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06 September 2006

Gordon Brown: Last prime minister of the UK?

It seems almost a foregone conclusion that Gordon Brown will succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Without a vote from the public, without him seeing even lead his own party, the most powerful person in the land will be replaced next year with a process approaching a coronation rather than a meaningful contest. Such is the nature of UK democracy.

I have nothing against Gordon Brown as an individual, and under normal circumstances after the Iraq war I think many would be grateful for some change at the top to draw a line under that episode. I also think that he's done a decent if uninspired job as chancellor and although his Chancellorship has seen the longest period of sustained economic growth in UK history, 4 years of this was under the Tories and there has been general growth worldwide, not just in the UK.

However, there is a big difference between being a capable number cruncher, largely keeping quiet, and an inspired leader.

Recently, the Labour defeat in the Dunfermline and West Fife 2006 by-election, after a campaign largely led by Gordon Brown in a constituency in which he lives, cast doubt on his ability to win elections on his own. As a Westminster politician, he has no authority over issues such as transport which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Yet, he became involved in devolved issues by stating these, would be reconsidered and he would build a new bridge. Seven months later, the tolls are still £1 and cause traffic jams as cars build up to queue at the tolls. Tolls which are decades behind other countries, that have long since implemented automatic toll collection schemes.

Since Fife is the only place in Scotland with bridge tolls, why not just remove them?

Here's some more examples of things that need simplified:

Class 2 national insurance contributions. £2.10 a week. Why bother? It probably costs as much to collect it and chase the non payers as any benefit derived from it.

National Insurance. It’s an income tax by any other name. Get rid of it by merging it with Income Tax.

Child Tax rebates. An excuse to spend millions of pounds on an IT system that doesn’t work. An excuse to miscalculate payments and overpay people who can’t afford to pay it back. An idea that was singularly unoriginal and was copied from the US, complete with all the bureaucracy that goes with it. It wastes £1.3 billion per year. The lack of joined up IT means that you have to fill in the figures for your earnings rather than just looking it up on the tax return computer.

Car Tax. What a bureaucratic nightmare that is and how much money is wasted on chasing payment, filling in forms, advertising on TV and paper shuffling. I couldn’t buy my current car because of the car tax nightmare. The previous owner was registered disabled and had registered the car as owned by a disabled person. They don’t pay car tax and so the vehicle was exempt. I go to buy the car, pay for the tax at the post office and can’t because the system won’t accept my full payment as the vehicle is recorded as being exempt. I can’t pay nothing either because I don’t have disabled exemption. So a 100 mile round trip was necessary in another car (remember, mine isn’t taxed) to the regional licensing centre and someone has to stand in a queue and sort it all out. Is this helping Britain to keep moving? Unnecessary journeys and paper shuffling? For goodness sake if you want disabled people to be exempt from paying them to register themselves on the vehicle licensing computer and then they get the exemption, after all it’s the person who is claiming the exemption, not the car.

Inheritance tax. See this article in the Scotsman calling the government's tax changes “grossly unfair”. This is in a country where many middle earners pay 40% income tax + 9% national insurance whilst at the same time the super rich like the Rolling Stones pay a derisory 1.9% tax on income. Surely we should have a fairer tax system than this?

Pensions. We have a pensions crisis but is the £160,000,000,000 hole in pension funds due to taxation helping to fix the problem or making it bigger?

Lets be prudent he says. Not when it comes to splashing out on Iraq. Or the millennium Dome. Or IT fiascos costing hundred of millions of pounds. How many hospitals would that misplaced prudence buy the nation?

The risk here is that unless Labour is inspirational, it will only feed into the hands of their main opposition - namely the Tories in England and the SNP in Scotland. If Labour does not want to lose the Scottish elections in 2007 then now is the time to act.

It could be that Gordon Brown is the one who indirectly delivers independence for Scotland. We live in interesting times.

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