The people's Chancellor relishes his role
Thursday 03 July 1997
Our Chancellor is not a habitual public smiler. He was ordered to start smiling for the cameras some years ago and developed the alarming habit of baring his teeth in an automatic rictus that came, invariably, at inappropriate moments - so he'd talk about unemployment, and grin, or about mass poverty, and grin; and the effect was unsettling. Delivering his first Budget he barely smiled once. But yesterday, finally, you could tell he was really enjoying himself.
One phrase rang out. Mr Brown is not a flash orator - or a flash anything else. But ``the people's money'' was an eloquent touch. It reverberated. Brown's socialist past, the angry young man's impulse to equality, had vanished from view. His radicalism has been tempered by the study of global economics. He is the businessman's friend. But people don't change entirely, and in ``the people's money'' we saw a glimpse of the Chancellor's soul. He has endured enough taunts about apostasy. Now he is singing his own song.
The biggest question about New Labour has always been this: is it possible to be progressive while also running a successful national economy in the increasingly globalised economy? Don't you have to side with capital against (old) Labour? Or, in the context of a Budget, is it possible to have a ``people's Chancellor'' overseeing ``the people's money'' for the ``people's purposes''? Don't we live in an age driven by global capital forces, in front of which national politicians can only bend and groan?
Brown's answer is only now becoming fully clear. First, he says, you must have clarity and certainty, a climate which encourages investment. Then you can invest in your only truly national resource, people - apart from anything else, because your investors need well-trained people.
We have heard this stuff for years. But somehow it has seemed abstract and unconvincing until now, when the policy is made flesh. Consider, first, the number of Budget measures which Brown intends to last through the whole parliament - not simply the five-year deficit reduction programme, but the pledges on VAT and on duties, plans for green taxation, investment in education and for corporate investment (including that jaw-dropping cut in corporation tax). Add those to the clear regime for monetary policy established with the Bank of England, and you see a long-termer at work, who has read deeply in Labour's past mistakes - a man who expects to have his feet under the Treasury's great walnut table for years.
The underlying political argument is vivid: after years of flash Harry, triumphalist, quick buck, unreliable Tory Budgets, swooping the country from exhilarating boom to sickening bust and back again, we now have a plain man at work, calmly setting course for a new, more predictable national economics. If this is propaganda, it has clearly fooled the markets. But ``the people's Chancellor'' has also found money for the unemployed and schools, from the windfall tax, for single mothers, for the poor plagued by high fuel bills. I saw a rare expression of genuine relish on his face as he delivered those trophies to Labour's traditional constituency. In a global economy, it is still possible to do things differently.
Do we believe him? I think we do. Good political imagery depends on a convincing fit between the politician and the policy - at some primal level we have to feel that what the minister says and does reflects the minister's personality and make-up.
In this case, the fit is smooth. Brown, with his plain-suited seriousness, seems a man created to encourage sensible, sober, investment. He has ordered in the accountants to scan the national books. This is what one would expect from such a man. He is truly a living presbyterian rebuke to the velvet-jacketed faith healers.
And of course, there is a bit of propaganda in it all: Tory chancellors too have planned for the long term. Kenneth Clarke's final Budget was a model of responsibility and seriousness, with nary a flash of opportunism. Similarly, in the whipping out of extra funds for hospitals and schools, and the tax breaks for film-makers, Gordon Brown himself seems not wholly adverse to glitter and surprise.
Nor is it the case that the Conservatives have handed him the desperate financial problem Labour would have us believe. Taking the long view, they have immeasurably strengthened the economy. Before Brown spoke yesterday, I went back and read Denis Healey's last Budget, as the Seventies drew to a chaotic close.
The mood was grim, tinged with panic. The ``people's money'' was evaporating in value and the people's priorities were being shuffled down the agenda. Healey spoke in 1978 of the previous four years as being ``by far the most difficult since the war
But Healey's ability to deliver to the poor, to the Health Service and education, was nothing like Brown's power to do so yesterday. And that power has been enhanced by economic liberalisation, trade union reform, lower income tax rates and so on. The Chancellor has inherited problems; but not a crisis.
All that said, Brown's basic strategy of clarity and investment - both social and industrial - seems wise. William Hague did rather well for the Tories. But his ammunition dump of outrage and complaint was pitifully meagre and one's heart rather went out to him: he must suspect, like the rest of us, that the Chancellor has set a course which could, just could, give us years of stability and investment - and he has done it, so far, without betraying the popular promises Labour made during the election campaign.
These are, of course, very early days. Like many another chancellor, he has set off with optimism, convinced that he can master events and create a new economic order. He is intellectually clear and determined, which helps. But like many another chancellor, he may yet be blown off course. In the Treasury, sound judgement is never enough: he will need luck too. Let's wish him that.
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