Being honest, I've never been a fan of Ed Balls, and his exit from political life could not come soon enough for this bunny. A combination of statist instincts, a pathological hatred of freedom, an abrasive bullying style and a very loose relationship with the truth hardly endear him to those not inclined to vote Labour. Even a great many on his own side hate him, but through accident rather than his own design, Balls has been at the centre of a storm in the last 24 hours. Some leaked correspondence first revealed (if this really counts as a revelation) that he and Gordon Brown were plotting to oust Tony Blair as far back as 2005. Now in gasp shock horror terms, I guess that's about as high up the list as discovering that the Pope might be a Catholic. Fortunately the leaks did not end there.
Something else of considerably more interest turned up today - a series of leaked e-mails from civil servants from as far back as 2006, advising Balls and Brown to slam the brake on public spending and keep any future increases in line with inflation. One asks "we've spent all this money but what have we got for it?", a question that can probably be answered only by having a humourless read of the Guardian jobs pages on a Thursday. State expenditure in Britain has never been higher than when Gordon and Ed ran the circus that posed as the Treasury. Also scaling new heights in the same timeframe were the numbers of LGBT lifestyle advisors, smoking cessation officers and street football co-ordinators. Nice to know what 'investment in public services' means, isn't it?
It surprised me that civil servants still gave that kind of advice, for any trace of political neutrality appeared to vanish from their ivory towers in the late 1990s. For a decade or so, it looked like the Labour Party and not United Kingdom plc was the number one interest of the civil service. So either a) A great many more people (myself included) were just plain wrong about the civil service being politicised or b) they really could see the impending doom if some sort of economic slowdown occurred, and could not resist openly saying so for any longer. Forgive me for trying to save face, but I'm going for the second option, and it is to the great credit of these individuals that they spoke out as boldly as they did, advising that future spending increases should be in line with inflation and identifying twelve areas in which to make cuts. Of course, we all know that Gordon went on a mammoth 'investment' spree to buy votes and court popularity, with horrendous results.
Now around the same time (just under a year earlier to be precise), someone else was advocating that public expenditure in Britain had spun wildly out of control, suggesting modest cuts of £35 billion per annum and that there should be no 'investment' above the rate of inflation for several years thereafter. Unfortunately, after the James review, which identified some areas in which a Tory government could save money, he was also taped saying, "The potential for getting better taxpayer value is a good bit greater than the James findings (which have been) 'sieved' for what is politically acceptable and what is not going to lose the main argument.", and that when an election had been won, "you can actually get on with what needs to be done". Predictably, he was de-selected from the Arundel and South Downs constituency he had served with distinction between 1997 and 2005. Anyone remember his name?
Howard Flight of course is Lord Flight now, having been finally welcomed back into the Conservative fold after the 2010 election. He almost immediately put this new love-in with Tory HQ in serious jeopardy when he made what was seen as a 'gaffe' on the subject of welfare reform and 'breeding'. In an interview with the Evening Standard he said, "We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible." So Flight basically believes that more welfare for poor people creates more poor people who, with no work to do, breed more, thus creating more poor people, which necessitates greater welfare to pay for them, and so on. Sounds like a man whose head is firmly screwed on to me.
It's unfortunate that he felt the need to apologise for these comments, but maybe he was sick of fighting with his own side and wanted an easy life? For anyone interested in reading his very astute observations on Brown's Britain and where it went wrong here's a link well worth reading from his own website - http://www.howardflight.com/type2show.asp?ref=588&ID=116
Anyway, the two questions I asked when playing this back in my head were 1) why did Flight feel the need to say one thing in private and another in public? and 2) how did someone come to the conclusion that this was worth taping anyway? I mean, if a man is talking in semi-public about committing a crime, maybe blowing someone or something up then there's probably value in taping that. But a few public spending cuts in addition to those set down in a manifesto is hardly evil genius stuff is it? The problem of course is that Flight's 'plan' may as well have been the work of Dr Colossus, for he was thinking the unthinkable - namely, reducing the size of the state. Labour bruiser, bouncer and all-round thug Dr John Reid jumped up and down upon hearing this like a hyena who'd just soiled himself, screaming, "he's let the cat out of the bag", as if Operation Flight comprised of closing every school and hospital in the Uk and allowing corpses to rot in the street. Almost immediately, Reid and his cronies got what they wanted, namely Flight's head on a stick - talk about giants slain by pygmies...
