The Pantomime Season and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement

6 mins. to read
The Pantomime Season and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement

It is delightful that Her Majesty’s Government has arranged its communication of fiscal policy to serve also as a means of promoting the interests of the British theatre in its Christmas pantomime season manifestation. These are the kind of business friendly economic efficiencies we need! The manufacturing of theatrical reality is as much part of the manufacturing GDP of the nation as Rolls-Royce engineering. As Great Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer looms from the dark shadows of policy, thoughts of Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Jack and his beanstalk are brought into our mind, as he rises to deliver what turns out to be a vision of a heartening and magically straight forward future for us all – a future in which insecurity is banished, as the he demonstrates his uncanny and almost godlike mastery of statistics and events. Statistics (the things that Disraeli, that old House of Commons theatrical manager, once called ‘statistics and more damn lies’) when they come, come not as single spies but in battalions.

This year, George’s pre-performance advertising had billed him as playing the much enjoyed and popular role of the pantomime villain. As he rose, in cape and top hat, one could almost hear, in the vacuous caverns of the mind, the whistles, boos and cat calls of the nation. Newspaper cartoonists had played their part in the lead up to his performance. They conveyed his extreme malignancy with vivid strokes of the brush and pen with equally wicked humour. But in pantomime, things are meant to be predictable, aren’t they?

But in politics, you practice to deceive. Was that what happened here? Had George deliberately set himself up as a theatrical villain to turn himself into a panto hero, to mask the political reality of the true, real life political fact that he really is that skinflint, neo liberal, cost cutter of Ebenezer Scrooge Victorian proportions? Is this really a man who would cut Christmas itself, if it were a government department? Or was it real life political necessity and luck intruding?

Within the time it takes to shove a theatrical pastry into the theatrical face of a thespian, the pantomime black eminence – for it is he – had transformed himself into a pantomime hero of purest, golden sunlight, to the chorus of the lounge suited cheers of joy and relief, emanating from his own side as he delivered the lines “Cuts? What cuts?” while the opposition benches roared “Look behind you”. Now he was theatrically transformed into a smiling young Jack, as his independent OBR forecasts (amazing these theatrical stage effects) headed for the clouds like the magic beanstalk.

In the spirit of things, the Shadow Chancellor, looking a bit like a character out of the ‘Dad’s Army Christmas edition’, will later theatrically pull out a little red book, read it and then throw it  across the table, in a gesture of slapstick pantomime superficial nonsense that would have pleased the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe. It certainly pleased George, who had the opportunity to ad lib when examining it, that it seemed to be a signed personal copy. The joy in the heart of double breasted Conservative back benchers was uncontained.

For his part, St. George, Gideon Osborne – for it is he – pulled out those cuts which despite of former appearances, he after all does not have to make. These are brought on stage by the straight man from the independent Office of Budget Responsibility dressed as one of the Three Kings of Orient, as their gift calculation of stronger economic growth in the years to come and a lower interest bill. As that seemed to be worth about 1.5% of GDP, it was wonderful that these independent forecasters, found such a remedial amount just in time. Evidently, they was a last minute, statistical modelling discovery, because no watchful City or Fleet Street economic observer seems to have known of their existence.

Will the Chancellor’s independent forward estimates of economic growth prove accurate? Almost certainly not. That would require gifts of foresight and prophesy, which as far as I know, have never been witnessed on earth as forecasts of such magical and marginal precision. We all know that of course! But in the theatre of politics, as in the theatre of entertainment, suspension of belief is an important ingredient for the success of the performance. (In the real world, our economy is too large and complex and connected to too many other large and complex economies and markets.) Moreover, as we also know, the further you go out in time, the less reliable forecasts are. The future out to 2020, if and when it arrives, will not be the place we now hope and wish it to be. ‘Never make forecasts – particularly about the future’, as someone who made a lot of money out of film fiction once said. Remember, that Peter Pan crocodile with the ticking clock turns up to disturb the villainous Hook’s intentions when least expected – like life when you are busy making plans. That fact applies most particularly to macro economic forecasts because they are made up of insubstantial assumptions and best guesses and not hard facts. In short they are those bricks made of straw.

The autumn statement was essentially a glimpse into politics. It is a kind of political Freudian slip in which Chancellors reveal their true political heart and intentions. The cuts pencilled in before the unexpected discovery of the £27 billion wiggle room by the independent OBR reveal that the Chancellor probably wants to significantly reduce the size of government beyond the 36% of GDP that his apologists suggest. Much less than the 41% that Conservative Chancellor Kenneth Clark left behind in 1997 when he lost office to the incoming Chancellor Gordon Brown, who I recall actually got it down to around 32% at one point, before the US led world banking crisis came in to sweep his work away, like a sand castle on the shore. (History, as they say is written by the victors.)

Pushing the originally proposed cuts to the existing tax credits of the hard working poor forward, to the reportedly less generous new social credit arrangements to come later in this Parliament,  was an act of political necessity. That at least allows for the statutory rise in minimum wages per hour to kick in to help reduce the suffering. The fact seems to be that the government welfare budget will be cut in due course. Equally, abandoning those proposed cuts to police budgets was also an act of obvious political necessity, prompted by the ungodly massacre in Paris.

There has been no reprieve for the rule of law and justice, however, in our land of Magna Carta. That is arguably too serious to be compared to a pantomime. On the other hand, the proposals to boost house production, as opposed to simply stimulating demand and pushing up house prices, is a positive thing as well as being good for house building firms, whose shares rose in consequence.

Oops! I must go now, to see if I can get some tickets for a Christmas pantomime. The season’s greetings! God bless us one and all!

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