This week I’ve written about TV’s Doctor Who. But haters, please don’t unsubscribe! There’s also a bit about a truly fascinating map! But first, the Autumn Statement.
Some years ago I used to edit a monthly magazine that went to press on a Wednesday. This was for the most part rather nice, giving me two days a month to catch up on admin, go for lunches and generally take a breath – but once in a while that Wednesday would coincide with what we’ve since started giving the mildly sinister label of a “fiscal event”, a budget or an autumn statement in which large chunks of government policy affecting the magazine’s readers were liable to suddenly change. And this was scheduled to happen approximately four hours before my magazine went to press.
The way I would deal with this was by writing the previous day what I thought was going to happen, and then amend it as required when the news broke. You’d think this would be risky, but it hardly ever went wrong. (The one time I ended up rewriting articles that had already been laid out I remember cursing Michael Gove throughout, so it can’t have been a budget that had ruined me.) So much policy these days is announced to the press before Parliament that we’ve had a fair idea of roughly what Jeremy Hunt would be announcing today for weeks, and while this raises questions both constitutional and ethical in nature, it does at least make the life of any journalist facing a stressful deadline a hell of a lot easier.
All of which is a very long way of saying I am writing about the Autumn Statement before the Autumn Statement has actually been made. Please god, don’t screw this up for me, Hunt.
Debate these last weeks has concerned which taxes the Chancellor would be using his “headroom” – the extra money available thanks to improvements in predicted tax revenues – to cut. Would he cut a tax a lot of people pay, like income tax or national insurance, helping a lot of people in a manner which was both expensive and inflationary? Or would he cut inheritance tax, which wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the overwhelming majority of the country, but which wouldn’t cost him very much and might also save the odd Tory seat in Surrey? In the event – yes, this is the bit I wrote after the statement – it was a 2% cut in NI. How that will play remains to be seen.
The depressing thing about watching this lengthy warm-up play out, though, is that the whole thing is built on a mile-high tower of bullshit. The entire notion of “headroom” – the amount of money the Chancellor will have to play with, while remaining inside his fiscal rules – is a Russian doll of questionable assumptions. It’s based on predictions of future tax revenues, which rarely get within billions of pounds of actual tax revenues, and which swing wildly as officials make different attempts at the sums. (This is why we’ve gone from “things are tight” to “TAX CUTS” without anything seeming to change.)
Then there’s the problem of the fiscal rules themselves. Hunt’s main rule is that he wants underlying public sector net debt falling as a share of GDP by the fifth year of the forecast. That doesn’t just leave him lots of room to game the system (why not increase debt now, to make it easier to bring it down later?): he also set the rule himself. He’s not quite marking his own homework, but he’s certainly designing the marking scheme.
Oh, and then there’s the fact the Tories are extremely unlikely to be setting policy by the second year of that forecast anyway, thus giving them even more incentives to game the figures. (Why not just blow a load of money on tax cuts now, and say you’ll pay it back later? Not like 2026 is gonna be your problem, is it?)
Labour has to pretend to commit to Tory spending plans now for fiscal credibility/shutting up the press reasons. But after the election, power will shift, everyone will want to suck up to the new government, and a Labour chancellor will want to set their own rules with their own opportunities for gaming them. So while there’s not infinite room for manoeuvre, what will actually happen to public finances over the next five years has almost nothing to do with what Jeremy Hunt stood up and said would happen to them today. The whole thing’s a game.
That could be said of something else about this process, of course. The entire debate has focused on what taxes to cut – a debate about pre-election giveaways and the best ways of bribing voters. There has been very little suggestion that “headroom” might be used to deal with, say, the epidemic of rough sleeping. Or crumbling concrete in schools. Or spiralling NHS waiting lists. Or making the sort of state investments that might actually give us some growth.
I wrote most of this before the Chancellor stood up to make his statement. But really, if he’s not going to take his job seriously, then why the hell should I.
Sixty of my favourite things about that silly blue box show
Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the broadcast of An Unearthly Child, the first episode of a new series about a time travelling weirdo who kidnaps two perfectly nice teachers. Doctor Who, in other words, is old enough to qualify for its free bus pass.
I try to avoid banging on about a TV show which, in all honesty, takes up about 30% of my brain at any one time: it’s not for everyone, and I have a whole different substack to talk about it, and also I became a fan in the ‘90s and have never quite shaken the sense that Doctor Who is one of those things you don’t ever talk about if you want people to like you and stuff. But look, I have on occasion used this space to talk about shows with smaller fanbases and less cultural significance as well as less meaning to me personally, and I’ve never done this before, and I won’t do it again [Ed’s note: Promises, promises.]. And it’s my newsletter, so there.
If you are one of those people who doesn’t care for the silly show with the monsters, then a) please feel free to scroll past this listicle, to where you’ll find an excellent map concerning national identity; and b) rest assured that my editor Jasper is just as bored as you, and he actually had to edit it. If you aren’t one of those people, however, I hereby present: my favourite things in every year of Doctor Who since the start.
1963: The opening credits. Come on, cast and scripts and so on are all brilliant, but it’s the creepy theme tune and effects and opening that makes this thing weird. Then again, there’s also this cliffhanger:
1964: Marco Polo, the first lost classic – a seven-episode travelogue set in 13th century China, the sort of charming thing the show would soon stop attempting. The soundtrack makes a great radio play: you can listen here.
1965: The Myth Makers. Starts like a Round the Horne film parody, with clever references and dirty jokes, and ends like a tragedy. Another I really wish we could see.
1966: They somehow change the leading man and don’t break the show.