Look behind you, Gordon, a man’s about to grab your cash
On a promise — Gordon Brown will make pledges to voters in his party conference speech today, but will they be kept?
The Prime Minister is making promises to voters in his party conference speech today. Last year he promised that foreign-born criminals would be deported when they were convicted; that mothers staying at home to look after their children would keep pension rights; that there would be an end to men and women in the same hospital ward; and that citizens who tackled yobos and burglars committing a crime would be protected by the law.
Each of these policies could be sure of a tabloid headline. The snag is that not one of them have happened. Of course, they might still happen. It is difficult to say. What one can say is that, in the eye of the voter, Mr Brown was preparing to call a general election last autumn. The election was not called, so the proposals may have followed it into oblivion.
The cynical regard party conferences as a confidence trick, in close partnership with media editors desperate to fill home news pages and broadcast bulletins in the final dog days of the long summer recess. But multi-channel television has given boring conferences a new lease of life. So it is showbiz all the way — or for such part of it as can perform. This can produce curious results, as when Nick Clegg strode the platform for the Lib-Dems in Bournemouth, addressing his audience apparently without either script or notes — in the David Cameron manner. It took Nick Robinson of the BBC to put a camera behind the speaker to show Clegg's large-type autocue, hidden from the audience on the back wall of the hall.
In a sense Clegg's hidden autocue could be said to reflect the new Labour problem. Brown went to Number 11 billed as the enemy of spin. As Chancellor, all would be principled and above board. But he did not behave that way. His new taxes were fairly labelled ‘stealth' taxes, biting ever deeper into family budgets in an under-the-counter manner: £100bn from UK pension funds, once among the best worldwide, many now struggling; quadrupling his take from stamp duty to £10bn a year while deploring the plight of couples unable to buy a flat; pocketing record sums of fuel duty and VAT while wringing his hands over the price of petrol, oil and gas.
Incredibly, he claimed to have abolished boom and bust — “Tory boom and bust”. I could not credit this; for the capitalist system — not without its faults, ye gods, but the best we have got — notoriously works in cycles. Who with a modicum of historical knowledge would deny it? But at the beginning in 1997 all went smoothly for Mr Brown.
He borrowed massively and spent like there was no tomorrow. Before a shocked audience of European central bankers, in 1999, he decided to sell more than half the UK's gold reserves — at a 20-year low in the market. He got an average of $275 an ounce; the price now is $869 and some analysts believe it is on the way to breaking the $1000 barrier. But Brown concealed the significance of the deal under circumlocutions. It was termed "a restructuring of the UK's reserve holdings" in a written parliamentary answer planted with a Labour backbencher and slipped out on a Friday afternoon when both Houses were almost deserted. All attempts by journalists to discover what expert advice — if any— was sought on the timing of the deal continue to be blocked by the Treasury. With this largesse, spending has doubled on the Health Service since 2003. (But a year ago the UK's health care was ranked only 17th in a survey of 29 European countries — Estonia's was judged better; and on value for money, the UK was 26th out of 29.) The bottom line was that, at the end of last year, the UK had the largest budget deficit in Europe — £43.7bn on current account.
With this profligacy, is it any wonder the banking system — abetted by its hard-pressed customers — took off? Six months ago, Blair's former eminence grise, Alistair Campbell, came to Belfast to do a television programme and told us that "Britain has been transformed with a completely different set of values and policies".
We now know how right he was. To the banks these values meant shelling out mortgages of £100,000 to couples who, for the moment, happened to be sleeping together. For Northern Rock it meant mortgages of 125%. Greed was given its head. The hum of the housing merry-go-round became the loudest in Europe. Buy-to-let was promoted as a licence to print money.
This week one sorely wounded woman whimpered quietly on Radio 4 that now, since the bubble burst, "we wouldn't buy anything we couldn't pay back".
But is not that the way, for all of us, that it used to be? Brown's problem is that it no longer is. But as Chancellor with unprecedented powers over Government finance, and now as Prime Minister, it has been his show.