What a curious election this is. As Tim Montgomerie points out over at Spectator Live (visit!) the Conservative manifesto appears to have been written as though the great Fiscal Crash had never happened. This is either bold or brave or, worse, perhaps both. Then again it's not as if Labour are offering anything more convincing. A chart will help explain this:
So there you have it: squabbling over £12bn; total silence over the £155bn rest that might need to be cut. Marvel at how narrow our politics can be. Granted these numbers are taken from the Institute for Economic Affairs but even if you quibble with their calculations the broad thrust of the point is clear. (Might I also suggest to the boffins at the IEA that calling your proposals for £167bn in public spending cuts a "modest" proposal is, while good and Swiftian and all that, proably not the best way to get them taken seriously.)
And so one could be forgiven for thinking - on the basis of the campaign so far - that there is not much difference between the parties. This would, however, be a mistake as twin columns from the excellent Rachel Sylvester and the reoudbtable Iain Martin make clea this morning. Sylvester:
[T]he general direction of the [Labour] manifesto is in favour of central control rather than choice. There are few market-based public service reforms. Labour would rather offer government “guarantees” on health, education and crime than drive up standards by giving more choice to individuals. If parents are dissatisfied with a school, “local authorities will be required” to create new schools or to force one school to take over another — rather than people being allowed to send their children elsewhere. A government body will decide whether a police force is failing. The Prime Minister’s irreducible core, as his predecessor once put it, is that only the State can create a better, more equal society. “Where government is needed we will say so,” one strategist says. “Ten years ago Labour would have been furtive about that. Now we’re unashamed.” One Cabinet minister explains: “The financial crisis has made it easier to make that argument.”
By contrast, David Cameron’s defining belief, as he explains overleaf, is that individuals are better than the Government at running their own lives. He wants to promote “people power” and his favourite catchphrase is that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the State”.
It is fashionable to say there is little difference between the two major parties, that they have converged on the center-ground and are squabbling over minutiae. That isn’t the case. This election is turning into a fight with a philosophical divide running right through it, as it was always going to, featuring two leaders, Mr. Brown and David Cameron, with such contrasting views of human nature. They are fighting, though sometimes it might not look like it, a battle over the size and nature of the State.
Also true. I hope Cameron is correct and this Tory optimism (if that's not an oxymoronic notion) prevails but the natural pessimism brought on by the temper of the times and the nature of the election process leads one to fear that it is misplaced...
Then again, unless the public finances are stabilised little else of note or use is going to happen and it remains unclear quite how either party is going to achieve this. Set beside that all the goodies and baubles look rather trivial and, worse, even forlorn.