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The Price Is Not Right

Inside Politics – The Policy Exchange newsletter (London), 4 July 2008

There are a few phrases that I was not familiar with when I arrived on these shores four years ago. My English teacher back home in Germany had taken great pleasure in introducing us to words such as ‘hurly-burly’ (when reading Macbeth) or ‘death watch’ (from the ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe). But those were not the words I needed to understand modern Britain. Instead, my teacher should have told me about things like ‘quangos’, ‘property porn’ and the ‘needs test’.

‘Rip-off Britain’ would have been the most useful phrase. I discovered it after buying pieces of furniture for my flat when I moved here. It was immediately obvious that it would have been cheaper to buy them on the Continent and bring them with me, such was the price difference.

The ‘Rip-off’ part of Britain has become clearer during my years here. Everything here is more expensive than in Germany or Australia, the other two countries I have lived in. Rail fares, cinema tickets or eating out: I could usually take the Euro prices I was used to, change the currency symbol to Sterling and add another 20 per cent.

Brits have long known that the country is overpriced. But you seemed to take it without moaning too much. Only recently, with food, petrol and electricity bills going through the roof, did the British public finally wake up to the grossly inflated cost of living.

Yet there is not much that can be done quickly to reduce prices and make life more affordable. Gordon Brown may visit Arab sheiks as often as he likes but this is unlikely to cut oil prices. If the Chinese and Indians do not give up their fresh appetite for milk and meat, food prices will stay high too.

However, there are a few things that the government can do. It can reduce the regulatory burden on business, which produces enormous costs that are passed on to consumers and it can lower taxes. One of the main beneficiaries of current oil prices is, after all, the Chancellor who makes a huge windfall profit as 58 per cent of the price of a litre of petrol is VAT and fuel duty.

It is about time something is done to make life affordable again. ‘Rip-off Britain’ should not become something that students learning English have to become familiar with.

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