The Autumn Budget 2017: For Whom and for What Purpose, or Just an Exercise in Whistling in the Wind?

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Author: Prof John Bryson, University of Birmingham

I find the political and media worlds in the UK increasingly depressing. I had wondered if this was a new form of illness, perhaps Brexitis. I have been reflecting on my increasing disillusionment with both British politics and the media and I have discovered the origins of my new illness. The problem with British politics can be defined in one word – politicians – and the same approach is also true of the media – journalists. But, what are these problems? I would argue that it is the same problem – a focus on single-issue themes, problems or opportunities with no attempt to develop a more integrated or systematic approach to the long-term future of the UK. Thus, both politics and the media suffer from ‘the distractions of the immediate’ with a limited attempt to consider the complex interplay of factors and processes that will shape the future lives of people living in the UK. All of this is complicated by a fundamental problem at the centre of British politics: the failure of everyone – politicians, officials, charities and the media – to engage in an integrated diagnostics process to identify what works in the UK, what needs some policy attention and where intervention should occur. This is a very difficult process and no one has yet to develop this type of integrated diagnostics approach. Currently, there is no effective, long-term and integrated approach to try to identify and define the complex and often intractable challenges facing the UK.  Thus, policymaking in the UK, including the shaping and drafting of the November budget, is like whistling in the wind. This is a relatively pointless exercise. The media just follows the whistle and whistler and, in many cases, fails to ask the right questions.

The right question should come from a more long-term integrated approach based on a diagnostics process. The UK has never managed to achieve this. The new Industrial Strategy is an excellent example of this failure – a strategy developed without a process of rigorous and robust diagnostics. The questions to ask of the budget are: a budget for whom and for what purpose? The answer should be for the British people and the purpose should be the creation of a sustainable and resilient future for UK residents and citizens. But, the real answer is that this is a budget to try to protect politicians. The problem with all budgets is that they are based on politics rather than an objective process of diagnostics. This budget will be depressing for those of us trying to develop a more integrated understanding of the UK. Philip Hammond has very limited room for manoeuvre given the recurrent structural deficit in public finance and political pressures related to housing, rents, students, first-time buyers, social care and health. All these are distractions of the immediate rather than an attempt to develop a long-term integrated strategy. I don’t need to mention Brexit or Brexit uncertainty as this is perhaps one of the least important issues facing the UK. Very few people would agree with this statement, but politicians and the media are too fixated on a very simplistic analysis of Brexit whilst largely ignoring all the other major and long-term reconfigurations that are on-going at the moment as capitalism engages in a process of radical restructuring.

At the moment, I find it difficult to sleep at night and, in part, this is a reflection of the current state of the UK. Prior to 1997 the UK had a policy environment that facilitated the development of one of the best pension systems in the world. In 1997, we had Labour’s pension tax raid and there is speculation of more political tinkering with pensions. The 1997 raid continues to produce many impacts and distortions. Let us consider one individual and the impacts that they are still living with that came from this pension raid. A 72 year old man has to continue working as he cannot avoid retirement. His pension was cut by 50% as one consequence of the 1997 raid. He is self-employed and works by himself as a sole trader. His future is relatively secure as long as he can keep working. However, he needs to have a full knee replacement. He has been told by the surgeon that he will be able to return to work within five days of the operation and he has to return to work within five days otherwise his business will decline. This is the UK in 2017 rather than in 1817 and this is in no way a positive reflection on British politics.

I don’t imagine that British politics will change. UK citizens and residents have to accept the distortions that come with the electoral cycle and with politicians or political parties defining problems and interventions as single issues. More importantly, this process of problem definition is based on who speaks the loudest and who perhaps has the current ear of the media and politicians. All this means that the autumn budget will be another exercise of whistling in the wind. It will be a relatively pointless exercise that will not provide the wider framework and conditions for a sustainable and resilient future for UK citizens and residents.  It will, perhaps, be even more pointless as this budget will just continue to ‘kick the deficit’ down the road and leave it as a present for our children and their children to consider.

John Bryson
Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness,
City-Region Economic Development Institute,
Birmingham Business School,
University of Birmingham

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