So Casually Cruel? Honesty, Government Spending and Taxation

On Pienaar’s Politics this morning Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood was the guest, there to make the case for additional spending by the MoD.  He was surprisingly open, for example by not trying to hide the areas where we are falling behind.  We need, he said, to improve our capability to deal with cyber attacks, enhance our satellite technology and make sure our nuclear weapons remain a deterrent.  And at the same time we need to pay, equip and accommodate our conventional forces.

His candour extended to admitting that this would cost more money, and his explanation of why it should be a priority.  The first job of government is to defend our borders and to facilitate trade with other nations by (at least metaphorically) keeping the sea lanes open.  Defence spending, Mr Ellwood argued, allows the economy to flourish, generating wealth and in turn tax, which makes possible spending on health and education and all the rest.  He was eloquent and straightforward, and as a result, convincing.

These comments are part of what seems to be a conscious effort by Tory Ministers to try something rather new: being honest with the public about tax and spending.  Only a few days ago Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he believes people will pay more tax for an improved NHS.  And in a host of other areas, including education, the environment and farming, policing and more, there have been hints of Ministers trying to be frank with taxpayers rather than just talk down to them.

This is refreshing, if it continues.  Politicians and pundits spend huge amounts of time agonising about why the electorate has disengaged with the governing class and the process of policy-making – and speculating about why they voted for Brexit.  Amongst the many reasons must surely be the fact that for years politicians have refused to talk truthfully about money.  How many times have Chancellors announced the same expenditure twice, three times, four?  How often have we been promised that billions can be found in ‘efficiency savings’?  And for how long has the basic rate of tax been untouchable and unmentionable, leading to budget after budget trying to eke out pitiful amounts of cash from corporation tax thresholds, VAT and taxes on high earners?

Time, then, for a fresh approach – and one that will have to go a whole lot further even than Mr Hunt and Mr Ellwood in recent days.  Taxpayers are crying out for honesty, to be presented with the facts and the choices they face, even if they are hard.  We want to be treated like adults, in short.  But politicians must tell the whole truth.  For example, in the face of spiraling treatment costs and an ageing population we cannot possibly afford to maintain the NHS in its current form; taxing bankers’ bonuses will only deliver so much; immigrants pay significant amounts in tax; the optimal rate of income tax might be higher than it is now; and so forth.  Ministers have made a start; they have a whole lot further to go.  But if they learn to be truly open they might be surprised how much voters like it.

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