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George Osborne

‘Y ou could be the next Ed Balls.’ That’s what I told a doe-eyed Bank of England official called Matthew Hancock when I was introduced to him at a drinks party 18 years ago. I needed a fiercely intelligent, hard-working, exuberant aide who could help me as shadow chancellor – just as Ed had been the brains behind Gordon Brown. As you can all see from the leaked WhatsApp messages, we’ve been in touch ever since. When I tell this story now to Matt and Ed, they’re both offended by the comparison. I guess these reality TV stars are hard to handle.

It’s not the first time messages meant only to be seen by Matt have gone astray. On the eve of the 2007 Tory conference an email containing all of the week’s announcements – such as my surprise promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold – was sent by mistake to Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock instead. If he had read his inbox and published it, then our conference would have been a disaster not a triumph, and Gordon would have called a general election rather than cancelling it. It was a sliding-doors moment, but thankfully for us Mike was engaged in other affairs.

Ed has just co-authored a Harvard paper on why regional disparity has grown across England over the past 40 years. His prescription of better transport links, regional science clusters and skills, decentralisation of power and (counterintuitively) more housing in the South-East is one I strongly support. I would also give local areas much greater powers to raise or cut taxes, and spend the proceeds. If Rishi Sunak applies the same acumen he’s using to get Brexit done to the levelling-up agenda, he could turn another Tory slogan he inherited into something substantial.

If we’re going to support the arts in cities beyond London then we must sustain the tax credits for theatres and other creative industries that I introduced and Rishi temporarily boosted. Next week’s Budget should make them permanent. In one of my last Budgets,

I also provided funds for a British Museum collaboration with the Manchester Museum on new South Asian galleries. Giving our great museums a contemporary makeover is hard to pull off – but the excitement I saw a fortnight ago at the opening, and the many thousands of people who have come to visit the galleries since, shows it can be done. Once again, Manchester leads the world.

T he Elgin Marbles have always been controversial. Some, like that great Romantic poet Lord Byron, thought they


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Speak to an expert: 0207 593 2283 should never have left Greece; but at the British Museum they have been admired by tens of millions of people and I believe they play a vital role in telling the complete story of our common humanity. We trustees are exploring with the Greeks whether there’s a way to solve this 200-year-old dispute so that the sculptures can be seen both in London and Athens, while treasures currently in Greece could be seen by new audiences here. We may succeed, or we may not, but it’s worth trying. I read this week that that other great romantic, Boris Johnson, is worried about it. Surely that can’t be the same Boris who once wrote a column saying that ‘the reasons for taking the Marbles were good. The reasons for handing them back are better still. The Elgin Marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunlight and the landscape of Achilles, “the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea” ’? There must be two Borises.

I’m off to see the big Vermeer exhibition at our Dutch sister, the Rijksmuseum. It’s hard to believe that this is the same Amsterdam where 80 years ago my friend Daniel Finkelstein’s mother, Mirjam, then a child, was hauled from her bedroom and sent to Belsen concentration camp. On the other side of Europe, Danny’s father, Ludwik, also a child, was seized by the Soviets from his home in Lvov and transported to the Kazakh Steppe, where he endured unimaginable hunger and cold on a collective farm. I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of Danny’s beautifully written book Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad. It’s a tale of survival and humanity surrounded by death and brutality. At a time when Holocaust denial is on the rise among the young, and people talk fondly again of communism, it is a reminder that for all their problems, our wonderful, messy democracy and our great shared European civilisation must be constantly defended. George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010 to 2016.

the spectator | 11 march 2023 |


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