Bill Jamieson: Beware post-election depression

Our lives have been dominated by election after election in recent years, with yet another due next month.

Our lives have been dominated by election after election in recent years, with yet another due next month.

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After the latest campaign reaches a climax, don’t be surprised if disaffection then follows disillusion says Bill Jamieson

Still a month to go and most of us can’t wait for this election to be over. The claims and counter claims, the dodgy figures, the endlessly repeated soundbites – and an outcome that is scarcely in doubt.

Yet through the motions we must go. And what we will we think and do when it’s over? We have been trapped in an election dominated world for years - the our own independence referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015, the Brexit referendum of June 2016, the US Presidential election last November, the Dutch and French elections, local government elections to pump up the adrenalin fix and now the U.K. General election.

When did we last watch a news bulletin when the indefatigable Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC was not anxiously setting out what we already know? Lest we thought any political news was ‘good’ – her angst-ridden summaries daily itemise the pitfalls and imponderables ahead for Westminster and Holyrood.

On the ITV news, a scruffy Robert Peston conveys an air of utter weariness, hardly bothering to sit up, as if commentary on the latest daily skirmish was barely worth the effort of reporting to a fresh-faced Tom Bradby.

As for BBC Question Time, it seems trapped in an endless replay loop – the same party political pundits with the point-scoring so predictable our lips have already moved before they speak. Rigor mortis would have long set in but for a culled studio audience of party hyper-activists, health campaigners, spending lobbyists, local government axe-grinders and others with grievances too many to mention.

What on earth do we do when it’s all over? Of course we will watch with mordant fascination the latest disintegration of the Labour Party in what has now become a ritual fratricide of the brothers. Some new configuration may emerge similar to those on the continent, with exotic galvanising names such as Pink Dawn, Onwards and Upwards or Fresh Breezes (not to be confused with Breaking Wind), zealously promoted by long familiar faces to set us a-tingle with the Different and The New: Tom Watson, perhaps? Or Yvette Cooper? The ever-cheerful Sir Keir Starmer? Or that most pungent perfume of the past, Tony “Je Reviens” Blair?

Barely a week passes without that familiar lament that coverage of politics is dominated by personalities and items such as this week’s ‘Who puts out the bins?’. But who puts much store by the currency of manifesto pledges? Personality focus can hardly be unexpected when the post-election adrenalin gives way to the realities of government and the limitations that an enlarged modern state has placed in the way of change. The transformational rhetoric of the 2010 coalition and the 2015 Conservative victory soon ran into the constraints of budget deficit reduction and £1.5 trillion of government debt that was still heading north.

The Trump presidency to date is a good example of how expectations of radical change are thwarted by the constraints of office. Decrees to limit immigration from the Middle East immediately succumbed to legal challenge. Plans to scrap Obama care ran into the ground. The great Mexican wall not proceeding to plan. And Republican budget deficit hawks look set to tame Trump’s ambitions for a massive infrastructure spending spree together with tax cuts.

Many of these constraints were wholly predictable. So quite why the political cognoscenti went into overdrive earlier this month to mark “the first 100 days” of Donald Trump defeated me. As if the difference in political context was not enough – America had plunged headlong into the Great Depression – modern government with its accrual of obligations and responsibilities and the regulatory constraints of office is not at all how it was in the “100 days” era of the Roosevelt era in early 1933. The notion of a transformative” “first 100 days” has long been a vainglorious myth.

Even if politicians on the stump are reluctant to admit to this, millions of voters know it to be true. And this gap between the make-believe world of party politics and day-to-day reality may explain the ennui that has set in across electorates in America, Britain and Europe. A survey conducted by YouGov last year found that the population in only one of 12 European countries – Denmark – was satisfied with democracy. Dissatisfaction scores of between 75 per cent and 80 per cent were recorded in France and Italy. In the UK, satisfaction with democracy at 40 per cent was outweighed by “dissatisfied” at 48 per cent.

Meanwhile Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has opened full throttle on higher taxes for the better off, a reversal of Conservative Corporation Tax cuts and “a reckoning” for “tax cheats, rip-off bosses and greedy bankers”. Corporation tax will also be raised.

As for Theresa May, she insists that the Conservatives are a low tax party, but that has not prevented previous Tory administrations from introducing new taxes while her chancellor Philip Hammond wants to drop the “triple tax lock” on tax, national insurance and VAT.

So where are we exactly on tax? The tax burden on UK households and businesses is already rising and according to the Office for Budget Responsibility is on course for a 40-year high. It expects the total burden to keep rising as a share of GDP over the next decade, climbing to 37.5 per cent by 2025-26 – the highest since 1986.

Labour might imagine it could get round the worst of tax rises by resort to higher borrowing. But government dent debt now stands at £1.83 trillion or 88.5 per cent of GDP. And annual debt interest payments have now grown to £55.8 billion – the highest on record.

No matter how strongly the SNP consolidates its political position on 8 June, it also needs to tread with care when proposing higher income taxes in Scotland and the disincentive effect on businesses and households. As the economist John Maclaren points out in his latest edition of Scottish Trends, Scottish GDP per head at £29,541 is still one per cent below its peak level of two years ago. For the first calendar year on record North Sea oil related tax revenues were negative (minus £338 million) – this in sharp contrast to the eight-year period 2005-2012 when Scottish offshore oil revenues averaged around £8 billion a year.

And what of the resilience of Scottish taxpayers? Maclaren finds the Savings Ratio for Scotland in the final quarter of last year was just 2.6 per cent, the lowest on record (since 1998). By comparison the UK figure was 3.3 per cent, also a new low.

For these reasons there are formidable barriers to the sweeping changes in government spending and tax currently being aired. Boosting spending by taxing the better off will prove nowhere near as easy as it might seem on a soapbox.

So – a surge of elation once the election is over? More likely is a post-election depression as reality returns – and a disillusion that could curdle into a more disaffected mood in time.

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