17 MARCH 2007, Page 46

No admission

Even Brown’s own propagandists have never claimed his Budget speeches to be great oratory. This 11th and last could be the dullest of the lot if, as expected, he saves all the fireworks for his first 100 days as prime minister. It will swiftly become a blur with its ten predecessors and their accompanying phonebook-thick Treasury reports — which offer the only sure way to understand these speeches at all, given Brown’s habit of announcing eye-catching measures far in advance, then re-announcing them, while concealing unpalatable tax tweaks in the small print. The only speech that might be called historic was the first, on 2 July 1997, which the Independent hailed as ‘brilliant ... prudent, managerial, responsible’. But few of us that day grasped the true impact of one short passage: ‘The present system of tax credits encourages companies to pay out dividends rather than reinvest their profits. This cannot be the best way of encouraging investment for the long term ... Many pension funds are in substantial surplus ... so this is the right time to undertake a long-needed reform. So, with immediate effect, I propose to abolish tax credits paid to pension funds .. .’ As Sir Martin Jacomb argued here last year, the real effect of that £5 billion-a-year raid was that it made shares less attractive, contributing to the stock-market slump of 2001–2003, to the pension-fund deficits which afflict many companies today, to the switch into gilts which robbed many funds of the full benefit of subsequent share rises, and to the demolition of final-salary pension schemes. No one has ever claimed that the raid succeeded in the stated objective of ‘encouraging investment’: in fact, it did the opposite, and to his eternal discredit Brown has never acknowledged the damage caused to what was once the best-provided private-pension system in Europe. The moist-eyed Clintonian confession and the ‘masochism strategy’ of Tony Blair may be nauseating features of modern political life, but Brown’s stony refusal to admit mistakes or give straight answers to questions about them is just one more reason why the nation doesn’t love him.