Friday, March 25, 2011

Whatever the Difference, It's Still the Same

Tuesday was Budget Day in the U.K. You can not imagine what a shock it was the first time I watched one of these on T.V. No American can imagine it. To watch the delivery of a budget by the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to get a abject lesson in the why's and wherefore's of American history in one easy lesson -- well maybe not so easy.

Now the Prime Minister is the number one guy and he is the one who chooses his cabinet -- and his choice does not have to be confirmed by Parliament -- But since he is selected by his fellow party members to be the Leader he does have to keep them happy enough to keep his position. However, to me a powerful Chancellor can be even more powerful and can really thwart a Prime Minister. According to some sources when Gordon Brown was Chancellor in the Blair government he barely consulted with anybody, including the Prime Minister as to what was in the budget!!

The most startling thing to me as a new arrival in Britain 30 years ago was that the Chancellor can decide to raise taxes on anything he chooses effective whenever he chooses. So he will say, for example, that 'as of 6 p.m. tonight duty on cigarettes will increase by 5 pence a packet -- or maybe it will be 10 pence. Or the duty on petrol will increase by a price of 3 pence a litre as of April 1st -- or, maybe -- Midnight tonight! Yesterday though, he gave everyone a break and reduced petrol duty by 1 pence a litre. As the price of petrol (gasoline) is over $2.00/litre ($8.00/gallon) people are not thrilled.

What got me swearing loudly at the television  was Chancellor George Osbourne yesterday morning.  You see, the previous government had planned to implement a 5 pence per litre hike in petrol as of April and this newly elected bunch decided very last minute not to implement that tax hike. So they are now claiming to have decreased the cost of petrol by -- you guessed it -- 6 pence a litre. In addition, the wary and suspicious public noticed that the day prior to the budget many companies increased the price by 1 pence, so that the decrease would simply nullify their costs. It is also true that there is no legal impediment to prices going up -- so that any tax decrease could result in oil companies making money instead of the Exchequer. To be fair to them (why does that sound like an oxymoron?) they have said they will not do this unless the price goes up on the world market.

So to get back to the purpose of this post, which was to show that watching this exercise in British democracy is a history lesson for students of American politics. Remember the battle cry of the American Revolution: No taxation without representation! Remember the long drawn out debates of the Continental Congress and the complicated process of passing Federal legislation: a system of Checks and Balances. It is inconceivable to an American to imagine tax of any kind being implemented in a few hours! In the U.K. the budget must indeed by passed by Parliament, but I have only known of one occasion since I've been here when a tax has been rolled back -- and then it was after several months and the tax already paid was not redeemable.

After 30 years of observation I cannot say if one way is better than the other. It seems to me that in trying to prevent government from having an excess of power the people in the US are protected, but the weakness is that instead of having a government of the majority it is a government more often than not impeded by the minority, There are advantages and disadvantages. On the other hand, it is much more straightforward for a newly elected majority here to make popular changes. I've found that there is still the same back room wheeling and dealing. There is all the same political maneuvering and posturing. The founding fathers solved one set of problems that led to others. One thing I like very much in Britain is the necessity of the Prime Minister to answer questions every week at Prime Minister's Question Time. I find that the intimacy of this, the rowdiness, and unflinching courtesy at the same time is very appealing. Two politicians on opposite sides of the political spectrum get the chance to challenge each other in public every week. That is definitely pretty cool.


  1. How very interesting to get a completely different point of view on something so familiar to me that it had never occurred to me to question it! Thanks, Broad, I think this will be something I'll ponder for a while.

  2. I have watched some of those questions and answers between the Prime Minister and the opposition party. Yes,great television viewing.

  3. It's so interesting, Broad, to get a perspective that is colored by both American and British points of view. The back room deals seem pandemic everywhere, but I like the idea of the Prime Minister having to answer some very frank questions on a weekly basis


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