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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Bold Boles and shy Gove

Boris Johnson is not always wrong. I suspect that a lot of us were surprised to learn that in India, the top rate of tax is only 30%. Ours will still be half as high again, in spite of a controversial cut. It is also unsettling that even when we have a Conservative Prime Minister, the impression is given that the better-off are nothing more than a cash-cow, whose assets are constantly available for plunder. If it is impossible to hit at their houses, grab their pensions. Yesterday, Michael Spencer was right to warn of the dangers of anti-City rhetoric. If politicians keep on implying that bankers are not welcome here, they will move to a jurisdiction where they are made welcome, and will pay less tax. The golden goose is a migratory bird.

All that is a further reason for welcoming the appointment of Mark Carney. Although erring bankers will not find him sympathetic - nor should they - it will be easier for him to defend the City as a whole, because he was not involved in any of the policy failures which led us into this mess. Other candidates could say the same, but they would all have met a fellow who knew someone whose cousin Horace will come out of the Libor imbroglio badly. Guilt by association is frequently unfair. In febrile times, fairness is easily overridden. Governor Carney will not have that problem. Few, if any, central bankers have ever taken office buoyed up by such high expectations while beset by such difficulties. Let us hope that the optimists are right.

Optimism is unlikely to be exuding from the Autumn Statement. As any wise Chancellor should in these times, George Osborne is stressing that we are still in the valley of the shadow of recession and deficit. There is no alternative to holding to the line of march. He will almost certainly have to announce that it will take longer to meet the deficit reduction target, which will come as no surprise to the markets. Ed Balls will pretend to be shocked. That said, the anger that snarls out of him will be genuine. He cannot bear the fact that George Osborne enjoys hitting back.

The Chancellor will want to announce some good news, so he will have been looking for measures which might influence growth at the margin without in any way imperilling fiscal rectitude. As ever on such occasions, he would like to generate two contradictory headlines. The Sun: "George goes for growth". The FT: "Chancellor: steady as she goes".

So where is she going: what is happening out there in the economy beyond the figures, the projections - and the economists: the economy in which people live and work, save and spend: hope, and fear. I remember a conversation with some shrewd City characters about two years ago. We agreed that there were two factors in play. First came the objective economic circumstances, which were bad. Second, there were animal spirits: cowed at that time, but for how long? I have a suspicion that the animal spirits may now be reviving, but I would not gamble the economy on it.

In the meantime, as well as economic rectitude and a few economic stimuli, the Government will have to find other ways of  persuading the voters that there is momentum and some non-Yuletide sources of good cheer. Here, Nick Boles has a crucial role. On the one hand, he makes an unanswerable case; we need more houses. On the other hand, development in the Green Belt is a neuralgic issue. Thus construction doth make NIMBYs of us all. 

This argument will not and cannot go away. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, farm labourers walked from the rural counties to Lancashire, South Wales and Clydeside to man the Industrial Revolution. If modern planning controls had been in force, that could not have happened. Now, their descendants want to move to the new jobs of the modern economy. This need not involve the destruction of beautiful countryside. There are a lot of brownfield sites in the south of England. There is also a good deal of scruffy semi-agricultural land around towns and cities. It would also be sensible to use some of the large revenues which planning freedom would generate to bribe local inhabitants.

Nick Boles may have made a mistake. He indulged in intellectual honesty, before he had prepared the ground. That needs to be rectified. But, in principle, he is right.

He is not the only one. I hear a surprising amount of anecdotal evidence that the health reforms are bringing benefits. Welfare will take longer, but the public is enthusiastic. As for education, I fail to understand the government's tactics. We have all known politicians who claimed credit for other people's achievements or, indeed, credit for no achievements at all. Reticent politicians are much rarer. One would not have thought of Michael Gove as a reticent man; he enjoys nothing more than a good argument, and has a declamatory style even in private meetings. So why this shyness about one of the most important pieces of domestic legislation since the war? The Gove reforms will transform education in this country. They are emancipatory and socially generous: the product of his own passionate idealism. We need to hear far more about them. It is time that he stopped being so backward in coming forward.


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