Annual Budget exercises are a tradition of British political life and are common across the many countries of the English-speaking world. Despite this universality, the practice of British-style Budget-making is a sign of misgovernment or, at any rate, of government failure.
Whatever else may be said about George Osborne's third Budget on March 20, it was not a masterpiece of concision. The main drama of the speech itself ran into a few thousand words, while the supporting cast of documents and analyses contained as much material as several doctoral theses. In a truly successful nation the finance minister ought to be able to give an identical statement year after year: "The plans I announced a year ago have been fulfilled more or less exactly. The budget is balanced and the public debt is under control. People complain about taxes, just as they complain about death. But — as Benjamin Franklin explained a long time ago — both are inevitable while governments and mankind exist, and governments spend money. The economy is expanding steadily and its growth is in line with that of public expenditure. I have no plans to change taxes in either their form or level."
Indeed, in a nation enjoying genuinely high-quality political leadership and public administration, the citizens would be able to plan their fiscal arrangements ahead for decades. Everything would be so predictable that people would not have to bother themselves about recurrent tax upheavals. And dare one say that, unlike the current lot who label themselves Conservative with a big "C", a government under truly conservative statesmen and women would say that this stability was itself a great achievement?
The puzzle is to understand why an annual Budget of the British type, with all the political and media fanfare, is thought to be necessary. Of course civil servants need to keep records of public expenditure and tax revenue, and the information must be published. Of course. But is all the associated hullabaloo necessary? Why should a Chancellor of the Exchequer who is forever changing things be regarded as superior to a Chancellor of the Exchequer who presides over such stability that he needs to do next to nothing?
One source of the trouble is historical. When England was a divine-right monarchy in the 17th century, the king could not cover the cost of defending his realm except by calling Parliament and asking it to raise revenue. The debates over the annual Budget therefore gave Parliament a means to check the monarch's power and bring the executive under control. Theoretically, the same set of forces is at work nowadays. In reality Britain is a constitutional monarchy, in which the Queen's own personal expenditure is a fleabite in the larger macroeconomic picture, and the executive and the legislature are increasingly indistinguishable.