George Osborne's Bond issue brings out the secret agent in us all

James Bond is fantasy. Osborne’s 10-year “consolidation” may prove an equal fiction.

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The Independent Online

After 11 minutes of whirlwind hype at Pinewood Studios on Thursday, we know that the 24th James Bond film will be entitled Spectre. Headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, this all-purpose matrix of mayhem first surfaced in 1961, in Ian Fleming’s novel Thunderball. The advent of the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion marked Fleming’s shift away from Cold War ideology towards generic baddies fuelled by insatiable destructive urges.

So to bring the franchise entirely up to date, director Sam Mendes and his team might have redubbed their nest of nasties with a more contemporary acronym – perhaps as the “Deadly evil force inflicting cuts, insolvency and torment”. Or D.E.F.I.C.I.T.

Commander Bond’s adventures offer a handy prism – or rather a Martini glass – through which to view the Chancellor’s long-term plan for a smaller, leaner state. During his Autumn Statement, George Osborne gunned up his armoured Aston Martin and set off on a hairpin corniche route past scary economic boulders, potholes and ravines towards the low-spending, balanced-budget paradise of the fiscal year 2019-2020.

You know that anticlimactic smoochy scene that always ends the films? To a soundtrack of lush strings, Bond and his latest conquest gaze out in a post-coital stupor over silver sands and turquoise seas. A few stray wisps of cloud form into messages. They read: “A £50bn current account surplus”; “£61bn of extra cuts”; “Government spending at 35.2 per cent of GDP” and, drifting over the horizon, “The lowest proportion of state spending since 1938”.

Bliss. Cue the closing credits – and, possibly, a reprise of Wings’ “Live and Let Die”.

Almost since his 1953 arrival in Casino Royale, Bond on page and screen has served as a slick-suited proxy for the state of the post-imperial nation. Fans will recall his disappointing encounter with Q in the aptly named Skyfall – a movie that premiered in 2012 just when it seemed that Osborne-branded austerity had brought the heavens down in a pall of permanent gloom. As Q, the youthful secret-service armourer, Ben Whishaw hands Daniel Craig a scanty package of goodies: not much more than a ticket, a pistol and a radio. Bond is unimpressed. Q ripostes: “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that any more.”

 

That was then. Now, Osborne has unveiled his plotlines for what you might call the James Bond state. It will be thin, agile, minimally staffed, endlessly flexible, ready to turn on a devalued euro and – like one version of that Aston Martin – able to dematerialise at the flick of a Treasury switch.

Try to digest the detailed forecast published this week by the Office for Budget Responsibility – a task that would take Bond about 15 minutes, cocktail-mixing included – and any user of public rather than secret services will tremble. As part of its decade-long “fiscal consolidation”, the Government intends to slash per capita spending (health and schools apart) from £3,020 in 2010 to £1,290 in 2020. Over the same period, projected public expenditure will plummet from 21.2 per cent of GDP to 12.6 per cent. With 60 per cent of the planned pain still to come, the state’s share of the total economy will fall to “the lowest since 1938 using the Bank of England’s historical dataset”.

Ah, 1938. Neville Chamberlain waves a paper containing Herr Hitler’s reassurances and proclaims peace for our time. The Special Areas Act and the Unemployment Assistance Board have mitigated the worst wounds of the Great Depression, although rickets, TB and other ailments of extreme poverty still stalk the slums. But suburban sprawl gallops across the booming south. A new Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act allows local authorities to buy land as a buffer against ribbon development.

Pioneers open the Finsbury Health Centre for integrated, cradle-to-grave community welfare. It’s designed by Berthold Lubetkin, who has a modernist architect colleague called Erno Goldfinger. The BMA issues a pamphlet calling for a comprehensive scheme of access to doctors and hospitals – a sort of “national health service”. Ian Fleming fails as a City stockbroker.

Osborne’s 35.2 per cent solution – 1938-style – has spread either delight or despondency. Free-market fundamentalists hail his vision as a prospect of liberation from “welfare dependency”. Clients, staff and advocates of the public realm shudder in premonitory dread. However, the dream of a James Bond state involves more than a scantily resourced retreat from boots on the ground – or helmets on the street – into a pattern of slimline agencies charged to commission minimal services from private suppliers. To begin with, guarantees of future spending on the NHS and (crucially) the “triple-locked” state pension mean that Osborne’s 007 costume – licensed to trim the bloated public sector – retains hidden fat beneath the knife-sharp tux.

