There's been a lot of chatter in recent days about the budget. But it has lacked passion. It has utterly failed to engage the great British public. Why is this?
I suggest that the reason for the absence of fire is because all the discussion has been on arcane issues such as bond markets, tax allowances and credit ratings. We all know that running the economy is a highly skilled task to which quite frankly I have nothing of any value to add. And with the greatest of respect - I'm not sure that many outside the ranks of technical economists and accountants do either. What do any of us really have to contribute on Black-Scholes, double dips or anything of that nature?
I don't advise my plumber on water pumps, I am not asked to offer a view on where to lay the cable by the TV company or what type of paint to use by the decorator. Each of them brings to that task their own expertise and training; and once I've chosen them I trust them to do the best job they can. If they don't do a great job, I will probably try another craftsman next time. As it is with domestic tradesmen, so it is with Chancellors. We have the one we've chosen, and I trust him in partnership with expert advisers at HM Treasury, Bank of England and elsewhere to do the best technical job he can. And if any of us don't like the result, we can reflect that in the choices we make at the next election.
But where I do have something to contribute - where we all have something to contribute - is in the passion that is so necessary to a budget. Because far more important than the amount of public expenditure is how we spend it. And that's where the passion comes in. It's time for a heartfelt conversation about what we think is important as a country - and where we think our money should go.
Let's start with a blank piece of paper. Never mind a bit more here and a bit less there - or requests not to cut this or reduce that. Let's have a lot fewer rows about forests or pasties. Let's start with what we think is important - and I doubt you'll find a very different list if you asked every one of the 63 million men, women and children in the UK:
• no one should go to bed hungry or without a bed to sleep in;
• the streets should be safe and there should be rule of law;
• we should not be at risk of invasion.
And then what?
• There should be free schools for children
• There should be decent lives for those who are unable to work because of disability, advanced years or caring responsibilities
• There should be free healthcare
And if we all agree on that - and if there's any money left - then we need to have a passionate discussion about funding for other important things, such as:
• local services - fire services, dustbins, road, swimming pools, libraries
• the arts, the BBC etc
• overseas aid
• capacity to act as an international policeman
• higher education
That's why I welcomed the beginnings of that discussion when one minister after another started to say the unsayable. Why should we not have a good debate on whether we want a bigger army and fewer libraries? More overseas aid and fewer student loans? Better sports funding and less money for roads? All really good questions and ones which could easily keep us up all night at the pub or all day in the coffee shop arguing the point. And that would be a good thing. Because I honestly believe that while everyone accepts that there is a need for there to be less public expenditure, where the unhappiness comes is from an uncomfortable feeling that the money isn't being spent on the things that we all feel are so important.
So, let's have a passionate budget, George. I think you'd be surprised at how keen we all are to join in the discussion. You'd tap into that Great British love of fair play and, moreover, I think we'd see something about ourselves that would make us all feel good. Because the British public is not just passionate, it's also compassionate. Look at Red Nose Day. Look again at that list of six things that most of us from hairdressers to bishops seem to agree should be priorities for the public purse.
Not a glimmer of self-interest there. Our compassion is one of the things we can be most proud of. Give us a chance and we'll also be passionate - even about the budget!