Autumn Statement 2014: George Osborne's level of failure would get him sacked in the private sector

Why is the Chancellor allowed to break so many promises and get away with it? It's time to rethink the way our political system works

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The Independent Online

George Osborne stood up to declare what a wonderful job he has done yesterday. The Opposition responded with a ritualistic attack.

There’s no sanction for the Government having missed all its economic targets. Neither will the “would-be Prime Minister” be dismissed for demonstrating basic economic illiteracy once again. Nor the Prime Minister censured for his comment in a party political broadcast, “We are paying down Britain’s debts”, when this is patently not the case.

Just look at some of the promises made against outcomes achieved. We were promised a deficit of £35bn this year. It’s £100bn. We were told debt would fall to 67 per cent next year. The OBR now say it will be well over 80 per cent.

At last the welfare beast was going to be slain, with £19bn of promised savings. Instead, in real terms, spending this year will be almost the same as it was in 2010.

We were promised that there would be public spending restraint. In 2014, spending was at 42.5 per cent of GDP - actually higher than Alistair Darling planned in his final budget. And next year it will be £732bn; accounting for inflation that’s almost exactly the same as in 2010.

As a businessman, it seems to me there is a complete disconnect between words and deeds in modern politics. Any one of these failures would be instantly sackable offences in the private sector but bear no immediate penalty in politics.

Government debt is now £1.4tn, double its level since 2010. Unfunded pensions double this amount. Bank debt is even more. The private sector is also thickly coated. And debt which politicians like to pretend isn’t debt – off balance sheet and private finance initiatives – adds another impressive layer. On any truthful analysis, our collective debts are around 600 per cent of GDP. This makes us one of the most indebted countries in the world.

Rather than parroting solutions designed to appeal to voters rather than deal with the real issues at hand, it might instead be worth looking at the system which has produced these results.

It strikes me that the skills a politician needs to succeed in a democracy are increasingly irrelevant to those required to run a country.

In the modern media-driven world, voters look for political leaders with good personal appearance, likeability and communication skills and, of course, ones who promise nice things. In what way are these connected to running a country?

 

What the country needs are skills in getting things done, managing people, finance and economics and – most of all – total honesty, the basis for solving all problems.

But I do feel a certain sympathy for my colleagues in the Government. I am an unelected Peer, with a job for life. I can speak my mind. In a modern democracy, it’s virtually impossible to speak hard truths and get elected.

For example, we all sense that the extra £2bn which the Chancellor has announced for the NHS won’t solve its problems long term. It needs wholesale reform. But who dares say so? To do so would risk the accusation of failing to support the NHS, or worse to advocate its privatisation.

This is the great hypocrisy of our times. People complain about the dishonesty of politicians, yet any politician who spoke the truth would be annihilated at the polls.

“All truth is good,” goes the proverb, “but not all truth is good to say.” This is what Jean-Claude Junker meant when he said “We know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.”

Given this, our politics is now stuck in a vicious cycle – spending – votes – debt. Europe has seven per cent of the world’s population but 50 per cent of its welfare spending. Is this sustainable? What happens if it isn’t?

Over the past 50 years, voters have been given ever more benefits and public services. But in the great paradox of our time – nobody’s happy. Far from being grateful, the public loathe their politicians. We can see it all around us here in the UK, and it’s the same in other European countries.

But strangely, it seems to me, no one questions the system in which they operate. We hate the practice but never question the theory.

I hope for a time when the Autumn Statement, and the tit-for-tat debate which follows, are held to serve no purpose. Where politicians are held to account in the world of financial reality rather than that of democratic politics. Where it’s not possible to miss targets or spin figures. Where cliché and ritualistic attack are no longer acceptable.

Where excellence, ability to deliver and doing things properly are held to be the greater virtues.

Let’s hope that should that time come, it will not be too late.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that despite Osborne promising a deficit of £35bn for 2014, this year's deficit is £10bn. This year's deficit is actually £100bn.

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