George Osborne described it as “unavoidable” and “progressive”, Vince Cable as “necessary” and “fair”. Don’t blame us, Tweedledee and Tweedledum suggest, Labour left the public finances in a mess – and unless we tighten our belts drastically now, the markets will force our hand. But in fact, the timing, extent and manner of this brutal surgery were a matter of choice. The Liberal Conservative coalition did not have to cut so far, so fast; nor did it have to raise VAT, which will hit the poor hardest.
Britain’s economy is on life support. Banks aren’t lending enough, companies are wary of investing, our biggest export market – the euro zone – is in crisis, and consumption is subdued. Faced with a collapse of private demand, public spending has propped the economy up. But now the coalition is planning to take away that government support much faster than Labour proposed to. Is the economy strong enough to stand on its own two feet? It’s a huge gamble.
The immediate danger is that a drop in demand will plunge the economy into a double-dip recession. That would cause a lot of pain without much budgetary gain: a smaller structural deficit would be offset by a larger cyclical one, leaving the country poorer but the government still borrowing almost as much. Far from shoring up confidence, as Cable suggests, the budget could shred it. Weighed down by huge debts, the economy might stagnate for years, as Japan did after its bubble burst twenty years ago.
Another big danger is that the economy will stagger back to its bad old ways instead of developing along new and healthier lines. Now, more than ever, Britain is relying on a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates to sustain the recovery. Fiscal austerity for monetary licence – that is the bargain that the Chancellor has struck with his chum Mervyn King, the not-so-independent governor of the Bank of England and newly promoted plenipotentiary for financial regulation (an assignment he does not merit, given his insouciance during the bubble years and his role in the Northern Rock fiasco). But with Britons still addicted to property speculation, big banks still unreformed and able to gamble with government guarantees, and the authorities depending on monetary policy to boost growth, we risk inflating a new financial bubble to rescue us from the bursting of the last one.
This emergency budget was a missed opportunity to tilt Britain towards more balanced and sustainable growth. Instead of increasing VAT next January – which will raise £13 billion a year – the government could have phased in a tax of £30 a tonne on carbon emissions. That would not only raise around £16 billion a year, it would curb carbon emissions while stimulating investment in clean-tech companies and the green jobs of the future.
An even better way to fill the budget gap and rebalance the economy would be to introduce a tax on land values. With all the land in Britain worth perhaps £5 trillion, a 0.5% levy could raise £25 billion a year. That could be used to cut the deficit, trim national insurance, and protect public spending on the most vulnerable.
Taxing wealthy landowners’ windfall gains would also limit property speculation and fund new social housing. And since growth-promoting infrastructure investment raises surrounding values, Crossrail and a high-speed rail network would pay for themselves and thus not fall victim to short-sighted budget cuts.
Over time, shifting the tax burden off labour and on to land would create jobs, reward hard work and promote more stable, sustainable and balanced growth. And since nearly all of us earn most of our lifetime income from work rather than from rent, taxing land instead of labour would make most people better off.
The Attlee government introduced a tax on land values in 1947, a measure the Conservatives unfortunately repealed in 1951. As Labour’s leadership candidates consider how best to respond to this unwise and unfair budget, they would do well to revive the idea.