All week long, I’ve felt as if I’ve needed something I don’t have. I don’t mean an iPad or a Mulberry handbag. I mean something along the lines of a sedative stronger than Merlot, or a keyhole lobotomy. Something strong enough to shake the feeling that the world is in a mess, Christmas is coming and, honestly, what’s next?
‘Quit listening to the news,’ says my friend Susie, who dumped her television five years ago and now watches movies on her laptop. She scans The New York Times online most days, but tends to stick to the food sections, forwarding recipes for pumpkin tarte tatin. I admit that I seem drawn to the slough of despond these days. If I have a choice of spending the evening reading Wait for Me! By the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire or watching a programme called Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story, I head for the horror story, ready to lap up any nuggets of fact that nourish my anxiety. In Horror Story, I was richly rewarded. For instance, last year, the amount the Government paid out in welfare payments exceeded the amount it took in Income Tax, a figure that doesn’t include the salaries of doctors, teachers, MPs, nurses or soldiers. Or this one: if every house and flat in Britain were sold tomorrow, the income still wouldn’t pay the national debt, which is £4.8 trillion (whatever a trillion means).
Feeling better? I have some more. What the Government has offered as a ‘personal’ loan to Ireland is greater than the total of the cuts the Government is making in Britain this year. And how’s this one about George Osbourne’s cuts? In four years, Government spending will be at the same level as it was in 2007. These little facts are like flints turned up by the plough, sharp objects that concentrate the mind.
A few years ago, I learnt that if you made the minimum payment each month on a £1,000 credit card bill, it would take you 18 years to pay it off. Until then, I’d always defended living beyond my means as a more cheerful way of life, especially as my means were erratic. But the 18-year figure woke me up. I cancelled my store cards and filled out those forms that deduct your total spend automatically each month. The feeling of deliverance was great. Dealing with a debt that now amounts to £77,000 for every man, woman and child in the country, however, is trickier.
Martin Durkin, the maker of the Horror Story documentary, says we must cut public spending-the tax consumers-in half and invest in the private sector, the wealth generators. His model is Hong Kong, with its low flat rate of tax, and the poorest not paying tax at all, its booming economy, its clean and beautiful public transport and its modern hospitals. A dream world created by a balding, bespectacled British civil servant named John Cowperthwaite, who was the architect of Hong Kong’s Economic Miracle. By the end of the programme, I was ready to join the Adam Smith Institute. But I have a few things to do first, such as writing some cheques that are due. Employee National Insurance (£20,000), VAT (£245,000), wine duty (£24,000). The farm -and the farm diversification encouraged by Governments- is in that dreamy world called the private sector. We are the good guys who employ people (50 on our payroll) and produce the wealth. Only this year, sales are down 15% on last year, which was down 10% on the year before. When VAT rises to 20%, many small businesses won’t survive.
Here in the wheat fields of Suffolk, it’s hard to believe that any government will have the courage to cut public spending, lower taxes and nurture small businesses. Mr Durkin might advise me to put The Wealth of Nations on my Christmas list, but I’m a weary realist at heart. I’ve asked for Practical Farming for Beginners instead, a guide to farming for consumption rather than profit. And a case of Merlot. I’ve seen the future, and it ain’t Hong Kong.