Photo by Leon Neal
Artillery Row

Where’s the future?

Rishi Sunak’s budget is taking us back to the 1970s, but with none of the fun

Well, that was terrible.” I can’t be the only person who thought it, as Rishi Sunak sat down after delivering forty minutes of eye-watering tax and spend that would make Tony Blair (whose mannerisms seemed to be echoing through the Chancellor) blush. 

Oh, the delivery was fine; the delivery was excellent — as confident and polished as one might expect from the Tories’ self-styled leader in waiting. There were even some subtle-as-a-breezeblock nods to where we’d be if Sunak were actually in the top job: he doesn’t like raising taxes, y’ see, he just does it because he has to. He’s a small-state Conservative; it’s Johnson who’s the big state man. The physicality of the two only serves to emphasise this.

Our tax burden is the greatest since the War

But the direction of travel of this government is clear. Inflation will “average” four per cent over the next year — which could easily mean it will go much higher. Four per cent, five per cent, seven per cent, fifteen per cent, twenty-seven per cent — it’s happened before, so why not again? Our tax burden is the greatest it’s been since the War. The public sector is huge, and bristling for even more cash. Couple that with £2 trillion of national debt, plus energy price hikes, a rise in National Insurance, £150 billion of extra public spending, and falling wages, and the economic stew simmering away at the heart of Downing Street has the potential to make us very sick indeed. 

“What’s not to like?” tweeted Telford MP Lucy Allan. Actually, quite a lot. “This is certainly not Conservative philosophy,” Michael Portillo told Times Radio. “The Conservatives do not believe that these policies could possibly be successful.” 

It seems we’re going back to the 1970s, but with none of the fun. If Bruce Forsyth were back gurning “didn’t they do well?” on prime-time BBC One; if Mr Humphries were busily totting up his weekly sales, and announcing his y-fronts were down again; if Fanny Craddock were slapping green goo on a brown brick and calling it a Christmas cake; if our tech were degenerating back into bookcase-sized units with reel-to-reel tapes whirring away inside them; and if Patrick Moore were telling us that we’d soon be living on Mars in houses that look suspiciously like caravans painted silver with bits of tinsel stuck on them, I’d be the first to sign up.

Popular comedy is increasingly afraid of jokes

Forget a consistent electricity supply, or refuse collections, or burying Auntie Maude. I’m all for going to hell in a handcart if there are plenty of double-entendres, gaiety girls, Black Forest Gateaux and quivering inside legs to send us merrily on our way.

But that, sadly, is not the Johnson vision of the future. There will be no equivalent of Max Bygraves waving about a fraying union flag on VE Day where this government wants to take us. No street parties with curled up ham sandwiches and Mrs Mills hammering out “My Old Man Said Follow the Van” on a dusty LP. No Hinge and Bracket carefully, studiedly, camply murdering Land of Hope and Glory. This government is committed, apparently, to that most dangerous thing of all: “progress”.

Well, some may argue, at least there won’t be any 70s-style racism, sexism or homophobia in the glistening new future of tidal power and sky high bills. Sadly, all these hideous monsters have been returned to us — via pronouns, Stonewall and critical race theory. Gaily, we are stripping away women’s rights, re-racialising our citizens, stoking up cults of victimhood and deepening all the divisions that many of us hoped we’d consigned to history forever. Although happily equal under the law, we are, socially at least, becoming less equal again.

We are laughing less, and we are laughing nervously. Popular comedy is increasingly afraid of jokes, resorting instead to turgid, performer-led, self-immolations. Comedians are self-censoring. Ordinary punters are self-censoring: silly people making silly jokes, perhaps with less articulacy or sensitivity than you or I, are no longer treated as silly people making silly jokes, but dangerous agents of bigotry who require public reprimand or worse. 

This was a budget of joyless, reheated old ideas

This is all happening on Johnson’s watch. The breezily-libertarian, believe-in-Britain, “let’s have a laugh” Prime Minister who promised to restitute our culture, reinvigorate our forgotten towns and re-energise our economy. The irony, perhaps, is that he feels increasingly like a 70s creation himself. His initials help, of course, as does his surname. He still attempts the odd joke, but these too are wearing thin: far more series-10-after-the-original-writers-have-left than series-3-in-its-pomp. Many Tories have told me Johnson is like a cushion: he bears the imprint, and promotes the ideas, of whoever last sat on him. Perhaps — just perhaps — the power at the centre of the Party (and it’s not the Prime Minister; his public-facing support is broad at the moment, but thin) need to insist he has new people around him. 

This was a budget of joyless, reheated old ideas, from a government that could be using its majority to do so much, but instead seems obsessed with shooting Labour’s fox and walking around in its shabby, desiccated pelt. Snap polling and the Front Pages suggest it’s popular. Maybe. But its cold, monolithic, statist teeth have yet to bite. A Conservative Party committed to high taxes and a voluminous state, trembling before extreme cultural identitarians, whilst seemingly unable to deal with a handful of eco-terrorists? Many MPs, activists and voters will be queasily wondering: where’s the future in that?

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