New Labour was a disaster for the Uk from every point of view that you could choose to look at it in terms of policy and end results. They taxed ordinary people until the pips squeaked, eroded personal liberty, destroyed a plethora of the checks and balances in the judicial system, loaded over a million people onto the public payroll to buy votes, and led the country into a calamitous and illegal war, probably the biggest foreign policy disaster of the last 50 years. Yet there was one area in which Blair, Brown, Campbell and their unscrupulous ensemble were immensely successful. They shifted the mainstream centre ground of politics and its battle lines over to their side of the argument. They managed to convince taxpayers that governments spending increasing amounts of their money was always good, and that anyone proposing a little less of it must be some kind of monster who got a kick out of visiting the slums that would inevitably result.
In 2001, the Tories were running for cover, not knowing how to approach the area of public spending. By 2005, they had given up the argument altogether, terrified that smaller increases would be characterised as 'savage cuts'. To their great shame, Michael Howard's opposition were pledging to match Labour's public expenditure plan pound for pound, regardless of the other fiscal decisions that it prompted and irrespective of how credible or incredible their plan actually was. Anyone suggesting something along the lines of "actually we'd quite like to reduce the size of the state, put the brakes on spending and just maybe, cut a few taxes" was deemed to be off message and dealt with ruthlessly. Not only was Flight de-selected, he was actually banned from standing as a Conservative candidate again - that was how scared Tory HQ had become of any public mention of tax cuts and lower public expenditure.
And it does not end there. As the coalition seeks to clean up the mess bequeathed to them by the man of the manse and the moral compass, the current reductions in public spending, which are actually pretty modest, face criticism from the Labour Party, students, welfare claimants, basically anyone with a false sense of entitlement. The predictable line is, "these cuts are not out of necessity but are ideological and based on the wish for a smaller state". The 'correct' answer to this already tired-looking argument is, "you're damn right I believe in a smaller state - your lot taxed and squandered until you were high off the fumes and look what you left behind". Instead, government ministers queue up to explain how these cuts are 'unavoidable' and 'how little choice' there is in order to 'restore confidence in the markets'.
Actually, there is a choice - a brave, unpopular but in my view the totally correct one. Bigger, deeper and faster cuts in public expenditure and huge tax cuts to go with them - raise the personal allowance to £15,000, get rid of the gesture politics that is the 50p band and slash corporation tax to 10%. If that necessitates closing down the multi-billion pound political correctness industry then hey we've killed two birds with one stone. If it means slower deficit reduction for the next year or two, then so be it. Labour are accidentally right about one thing - we need growth faster than we need to reduce the deficit. Where they are utterly wrong is why we need that growth and how best to achieve it. We need rapid growth not to avoid the pain of paying off the deficit, but to put ourselves in a better position to do so. And real growth is achieved by lower taxes, not higher public spending, although the Labour Party can't help being the Labour Party, can it?
Yet what the coalition is doing at the moment appears to be the absolute upper limit of what is just about acceptable in the political mainstream. The 'centre ground' is now pretty statist territory, where taking 40% of GDP is seen as a basic minimum requirement for any government. Of course, you cannot really blame Gordon Brown, for he was never going to listen to anyone who told him to stop 'investing in public services'. Squandering taxpayers' money on pet projects runs as freely through his blood as liberalism runs through mine. However, the Tories could and should have been braver, heard the same message when it arrived internally, and potentially altered the course of history. Had they stuck to their guns, stood by Howard Flight and maybe even listened to him, then in time they could have shifted the centre ground and the rules of engagement back in favour of a smaller state and lower taxation.
As it is, they allowed New Labour to win the argument, and their legacy lives on as they dictate the parameters of any fiscal conversation even now. I'm sure I'm far from alone in finding it immensely difficult to work out exactly what the Conservative Party stands for any more. It would not surprise me one iota if it died a slow, painful death in my lifetime, and let's face it that would be no bad thing. They would have absolutely nobody to blame but themselves.