It’s all the rage to feel sorry for Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Philip Hammond is an unlucky man we’re told, having to prepare a Budget against a backdrop of a weaker economy, worse public finances and pressure to relaunch a government that’s had a tough Autumn.
Those pressures are real, and no-one’s doubting that preparing a Budget amongst them isn’t hard work. But for both Philip Hammond’s, and our national, interest it’s time we put the pity aside. Not least because the sense that everything is very difficult risks turning into a fatalism that nothing can be done – which is a very long way from the truth. There is no excuse for a do nothing Budget.
The reality is that in many ways, far from being unlucky, Philip Hammond is a very lucky man as he prepares for the Budget. For a start there is the absolute, but too rarely stated, privilege to serve your country as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is a great gig, steering your party and your country through the big economic questions of your time, and doing so with an institutional clout from the Treasury that many finance ministers around the world only dream of. And you get all that without the sheer brutal exposure that being Prime Minister entails. If you can’t do something useful with that privileged position you probably shouldn’t be in politics in the first place.
And while it may not feel that way to Chancellors at the time, they are also very lucky to have the institution of the Budget. In an era when the decline of deference and the pace of politics means that many politicians feel, often rightly, that they lack the agency to bring real change the Budget is an unparalleled opportunity to build much needed momentum. Far beyond the Treasury, much of Whitehall runs to the rhythm of Budget planning and then roll-out. Even more importantly institutions that the government does not directly control, from housing associations to charities, local government to our biggest firms, pore over the detail of a Budget for signs of where the government is taking the country and for a sense of their own place in it. On Budget day the Chancellor is handed a megaphone – Philip Hammond just needs to make sure he’s got something to say.
When it comes to the daunting task of constructing a Budget there are also reasons for the Chancellor to consider himself lucky. Politics is about knowing what change is needed – and building a consensus for it. Both are hard, but they are much easier when there are problems that become so acute that addressing them becomes that rare thing – something of a national consensus. You wouldn’t want to say Gordon Brown was lucky to be Prime Minister when banks started going bust, but the need to respond to that crisis gave his premiership a sense of purpose and its greatest hour.
For all the divisions over Brexit, there are now the outlines of just such a new national consensus building. When did you last actually hear someone defend the levels of inequality we have lived with since the early 1990s? In stark contrast to the pre-financial crisis world, the question isn’t whether the gap between rich and poor, or between north and south, is a problem, but one of what we can do about it. No-one is arguing we don’t need radical change on housing, having woken up to the fact that our housing costs have trebled over the past 50 years. Today’s thirty year olds are only half as likely to own a home as the Baby Boomers were at the same age – and Tory and Labour voters alike know it. Our national reliance on low paid work, and our failure to recognise those doing it with the respect that citizens owe to one another, is the topic of board table not just kitchen table conversations.
None of this means that actually delivering change is easy, but it does mean that for a genuine political leader that understands the mood of the times there is an agenda out there that would unify rather than divide the country. After all it is easier to win allies and votes if people are trying to achieve the same thing. It is for Philip Hammond to decide whether he stands for or against that consensus for change. If the former, a Budget that presses start on house building and stop on huge welfare cuts that risk the first major rise in inequality since Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street should be on the cards. It would celebrate record levels of people in work, but seize the opportunity that a tight labour market provides to take big strides in improving the quality and security of the work they do. And it would leave no one in any doubt that our failure to resource and prioritise the education of those not benefitting from university betrays not only those young people but our economy and nation’s future.
So yes the Chancellor is likely to be handed forecasts for slower growth and higher borrowing in the Budget. And yes he has to navigate them without a firm majority in the House of Commons. But Philip Hammond isn’t the only one in Britain today to find the world isn’t as they would like it to be – from squeezed pay packets to regional divides of scarring intensity. Indeed the whole point of assuming the privilege, and more importantly responsibility, of being Chancellor isn’t to bemoan the state of the world but to change it.
This post originally appeared in The Guardian