Thursday, 20 March 2014

Bingo Budget Bulletin

Once we start deciding everything for ourselves, will Scots miss the theatricality of Budget Day?

The line-up of shop-window dummies outside Number 11, with the Chancellor holding up the red briefcase that, unbeknownst to all, contains only sandwiches and a rolled-up newspaper.  The 300-yard limo drive to the House of Commons, expensively filmed by the BBC from a helicopter because they’ve got your TV licence money, so bollocks to you!  The adversarial ranks of testosterone-addled louts, immune from everyday concerns, bellowing insults at each other and kept at bay only by an improbably pint-sized Speaker.

Then there’s the tradition that permits the Chancellor a drink of his choice during the speech, the only time alcohol’s allowed at the despatch box.  In their day Brown and Darling opted for mineral water, which was fine, because I wouldn’t like to see either of them too excited. Kenneth Clarke, who would rather have been lying back with headphones listening to Miles Davis, endured his ordeal with the aid of whisky.  Gladstone drank “sherry and beaten egg”, although he may have been secretly chastising himself for some personal misdemeanour.  George Osborne’s tipple looks like water, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it were actually the tears of the poor.

It’s very different from Holyrood, where there’s plenty of knockabout humour and gnashing of teeth to titillate the public gallery, especially when Johann Lamont is confronted with matters of detail, but nothing so compelling in dramatic terms.  Still, there’s nothing in my life these days to approach the thrill of Thunderbirds, Marvel Comics or sherbet dabs, either.  But that’s all right, because I’ve grown up.

There’s no doubt that George enjoys being in the spotlight, and not just because it helps to disguise his otherwise vampiric complexion.  It’s a great opportunity for him to put the boot in while others can only watch helplessly, summing up in one bravura performance the whole outlook of the Coalition Government.  His wickedest moment yesterday came when he announced funding for celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which he reminded us was the story of a weak leader, who betrayed his brother and was bullied by powerful barons.  The House erupted into laughter, as in response Ed Miliband's control chip activated his “smile” app while he waited for Ed Balls to explain the joke to him.

George was particularly pleased with himself this year, because the economy had grown to the point where he could afford to buy the Office For Budget Responsibility a new dartboard for its forecasts. Naturally, he attributed this to austerity, a brilliant economic strategy that he would gladly enshrine in the Constitution, if only the UK had one.  That’s as may be, but if I smash you to a pulp with a baseball bat, and you subsequently recover sufficiently to live a normal life, it doesn’t make me an orthopaedic surgeon.

The Treasury’s “lazy stereotype” unit had obviously told George that potential UKIP voters were mainly elderly people with piggy banks, because he unleashed a massive love-bomb on savers and pensioners. When he announced that £15,000 annual ISA limit, I’ll bet the champagne corks were popping in Easterhouse.  As for easing restrictions on retirees, allowing them to blow their entire pension pot on drink and drugs, what a splendid boot in the knackers for annuity providers!  Standard Life must be considering moving to Sevastopol, where the outlook is more certain.

Any senior citizens needing to offload some cash might want to pop down to the bingo, where their local hall had its tax bill cut in half, or to the pub, where for the second year in a row George ran a “buy 300, get one free” offer on pints of beer. 

The Tories were so proud of these concessions to the proles that their resident idiot, Grant Shapps, decided to publish a colourful poster claiming credit for helping folk “do more of the things they enjoy”.  Unfortunately, as Twitter went into meltdown, it soon became clear that what they enjoyed was humiliating the Tories for talking patronising pish.  I don’t yet know under which of his many false names Grant will appear in the soon-to-be-published Great PR Gaffes Of All Time, but I’ll try to find out once my sides stop hurting.

With a significant expression of Scottish voters’ wishes falling due in six months, we were agog to see how George would play things.  We already knew that the pound we weren’t going to be allowed to have would be changing, taking on the shape, and by 2017 possibly also the value, of the old threepenny bit.  What noise would the new coin make, we wondered, as it clunked ineffectively into the reject tray of a slot machine?  Would there be compensation for people whose jacket pockets would be destroyed?  After independence, would Scottish engineering firms still be allowed to build the new fleet of supermarket trolleys? 

In the end, George didn’t offer Scotland much in the way of bribery.  I think we’re just not his type, dear.  And we could have done without the little victory jig when he indicated that North Sea tax receipts were lower than forecast.  However, at least he didn’t raise whisky duty above its present eye-popping level, and Scottish firms did share in his attempts to breathe life into the corpse of UK manufacturing.  He even tweaked Air Passenger Duty a little, although not enough for the BBC to start pressing Willie Walsh to recant his views on independence.  Yet.

As for the inevitable stiletto, we were too busy watching George’s lips to notice it being inserted between our ribs.  Buried deep within the crannies of the Red Book was the reduction, in real terms, of Scotland’s block grant for the coming year.  John Swinney is an equable chap, but I’m sure he must sometimes want to sneak into a private sound-proofed cubicle and unleash a blood-curdling primal scream.   

Well done, James Cook of BBC Scotland, for spotting that little piece of jiggery-pokery.  There is hope for you and your colleagues yet. Now chair a TV debate where Better Together aren’t permitted to lie their socks off, ye wee scamp!

As with all Budgets, we’re now in the honeymoon period.  First impressions never reflect the full horror that lies slumbering within the Red Book.  However, it’s good to see that George has already put the ever-willing Danny Alexander in place as a human shield for the coming storm, whatever form it may take.  Let’s see how long his zealous infatuation with the Tories survives that.

Barring unimaginable political upheaval, George will be back for another dramatic extravaganza next March.  Will it be his finale as far as Scotland is concerned, or the start of a series of increasingly irritating curtain calls?

One ballot paper, one question, one moment in history.  You know what to do.

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