Peter Matheson

Economic Counsellor

Part of Partners in Prosperity

20th March 2012 Washington DC, USA

The US and Great Britain: Different processes for shared goals

On March 21st at 12:30 London time (8:30 on the East Coast), the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, will unveil his 2012 Budget to the British Parliament. The word ‘Budget’ comes from the French term ‘bougette’, meaning little bag. But rather than thinking about ‘little bags’, whenever I mention the Budget to American friends, they normally exclaim ‘the red case’ – the sight of the sitting Chancellor standing outside 11 Downing Street, red brief case in hand, often flanked by Ministerial colleagues from within HM Treasury, is somewhat iconic. I am sure many Americans also enjoy the pomp and ceremony, alongside the inevitable soundtrack of boisterous cheers and heckles from within the House of Commons, as the Chancellor delivers his speech – the only occasion in the Parliamentary calendar when a member of the House of Commons is allowed to drink alcohol in the chamber although it has been over 15 years since a Chancellor has exploited this privilege.

From my 12 years working in HM Treasury, I associate the Budget process with different things to my American friends. It can feel different behind the scenes. To me it means being involved in a very exciting but challenging process, being at the heart of Government policymaking, and working long and sometimes frustrating hours to get the job done and to get it done well. It means takeaway pizza delivered to the office night after night (something which US friends, working on economic and financial issues since 2008, are no doubt well acquainted with). Before smoking was banned from indoor spaces, it meant consuming huge quantities of cigarettes to keep the adrenalin up – and possibly also to pre-empt any prospective Budget Day tax increase on tobacco. Budget Day itself in HM Treasury is a great experience, with everyone really feeling like they are part of something that was much bigger than themselves (depending on one’s energy levels after the very late nights; one Budget day, having been on my feet for 36 straight hours, I fell asleep right in front of a senior member of the House of Lords, whom I had been dispatched to brief on the Budget’s contents).

In the US the process is very different. President Obama set out his Budget plan and his vision last month and this week we received an alternative plan and an alternative vision from Representative Paul Ryan. Neither presented their proposals in a red case (nor a red, white and blue one). As a diplomat, I will watch the ensuing debate with fascination perhaps as my American friends also watch ours with fondness for how we still do things in the ‘old country’.

But these differences in policymaking process, stemming from many years of ingrained tradition and national experiences, should not mask the fact that our policy objectives are closely aligned. Jobs are a huge priority for UK policymakers just now, as they are for US policymakers. Recovering from the financial crisis more generally is also something which we are both trying to do in a sustainable, balanced and fair way. These are huge challenges and I am sure the Chancellor’s Budget will contain some excellent initiatives to help us meet these goals. While US and UK processes look different, and – as President Obama recognised last week – sometimes our policy paths should diverge, we should not lose sight of the fact that we have huge amounts to share and learn from one another as we move towards promoting very common and hugely important economic goals. Perhaps we can even convince you to start sporting nice red cases in Congress…..

1 comment on “The US and Great Britain: Different processes for shared goals

  1. I much enjoyed reading Kate Matheson’s article in the US Foreign Service Journal (June 2012) and can relate well to her Reflections (being from Hamburg, having worked in the early years of the european Economic Community in Brussels (and Geneva) and having married an American diplomat … long story. I would be delighted to introduce your wife to the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, a refuge and paradise.
    Best wishes, Christel McDonald

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About Peter Matheson

Peter Matheson has been Economic Counsellor at the British Embassy since the beginning of May 2009. Before arriving in DC, he worked on the macroeconomics side of the UK Treasury.…

Peter Matheson has been Economic Counsellor at the British Embassy since the beginning of May 2009. Before arriving in DC, he worked on the macroeconomics side of the UK Treasury. Principally advising Government Ministers on the economic forecast and related macroeconomic developments. He also worked for a period for the Scottish Government on economic issues.