By Graeme Morrison
The most anticipated yet least welcomed budget of modern times was labelled as ‘progressive’ by the Chancellor, which raised cheers from coalition benches, disbelieving laughter from the Opposition benches and one would imagine would have caused some anger in the home of the most consistent proponent of the phrase, the Right Honourable Member for Kircaldy and Cowdenbeath.
Osborne declared the budget a touch but necessary step to reduce the deficit whilst cushioning the impact of the most vulnerable members of our society. He championed it as one of ‘fairness’ in a challenging economic climate. Harriet Harman rightly derided it as an ideological budget supported by the power-hungry Liberal Democrats who opposed such measures vigorously in the election campaign. The Prime Minister promised not only a changed country but a changed Conservative Party. Sadly, this budget proved that he did not mean it.
The most irritating part of this Budget was the callous way in which the government have targeted the so-called ‘benefit cheats’. Of course, everyone believes that the benefit system should benefit those who are in need. This rhetoric has came about as a result of dogma however, not any genuine concern. I have two contentions about their attitude towards the benefit system in this country. Firstly, I ask myself whether the government realise that the consequences of their policies that will place about 100,000 more people a year on the dole. Indeed, the consequences are surely obvious; more people will find themselves on out of work benefits with the corollary being that the Exchequer will be more restricted in its ability to raise revenue from tax. This is a clear way of looking at a situation. Despite their rhetoric, if any party has aggravated the extent of welfare dependency it has been the Tory Party. Secondly, I feel the Tory Party have a fundamental problem in how they view welfare. By their political convictions, they of course aim to see the state being smaller and therefore welfare has always sat uncomfortably with the party. Unfortunately, the narrow view that everyone is born into a meritocracy with an equal chance of success is not a reality. Many people require help from the state. I am afraid this narrow view was translated in this Budget, which gives the impression that the government are stereotyping benefit claimants as lazy and as scroungers. Surely, before Osborne started on this ultra-conservative crusade against the welfare state, he would have instantly saved about 0.5bn per year by scrapping the gimmick that is the married couple’s allowance. With room for such a commitment, the government clearly are not concerned with the deficit.
The increase of VAT to 20% understandably made the headlines. After all, David Cameron had said there was no need to raise it and Nick Clegg went to all the effort of making his way to Glasgow to unveil his poster that attacked the Tory ‘VAT Bombshell’. I would think members on the coalition side of the House, such as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable will be asking themselves how they ended up in a situation that saw their party support such a regressive tax that will impact upon the poorest in our society. Lib Dem voters, I suspect, will be preparing to desert the party en masse. This was all avoidable had the sensible option of waiting until the recovery was assured, instead of cutting the economic pie and then adopting the traditional Tory principle of ‘sink or swim’. For sure, it was a Tory minister this week that said we must expect that the axe will fall hardest upon the poorest. This is a mentality is not one of a progressive government. Rather, it seeks to entrench a situation in our country where people at the bottom end of the scale, to quote a phrase, ‘simply get by rather than getting on’.
When the government says that we will all suffer from this Budget, they are correct. However we must ask ourselves who has a higher threshold of pain. It is in these times that the economic squeeze threatens the most vulnerable. A great man once said, ‘The last should be first’. In such difficult times, it would be wise to heed these words. George Osborne instead stuck to his regressive principles. The Prime Minister promised not only a changed country but a changed Conservative Party. Sadly, this budget proved that he did not mean it.