Anyone around in the 1980s will remember the sad tale of Sir Clive Sinclair’s C5. This outlandish device, for those fresh enough not to remember, was an 6ft-long electric powered tricycle designed for road use. Regrettably, by all expert analysis, the machine was neither robust enough nor sufficiently weatherproof to make travelling Her Majesty’s highways upon it an attractive prospect.
Sir Clive was warned about its shortcomings. Yet he ploughed on. The vehicle became an object of ridicule, was a commercial disaster, and Sir Clive – a man who once ruled the world with his then groundbreaking range of ZX computers – wasted millions.
The chancellor, George Osborne, is old enough to remember. Yet the fiasco over the absurd impending changes to child benefit suggest the lessons of the C5 haven’t yet troubled him. I have no idea if Osborne is a fan of English literature but, if technological history doesn’t do it for him, perhaps he should relax with a copy of William Golding’s The Spire. Here, the protagonist, Jocelin, carries out the construction of a 404-foot spire for Salisbury Cathedral against all expert advice, including that of the master builder charged with delivering it. For the master builder read the officials of HM Treasury; for Jocelin, read Osborne.
We have covered the child benefit saga on Professional Manager closely, not merely due to the fact that many of our readers face being clobbered by it, but because it is a classic example of where leadership goes wrong when it does not listen. “It’s exactly the sort of thing that designers of tax systems want to avoid,” George Bull, of accountancy major Baker Tilly, told me today. Yet despite endless warnings from tax experts such as Bull, psephologists, and incandescent members of his own party, the chancellor has this week got himself in the extraordinary position of facing a backbench Budget rebellion from his own MPs. The policy has achieved the uncommon and unfortunate distinction of infuriating both left and right of the political spectrum equally.
So will Osborne recant? The Prime Minister, some other frontbenchers, and some tax experts hint that he might. The u-turn is seen as cowardly and, as such, toxic in politics. But, in some cases, it is far less toxic than ploughing on in the face of all reason: that way lies the C5 – or The Spire.
Oh and what of the spire? Those who want to find out the consequences of the fictional build should read the book. The chancellor is advised to join them.