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Opinion

Paul McNamee: The convenience of public servants

If the job of government is to keep everybody, equally, feeling deflated, then job done

So what was the Budget all about? A few quid for potholes, a gift around tax on booze, a generous tax boost for the well off (except in Scotland), some weird news about public toilets, repeated assurances that austerity is over, or at least coming to an end? The thing about ending austerity is that just because you say it, don’t make it so.

As the dust settles we realise Philip Hammond’s Budget did pull off one neat trick – it united both sides of the political divide. Both agreed there wasn’t much in it. The reasons, naturally, were different. On the government’s side it was because it kept the car between the hedges, steady as she goes, no surprises. And there’s a promised land of a £15bn bounty– Hammond’s headroom – should grease be needed to oil some wheels around Brexit.

On the other side it was thought empty because so little was done to boost the services whacked so mercilessly by austerity. If the job of government is to keep everybody, equally, feeling deflated, then job done.

And that gets to the heart of one of the issues around the Budget, in fact around how we live now – the role of government.

Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, sat behind Hammond for the whole of his speech. She looked happy. Truss doesn’t believe in much state intervention. She has spoken previously about wanting a ‘sleek state’, not having the government intervene in peoples’ lives. It’s a point of view shared by a good number of her party. Broadly, that’s a fine view to have. Encourage personal responsibility, not a nanny state.

But if you follow it to its natural conclusion, you turn the tap off for a lot that government really needs to do. You can then advocate much lower taxes and even less intervention. So government becomes a question of ideology rather than best practice.

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If the job of government is to keep everybody, equally, feeling deflated, then job done

And ideologies make mistakes. The practice of outsourcing previously state-run endeavours has, at best, a chequered success rate. When these things, like prisons, are left to the market invariably the state has to step in to fix them. Which means the state – you and me – pays a bigger bill.

Ideology says things like give more money to frontline police and health services, but cut the tax bills. Nobody REALLY likes getting smacked for tax. But things need to be paid for.

It goes beyond money to behaviour.

The case of Tracey Crouch’s resignation from the government over the delay in proposed legislation to curb the ease with which fixed-odds betting terminals can suck in money and ruin lives shows the problem.

She saw something needed to be done. Addiction to these machines is calamitous. She wasn’t calling for their outlawing, rather a limit on the stake per spin – from £100 to £2.

The Gambling Commission argued that they generated money for the government. There was another argument made elsewhere that limiting stakes was a middle-class slap down for pleasures of the working class. Which is just about as patronising as you can get.

In truth, you either believe in government’s doing the right thing or you don’t.

Maybe the reluctance is because of the ongoing lack of trust in politicians. Perhaps if they weren’t in charge of big serious decisions, we’d feel better. Maybe if experts in individual fields were left to make decisions, there’d be less suspicion and more success.

One of the confusing things around the Budget was why Philip Hammond was announcing help for public toilets. I think I realise now. The other day I needed to go and headed to the public convenience at Westminster tube station. It cost 50p. Which, as we all know, is the denomination of the Brexit commemoration coin.

Suddenly all became clear. And perhaps that’s what we really need our politicians for.

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