Political theatre makes for poor policy

The way our government sets budget and spending plans is a recipe for bad, short-term decision making. 

Twice a year the chancellor gets to his feet and delivers a refreshed set of economic policies in a big, set piece speech where he is essentially forced to favour tomorrow’s headlines over optimal long or even medium term decision making.

Nationally significant policies from every government ministry live or die by the concessions that their ministers are able to wrangle from a chancellor who is forced by political reality to be more concerned with tomorrow’s headlines and his image than the state of our public finances in a year’s time.

Spending decisions are made based on economic forecasts that are subject to change. Questionable political decisions are defended to the hilt, because to question them in light of new data would be to commit the gravest of self-inflicted political wounds, the U-turn.

The government of the day is able to roll out a “smoke and mirrors” act to conceal up the fact that they have slightly re-arranged the deckchairs on the Titanic.

And for what? To draw the public in to the political process? To arbitrate complex questions of economic policy? To astutely position Britain  vis-à-vis our global competitors, ensuring that our tax code, infrastructure and labour market are the most attractive in the world?

No. We do it just so that the government of the day – or a nimble opposition (remember those?) – can score political points. And, of course, because it is traditional.

Some traditions – like MPs not clapping in the Commons chamber – are antiquated and affected, but do little real damage. Others – like MPs having to leave the Commons chamber through a specific door every time they vote, rather than availing themselves of fast electronic voting technology – are an irritant, a brake on the smooth running of our legislature.

But some traditions belong in another category – things that do real, actual harm, not just to the running of our Parliament but to the political outcomes which we then have to live with every day. Some traditions actively harm our democracy.

I would submit that the Budget and Autumn State set-piece theatre events fall into this latter category. Politically astute chancellors may relish them because they provide an unparalleled opportunity to draw red lines and create traps for the opposition. The Westminster media may like the status quo, because if nothing else, these events can be moments of real political drama.

But besides savvy chancellors and the established media, it is hard to tell who else benefits from the current system other than the cause of big government.

Having two occasions each year when an already-powerful chancellor like George Osborne in an already-centralised country like the United Kingdom gets to play with nearly all of the controls and levers which influence our economy only encourages meddling and tweaking of things that should properly be left to local government and individuals.

When you have direct, ultimate control over which families deserve help buying a house, which people should keep or lose their benefits or how much a person pays in sin taxes for their guilty pleasure, the temptation to use those powers is irresistible.

And because of the ratchet effect, it is the easiest thing in the world to give away new perks to favoured interest groups, but nearly impossible to ever claw them back without being exposed to political attack. Even under this nominally conservative government, budgets and autumn statements have often been a one-way ticket to bigger government – or at least more activist state.

No system is perfect. One needs only look across the Atlantic ocean at the United States, with their unseemly debt ceiling fights and government shutdowns (oh, to have one here) to realise that you do not need a Westminster parliamentary-style system to sow budget chaos. But the flaws in our current system are obvious, and have been staring us in the face for years – yet nobody has proposed the slightest alteration, choosing instead to cheer when their side “wins” and whine when the other side is in power and sets a budget with which we disagree.

If conservatism still means anything, it should mean a healthy scepticism of the state and its power to influence or police human behaviour. Surely at some point our desire for smaller government and a smarter state has to outweigh our devotion to the dusty tradition of a man standing on the doorstep of his house, waving a red box around?


Samuel Hooper is a journalist and blogger. He is passionate about politics, free markets and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter here.

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty