Populist governments are supposed to do things which are popular, not things that are unpopular.
There is a danger Boris Johnson’s Government has already forgotten this.
Of course, governments have to pass laws that enable them to run the show, and sometimes there have to be penalties for non-compliance.
But they also have to encourage people, to help them achieve their aims in a way that benefits society as a whole.
Hamish McRae believes Borish should scrap the 45p top rate of tax
The Cameron Government was not without fault, but it understood the need for this when it created the Nudge Unit.
The unit is now a social purpose company called the Behavioural Insights Team, part-owned by the Government, and which helps advise other governments as well.
Success stories include prescription forms so that doctors make fewer mistakes when filling them out, and increasing the number of Britons who have joined the NHS organ donor register by asking people whether there would be a donor for them if they needed a transplant.
But now look at what is happening. Last week, the Government announced it would ban sales of coal and unseasoned wood for fires and stoves.
The reason is that these increase local air pollution, something quite rightly the Government wants to tackle.
But anyone who bought a wood-burning stove thinking they were doing the right thing by using a renewable fuel might feel a bit upset.
Burning unseasoned wood is indeed bad for our environment (and for our chimneys), but there must be a better way of nudging people to use dry wood than a blanket ban on sales of wet stuff.
New Chancellor Rishi Sunak should remember they are servants of the people on March 11th
Or take the switch to electric cars. Last summer the incoming Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said he wanted to use the Nudge Unit to find ways of pushing people towards buying them.
Now, a few months into office, he strikes a rather different note. Instead of gently guiding us, perhaps by finding ways to make charging easier, he says that all cars sold in Britain will have to be electric by 2035, or maybe 2032.
That’s bossing, not nudging, and understandably this has caused resentment. Those are warning signs. The first big test of the tone of this Government – whether it is populist or authoritarian – comes soon in the Budget next month.
Of course the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has to make the numbers add up. They are OK at the moment, but only OK.
The latest public tax and spending numbers last week showed that the deficit is going to be around £44billion, which is a bit lower than the Office for Budget Responsibility projected but a bit higher than last year.
So there is a bit of headroom, but no scope for huge tax cuts or huge increases in spending. Mr Sunak has to be careful.
But – and this really matters – he also has to be popular. It seems that some really unpopular ideas, such as slashing pension tax relief, have now been junked.
Given that we all have to save much more for our futures, that would have made no sense at all.
Actually, pensions are one of the areas where a nudge (with a legal push behind it) has worked really well. Auto-enrolment has boosted the number of people in workplace pensions from 7.7million in 2017 to ten million last year.
So while pensions certainly need reforms, you don’t want to wreck what is in general a success story.
My own populist measure would be to drop the top 45 per cent income tax rate back to 40 per cent. It would cost nothing and might even bring in more revenue as some people would no longer keep their income down to avoid it.
Crucially, it would give a signal that it wants people to do well.
Others will have their own ideas as to what will be popular, and the Government would be wise to listen.
That’s the core of it.
Back in 1946 the Attorney General, Hartley Shawcross, made the infamous assertion in parliament about the new Labour Government that was compressed into the phase ‘we are the masters now’.
It became such a resonant, toxic view of government that both Tony Blair and Boris Johnson went out of their way on taking office to assert the opposite: The people are the masters and the politicians are the servants.
The trouble is that this is what political leaders say, but what they actually end up doing feels rather different.
Come the Budget on March 11 we will learn whether this Government really thinks of itself as a servant of the people who voted for it, or not.
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