The chancellor's Autumn Statement is as political and obscure as we might expect. A bit of spending here and a bit of cutting there. A tilt at the rich and corporations which, except for the change to stamp duty, won’t do much. The ‘banding’ of stamp duty is a kind of mansion tax which in principle would be desirable, if it didn't mean that the government has yet another reason to ration housing. (More houses means cheaper houses, which means a lower return on stamp duty.)
The Conservatives are largely responsible for their present plight. Ukip may profess contempt for the Tory Party, but it is one of its products. The Conservative leadership and its press supporters always believed, like many right-wing toffs in the past, that they could control any insurgency their political tactics might evoke. For the last few years the Tory Party and its cheerleaders in the Mail, the Sun, the Express and (a little more decorously) the Telegraph have cultivated a populist rhetoric – xenophobic, anti-European, anti-trade union, anti-welfare – as extreme as anything we have known. And they have assumed that such rhetoric could be managed for the benefit only of the ruling circles within the party. But for several years it has been clear – not least to David Cameron – that this assumption is wrong.
The speed with which David Cameron has turned the victory of No into the West Lothian question is not surprising in a man who is both an opportunist and partisan, and who is concerned to protect his own leadership. But Ed Milband is right to resist Cameron’s rushed attempts to exploit promises made to Scotland, which almost certainly need never have been made, to justify legislation that would allow only English MPs to vote on ‘English’ measures (however they might be defined). Such a proposal is wrong for two reasons.
The budget details had been so widely leaked that there were few surprises. The chancellor had little room for manoeuvre and resisted the temptation to go for broke. (That probably comes next year, just before the election.) The Lib Dems got their £10,500 tax threshold – which won’t make much difference. The drinkers and bingo players got something; but other betters and smokers did not. There was a little for small business. Those who pay a 40 per cent marginal rate saw the threshold at which they pay it raised a little, but probably not as much as they expected. Older people with savings do well. Changes to pension arrangements, the introduction of more ‘generous’ ISAs and the pensioner bond do something to restore income to those whose savings in the last few years had received negligible returns. It is apparent that the budget is meant to appeal primarily to older voters – who are more likely to vote than any other age group.
As everyone expected, Tony Abbott and his crew have won an easy victory in the Australian election. But it was not the landslide the opinion polls and even the exit polls predicted. They all suggested the Labor Party would lose most of its seats in its Western Sydney heartlands and in Brisbane. They also suggested that Kevin Rudd would lose his Brisbane seat. In the event Rudd held on quite comfortably and Labor kept most of its Western Sydney seats – as it did in Melbourne and Adelaide.
There was a sense of inevitability about Julia Gillard’s fall; the surprise is that it was so long delayed. The Australian Labor Party’s standing is low enough that sooner or later enough MPs would become convinced that their continued presence in the federal parliament demanded a new leader. Or rather an old, new leader, Kevin Rudd. There is nothing unique in what has happened. Gillard’s overthrow is simply another example of the extreme instability of leadership that characterises Australian political parties. The fearsome institution of the ‘spill’, by which parliamentary coups can be staged, and the relentless short-termism of Australian politics, mean that parliamentary leaders are under constant pressure. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, staged a successful coup against Malcolm Turnbull, who had staged a coup against Brendan Nelson. Earlier this year Ted Baillieu went to work as the premier of Victoria and ended the day as no one, having been overthrown by a man whom he had originally himself overthrown. Such instability is made worse by the destructive effects of opinion polling. Australian politicians insist that polls are the furthest things from their minds; in fact, they hardly think of anything else. Rudd himself was unseated as prime minister after one bad opinion poll.
Ed Miliband’s latest speech on welfare pretty much capitulates to the Tories, just as Ed Balls has capitulated on the economy. Both have willy-nilly accepted a Tory ‘interpretation’ of the financial crisis, even though that ‘interpretation’ has been relentlessly political. How little austerity actually has to do with the economy or those on welfare was demonstrated by the hooting and hollering of the Tory front bench when Miliband was seen to give in; and by Iain Duncan Smith’s casual description of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’ as though that were self-evidently a bad thing. It is clear what Tory priorities are, and they are not the well-being of the people. Labour’s capitulation was both unnecessary and unwise.
The formation of the Council for the Defence of British Universities is a welcome response to their present and future plight, and both Howard Hotson and Keith Thomas have made powerful defences in the LRB of the indispensable moral and intellectual values which the universities represent. A problem, however, is that the people who now determine the universities’ funding seem largely impervious to these defences. They hold the view that such values somehow come at the expense of the universities’ place in the real world: in other words they conflict with the universities’ ability to make money for themselves and for the economy. They take their stand on the ‘common-sense’ argument that the universities must justify their existence to the tax-payer and they must do so now. The criterion, they argue, by which we measure such justification is the contribution the universities do or do not make to the economy and to business; and, above all, to the market. This argument, if expressed properly, is not unfair. It is entirely reasonable to expect the universities to play their part in the country’s economic well-being and to wonder how that part might best be played. We should, therefore, be prepared to meet those who today make funding policy on their own ground. What we find, alas, is that the ‘evidence’ they employ is rarely evidence at all. On the contrary, it is often ideological assertion and wishful thinking.
Yesterday's three by-elections are, as by-elections go, interesting. They point, first of all, to widespread electoral disengagement. Even by traditional by-election standards, turn-outs were low – which confirms the pattern of this parliament. Even in by-elections which were thought to be really significant, like Corby (turn-out 45 per cent), most people don’t turn out. The figure for Rotherham (34 per cent) – which was surrounded by publicity – is telling.
We should be very worried about the BBC, but not because of its real or alleged failings. It is a remarkable institution, one of the few British organisations known throughout the world, and known everywhere simply by its initials. It is by some measures the largest and most trusted international broadcaster. It is a class of institution, which we might call ‘public’, that Britain does extraordinarily well: its universities are another example. For a country more dependent for its standing on ‘soft power’ than most, these are very ‘soft powerful’. And they are now all under attack. They are disliked and sometimes hated because they are both public and successful. None of them fit Britain’s now dominant ideological values. Cable and Willetts, for instance, will ruin the universities rather than admit that their historic structure is the reason for their success, since that success is a reproach to these values.