Old ways


I’m currently reading a biography of Gladstone, the 19th Century Liberal prime minister, by Philip Magnus. It was first published in 1954 and is currently out of print. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating read, and is fairly easy to pick up second hand on the internet.

One tidbit I picked up on this morning is that when Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was the practice to make every tax contained in the budget the subject of a separate bill in Parliament, to be debated and voted on by both houses, rather than just approved in one go by the ruling party.

Such a system certainly has advantages: it would ensure a far greater degree of budget scrutiny, and would also place a roadblock in the way of unpopular tax rises. Forcing MPs to vote on each particular tax would also make it very clear to their constituents where they stood on fiscal issues, and increase accountability.

So perhaps it would be a good idea to return to such a system. On the other hand, I can easily imagine some downsides: such a budgetary process would probably be seized upon by special interest groups, who would distort it to their own ends. Political horse-trading and pork-barrel politics might increase as government whips struggled to secure support for individual measures, and principled reform of the tax system might be made that much harder.

What do readers think? Are the old ways the best?

P.S. A few pages on, and I discover that it was actually Gladstone who introduced the consolidated finance bill, in order to get the repeal of the paper duty through the Lords in 1861...