For once, the unity of comment on the Budget was perfectly justified. It may well have been the worst Budget in history. Which makes it all the more annoying that the ‘Red Book’, which contains the Budget details, is this year entitled ‘Budget 2009: Building Britain’s Future’. It is insulting that official documents should have propagandist titles. They should be plainly called according to what they are. ‘Borrowing Britain’s Future’, for instance, would have been soberly true.
But at least the sheer awfulness of government finances is making it fashionable to think about cuts. Quango culls, freezes on recruitment to the Civil Service, capping pensions offered by the public services: ideas that have not been heard for 30 years are now circulating once more. What is so far missing, though, is leadership by example. People in the public service have to know that they will be promoted for cutting successfully, and to believe that their leader cares about it. Not long after becoming Prime Minister 30 years ago next week, Mrs Thatcher came back from Parliament one day to find a pile of cardboard boxes in the hall of No. 10 Downing Street. What were these, she demanded. They were 32 new electric typewriters, she was told (this was in the days before computers). Why couldn’t they make do with the old ones, she demanded: ‘Send them all back!’ In the end, she grudgingly allowed three typewriters to stay, and 29 were returned. It may well be that the typewriters were genuinely needed, and that her behaviour was therefore, technically, silly. But that is not the point. The point is that everyone got the message.
Because of the current fin de regime atmosphere, more and more stories accumulate about the rudeness of No. 10 Downing Street and the government machine in general. People are losing the motive to clam up. I recently met a man who entered a room containing the Prime Minister and found himself ducking to avoid a mug Mr Brown had hurled not at him, but at an official who was just leaving. One of the problems is that No. 10 never respects the demarcations about who organises what. It employs a woman, Beth Dupuy, who previously worked for Senator Edward Kennedy (now given an honorary knighthood for his notorious contribution to peace in Ireland). She makes it her business to try to run occasions like the G20, which are traditionally far beyond the resources of No. 10, and has succeeded in enraging everyone else in Whitehall. There is also grumbling from abroad. Government ministers and entourages are now notorious, I gather, for not thanking anyone and not tipping the local staff. The Damian McBride row was about No. 10 people behaving revoltingly towards political opponents, but one reason such people are now so friendless is that they have been almost equally unpleasant to colleagues.
Attentive readers may remember that this column once characterised the difference between David Cameron and Boris Johnson as being that which exists at Eton between ‘Oppidans’ — the boys whose parents pay the full fees and form the great majority of the school — and Collegers — the ‘70 poor scholars’ for whom the school was founded and who live in a house apart. Broadly speaking, Oppidans are worldly and/or rich, and Collegers are clever and odd. Last week, I sat on a panel at Eton in which four of us answered questions about the media in aid of charity. The other speakers were Geordie Greig, the new editor of the Evening Standard, Michael Grade and Boris. In a rousing finale, Boris celebrated the likelihood that an Etonian would, within 13 months, be Prime Minister. He then inquired rhetorically why ‘Tugs’ (slightly outdated Eton slang for Collegers) could not become Prime Minister. Harold Macmillan had done it, he said, and Robert Walpole and Gladstone (in fact, Gladstone was not a Colleger, but no one wanted to stop his flow). When my turn came, I invited the boys to notice that Boris had not said which Etonian would become Prime Minister in 13 months’ time.
Boris has been more forward than Oppidan Dave in condemning the 50 per cent income tax rate on incomes over £150,000 announced in the Budget. This confirms my view that the subject is one on which successful journalists feel particularly strongly. They are precisely in Mr Darling’s target range, being well-paid enough to be hit by the tax, but not mobile or rich enough to find brilliant international ways of avoiding it. The key moment when Tony Blair won over Fleet Street in time for the 1997 election was when he promised that he would not put up the top rate. Suddenly, editors and columnists miraculously saw their way clear to encouraging their readers to vote Labour. Mr Darling’s increase will have precisely the opposite effect.
A reader from South Africa emails to inform me of two recent cases in that country. In one, someone was fined 1,000 rand for not having a television licence. In another, the accused was ordered to pay 500 rand bail when charged with murder. My correspondent points out the moral: ‘If you do not have a TV licence and the inspector comes round, kill him! You’ll save 500 rand.’
In her recently serialised memoir of her life as Hitler’s typist, Christa Schroeder brings out how the Fuhrer was way ahead of his time in relation to smoking. He hit on the idea of passive smoking, complaining to her that ‘smokers lacked consideration for others, forcing them to breathe polluted air’, and he told her that he had ‘toyed with the idea’ of outlawing smoking in Germany: ‘The campaign would begin by having a death’s head printed on every cigarette pack.’ In our society, these ideas have come to fruition. Linked to Hitler’s hatred of smoking were his vegetarianism and his distaste for drinking and for hunting (which he banned). Like a great many of the nastiest people, he was obsessed with health, and with what he saw as cruelty to animals. What is the link between these views and totalitarianism? Is it something to do with a hatred of human beings?
Round us in Sussex, there have been many reports of illness among badgers. Young males, in particular, have been seen wandering around in a daze, and large numbers of corpses have been found. The cause is not yet known, but what is certainly true is that there are far too many badgers nowadays, and animal overpopulation leads to the spread of disease. The reason for overpopulation, of course, is that the law has decided that it is cruel to kill badgers.