Leading Article: Mr Brown is encouraging enterprise, but its fruits must be shared fairly

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ENTERPRISE AND fairness. These are the words with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer opened his pre-Budget statement yesterday, and they are the words with which he ended it. But just how are these separate goals meant to harmonise? In the old days (the days of Old Labour, that is) the answer would have been obvious: business would generate the money, and the Government would make sure enough was redistributed to bring about fair shares for all. That interpretation, however is no longer politically correct.

Gordon Brown must be saying something else with his mantra of "enterprise and fairness". Partly, the answer would seem to lie in his idea of encouraging everyone to be an entrepreneur. The New Deal is to be extended to include venture capital for those who "start with nothing"; schools and colleges are to offer enterprise courses. But, of course, not everyone is going to start their own business, nor should they. And those who do so successfully will make much more money than those whom they employ, so "fairness" cannot be a new word for "equality".

In fact, what the Chancellor is really saying - and we heartily agree - is that the British need to respect the creators of wealth. The dose of Thatcherism that Labour caught in its long years in the wilderness continues to infect its economic and social understanding, although its leaders hate to admit it. More to the point is whether anything announced yesterday will increase the nation's productive investment. Unfortunately, for all the Chancellor's tinkering with employee stock options, capital gains taxes and regulatory regimes, it is hard to see any big results following from these essentially small-scale reforms.

Yes, it may prove to be useful to have a national jobs phone line to notify job centres where vacancies are occurring around the country. And another fraud crackdown just may prove helpful. Perhaps requiring the unemployed to sign on every day will help to reduce activity in the "hidden economy", although more likely it will just mean that your freelance plumber arrives a little later in the morning. But the good news is the old news.

As the Chancellor reminded the House, prudent management of spending and interest rates has created a stable macro-economic climate, for the first time in living memory. Nothing he announced yesterday will upset these larger measures; and the upgraded growth forecasts, if they prove to be true, can only add to the virtuous circle of higher revenues, followed by lower borrowings.

On the not strictly economic front, the Chancellor has pleased the environmental lobby by promising to direct future tax increases on fuel to a fund for roads and public transport. He has also, sadly, further entrenched the principle of hypothecation by promising to direct additional taxes on cigarettes to the NHS. For education, once the Government's priority, there will be pounds 150m more available to improve the physical state of the nation's schools. And social justice makes an appearance, with the pledge to create a new children's fund to help fight the "war on child poverty".

The Chancellor closed his speech with traditional, headline-grabbing generosity: free television licences for everybody over 75. We might almost call that a redistributive measure, a little bit of fairness smuggled into a Budget for enterprise. What we have is a Chancellor for business, who has managed to convince most of his party that growing the cake is a recipe for feeding everyone at the table. Now all he has to do is convince the country that he will ensure fair shares are distributed to everyone.

Comments