Cutting remarks

The US crime drama The Wire had different settings for each season – docks, a school and a newspaper being three. In the newspaper segment, the fictional publication was inspired by the Baltimore Sun, where the writer David Simon had worked as a reporter.

One scene in that season has always stayed with me. It wasn’t the most dramatic moment but it rang true to a journalist working on a paper no longer at its peak. An editor or manager climbed on a desk, or he does in my memory, to address his staff at a time of gloom and cuts. The reporters and desk staff stared up at him with weariness in their cynical hearts.

‘We will have to do more with less,’ the editor said. There were groans in the fictional newspaper office at that dispiriting rallying call. And a sigh of recognition in my heart, as I’d been hearing that script for a while.

British politicians usually claim the West Wing as their favourite American drama, but I wonder if the chancellor, George Osborne, might not be more of a Wire man. I do hope not, as I wouldn’t wish to share a TV affection with him.

Yesterday Osborne announced more cuts. That man must cut more often than a hairdresser. What he said was: ‘The usual, sir, or shall I just save the price of future trims by cutting off your head instead?’ Well, no, what he actually said was that the government had to find ways to “deliver more with less”. He has asked departments that are not ring-fenced to cut up to 40 per cent from their budgets from 2019-20

Yesterday he told Parliament: “When it comes to building a Britain that lives within its means, we need to finish the job.” Earlier this month in the summer budget, he set out £12 billion of savings from welfare and £5 billion from changes to the tax system. All this, he says, would deliver half of what is needed to clear the deficit.

Well, maybe in will, maybe it won’t. Often these statements are as much about mood music as hard financial facts. The sub-text here is that Osborne is cleverly painting Labour into a corner – something Labour seems determined to do to itself, in its post-defeat, leaderless, don’t-mention-bloody-Ed panic.

One example of how such cuts will work can already be seen here in York. City of York Art Gallery opens next week after a long closure and splendid-sounding renovation. Entry will now cost £7.50 for visitors and locals alike, with some concessions for residents. Before it closed, entry was free, as it should be for all art galleries, especially when they show works gifted to the city in the past. Galleries should belong to the people and be for the people, which I know sounds a bit old-style socialist, but they just should. As should museums but now, according to a report on my old newspaper, York will be charging visitors to museums too.

This is one tiny aspect of what doing more with less looks like: you still pay your taxes, and then you pay again when you wish to visit your local art gallery.

Incidentally, one weasel excuse dusted off by Osborne for his hymn to more with less was the falling crime rate. Well, crime rates fall for all sorts of reasons, from statistical blips to, say, motor manufacturers improving security systems on new cars. So governments claiming credit for a fall is a little like governments claiming credit for the weather. Mind you, with Osborne you never know he might just go and do that.

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