Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Budget Day

There can hardly be much to say about the contents of the Budget itself. Of course, all of us wish to see the prosperity of the country established, while maintaining our own political prejudices and benefiting our own pocketbooks. Here at Plumstead Rectory we favour for this purpose a large measure of tax relief for clergy of the Church of England, perhaps reverting to the system of the payment to the Exchequer of a nominal lump sum agreed by Convocation.

If this measure does not find its way into Mr Osborne's speech this afternoon, we will comfort ourselves with the reflection that the suggestion came too late for full discussion by the Quartet. Otherwise, we know, it would have found hearty approval by Mr Clegg and his political friend or friends.

There is always next year, and I dare say Mr Osborne's proposals will still be preferable, from our point of view, to those hinted at by Mr Balls. There is, indeed, rarely any reason to cheer the present Government except by comparison to the present Opposition, and doubtless left-wing readers have less real regard for Mr Miliband than desire to turn out Mr Cameron. Politicians of all parties should be aware that support for them is now more often than not a mere by-product of support for institutions and causes often unespoused by them. It is this, rather than the real, but exaggerated, closeness of the front benches, which is the tragedy of our politics. Those with unfashionable views (I include myself) have long felt this, but now, more than ever, we suspect that even quite normal people feel the same.

We are not all self-seeking, of course. While holding out hope for that clerical tax cut, we should in some ways prefer the restoration of some of the traditional practices of Budget Day.

As many commentators have observed, it was not so long ago that absolute discretion was expected to be maintained in advance of the Budget speech. Indeed, it was customary for the Chancellor to begin the speech itself before the financial markets had closed, saying nothing about his proposals but giving a teasing account of the state of the economy before revealing all once trading had ceased.

Of course, with instant communication around the world there is now hardly a moment when no trading is going on. A solution would be for financial markets in all parts of the world to keep London time, but without a substantial increase in naval expenditure it might be difficult to persuade them. Until recently another option would have been to present the budget on a Sunday, albeit at some inconvenience to country members, but since Olympic athletes will need to check their share prices this is no longer to be possible.

Easier would be to restore some of the visual splendour of this occasion.

It is to recent Chancellors' credit that the Gladstonian box has been restored to use on this day: a heartening reminder of Chesterton's observation that you can put the clock back. Perhaps its battered appearance is thought suitable for an age of austerity.

The newer box used by Mr Brown in the heady days of New Labour was presumably supposed to indicate a government of the modern age, although the use of a carrier bag (by the present Foreign Secretary) to carry the Budget speech of Lord Lamont would seem to send that message more clearly, if less elegantly. Does the use of the older box also suggest the reversion to Gladstonian restraint in public spending? Doubtless Mr Osborne would like us to think so.

We suspect, however, that Mr Osborne will not wear his top hat, nor any other Conservative, and the number of flat caps on the Labour benches will be low, although these marks of allegiance were common before the days of televised parliamentary proceedings. Indeed, apart from the clergy, there are few now whose dress indicates their calling, although it would surely be useful to know a doctor by his cane, a lawyer by his gown or a banker by his striped trousers. Bankers might not like that visibility; all the better.

Mr Osborne should certainly revert to morning dress, if not to his full Privy Councillor's uniform, or to his Chancellor's gown, if Mr Darling will sell it to him. It is hard to see a reason why not: everyone who wishes Mr Osborne well would approve, and those who would disapprove will never approve of him anyway. It is hard for a man like Mr Osborne to hide his class.

The current custom is for all politicians to dress like con-men; that is, to dress in such a way that their spin-doctors think will gain our confidence, with their plain suits, quiet shirts and modern ties. We suggest when other parties resume their traditional Budget day dress that the con-man ensemble be reserved for Liberal Democrats.

Mr Osborne should also take up the traditional custom of drinking what he pleases at the dispatch box on this occasion. A glass of champagne might be thought a little frivolous, and it is important to keep a clear head. But a champagne cocktail (fortified with brandy, sugar and a little bitters) would give him a truly heroic stature. His opponents probably think he drinks it in private anyway. He should also encourage by example the traditional House of Commons eating of oranges, which keep up the energy and give something to throw at your opponents afterwards.

Most importantly of all, of course, the Chancellor should not refuse, as we fear he might, to use the title which he will inherit. Although we wish no ill to Sir Peter Osborne, we look forward to the day when the Chancellor will be called Sir George (or whatever other name he might then choose). Mr Osborne should look forward to joining the distinguished history of baronet-chancellors, most lately on the Conservative side Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, Sir Stafford Northcote, and Sir Robert Peel - all great disappointments to their own party, of course, but Mr Osborne can expect nothing better.

We know, however, that Mr Osborne's ambitions reach higher. His whole life has been a preparation to follow in the footsteps of Sir Francis Dashwood, Chancellor in the 1760s. Although he made a serious attempt to tackle poverty, employing the umemployable in public works, he is remembered today mostly as a dilettante, suspected devil-worshipper, and founder member of the Hellfire Club. Dashwood was the same.

It is not recorded what Sir Francis drank at the dispatch box, but we think it unlikely it was water.

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