A million pounds is very small change in the context of wider government spending – especially compared to the £20 billion of extra giveaways Jeremy Hunt has announced for the next few years. But sometimes that small change tells you more about a government’s priorities, and its sense of direction, than the big announcements.
I suspect that was true in this week’s spring Budget. Alongside billions dished out for freezing fuel duty and extending the Energy Price Guarantee for another three months, the Chancellor also announced a government-sponsored prize, to run for the next ten years, ‘to the person or team that does the most ground-breaking British AI research’.
What’s so telling about this? It gives us very clear insight into how the government currently views the role of the state. First, it echoes a new trend of intervention, as seen with its biggest announcement: thirty hours of ‘free’ childcare. From daycare to AI, sectors will only thrive if the government is involved (government will now be responsible for paying 80 per cent of all childcare costs, up from 50 per cent), by picking winners and dishing out taxpayer cash to those who qualify. Second, this kind of gimmick shows just how far the Tory party has strayed from making the case for a less wasteful, leaner state.
This can be seen in the headline data, too. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that after this Budget, the ratio of public spending to GDP will ‘settle at 43.4 per cent, its highest sustained level since the 1970s’. In other words, welcome to Big State Toryism.
It’s not exactly a new concept: every Conservative prime minister since David Cameron has shied away from public policy that would actually reduce the size of the state. But at the very least, lip service was often paid to the idea of scaling back.