Sunday, March 16, 2008

Axing The Beast

Two-thirds of us think government taxes and spends too much

At last a senior centre right politician has spoken up for lower taxes and smaller government:

"Tax policy should help create more wealth not penalise, particularly when it comes to those on low or middle incomes... The government should give parents - starting with the poorest who are usually stuck with the worst schools - their own budgets to make school choice real not rhetorical... In old age, health, childcare or training individuals should be able to control budgets to make the choices that are right for them... Local police and health services would be directly elected. Local communities would have a bigger say in local courts... "

Sounds great- how do we get there?

"No-one ever willingly gave away power, so Whitehall should be capped. Civil servant numbers have been reduced but still total almost 500,000. My ministerial experience taught me that the bigger the machine is the more it will do. So the civil service should be reduced by one quarter."

That's the voice of bitter experience talking. Alan Milburn hasn't just read about this stuff in books - he's been there in the dark bureaucratic corridors of the Department of Health.

He knows the truth- marginal tinkering, even when designed by the best management consultants (taxpayers') money can buy, simply doesn't work. The only hope is swift and bloody field surgery.

Thatcher had her cuts, and Reagan came up with "Starving the Beast". But whereas the gentle Ronnie simply tried to restrict the Beast's food supply, Milburn's plan is to smash the thing's skull with an axe.

Compare and contrast that with the latest subdued murmurings from Dave C:

"There is not going to be some magic pot of money waiting for us when the next Conservative government is elected. We need to get used to saying 'no' more often than 'yes'. Money is tight and we've got to make choices."

Yes, well, quite. But what choices? 4,200 extra health visitors doesn't sound like beasts going hungry. And yet another £28bn for the NHS sure ain't no axe.

Ruling out tax cuts not just for the next election, but for the four years after that as well, is too dismally defeatist for words.

And while Philip Hammond rightly says Thatcher was unable to make tax cuts until she'd brought the public finances under control, part of that control was her being very tough on public spending. Far from lashing herself to Labour's spending plans, her first budget made cuts. And throughout her first term- despite the deepest recession since the thirties- she held discretionary public spending growth to well under 1% pa (see this blog for details)

Spending cuts are electoral suicide? That's sooooh 1990s. According to today's Sunday Times/YouGov poll, 67% of us now reckon government taxes and spends too much. And fully 78% of us now think the government wastes huge amounts of our cash. What a turnaround from that rose tinted 1997 dawn.

If you can't think the unthinkable in opposition, you haven't got a prayer of doing so once in power. Once inside those dark "can't do" corridors, the very act of thinking itself becomes exhausting. And that vague hankering of yours for lower taxes some time... in the golden future... when the time is right... You can forget all about that.

Ask Smiler Milburn.

And while you're at it, ask if you can borrow his axe.

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