IT's always worth thinking about the origins of words.
Despite those who are instinctively resistant to change in language, amongst whom I number myself, we shouldn't deny that English is shaped by evolution. Even when the battle against a particular change has long been lost (the use of "contact" as a verb, say, or using "to" rather than "from" as the preposition with "averse"), there may be something to be learned – not only whether the change is merely a loss, or some meaning has been added, but also if obfuscation lies behind the new use.
It was this that George Orwell identified with the names of the ministries in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Peace, Truth, Love, Plenty, which dealt with their antonyms) and which was later reflected in real life; in particular, by government departments responsible for unemployment – "for" employment, work, pensions, social security and so on. But since, as I say, English has always been evolving, even the more ancient offices of state are not immune from this tendency.
The current Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, for example, is Chris Huhne, though the post was not traditionally conducted from the hoosegow. The man who appointed him is George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Originally, a chancellor was someone who manned a barrier, or acted as a doorman or gatekeeper (the foreman of a Scottish jury is its chancellor, to give one example of such a figurative use). The chancel in a church is the bit beyond the rood screen, even though many churches don't have one, and thus, oxymoronically, have "open chancels". An exchequer was a chess board, and came to mean what it now does because accounts were once worked out on checked tablecloths with counters. That comes, as you may guess, from the French; from German there is another word for a table for counting out money or, later, butchering animals: shambles.
Mr Osborne has been manning the door to the shambles which is the British economy for three years. To describe it as a shambles is merely a statement of fact, and not to make a judgment on whether he has maintained an effective barrier against further catastrophe, or helped make matters worse by opening the door to the wrong types of policy. Even on his own estimation that he has done all he has been able to, there is still plenty of blood on the floor; recovery remains a distant prospect, and the Office for Budget Responsibility will almost certainly downgrade the already desperate figures for growth later this week. This week's Budget, then, is the Chancellor's last opportunity to influence the public's opinion of whether he has been an effective steward or an obstructive bouncer; by the time of the next one, the General Election campaign will already be effectively under way.
I'd guess it's too late for Mr Osborne to pull anything very impressive out of his bag (budget derives from a word for a bag), mainly because, as Liam Byrne, Treasury Secretary in the last Labour government, amusingly wrote to his successor: "I'm afraid there is no money." The Chancellor was certainly dealt a bad hand, but the fact that there is actually less money in the bag now suggests that he hasn't played it very well, either.
The one point in his favour when he stands up on Wednesday remains the Opposition. Mr Osborne may have made the mistake of increasing public spending and borrowing, as well as printing extra money and allowing Sterling to fall, yet seen that it has done nothing to engender recovery or growth. But the fact remains that the Labour Party's prescription would have been to have borrowed and spent even more, and even now Ed Balls refuses to say how much extra debt he would add to the £1.2 trillion already run up.
This economic failure of imagination by both the main parties might be a good argument for the Yes campaign, were it not that our existing public spending levels, dependency on the state and reluctance to cut taxes (within the current powers) suggest that, even with oil revenues, an independent Scotland would have no greater prospect of stimulating growth.
But Mr Osborne's economic policy, if it hasn't been much use, could nonetheless have been even worse. The same cannot be said of his political strategy, which has been an unmitigated disaster.
He has worried too much about the banks, and not enough about the voters. Cutting the top rate of tax was economically sensible, but it was politically inept. Meanwhile, the fact that the lowest income groups are much better off – at least in terms of income tax – has brought no electoral benefit. That's because the VAT rise, fuel duty, the startling rise in food and energy costs and the fall in the value of the pound have meant that they feel much worse off – and all before welfare cuts have really begun.
Crucially for the fortunes of the Chancellor's party, the group which has been most substantially hit by his policies are those in work but struggling to make ends meet. Almost half a million people have been dragged into higher tax bands since Mr Osborne took office, while there have been aggressive raids on savings and pensions, child benefit allowances and other measures which have struck hardest at those whose support the Conservatives might have hoped to secure.
And, while I do not think there is much profit to be had in occupying the areas of the right which preoccupy Ukip, the Tories seem to have gone out of their way to drive away potential supporters by prioritising relatively unimportant issues, while ignoring urgent ones. Even the boasted million new private sector jobs are a mixed achievement, since the credit is not the Government's, and many are part-time and poorly paid.
I doubt that even Mr Osborne can manage to make as much of a mess of this Budget as he did with the last one, which brought us the "pasty tax", the "granny tax", and other ill-thought-through initiatives which had to be abandoned almost at once. But since a short-term reduction in tax revenues probably wouldn't give the Government any greater difficulty attracting voters than it already has, the Chancellor may as well try some genuinely bold measures for hard-strapped households, such as cutting corporation tax, or raising personal allowances. He might, above all, remember that the word economics derives from the Greek word for household, and tailor his policies towards ordinary voters. But I suspect he's left it too late to shut the stable door.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.