Some esoteric thoughts on the Budget

Today was George Osborne’s third proper budget.  My verdict is generally positive – although there is some of the usual Tory obesciance to the wealthy, the thrust is generally towards making our tax system fairer, and besides, any Budget slagged off so much by Simon Heffer must be doing something right.  Incidentally, according to the BBC’s online calculator I lose out from the Budget.  This isn’t too much of a surprise – I have no taxable income, I don’t drive, I don’t own property, but I will be hit by higher taxes on booze.  It’s enough to make me want to return my party membership card to Cowley StreetGreat George Street, I tell you.

Much fuss has been made of the decision to freeze income-tax thresholds for the elderly, the so-called ‘granny tax’.  Quite aside from the unfairness of the original extra allowance, or the fact that its eventual removal will help pay for tax cuts for lower and middle earners under the age of 65, the ‘granny tax’ label is intriguing.  Why not ‘grandad tax’?  Statistically there are more women of pensionable age than men, but I think the real reason is that ‘granny’ is a more sympathetic figure than her male counterpart.  The typically stereotype of elderly women is of a sympathetic, friendly, perhaps slightly lonely old woman, whereas the typical imagining of the elderly man is of an angry old coot.  Society, then, treats men and women differently in old age.  Perhaps, post-menopause, the female sex is perceived as less threatening – when the whore has left, the appeal of the crinkled Madonna remains.  Perhaps not.  It’s curious to think that even our ideas of old age are gendered though, and even more so that these images could creep into technical discussions of tax rates and allowances.

Reading the Budget document, however, you realise how dry most of the details of tax policy really are.  In a book which particularly influenced me, God’s Politics, liberal evangelical Jim Wallis, drawing on Old Testament prophets like Micah and Isaiah as well as the teachings of Christ, argued that a government’s budgets are moral statements.  Well, this is certainly true in general terms, but getting down to the nitty gritty you realise that great ethical tests become ludicrous when applied to the little questions, like whether VAT should be charged on the purchase of barbers’ chairs (HM Government says yes), or whether we should charge duty on Angostura bitters (introduced this year, and evidence of George Osborne’s intense hatred of the mojito).  Slightly different is the case of various reliefs.  What’s special about, say, patents or animation that they get special tax exemptions and reductions, apart from the fact that, in the case of the latter, the Canadians and Americans are breathing down our neck?  Morality and the clean economy of tax simplification give way realpolitik and the urgent necessities of the moment.  So be it.  Gladstone’s budgets were, after all, often fiendishly complicated.  But it’s also a hint at the blurred lines where ideology stops and technocracy begins.

Edit: corrected to sort out linkfail.


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