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A Tale of Two Nations

By Ian Hembrow
Published:
November 23, 2023

Senior Consultant, Ian Hembrow takes a literary and linguistic view of the 2023 Autumn Statement. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 52-minute speech, and the response to it by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, painted sharply contrasting pictures of the United Kingdom’s health and prospects.

 In 1845, a former Tory prime minister wrote a powerful novel about the divide between Britain’s rich and poor. Wrapped inside the Victorian romance of Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil; or The Two Nations was a searing condemnation of inequalities between the landed nobility and the agricultural and industrial working classes.

Disraeli’s critique was rooted in the principles of Chartism, with its calls for universal suffrage and political reform. The book argued for a positive and lasting alliance between an enlightened aristocracy and working people, to bridge the gulf between the ‘two nations’ of wealth and poverty. When watching today’s elected politicians grapple with the same issues, such ideas of unity and common cause seemed very far away.

Clear but muddled

To Jeremy Hunt’s credit, his delivery summarising no fewer than 110 largely supply-side fiscal and monetary measures was plain, clear and relatively human. He even injected a few points of humour – all welcome changes to the dry, thudding, technical language used by some of his predecessors.

In what may be the last Autumn Statement before the next general election, here was a Secretary of State (perhaps mindful of the fall-out from recent rhetoric by others around the cabinet table) keen to sound comprehensible, sincere and reasonable. He also continually sought to contrast the current government’s ideology and 13-year record with that of Labour over its identical period in power.

But the substance of what he said frequently struck a different note. The Chancellor repeatedly labelled it as “an Autumn Statement for growth”, while simultaneously acknowledging that forecasts for UK economic growth are now significantly lower than when he delivered the Budget in March. He also quoted figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility that suggest public debt as a percentage of gross domestic product will be higher by 2028/29 than it is now.

The Chancellor announced some headline-grabbing changes to the National Living Wage, National Insurance, business rates and incentives for investment. But it took only minutes for the opposition and media commentators to point out that the benefits of these changes will likely be cancelled out by the effects of previous tax increases and inflation.

Standing back from all the detail, it’s a sign of how the nature of national government has changed in the past decade that we now look to the Autumn Statement as an indicator of political direction. What was once simply an annual administrative mechanism to confirm public spending plans now has to take the place of well-articulated, long-term strategy.

Some cheer for housing

With housing and regeneration taking such a low-profile in the main platform speeches at the Conservative Party conference in early October, I listened carefully for mentions of these topics. It felt like this might be a ‘so long to levelling up’ moment, but no; the government, in word at least, is still anxious to narrow the differences between communities and regions.

There was a fresh pledge to tackle planning delays, a welcome unfreezing of the Local Housing Allowance to the 30th percentile of market rents, and a proposed new Permitted Development Right to give automatic approval for house-to-flat conversions. New Investment Zones and local devolution deals were also announced.

It had been widely trailed beforehand that the government might opt to increase welfare benefits by less than the September inflation figure. So it’ll be a relief to many that this was a temptation they resisted, along with honouring the triple-lock to uprate pensions by 8.5 per cent from April 2024.

The central plot

The recurring catchphrase of Chancellor Hunt’s speech was that “work should always pay and be rewarded”. He used this to justify changes to people’s entitlement for long-term unemployment support and sickness benefits, including mandatory work placements and reform to the Work Capability ‘Fit Note’ Assessment.

The government’s philosophy is that poverty is best tackled by encouraging work, and lowering taxes to stimulate growth. In her response from the parliamentary despatch box, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, dismissed the measures as “too little too late” and asserted that, far from being the answer to the country’s decline, the government are its “chief architects”.

This fiery exchange has close parallels to Disraeli’s words almost two centuries before. He suggested that the plight of working people was not solely, or even chiefly, due to the Industrial Revolution, but rather upper class irresponsibility and thievery. The main character concludes: ‘Never was such a plunder. The whole face of the country… was that of a land… invaded by a ruthless enemy.’

The real test of which view now prevails will depend upon how households throughout the country feel about their daily lives and outlooks, and how this affects their voting intentions.

Near the end of her parliamentary response, Rachel Reeves focused on exactly this point. She asked: “Does anything in Britain work better today than it did 13 years ago?”

It’s an important and timely question. The answer will frame the way our nation(s) moves into the future.

Ian Hembrow FCIH is the housing, engagement and copywriting lead at Creative Bridge.

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