I am most grateful for what my right honourable friend the new Chancellor of the Exchequer … has said about me, and I wish to take this further opportunity to wish him every success in the task that lies ahead of him… As for my own record, I have no doubt that I have made my share of mistakes; but I am content to be judged when the passage of time has provided a greater sense of perspective than is possible today.
Nigel Lawson MP, resignation speech to the House of Commons, 31 October 1989
The Osborne Legacy sounds like something penned by the late Robert Ludlum: prime departure-lounge fodder, ripe for the full Hollywood action-picture treatment. More prosaically, it could describe an attempt to figure out what George of that ilk, our recently departed chancellor, has left behind him.
His six years and two months in the job marked the third-longest occupancy of Number 11 since the war, beaten only by Gordon Brown (ten years and one month) and Nigel Lawson (six years and four months). To say that Osborne’s chancellorship divided opinion is to over-simplify, by suggesting just two camps: those who thought he was a success and those who did not.
In reality, both his enemies and his supporters were sub-divided, unable to agree among themselves why he was either a disaster or a pretty good operator. Among the antis, you could have those who detested the hard-faced cutter of benefits and pursuer of ‘austerity’ alongside those harshly critical of his big-government agenda and inability to get on top of the fiscal situation. His admirers included those who greatly approved of the way he took Britain back from the brink, suffering deep unpopularity in order to save the nation from a Greece-like economic apocalypse, but they sat uneasily alongside those who so applauded the flexibility with which he let his fiscal targets slide in order to keep the recovery on track.
Will the real George Osborne stand up? It may not be that straightforward.
This is the man who, as shadow chancellor, signed up for Gordon Brown’s spending plans, then, on moving into the Treasury, declared that he would save us all from the dire consequences of those same plans, before ending up delivering fiscal policies little different in aggregate from those that had been pursued by his predecessor, Brown’s chancellor Alistair Darling.
Moreover, it was Osborne who pledged to roll back the ‘imperial Treasury’ of the Blair-Brown years and ended up extending its reach into areas that even New Labour had never contemplated, such as the detailed organisation of local government and the question of whether school pupils ought to be required to study maths to eighteen.
It is rather as if Harold Macmillan had not only backtracked on the de-colonising ‘winds of change’ agenda in Africa but then annexed the Congo for good measure.
It has been said that the former chancellor was never very interested in big as against small government, or austerity versus an easier fiscal approach, but that his actions can best be explained as a ceaseless effort to put together a durable electoral alliance, in imitation of his supposed hero Tony Blair. In such a task, figuring out who is excluded (‘shirkers’ and ‘skivers’, those ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’, full-time mothers) is as important as deciding who is included (‘hard-working families’, ‘entrepreneurs’ and so on).
Well, possibly. A partial alternative narrative may have it that, along with the politicking, Osborne as chancellor was equally keen, boyishly so, on the technology-related projects with which he became associated.
Lord Keynes famously said that, ‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’ Look at those schemes dear to Osborne’s heart – the HS2 bullet train, the encouragement of space-related activities, the enthusiasm for driverless vehicles and for the wonder-substance graphene (in March 2015 he opened the National Graphene Institute in Manchester) – and you wonder whether he is not rather slave to a deceased television programme-maker: Gerry Anderson, the creator of the much-loved series Thunderbirds.
This was set in a future of express monorails, routine visits to space, and airliners so fast as to make Concorde look like a Sopwith Camel. A typical episode would kick off with a hubristic mega-project (my two favourites being the use of atomic motors to move the Empire State Building to a different part of New York – as you would – and the launch of a manned probe that would fly close to the Sun) heralded with triumphalist music, courtesy of Barry Gray.
‘Will you take a look at that?’ one grand personage would boast, dismissing tentative concerns from a sidekick with, ‘Relax! What can go wrong?’ Shortly after, the inevitable: ‘Send for International Rescue!’
History may judge, however, that Osborne’s very own hubris project had nothing to do with fast trains or self-driving lorries, but his prominent, indeed dominant, role in the Remain campaign during the referendum on European Union membership. There were those – some of them sympathetic to the chancellor’s cause – who cautioned that doom-laden predictions of instant recession and a ‘punishment Budget’ in the event of a vote to leave were counter-productive.
He clearly was not listening. And why should he? Remain was evidently going to win. What mattered was to win big. Relax!
With the dust clearing and the debris settling after 23 June and George Osborne’s subsequent defenestration, it is fair to say that two positive aspects of his legacy are becoming clear.
The first, despite the twittish title, is the Northern Powerhouse scheme to counterbalance the gravitational economic pull of London and the south-east. This was not an original idea from the former chancellor (he never said it was), and first surfaced in the 1980s, when it was known as the Transpennine concept.
But, pace John Prescott (another enthusiast), in Osborne it found its most powerful political patron. We must hope that it survives him and, indeed, will lend some jump leads to the ‘Midlands Engine’ in due time.
The second achievement is pretty unambiguous: the record on job creation. Between 2010 and 2015, UK employment rose by two million, against 1.8 million for the rest of the EU put together. It has risen further since.
That much of this has resulted from falling real wages in the five years 2009-2013 and generally poor productivity greatly excites economists and pundits; it is probably of rather less interest to those people who have jobs yet may have been unemployed had the country been under different economic management.
It says something about the speed with which the political wheel of fortune can turn that the chancellor who presided over a boom in jobs was to lose his own.