Yesterday the smell of austerity 2.0 wafted through the House of Commons as Jeremy Hunt delivered £55 billion worth of tax rises and spending cuts. The Chancellor made much hay of his ambition to support those in need through these difficult economic times. But bereft of a plan for growth this Autumn Statement represented managed decline gift wrapped in compassionate rhetoric. There has been much talk about who should pay for the plight Britain finds itself in. Hunt’s answer is clear: working people.
Since the financial crash workers and young people have been given a bum deal by the British state. Hunt’s efforts to close the fiscal black hole have made that deal even worse. As the UK heads into recession the Chancellor has chosen to dip into the incomes of hard-working people while freezing the capital spending required to fix the creaking infrastructure we rely on. Yesterday at the despatch box Hunt behaved like a science fiction villain, laser in hand, target: the young and ambitious. Why on earth should anyone who wants to get on in life remain in Britain when the government is so determined to snatch away your earnings and your prospects?
Of course, the Chancellor would no doubt say desperate times call for desperate measures. The remorseless increase of the tax burden has allowed for compassion elsewhere and the uprating of benefits in line with inflation is welcome. Struggling families across the UK will be breathing a sigh of relief that they will not face a real terms cut to their state support. The increase in the triple lock on the other hand is nothing short of a disgrace. Retirees will get a non-means tested benefit of 10 per cent next year even as wages are under pressure. Failing to distinguish between the many millionaire pensioners and those retirees who genuinely cannot afford to feed themselves or heat their homes is a grotesque act of fiscal waste. As usual, workers and young people will pick up the tab for Hunt’s unwillingness to pick a fight with the Daily Express.
The increase in the energy price cap is ominous too. From April it will rise to £3000 a year on average. The government has promised to offset this increase for some with further cost of living support payments. £900 will go to all households on means tested benefits, with £300 to pensioners, and £150 to those on disability benefits. But let us not forget that a year ago energy bills were at £1200 and many of those not in receipt of state benefits are already struggling to pay. Plenty of students and families who are just about managing will fall through the cracks of Hunt’s new energy policy. The fact that this will take place against a backdrop of falling growth and increasing unemployment is even more worrying. The increase in spending on the NHS whilst no doubt designed to catch the headlines seems poorly thought out too. The extra £6.6 billion by 2025 will do little if we don’t sort out the health services’ organisational problems – it is chronically short of staff and a structural mess.
There are two key answers that any government in this mess should have; who should pay? And how can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? The Chancellor has only answered the first and done little to come up with a compelling solution to the second. We are trapped in a cycle of low growth, poor productivity, and depleted public services. We need to empower the working population, not clobber them with a record high tax burden. We need to be protecting capital spending, not cutting it and reforming public services rather than just throwing money at them. In the race to put a compassionate face on austerity Hunt has achieved the opposite effect. There is nothing kind about managed decline.
We have become a high tax, low growth society beset by a poverty mentality. The Autumn Statement has singularly failed to address that, only embedding the very policy failures that have got us here in the first place. The current chancellor was brought in to clear up Liz Truss’s mess. Her tactics were terrible, and her communications were even worse, but she was right about the state of our economy. Growth cannot be a dirty word, unfortunately for Britain it doesn’t even appear to be in Jeremy Hunt’s lexicon.