Friday, 20 March 2015

The Red Box

This week’s Budget is a metaphor for how we are governed. An Oxbridge man in a grey suit opens a red box and tells us how much we will be spending on beer next year.

The Chancellor combines magic, theatre and power. The magic is in the announcements, made so that we focus on the hocus-pocus not on the real stuff. This year’s announcements included the small beer of a penny off a pint off the tepid brown stuff.

This penny off beer is meant to work with the young and with “working people.”  This is theatrical parody – because these ideas fit with our stereotypes of the manual labourer (he is always a man) in the flat cap walking home in some idyllic Hovis-loaf Yorkshire village and stopping off for a pint with his mates in The Prince Edward. It is a theatrical, or better an ad-agency view of how Britain works, reassuring middle England that everything is normal.

The penny is also part of the magician’s show, the distracting handkerchief being waved in your face as the magician palms the Ace of Spades. 

Watch the magic penny!

The maths is simple: the British Beer and Pub Association tells us that we drink 31.5 billion pints a year. A penny off each pint means we will save £315m on our beer. Gosh. That sounds like a lot!

That is the magic. While we focus on the homely image of the smiling working man saving a penny on his after-work pint, Giddy George Osborne has lifted 100 times as much out of our pockets as he has put in. Because in the same budget he announced spending that imply a £30.5 billion cut in total Government spending between 2015 and 2018, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Who will bear the brunt of this? With £13 billion being taken out of welfare expenditure it will be the poor who suffer the most. Our honest working man in the Hovis-loaf village will suffer. So will his wife and his children. And, to step away from the stereotype, so will the single parents, the homeless people, the women working in zero-hour contract jobs, the sick and the lame. To be clear, these cuts are steeper (despite Giddy’s promise of jam sometime around 2019) than in any three year period up to now. If you thought the poor were already suffering, wait until these cuts hit local councils, bus services, pre-school support and social services.

The red box waved in our faces as the grey-suited man leaves number 11 Downing Street is the magician’s handkerchief. It distracts us for a moment, reassures us that we live in a country that does things as they have always been done, where history can repeat itself. And the flourish of a reduction in beer duty is in the same vein, a hypnotic flash of brown that blinds us to the big picture – the drab grey of a Government that will cut another pound of flesh from its poor to feed to its friends in the City.

It is time for Scotland to move away from this parody of a Parliament, to craft budgets that help the poor without the suffocating theatrical tradition of the magical Gladstonian Red Box.

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