Whatever our view of the result, both in the build-up to this month’s Budget and in the initial reactions, it seems to me that two themes (expressed pretty unanimously across both the centre-left and the centre-right) are dominant.
Frst, that public spending will need to be reigned in at some point in the not too distant future – even if this might not be the time for slash and burn and even if some of the immediate or eventual consequences are dire.
Second, that while there are various arguments for altering the distribution of the tax burden across socio-economic groups – as the furore over Darling’s 50p call on top-end earners confirms – increasing the net tax-take significantly beyond current levels is a risky political and economic option.
For me, though, there is a broader point: how do we manage our own ever-raising aspirations about what public services can reasonably deliver – when reducing public spending is an economic imperative and when further raising taxes is politically risky – even in areas where the broad cross-party consensus is that the state should invest on our behalf: in health, in education, in maintaining a viable and sustainable transport infrastructure, in child protection, in policing and so on – especially when these aspirations come, in large part, not from an engaged, participative citizenry but from an apparently politically disengaged mass of complainant consumers? “I want it all. I want it now!”
This was a question that I raised from the floor at a pre-Budget breakfast seminar just before the budget, staged by the emergent and increasingly name-checked centre-right think tank Reform at the UK headquarters of PA Consulting in Victoria. Vince Cable was the star speaker, alongside Reform Director Andrew Haldenby and Colm Reilly who heads-up the Government Practice at PA.
For me, Reilly had it right when he spoke about Budgets not just being financial instruments concerned with economic decision-making but statements of policy and priority with strong human, social and ethical dimensions and consequences.
Perhaps in this kind of analysis – the kind of ‘citizen-economics’ that we have been trying to get our heads around at the Citizenship Foundation – we might begin to understand that while we can’t have it all “right here, right now”, we might be able to begin to build a different kind of society, based on a different type of economics: just a little bit greener, engaged and sustainable; just a little bit less wasteful, costly and materialistic; more “get something, give something back” than “buy one, get one free”; shopping when we need to do so, not “until we drop”; as much about shared responsibilities as individual rights.
I could buy into this change of emphasis – even if higher taxes are a part of the deal – and I suspect others, across the political spectrum, could do so too.