James Frayne: Might the UK see its own Yellow Vest uprising?

Let us hope not. It’s unlikely, but not completely impossible. The Government must battle four trends to reduce the risk.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

We should hope not – violent protest is the last thing we want to see – but could there be the equivalent of a Yellow Vest uprising in the UK? An aggressive, popular campaign against higher taxes, poor services and declining living standards? The closest reasonably recent parallel here was the fuel protests of 2000. But could we see something broader, like we’ve seen in France?

It’s generally a mistake to think you can translate one country’s political, economic and social culture to your own. British people have thankfully (usually) shunned direct, highly confrontational protests; and French politics and government administration are very different. But the Yellow Vest movement is interesting because the issues raised and the language used are similar to those that have been used by protest campaigns here in the last 20 years.

In France, working class and lower middle class people have come together to complain about rising taxes, especially fuel taxes, apparently out of touch elites making decisions that hit them hard in the pocket, and the decline of universal public services. People are right to point out there is no coherent political ideology behind the movement (although, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it doesn’t look coherent to those that think of politics on a classic left-right continuum). But the issues raised are not dissimilar to those that have been raised by fuel protesters, early UKIP campaigners, independent Mayors, and, of course the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

So, could the Yellow Vests arrive here? With the organising power of the internet available to all, you can never say for sure, but it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, most of the working class and lower middle class are only now approaching their upper limits on tax. Many have been saying they’d be happy to pay more tax if they knew it would be ringfenced for the NHS, for example. And, consequently, the polls suggest they supported the Government’s announcement for £20 billion in new spending.

The second reason is that they know that this Government is keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of power. They know, therefore, that this Government is keeping taxes relatively lower than they would otherwise be – and they also (for now at least) doubt Corbyn’s ability to run public services effectively. They still doubt his leadership abilities and his general competence. It’s hard to generate anger against a sitting Government when you know the financial alternative would likely be worse.

But we’re not a million miles away. For such a movement to become viable, four trends would need to continue. The first is that there would need to be a big increase in irritation with spending on unreformed services. While the public gave the Government’s higher NHS spending their support, a giant caveat was attached. This was the clear warning that it had better work and that the NHS had better sort waste and mismanagement out. In focus groups on this issue around the time of the announcement, people were expressing their deep concern about NHS waste. If this spending does appear to go to waste, a backlash is possible.

The second trend is for Government to continue to charge people for services they once considered theirs “by right”. The anger directed at the Conservative Party at the last election over social care is an example of this phenomenon. People hate being made to pay for things that were previously “free”. For Londoners, the introduction of the new Ultra Low Emission Zone might fall into this category. Although it’s a Labour policy, it remains to be seen whether the Government will take some of the blame for “not stopping it”.

Thirdly, the cost of living would need to continue to rise – with significant, visible rises apparently marking a change, rather than a continued gentle increase. One thing the Government will be keeping an eye on is a possible increase in heating bills in early Spring. This might see an uptick and would irritate massively, particularly against the backdrop of a cold winter.

The fourth trend is for a continued disaffection with the political class. This has been developing for two decades now and it bubbles up to the surface occasionally. If a big chunk of the public – and the majority of working class voters – think that politicians have betrayed them on Brexit, they are likely to be much more open to direct protest than they were in the past. Even if we end up leaving the EU in a way that is acceptable to these Leave voters, it’s not impossible they will have concluded that it all happened despite the best efforts of much of the political class.

It’s a reasonable bet that political activists in the UK will try to artificially create a Yellow Vest movement here; it wouldn’t be a shock to see them appear, literally, on a small scale soon. But several things will have to happen before we see a mass movement. As you can see, it’s possible that we will be in such a place at some point. We should hope that the Government takes action to avert such a movement ever gaining ground.

Howard Flight: The best part of a week on, we can see that last week’s Budget was a popular one

The Chancellor has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time.

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Philip Hammond has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time. Economic growth has been revised up next year to 1.6 per cent; employment has been revised up, with 800,000 more jobs than forecast in 2023; wages will rise above inflation for the next five years.

The borrowing target has been met three years early, with the deficit now down to 1.9 per cent of GDP. The debt target has also been met three years early at a peak of 85 per cent of GDP. Borrowing is £11.6 billion lower than forecast at 1.2 per cent of GDP. This has improved significantly the scope of what the Budget can seek to address.

Overall public spending will increase by 1.2 per cent per annum, between 0.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent less than forecast growth. The improved tax yields have enabled the Prime Minister’s NHS commitment to be fully funded.

The Chancellor presented a pragmatic “micro” Budget, seeking to address virtually all of the issues which came up as needing attention. Yet perhaps its most important ingredient was a significant cut in taxation for the majority next April – increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate to £50,000 a year.

Local Authorities are getting an extra £1 billion of funding and business rates for retailers with rateable values below £51,000, will be cut by a third for two years. A further £1.7 billion each year will be provided to benefit working families on Universal Credit with the work allowance – the amount families can earn before losing credits – being increased by £1000 per annum.

A new two per cent digital services tax to insure that large digital firms pay a “fair share” of tax, is expected to raise £400 million per annum. Schools will get a further 400 million this year and defence will get a further £1 billion this year and next. There is also £160 million for counter-terror police. The national living wage will increase by nearly five per cent to £8.21. The national productivity investment fund will be increased to £37 billion and will be extended to 2024. Large roads will get £28.8 billion for 2020-25, and even potholes will get £420 million! PFI will be abolished, leaving a bill for £200 billion to be honoured.

There was a range of extra funding largely for small business – extending the annual investment allowance to £1 million; extending the start-up loans programme for 10,000 entrepreneurs; delivering the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20; keeping three million small businesses out of VAT; reducing the cost of taking on apprentices by halving the co-investment rate for non-levy payers; £121 million to support cutting-edge digital manufacturing; £78 million to fund electric motor innovations; £315 million in quantum technologies and £50 million for new Turing Fellowships.

Measures to help more people into home ownership include abolishing stamp duty retrospectively for first time buyers of all shared ownership properties of up to £500,000; an additional £500 million for the housing infrastructure fund; committing over £7.2 billion to a new help to buy equity loan scheme to support 110,000 new home buyers and the abolition of the housing revenue account cap controlling local authority borrowing for house building.

There are measures for those keen on the environment and more money for the Transforming Cities fund. Remarkably, the Chancellor has addressed virtually all the issues of concern to citizens and, as a result, I think, the best part of a week on, that this has proved to be a very popular Budget. The one important reform it has not addressed is the confiscatory rates of stamp duty on larger properties in London and the South East. This had led to a freezing up of the market – bad for revenues and for economic mobility.