Beyond those commitments, the present administration does not really hate the state. It hates transferring tax receipts to poor and vulnerable people. That is a rather different matter. Look at the Osborne strategy in the round and another picture comes into focus. Forget Q’s niggardliness of 2012. This government just adores exploding pens.

They come in many infrastructural guises. Much of the cunning gadgetry (about £73bn out of a £100bn commitment to large-scale projects) goes towards transport: the HS2 railway, or the £15bn investment in new roads. Higher-minded punters may take heart from the £141m earmarked for a cultural “Olympicopolis” at Stratford, east London, or the £235m materials research centre in Manchester, conceived as a pillar of Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse”. The atom-thin material graphene – developed, in a pure 007 subplot, by a pair of Russian émigrés at Manchester University – already has a dedicated research HQ under construction. Meanwhile, a “Knowledge Quarter” in Bloomsbury and King’s Cross, London, will gather a cluster of high-thinking establishments around the Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research.

This type of investment does not exactly testify to a stampede back into the laissez-faire Stone Age. Although private capital may do much of the heavy lifting for these declamatory schemes, government departments will act as patrons, facilitators and impresarios. From sub-Stonehenge tunnels to flood barriers and research institutes, Osborne craves a cheap state – but a spectacular state as well.

The lethal toys that Q supplied to 007 allowed the lone-wolf agent to make up in smart power what he lacked in overwhelming might. Osborne’s James Bond state aspires for something similar: social and economic leverage through knowledge hubs and communications networks. His aim (so far as one can read it) is that these equivalents of miniaturised weapons and micro-transmitters will multiply the impact of much-curtailed public spending. Even if the strategy turns out as far-fetched and fanciful as a Bond storyline, it does not quite imply a retreat into the vestigial “night-watchman state” of free-market theory. Rather, muscular and athletic public authority leaps from one slick stunt to another, never spending too much or staying too long. This is the state not as night-watchman but as superhero.

James Bond is fantasy. Osborne’s 10-year “consolidation” may prove an equal fiction. The OBR itself rows back on the willing suspension of disbelief when it warns that “the implied cuts during the next Parliament would pose a significant challenge if they were confirmed as firm policy”. Those cautious subjunctives spell, more or less, “You cannot be serious”. Especially since (as The Independent disclosed yesterday) the official story depends on a huge upswing in unsecured personal borrowing. The OBR foresees “households’ finances in deficit and the gross debt-to-income ratio rising well above its pre-crisis peak by the forecast horizon”.

Even solitary spooks need their backroom bureaucrats. The Conservative utopia – or mirage – of a state that would spend less, do less, but still incubate national achievement through high-yield projects, has a distinctly fuzzy hinterland. All those knowledge-driven, fully networked hubs, hives and powerhouses will call for regiments of expert managers, specialist staff and (not least) well-trained apprentices. They will now be expected to emerge from squeezed and crumbling schools, indebted and shrunken universities, and service-depleted neighbourhoods in which you are no more likely to come across a properly funded public library than a palm-fringed atoll where some wicked genius dwells.

In short, Osborne wants Bond without M – or rather, without the unseen army of professionals who really license his thrills. The OBR notes that the current plethora of low-grade, low-paid jobs – exactly the sort of employment you rely on without sufficient investment in quality training and education – has depressed tax revenues and so delayed the Government’s own timetable for deficit reduction. Yesterday, the International Labour Organisation confirmed that – after six years of falling real wages – British workers have suffered more in a spectral “boom” than many of their G20 counterparts have in a “bust”.

But forget reality. Clear the sound stage for yet more infrastructural stunts enveloped in pseudo-patriotic smoke and mirrors. On Thursday, the Pinewood press conference revealed that Spectre will also star the new Aston Martin DB10: “built for Bond”, as the car-maker proudly advertises. Or rather, built for the marque’s principal shareholders: the Kuwaiti finance house Investment Dar, and the Italian private-equity consortium Investindustrial. Only a last-ditch foreign rescue stopped Bond’s motor from crashing into its own budgetary ravine.

Flashy, splashy but underpowered, George Osborne’s 007 state may soon require the same sort of salvation.

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