James Bond and Victoria Coren make gambling look sexy. George Osborne has spun the Roulette Wheel with all the allure of knitting phlegm. His Spending Review was sprinkled with good news, in the same way a paper-cut finger wafted around a bit splatters blood on the walls.
(There will be blood on the carpet following the SR. If any LibDems are pushed into on-coming traffic there is still a chance Charles Kennendy could be called upon to top-up Osborne’s water with Islay Malt. Or cyanide).
Such is the breadth and depth of the SR that the reaction has seems breathless and confused. The BBC having its life effectively guaranteed for 6 years is news nevertheless greeted with utter incredulity. “Save The BBC!” doesn’t sound quite so logical when the review has done just that. Over the six years, a freeze is as good as a cut, so expect Match of the Day 2014 to feature unrivalled coverage of the Zamaretto Midlands League.** But still they shout it, like football fans cheering for a player they hadn’t noticed substituted (which, incidentally, reminds me of a recent Burscough game which involved a young fella continually cheering a player who wasn’t even on the bench. Oh how we laughed…).
Much as been made of the (pre-announced) proposal to remove child benefit from higher wage earners. Cue the most bizarre through-the-looking-glass political arguments in modern times. “The lowest earners in society should not fund the child benefit of the well off!” cries David Cameron. “The most well off are entitled to handouts no matter how middle class they are!” bellows Ed Miliband. If Gordon Brown’s removal of the 10p tax rate made you question the known-knowns of British politics, welcome to Kafka Plus…
The SR was neither rape upon the nation or reasoned treatment for an ill patient; the truth lies somewhere in the muddle. Over 100 pages of mindgasm explain each Department’s budget in terms Sir Humph could not disagree with. Everything is covered; from a new suspension bridge over the Mersey to a Universal Benefit (one handout to unite us, etc. and so forth). In truth, of course, no politician truly denies the scale of the problem faced by the Chancellor; the nation is in mammoth debt, and so are its people.
The Osborne Agenda is pithily labelled “ideological” by critics who, on the whole, are exactly as ideological. Union leaders dust off their placards, Labour members fill up with nostalgia for childhood lost in demonstrations and marches. Thought ideological divides in politics were dead? Welcome to the most significant divide between sides since the introduction of the Community Charge.
The review comes at the very end of what could be called “the age of entitlement”. With a benign economy, low interest rates and banks throwing mortgages and credit cards around like samples at a supermarket, it is little wonder so many millions of people took advantage. I certainly did, maxing out the credit card on long weekends and (most shamefully of all, perhaps) Domino’s pizza. But years of 100% mortgages, holidays and flatscreen televisions did not build the debt mountain bequeathed by Labour; the two tales of national and personal debt run parallel, and one is disguised as an elephant. The demise of Woolworths, near demise of Wedgewood, epic scales of economic catastrophe across all the professional football leagues; they too wore the elephant suits. There are only so many ‘known knowns’ we dare acknowledge, no?
The review touches us all. With such drastic cuts in local council funding – council tax frozen for at least one year, though not necessarily across the country I suspect, notice the Sir Humph lexicon in the Report – every library, swimming pool and elderly care centre will suffer from the sharp pencil. Councils may learn from this sharp slap across the buttocks, scrapping the ‘non jobs’ which soak up so much money. “Audience development officer” for £30 grand a year? £19,000 a year is a decent enough wage for anyone – but for a “street football co-ordinator”? Does it sound patronising to draw attention to these jobs, or instructive? Is this another trip through the looking glass? When the Daily Mail covered the “non-job” story, a council spokesperson explained that money was spent on “everything from lollipop ladies to librarians”. Good, how it should be, and unfortunately such roles may be curtailed by the council funding slash-and-burn. There is something rotten with the system if – and, alas, I am not making this up – “teeth cleansing instructors” are on the Town Hall payroll.
Within the lifetime of this fixed-term parliament – if we ever get there – the Spending Review will soak into our wallets, our skin, get under our hair, interrupt our phonecalls with a high-pitched noise like a cat being tickled by an ovengloved hand. The size, depth and generosity of the welfare state must be tackled. Ditto the inexorable pouring of Government borrowing. And the size, nature and behaviour of our police force in their ‘war with fear’ must be altered. In short, the Coalition are tasked with achieving reform through force; it doesn’t make me feel easy or comfortable, but neither do Northern Rail’s damp and frosty Pacers and I have to put up with them too….
**You thought it didn’t exist, eh?