Just before the 1976 Budget under Denis Healey, my father-in-law bought 12 cases of whisky from the Wine Society. The stash outlasted him, but he maintained that his twilight years were made peaceful just knowing that he had enough of the ‘twilight wine of Scotland’ to see him into the next world. Thirty-three years on, my husband is still soothed nightly by that perspicacious investment.
Other souvenirs of my father-in-law’s attempts to outwit the Governments of the day include a generator acquired during the three-day week and half-a-dozen little plastic tubes that once contained Krugerands. These relics remind us of the days when Chancellor Healey presided over a tax rate on earned income of 83%, tax on unearned income at 98%, and the International Monetary Fund being called into Britain to sort out the mess. Days we were lulled into thinking were gone forever as New Labour conquered the middle ground and said: ‘Trust us, we understand that if you punish the hardworking and entrepreneurial, you smother prosperity.’
Lull. A verb. To deceive into trustfulness: ‘that honeyed charm that he used so effectively to lull his victims’ (S. J. Perelman). Lull. A noun. A period of calm: the lull before the storm. From the Middle English lullen, as in: ‘We have been living in the Land of Lullen’, a curious island where, each year, a portly man leaves a door marked No 11, raises a battered box and smiles at photographers before heading for the House of Commons where he will exhibit a degree of omnipotence that ayatollahs would envy.
All power is mysterious, but the power of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a mystery too far. Even the members of his own party were unprepared for the borrowing figures announced last week by Chancellor Darling. Stranger still, nowhere in the Budget was there a reflection of what The People want. Imagine if the Chancellor had said: ‘Now is the time to drain the swamps of expenditure that are drowning us all. Identity Cards. An NHS computer system that is like the Emperor’s New Clothes.’ If he’d said: ‘VAT at 17.5% is restored in order to reduce our borrowings. We owe it to our children.’ Or: ‘We are cutting the Olympic budget in half. We will create a template for the Games that values athletic achievement over extravagant nationalism that plunges the host country into decades of debt.’
Crass populism or common sense? Actually, it’s what the folks on my payroll yearn for. And it’s what politicians who have been in power too long lose sight of. That was my thinking as I bundled papers for the recycling bin and came across a headline: ‘Survivor of the last economic disaster’. It was an interview with a 92 year old living on the Sussex Downs who had perfect recall of those days of penal taxation, when tax policy was more political than economic ‘because the amount raised is very small. And it encourages people to leave the country, to invest abroad rather than in the UK’.
The nonagenarian saw other problems in today’s economic disaster. For instance, the public sector ‘probably has twice as many people working in it as necessary’. And defence? ‘I see no point in the Trident programme. It doesn’t affect the war in Afghanistan, where we shouldn’t be anyway.’
His was the voice of experience. In fact, he was once Chancellor himself, and Secretary of Defence. When Denis Healey now Lord Healey speaks of the dangers of higher taxes and a bloated public sector, you are hearing the voice of experience and regret. I’ve tucked that yellowed copy of The Daily Telegraph (January 24, 2009) next to the last case of Wine Society whisky 1976, known in this family as the Healey Collection. In the belief that nothing terrible lasts forever, I think these bottles will just about see us through to a new Government and a new Chancellor. Lullabye.