I'm nervous as I watch Mr Brown perform his tricky balancing act

How does it come about that you can find people who think the Government is not spending enough on the public sector?

Share

Lord Macaulay summed it up in his poem about Horatius at the bridge. You'll remember that Lars Porsenna of Clusium, king of the Etruscans, marched on Rome to reinstall his deposed fellow king, Tarquin. Rome wasn't the power then that it later became, and guarding the vital bridge over the Tiber from Porsenna and his array were just three Romans, a chap called Horatius and two pals. Understandably the Etruscans pushed on, only for those who went first to discover that Horatius et al were no push-overs. As the bodies piled up at the front, the blokes in the rear became restive at the delay, so that (as Macaulay put it) "those behind cried 'Forward!' And those before cried 'Back!' "

In the Etruscans' case there was some excuse for this completely different understanding by people in the same army of the situation they were facing. There were no mobile phones in those days, so Aruns of Volsinium couldn't inform the rearguard of what was going on, before he got smote ("smitten" somehow seems wrong).

It is less easy to understand, though, why today people in the same political party, or observing or commentating on the same set of events, should have such a different idea of what is going on before their eyes. How does it come about that you can find, in any paper, on any website, in any institution – simultaneously – people who think that the Government is not spending anything like enough on the public sector, and people who believe that the Chancellor is gambling the future of the nation by spending far too much? Do these folk never talk to one another?

There are plenty of critics, including letter writers to this newspaper, who argue that more should be spent even than is now planned. This I take to be the logic of arguing that the firefighters should be paid a very large increase without bothering too much with productivity. Or that teachers in London must get much higher weighting allowances. Or that lecturers in universities deserve (as they do) substantially enhanced pay. Or that all students should have their fees paid for them by the state.

Meanwhile, we discovered on Tuesday that the Chancellor's forecasts had been too rosy and needed to be revised. But if Mr Brown had been over-optimistic last year, it was obviously not for the sake of cutting taxation. The purpose of that optimism was to convince himself and us that we could indeed afford to continue with a substantial increase in funding for public services. As the position worsened, we were asked to pay more in National Insurance contributions from next year, and the Chancellor announced an intention to increase borrowing by a large amount.

I like Mr Brown. He always said that one should pay back debt during the up-swing of an economic cycle, and borrow again (if one had to) during the lean times. This makes sense to me as a kind of modern version of Joseph's grain-storing in the Bible. It means, apart from anything else, that you don't add to a potential recession by putting public employees out of work, or cutting back on capital projects that employ many in the private sector.

But that doesn't mean that I'm not nervous. I certainly am. Standing close to the bridge, I think I can see the glint of the swords and hear the turbulent waters below. I wonder whether the Brown gamble is going to come off. If a there is a war that isn't easily won, or if there isn't a European recovery, will we face higher taxes or cuts in elf and educashun?

And then, right in the middle of this, we have several public-sector unions moaning that the Government never does anything for their members, and that unless it does they will have no option but to bugger up everybody else's life. It's not just the FBU, but when I heard one firefighter yesterday talk about how he and his colleagues had been badly treated for 20 years, I asked him, via the radio and the intervening space, why he hadn't gone on strike during one of those Tory years? Why did he wait until a government came along that actually did... Need I continue? We know the answer. That is the answer.

Old John Monks at the TUC – unable for some reason to tell his members straight that the Government has gambled big on a commitment to public services – then says that trade unionists should get behind the FBU. No, John, the FBU should go back to work. And I would like to hear Mr Monks (for whom I have a great deal of respect, as it happens) on the subject of Bob Crow and the forthcoming RMT strike ballot, to be held because of the possibility of the disciplining of drivers who fail to turn up for work because they have decided (whatever the Health and Safety Executive says) that they are somehow not safe enough to drive to work the people who pay their wages.

What is going on at the moment, whether it be with the teachers or the firefighters, is a semi-conscious attempt to coerce the service providers into funnelling the extra government investment in particular directions. Give it to us or we'll do you over. Then, when challenged on the implicit unfairness of this to other workers, the strikers or the unions will almost always declare that they are in favour of everybody getting exactly what they want. They are nothing if not generous.

I don't mean by this that there aren't good causes out there, particularly among the lowest paid and in the universities. A large proportion of the million NHS staff who may soon get substantial rises (linked, we are assured, to modernisation) are in the low-pay category. And yesterday we heard the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, agreeing that the university system had been allowed to "drift for 35 years".

But what are we to do? Let the situation in universities worsen, until some begin to close down? Borrow even more (some estimate over £5bn) to fund a proper settlement in higher education? That hardly seems prudent. Charge students top-up fees, so that they effectively subsidise top-class research in the best universities? Or maybe take it from the firefighters, the health workers and the teachers? Enter, at this point (from the back) young William Straw, student leader, who says pretty much what I'd have said 25 years ago, which is that we should fund it through taxation. And unless he has some candidates for public-sector cuts, Jack's boy is advocating tax rises on the back of the NIC hike.

And now I am going to break the cardinal rule of columnising. I really don't know what the Government should do about universities. I do not find any of the options attractive. I don't think we can borrow more, I don't think we can leave our universities to rot, I don't think the public will wear a general tax rise (forget the seductive but false idea of raising enough from "taxing the rich"), I don't think that schools and hospitals should have their budgets cut, and I don't like the idea of top-up fees very much. As Macaulay said, "backward now and forward, wavers the deep array". Those that don't waver, it seems to me, are either very clever, or very, very stupid.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory