In years gone by the opportunity of a budget this close to the start of a general election campaign would normally signal a spending spree as the government of the day lavished money on whichever group of the community they were most keen to ingratiate themselves with.
Last week’s budget was different. There were no tax cuts or big spending promises. The cupboard is bare. There is nothing left with which to grab the headlines. It was not the most exciting hour that I have ever spent in the House of Commons but it was a clever political exercise. My colleague, Vince Cable, remarked afterwards that it was not completely honest. He was right – as he tends to be! The real truth of our economic position will come at a later date. If the next chancellor is a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat then there will be an early budget after the election. If the next chancellor is Labour then there will be a comprehensive spending review and the full truth will become apparent then.
The truth is that the UK has a budget deficit of £167 billion. One of the few (very small) positives in the budget was a revision of this figure downwards from £178 billion! That is going to have to be addressed unless we are to leave a legacy of crippling debt to our children and grandchildren.
The question which is only being acknowledged and not really addressed is how do we do it without trashing our public services? Some hard decisions will have to be made.
Speaking the next morning to a business breakfast organised by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the full extent of the way in which the business of government has grown was brought home to me. I spoke about the way in which government regulators impact on the ability of business to do business. It certainly struck a chord with the audience as one by one they queued up to tell a tale of woe about how the various government regulators hampered their business.
I came away from the breakfast more certain than ever that as we start looking at where to strip out money from an overgrown public sector you start by asking one very simple question. Does the work that you do add value? I think that the doctors, teachers and police officers could answer that fairly easily. I think it would be more difficult for some of the economists at Ofgem, for example, to answer.
The week was then rounded off with a hustings at Kirkwall Grammar on Friday. The questioning was lively and wide ranging. They ranged from paying young people to stay on at school to why are we in Iraq to how can we improve discipline in schools. If the rest of the hustings between now and polling day are as thoughtful and positive then we should have a good campaign. The conventional wisdom is that young people are no longer interested in politics. I have never found that to be the case. In fact the current generation of young people have more cause to be interested.
Alistair Carmichael MP