Budget 1999: And there I was, worrying about a recession

Budget Comment
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The Independent Online
LET'S SAY it's Droitwich. In a newish semi, with a two-year-old, runabout Peugeot in the drive outside, my alter ego, Desdemona Aarons, sits watching the Budget on the kitchen-diner portable. It is to her that I always turn when, as an inhabitant of Lower England, I want to know how things are playing in Middle Britain. Today the kids are at school, and Desdemona is working from No 43 Magenta Drive. Now she pours a Continental blend from the cafetiere, takes a bite from a Sainsbury's croissant, and turns to the screen. The Chancellor is rising.

Desdemona is taken by his tie, a gold job with what look like coins stitched to it. Perhaps they're euros. The TV picture is a slightly unpleasing one, leaving a row behind the Chancellor of headless, footless torsos, their disconnected arms busily taking notes. She wonders why the director doesn't frame his shot better, and why - from time to time - a collective grunt or guffaw punctuates the speech for no obvious reason.

The speech feels very modern. Lots of it seems to be about schemes with names like Research and Development Tax Credit, which has something to do with loads of extra science equipment for companies. Mr Brown tells her that she won't be taxed for having a company computer at home. Which must, she imagines, be great.

Already an image is being created in her mind, an apotheosis of New Labour, with Chancellor and PM floating like constellations over a landscape of winking machines and happy entrepreneurs. Youthful brainboxes in white coats run around labs shouting, "I've found the solution, thanks to Mr Gordon Brown!" As her imagination wanders, she absorbs something about a Computer Learning Centre in every town. Presumably they will have one in Droitwich, and all the old computers will be sent there to update themselves and learn new skills, such as how not to switch themselves off on 1 January 2000.

And there will be 10 million more books in schools! That's a shitload of Chip's Magic Adventures, she thinks, gratefully. Perhaps now she and Trevor will stand a better chance of getting the boys to read.

And more dosh for the Health Service, and for pensioners (who deserve it, after all, don't they?). And the Chancellor is now talking about a Giving Democracy, in which the educated, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, scientific whizz kids voluntarily share their cornucopia with the poor and the downtrodden, their efforts supplemented by a wise and prudently generous administration.

There's even a lower starting rate of income tax for the lower paid, bless them. Which, she supposes, acts as an encouragement to behave well, and is better than an indiscriminate tax cut for everybody. Wallop! The main rate down, the Chancellor back in his seat, a grin the size of the Cheddar Gorge on his face, cheers all round and David Dimbleby on BBC saying that the speech was "one hour five minutes and 45 seconds long, for those who are interested". Desdemona supposes that there must be such people.

So, science boosted, computers everywhere, jobs for all, books galore. Eight and a half billion quid in good, prudent things, a Giving Democracy (whatever that is) established and a moment of pleasurable guilt when Desdemona's own tax rate came down. And what's the cost? A tad on very expensive houses (the new pad Desdemona covets costs less than pounds 250,000), a big amount on fags (Desdemona packed it in a year ago, and now attends the local gym twice a week), the end of mortgage tax relief (not worth very much any more). This seems to be socialism without pain. Largesse with prudence. Is such a thing possible? It is certainly what Desdemona felt she was voting for back in May 1997.

There must be a catch, but right now no one can think of one. Back on the TV, Peter Snow now prances with angular grace round a virtual reality street, and every house or shop he calls at seems to be vaguely content, from the unemployed denizen of the high-rise block, to the owner-occupier of the computer-generated mock-Tudor pile. The pundits agree that "he's been very clever there".

Desdemona hears the metallic voice emerging from the strange, wide, lipless mouth of the Leader of the Opposition. He is scornful and derisive. But what on earth is not to like? Some folk, Desdemona thinks, are never satisfied. She wonders why she didn't vote Labour years ago. Indeed, she wonders if she'll vote anything else. And it was so comforting, she reflects, to hear that the Chancellor was expecting a little bit of growth next year, and loads in the years following. And there we all were, worrying about recession! Desdemona turns off the television, drains her coffee cup, and hears her son's key in the front door.