SO that was the Budget then. No Great Expectations – so no surprises. Commentators previewing Philip Hammond’s first attempt to stimulate the British economy were rolling out the platitudes, apologies and excuses before the Chancellor himself had said a thing.
The great and good sagely assured us that Hammond had limited room for manoeuvre despite higher than expected tax revenues. Every channel told us there would be no “spending spree” while productivity in Britain remained so low. Economics correspondents were gravely adamant that the UK Government must tackle the deficit, even if that meant letting austerity ravage society for another five years. The boost to social service spending in England was widely welcomed – in reality it constituted a mere drop in the ocean.
It was as if the mainstream media had swallowed a collective “Keep Calm and Don’t Quibble” pill.
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Even when Hammond was halfway through his Budget speech and provocatively proclaimed, “We are the party of the NHS,” just days after a quarter of a million people marched through London against privatisation, there were no sharp intakes of breath, snorts of derision or even repressed giggles.
Tory MPs roared at the sheer audacity of Hammond’s ludicrous assertion – jings even the BBC has carried weeks of reports about the crisis in the English NHS.
But then I suppose fake news has been working so well for Donald Trump across the Pond, you cannae blame English Tories for wanting to give it a go here.
But that doesn’t mean the media had do doze off on the job.
Of course, Hammond could have done something different. He could have boosted the minimum wage to the level of the real living wage. He could have acknowledged that there is currently a crisis in every aspect of English society – especially prisons, hospitals and schools – and spent big time to save the English NHS. He could have made a bid to re-industrialise Britain. He could have tried consciously to turn the UK into a place Scots might want to stay part of. But he didn’t do any of that. And Hammond’s failure to take bold remedial action to the problems caused by years of Osbornomics is in itself a political choice.
Mind you, in the face of chronic inequality, instability and impending Brexit meltdown, this Tory Chancellor did find the time and money to play another cynical hand of ideology poker. The Tories will fund the creation of yet more Free Schools despite their virtual abandonment by originators in Sweden and a critical report by a House of Commons committee.
There will be more money to push selective education in England at a time when ordinary schools are facing cuts of 40 per cent, and he will throw an utterly inadequate amount of new cash at England’s social care crisis – caused in great part by poverty, chronic anxiety and failures like the Universal Credit malfunction.
Oh and while we’re at it, Hammond managed to break a manifesto promise and take a side swipe at women on International Women’s Day. He’s raising National Insurance contributions for the self-employed – the vast bulk of whom are women earning below the minimum wage. Nice one.
The only good thing about Hammond’s evasive and lacklustre Budget is that it should seal the deal for any progressive Scottish voter still swithering about independence. If you can actually bear to watch, you’ll see that this is what Conservatives regard as progressive politics and you’ll know it ain’t gonnae get any better on their watch.
In fact, the man who proved that beyond any doubt yesterday was Jeremy Corbyn. Not because he had a particularly bad day – quite the opposite. Jezza opted not to respond to the detail of Hammond’s speech – perhaps because his team isn’t staffed to cope with the relentless rain of statistics and figures; perhaps because he knows punters find it hard to keep numbers in their heads beyond the ones that affect folk directly.
Whatever the reason, the Labour leader’s response to the Budget contrasted the Chancellor’s smug, complacent, head-in-the-sand account of life in Britain with an I, Daniel Blake reality check. It was relentless, accurate and shaming. After a while, Tory MPs even stopped mocking Corbyn (albeit temporarily) and he managed to paint a vivid, alternative picture of how a progressive country could be run. Sadly, though, the lack of audible support from his own back benches proves that country will never be Britain.
Despite all their mistakes, the Tories are in a near-inviolable position south of the Border.
If Theresa May followed William Hague’s advice, repealed the legislation that created fixed-term parliaments and called an election later this year, the opinion polls suggest she would clean up – boosting the Tories’ Commons majority from a slender 17 to a very healthy 100. Ukip are in disarray, the LibDems are in meltdown and Labour likewise Only the SNP might retain its flush of MPs – though that was a very high water mark indeed.
Yet pundits agree that despite all these electoral advantages, May won’t be tempted to call a shock election. That’s how much she believes that come hell or high water, before or after Brexit, England will vote Tory. Of course, if Labour found a truly credible leader it might make a difference.
But how long will Scots wait and see?
Is lacklustre really the best that we can expect from a Westminster Budget?