also: Rachel Reeves: Labour’s plan for power]

Labour’s challenge

It is to be expected that a shadow chancellor will temper expectations and laud financial discipline, but they also need to give hope, and there was little of that on offer in Jason Cowley’s article on “the Reeves doctrine” (Cover Story, 9 June). A decision to tie increases in day-to-day expenditure to economic growth when it is low and likely to remain low, and to prioritise debt repayment will not, in the short term at least, meet the needs of our failing health, care and social services.

There is no proposal to correct the real economic consequences of Brexit, and since the article was written Rachel Reeves has even pulled back on Labour’s commitment to a “green prosperity plan”. What remains is a very limited raft of policy proposals that are reminiscent of Labour’s first chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden. It will be remembered he ended up joining another party.
Michael Leigh, London SW18

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“We haven’t won for an awfully long time,” Rachel Reeves points out. But how often has any Labour opposition leader won an election with a majority in the House of Commons? The answer, in 120 years of the party’s existence, is three. Of those, Harold Wilson had a majority of four in 1964, and only Clement Attlee in 1945 and Tony Blair in 1997 had decent majorities. While I hope that Keir Starmer enters No 10 next year, with Reeves as the first woman chancellor, to do so at all would be an exceptional achievement. To do so with a decent working majority would be very rare indeed.
Paddy Casswell, Loughborough, Leicestershire

I hope that Rachel Reeves’ grasp of history and capacity to add up is better than that revealed in the comment attributed to her that, “You’ve got to be over the age of 70 to remember the election of a Labour prime minister who was not Tony Blair.” I am 67 years old and remember Harold Wilson’s victories in 1964, 1966 and 1974 well.
Professor Emeritus Brian Longhurst, Edinburgh

[See also: What does Keir Starmer stand for?]

Sick times

Wolfgang Münchau (Lateral View, 9 June) may think he is being cleverly provocative in terming Germany the “sick man of Europe”, rather than the UK. He is also profoundly wrong. There were echoes in his piece of the views widely expressed in the 1980s that the UK, emboldened by Thatcherite deregulation and privatisation, would surge ahead and that Germany was living in the past. We are still living with the consequences of that hubris, having ceded control of energy, rail and water.

When we compare UK state pensions, our derisory unemployment and sickness benefits, our dysfunctional transport infrastructure, our cash-strapped local government, our polluted seas and rivers, and our out-of-control energy market with Germany, the absurdity of Münchau’s assertion is self-evident.
Martin Davis, Nottingham

Wolfgang Münchau’s column sparks questions. If the Bretton Woods system “provided global macroeconomic stability”, why did Richard Nixon abolish it? And if in 1978 under Labour “UK economic growth was back at 4 per cent” – a figure this government might, if it had any imagination, dream of – then Margaret Thatcher’s “complete economic reboot” was unnecessary. Münchau, however, apparently deaf to environmental needs, would welcome an economic model that delivered such a “reboot” again.
David Murray, Wallington, Surrey

[See also: Britain is not the sick man of Europe – that accolade goes to Germany]

The real Marseille

Andrew Hussey’s article (Letter from Marseille, 9 June) is filled with the usual clichés applied for many years by the popular press to Marseille – drug dealers, immigrants, poverty, gangster films and so on. The drug wars in certain areas of the quartiers nord are indeed repulsive, but are not unique to Marseille, and not at all the dominant features of the city. Marseille is an ever-evolving mix of different cultures, architectural styles and ways of living from highly urban to almost rural.

The renovation of La Joliette, once one of the largest ports in the world, with various new developments and museums, is a success. The long, straight roads of the old town are filled with life. One can wander peacefully for hours without even the suspicion of a foreign drug lord.

And the phrase “Qui sème la hess, récolte le zbeul” is not specific to Marseille, but a slogan currently used in many French cities by those opposing the controversial pension reforms.
William Firebrace, author of “Marseille Mix”

The parting glass

This is a response, albeit belated, to Nicholas Lezard’s having broken his last wine glass (Down and Out, 3 May). Might I suggest, if he can manage it, a short walk to his nearest charity shop, where he should find a reasonably priced selection. At our local Oxfam shop, where I volunteer, we have decently priced wine glasses at under £1. Were he able to find a suitable replacement, he would also achieve a virtuous glow at having supported the relevant charity.
Marjorie Morris, Frome, Somerset

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[See also: A breakage means I might soon be drinking wine from a jam jar, like an effing hipster]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out