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Monday, January 06, 2014 

A bad omen.

As omens go, the extremely sad passing of Simon Hoggart just 5 days into the new year is hardly the best for the 12 months to come.  I did wonder why his parliamentary sketches in the Graun seemed to be appearing ever more irregularly, replaced by the able and amusing but nowhere near as witty Michael White, and now we know.  The only indication he gave that he wasn't well was in November, and even then he didn't so much as begin to spell out he was slowly dying from pancreatic cancer.  He still managed to return, and filed this superb column less than a week later, a wonderful distillation of his craft for anyone not familiar with his work.  As it's worked out, he died less than 2 months after Araucaria, aka cryptic crossword setter John Graham, who also succumbed to cancer.

Hoggart's gift was to be able to ridicule the bombast, pomposity and silliness of politicians without ever suggesting that parliament or politics itself should be held in the same contempt.  I have to admit to stealing a couple of his more cutting put-downs, one being his "unpopular populist" formulation,  as well as his war on absurd rhetoric, the kind rendered meaningless or worse when reversed.  When we have a government that thinks it spectacularly clever to continually define itself as being for those whom "work hard and get on", it's nice to think if there was any justice there would also be a party for those who do the minimum possible and are more than happy to just drift through life.  With his death the Graun has undoubtedly lost one of its most distinctive voices, as well as one of the few contributors who make the paper still worth buying.

His return to dust is given all the more poignancy for how desperately we could do with more of his ilk to mock the dishonesty currently being perpetuated by the two sides of the coalition.  If it hadn't been apparent enough already, George Osborne's speech today signalled the start of the 2015 general election campaign, a mere 17 months and one day before the nation goes to the polls.  This has always been the problem with fixed term parliaments, as evidenced by the absurd electoral cycle in the US, where the knowledge of the date of the next election means anything up to 2 years is wasted preparing the ground for the ballot.

The Tories seem convinced that the only way they can possibly get a majority is to, err, all but completely dispense with an entire section of voters.  Signs are that their wizard wheeze to abolish housing benefit for those under 25 isn't popular, and yet they continue to insist that saving a relatively slight £1.9bn is an essential contribution to cutting the deficit, while the more populist telling those earning £65,000 or more a year to move out of their council digs is likely to recoup even less.  Chris warns against falling into the trap of viewing the promise from Cameron to keep the "triple-lock" yearly increase in the state pension as being a bribe to those who do go out and vote, and yet it's extremely difficult for those just entering the job market to rationalise how they will one day also benefit, presuming of course the policy doesn't change between now and their retirement, and that they live to be 70.

Then we have the Lib Dems, whose mission between now and May the 7th 2015 seems to be to pretend to be against everything the Conservatives are proposing, while at the same time having supported the policies that have laid the foundations for such draconian cuts should they come.  Clegg complains of how he doesn't know a single serious economist who supports the "lopsided" Tory ratio of cuts to tax rises, and yet he's the one who's signed off on the spending round up till 2016 which puts those plans in motion. In fact, as other far superior bloggers have pointed out, the Osborne strategy seems to be a fantasy.  Cutting spending back the way he proposes simply isn't feasible without public services collapsing, meaning he will either have to raise taxes, or more likely, further delay the point at which the deficit is eliminated.  The point is to hope we won't worry our little heads about the potential paring back of the state and instead focus on the recovery, leaving the unpleasant decisions to either after the election or his successor.

The irony of Osborne describing this as a "year of hard truths" while projecting his fantasy would not have been lost on Hoggart.  He would also have seen the inherent absurdity in Nick Clegg one moment talking about how his party and the Conservatives are "co-authors of fiscal responsibility", then in the next talking of how the difference between them is they would do things "fairly".  The party that made the bedroom tax possible, that still believes there are further ways to "sharpen the incentives to work", i.e., going along with Osborne's Help to Work scheme, which claims the Tories couldn't have delayed the recovery without them, yet again claiming to be on the side of the downtrodden and vulnerable.  Only he would have expressed it without sounding bitter or dejected.  Simon, RIP.

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Spot on, apart from the 'superior bloggers' bit! ;-)

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