Mark Steel: This taxing barrage of meaningless numbers

Politicians are like car mechanics - they make everything sound as complicated as possible
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The Independent Online

As a piece of theatre, the Budget is diabolical. The very first line contained the phrase "sustained economic growth". If you start a conversation with those words, that's not a sign of intellect, it's a symptom of mental illness. And yet it's such an opportunity. If Gordon Brown had any sense of fun, he'd announce measures such as a special tax to fund transvestite Gypsies, payable only by Richard Littlejohn and the editor of The Sun. And a rule that they had to spend the money personally, so they'd have to go and buy a customised caravan with compartments for suspenders and mascara, and then Brown could announce it was exempt from the congestion charge.

As a piece of theatre, the Budget is diabolical. The very first line contained the phrase "sustained economic growth". If you start a conversation with those words, that's not a sign of intellect, it's a symptom of mental illness. And yet it's such an opportunity. If Gordon Brown had any sense of fun, he'd announce measures such as a special tax to fund transvestite Gypsies, payable only by Richard Littlejohn and the editor of The Sun. And a rule that they had to spend the money personally, so they'd have to go and buy a customised caravan with compartments for suspenders and mascara, and then Brown could announce it was exempt from the congestion charge.

Instead, you get endless meaningless numbers to prove we're rolling in it. Every line seems to go, "Furthermore, axiomatic investment repayments increased by 2.9 per cent compared to 2.8 per cent the previous meteorological annum, reducing the ornithological deficit to the lower tibia by a whole semibreve, adding 12 points to my Tesco loyalty card, the greatest amount since 1357."

Numbers fly in all directions as if Gordon's a caller for a decimalised version of bingo. "On the green, endogenous private sector growth for the third quarter, three point six. Two fat fiscal forecasts for long-term stability - two point four." Yet throughout the whole speech, Blair sits by him nodding, as if he's thinking: "Oo, that's a good number." Surely he knows what's coming. It would be more honest if he sat there flicking through a magazine or playing the snake game on his mobile.

Blair and Brown would do better to adopt the attitude of Oliver Cromwell, who was asked for his predictions on the economy and replied, "It is exceedingly past my understanding. These are great sums." That would be brilliant, if Michael Howard did his smug speech demanding "Is it not an indictment of the current economic folly that £3bn, etc, etc?" And Brown and Blair said "Blimey, that's a big number. Work that out, mate, and you ought to go on Countdown."

Seeing as the Budget is the plan for the country's finances, it's quite an achievement to make it as dull as it is. Even if the most tedious bank manager was explaining your account, you wouldn't find yourself after 30 seconds saying, "I tell you what mate, I'm not bothered how much money I've got," and turning over to watch the water ski-ing on Eurosport.

The problem is not that most people are not educated enough to follow economics, it's that politicians are like car mechanics - they make everything sound as complicated as possible so that most of us can't tell when they're making stuff up. But you will catch the odd line that gives them away.

For example, at one point yesterday, Brown said we were enjoying the largest ever investment in public transport. This is encouraging, because so many journeys seem to end with a train breaking down at Watford Junction, leaving 800 people wandering in search of a special bus service that never arrives, forming a community that develops its own rules and social customs.

Everyone who uses public transport knows it's got worse since privatisation, but apparently we're all wrong because we're enjoying record levels of investment. There is one statistic Brown could have mentioned that would explain this discrepancy, which is that, to take just one operator, since Richard Branson's Virgin Trains has been going, it has received £1.57bn in subsidies. Factor in that equation and economics becomes much simpler. To summarise: a) Take something out of public ownership and sell it to shareholders; and b) subsidise the new owner £1.57bn; then c) the shareholders will be rich and you'll be stuck outside Watford Junction. It could even be given a name such as Branson's Law of Theft.

But this is the trick of the Budget speech. What you think you see in the real world is irrelevant, because the statistics show you're having a lovely time. Whereas there are other relatively simple statistics he didn't mention, such as how Rupert Murdoch went 11 years without paying corporation tax in this country, despite making a profit of £1.4bn. At normal tax rates, he would have paid £92m, enough to build seven hospitals. It should be brilliant being Chancellor, imagining having the power to put that right. Similarly, since 1997, the richest 1 per cent of the population have increased their share of the wealth from 20 per cent to 23 per cent. Why couldn't he have said he was having the 3 per cent back? They'd still be the richest 1 per cent, they'd probably be glad for the Government to take it off their hands.

Explaining the economy shouldn't be hard. Which is why the only time Brown spoke in an accessible language was when he was offering his payments to pensioners. All the parties love a pensioner when there's an election. I suppose the thinking is, "We can slash their pensions and ruin their savings, as long as we do it in the first half of our term. By the time the election comes they won't remember a thing." The speech might as well have ended "And now - our policy for pensioners: Hello dear. It's me dear, Gordon, the one you like. Would you like to come to dinner on Sunday? Don't forget to vote or the nasty man will come and steal your purse."

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