Even those not interested in horse racing watch the Grand National. Quite often these are the same people who claim to have the inside line on which horse to back – which usually ends up being the one finishing last, having thrown the rider at the first fence.In an odd way the same thing happens in politics. Outside election campaigns a big proportion of the population only pays a fleeting interest in politics, except at the ‘exciting’ set-piece events like the Budget, the Queen’s Speech and Prime Minister’s Questions. Which is ironic, because if you think about it, in these instances the runners and riders happen to be you and me – voters and taxpayers. Perhaps people should pay closer attention to the form books.
This week sees a yearly political event which is just as important as the aforementioned but which fails to command the public’s attention in the same way. Whilst the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) or Autumn Statement, as it is more commonly known, lacks the grandeur of the Budget or PMQs its importance cannot be underestimated.
So as George Osborne rises to his feet on Wednesday afternoon, why does the CSR not command the interest of those floating political enthusiasts?
After all, the CSR sets the departmental expenditure limits of all government departments which covers the costs of the policies these departments deliver as well as assets like roads and buildings. Why is this important? Well when government spends approximately £742 billion then it’s a pretty big deal.
With the undoubted squeeze on the public purse, recent spending reviews have taken on a new importance. In July the Chancellor wrote to all the heads of all government departments and asked them to prepare for a potential scenario of cuts to their budgets of between 25% and 40% which had civil servants curled up in a ball all along Whitehall. Ask yourself if you’d be able to cut your own spending by such margins and you’ll begin to recognise the scale of the challenge.
The CSR also has a profound impact north of the Border, as Scotland has its own departmental expenditure limit that the Scottish Government must work within. Arguments on whether the Scottish budget has gone up or down are complex. However what is clear is that Scotland does receive consequential funding flowing from UK budgets and therefore a simplistic way to look at it is this – the more UK government departments spend, the more money is allocated to the Scottish budget. So you can expect John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon to be following the CSR with great interest.
Indeed, the CSR is taken so seriously by the Scottish Government that they have pushed back their own budget timeline to take cognisance of the details in the Chancellor’s statement. Therefore we won’t hear more about its budget plans until December 16th, just a day ahead of the Christmas recess. Perhaps the Scottish Government is timing things in the hope that Santa will come early to deliver an additional few million pounds in Barnett consequentials but in truth it looks more like Mr Swinney is giving himself as much time as possible to make his sums add up in the wake of an expectedly tough UK-wide spending settlement.
So don’t expect record viewing figures for the Chancellor’s statement on Wednesday or wall-to-wall coverage on the TV or in the press. The question then remains how do we more accurately align the CSR’s media profile with its undoubted public importance? Sounds like a job for a PR company and luckily I know the right people.
Colin McFarlane is an Account Manager at Indigo.