The Budget: Tough choices and difficult decisions

Chris Ames

101320499 1 300x202 The Budget: Tough choices and difficult decisions“We are making very tough choices, I’m not attempting in any way to disguise that,”the not entirely convincing cabinet minster Danny Alexander said on Newsnight last night, without a hint of irony or self awareness. For me, the phrase “tough choices” and variants like “difficult decisions” have the opposite effect to the one intended. Instead of conveying moral courage, they suggest crass cynicism.  Politicians present their decisions as brave while simultaneously abdicating responsibility for them. If this type of spin sets the tone for the new government, it will be just like the last one.

Had Alexander genuinely not attempted to disguise what George Osborne’s budget is doing, he would have admitted that it is going to leave a lot of people significantly worse off. Some of his colleagues, including Vince Cable today, are more honest. But Cable resorts to talking about “difficult choices”. Which ever formulation the politicians use, it’s the modern version of “this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you”.

As I’ve written before, the trick of the wordplay is to change the emphasis from the unpopular policy that the politician is announcing to the act of making the decision. It suggests both that the decision was forced on the decision maker and that he or she was brave in confronting the issue rather than avoiding it. It was a difficult process for the decision maker who, of course, took the courageous option rather than the easy way out.

The overt message of Osborne’s budget is that its drastic cutbacks were “unavoidable”, given the state of the public finances. The public are not to feel angry with the government but to give them credit for their courage in doing the right thing at the risk of becoming unpopular. I have a lot of sympathy for that view – until the politicians protest too much and try to have it both ways.

Ben Chu rightly challenges the “unavoidable” line and, as others have noted, in trying to fill the gap in the public finances Osborne could have placed a greater emphasis on tax increases. He appears to have decided against doing so for philosophical reasons, as a matter of economic judgement, or because he felt that higher taxes would be even less popular than spending cuts.

Just as the extent of the spending cuts was a political decision that Osborne took, so were his decisions as to what to cut. But when announcing a three year freeze on child benefit yesterday, Osborne claimed “we have also had to take a difficult decision about child benefit”. In this one claim, what could have been a politically brave decision melted into moral cowardice. That a decision had to be made on child benefit was only true in that Osborne had to decide whether to limit its costs or leave it untouched. He chose the former but then hid behind a claim that he had no choice. So a formulation that starts off justifying unpopular moves by asserting their inevitability is abused to justify something that is not inevitable.

Osborne then deployed a different formulation, telling us “This was a tough decision, but…” which seems to mean both “hard luck on you” and “look at me, I’m tough” at the same time. At least he had more honesty than Alexander in admitting that “the combined impact of the tax and benefit changes that we make today are tough for people.” But he similarly referred to “difficult times”, so that both adjectives were shared between the politicians and the people, in a kind of “we’re all in this together” kind of way. It’s been tough and difficult for you but it’s been tough and difficult for me too.

The sad thing about the whole phraseology is that it shows we still haven’t moved on from Blairite spin. “Tough choices” was a New Labour mantra, appearing in the 1997 manifesto. But, tellingly, it appeared in the context of “making tough choices; insisting that all parts of the public sector live within their means…”. For Blair “making tough choices” invariably meant disappointing Labour’s core support to throw a bone to the Daily Mail-reading middle class. Blair was entirely predictable and never really saw it as a choice at all.

So I’m all for politicians facing up to decisions that they find difficult and risking unpopularity. We need more of that in a grown-up politics. But “tough choices” and “difficult decisions” have turned into clichés that mislead as much as they enlighten. If Osborne and Alexander said “this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you” as blatantly as that, they would be laughed out of public life. So why should we put up with cliches that are almost as laughable?

Chris Ames is a freelance writer and investigative journalist

Photo: Getty Images

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