George Osborne says that Coalition policies will now focus on delivering benefits to that clichéd constituency, “hard-working families”. This is widely seen as shorthand for higher taxes on the rich (“Sorry we reduced the top income tax rate from 50% to 45%”). But it shouldn’t be. The best thing that George can do for hard-working families is to prioritise growth, and that means making the UK a more attractive place to invest in. And in turn, that means deregulation, flexible labour markets, regulatory certainty, and lower personal and business taxes. Put simply, if you make conditions unattractive for entrepreneurs and investors (for example by punitive income tax on the better-off) you damage everyone, by driving business off-shore, slowing growth and increasing unemployment. If you’re a worker on the dole, you’d rather get a job than hear that the rich are taking a caning.
Chancellor George has also said that he’s learned from the local election results, and that he will now concentrate on things that matter to the public, like jobs and growth and so on. He doesn’t say so, but presumably this implies “Not HS2, not Lords reform, not same-sex marriage”. If we’re lucky it might even mean “Not wind farms”.
But in his list of things that do matter to voters, I’d appeal to him not to ignore energy. It’s a subject that doesn’t come high on the list of voter concerns — until the lights go out. There are few things for which voters find it harder to forgive a government for than blackouts and three-day-weeks. And as Tim Yeo has warned, in a rare moment of lucidity, if we go on as we are, we shall face exactly that — black-outs — by the end of the decade. We’re closing generating plants — coal (because of EU rules) and nuclear (because of ageing) — at an alarming rate, and we have no credible plan to replace them. Nor do we have the necessary conventional back-up for the 30% of capacity which Ed Davey improbably proposes to get from wind-power by 2020.
This is another huge crisis in the making. Fortunately we can see the iceberg up ahead, and we have time (just about) to turn the ship round. But only if we act now, and there’s little sign of that. George should be clearing the way for new nuclear and for urgent shale gas exploitation. He has said “You don’t save the planet by destroying the economy”. Great sound-bite, George. But you need to act as if you meant it.
One more thing: George says he “accepts responsibility” for poor presentation of the 2012 budget, which is widely believed to have contributed to poor local election results for the Coalition parties. But what does “accept responsibility” mean? When Lord Carrington accepted responsibility for failing to anticipate the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, he quit — despite Maggie’s attempts to persuade him to stay. Many felt that the responsibility was not his, or not uniquely his, but he felt that it was, and believed that the only decent thing to do was to resign. That’s what “accepting responsibility” for failure meant in 1982.
Today, “accepting responsibility” is no more than a form of words, a cautious and begrudging verbal apology. In this, as in so many ways, our public life is diminished.