Leading Article: Brown grasps at the holy grail

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THE GOLDEN RULE. Sounds mystical, doesn't it? It is the grail that successive Chancellors have grasped at but never quite managed to attain. Put simply, it says that a prudent government, like a wise individual or company, should never borrow to consume, but only to invest. Gordon Brown is the latest politician to seek the grail. He believes that it is the key to sound public finances and the best guarantee for the future of our public services. He is right, and he deserves our support.

If the golden rule is so straightforward and worthy, why has it proved so elusive? The reasons are straightforward. Politicians, have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to borrow to spend more on the public services. Harold Wilson supposed that the civilising mission of state-sponsored spending would provide what the Pyramids, cathedrals and railways had provided in the past. Institutional links between the trade unions and the Labour Party fostered the cause of the public sector, especially over pay. Despite New Labour's "no favours" approach, this remains one of the many intense pressures on the Chancellor. The TUC went to see him yesterday to tell him to spend his "surplus cash" on the public services. They argue that "it is no use having a surplus if we still have long hospital waiting lists, large class sizes and teachers, nurses and doctors leaving the service".

But, whilst across-the-board rises cannot be afforded, HM Treasury is, as The Independent reported yesterday, in fact aware that there is a problem with public sector pay falling behind the private sector. The Treasury is, rightly, planning to direct what little funding it has found as a result of the comprehensive spending review towards key "front-line" staff who take on extra responsibilities. This is an imaginative and responsible approach to balancing the need for prudent finances and rewarding the most hard-pressed and talented of our health and teaching professionals.

It is tempting to caricature what the Chancellor is planning - a series of budget surpluses - as building up a pre-election fund ready to woo the electorate when the time comes. This is unfair. One day we will be grateful that we do indeed have a substantial buffer to protect our public services when a depressed economy provides too little in tax to fund education and health properly. That is a perfectly legitimate ambition. By the standards of our recent history, it might even be thought of as a golden one, too.

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