Blessed are the beancounters for they shall inherit the policy agenda

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Yesterday's electioneering was frustrating. Or, to be fair, the commentary upon it was. Every news report I saw focussed on Paul Johnson of the IFS discussing varying deficit management plans. Robert Peston appeared to be revelling in it.

'Blessed are the bean counters' would appear to be the theme of this election, 'for they shall inherit the policy agenda'. I despair, not very quietly, but since the obsession with the issue is near universal I suppose I have to explain why, and for once with an analogy that goes back to my ideas when being a practicing accountant was my main day job.

It was a normal, and fun, part of my life back then to meet with start up entrepreneurs and to advise and help them in fulfilling their vision. My ability to do so, aided and abetted by my own experience in doing the same thing, was both rewarding and a key economic factor in the success of the firm of which I was senior partner. As a result I had to become quite good at identifying winners.

This was easier than it might seem. Winners were confident about what they wanted to do, had the skills needed to deliver it, or were aware of their weaknesses and were willing to recruit the help needed to address them, and most of all were driven by a desire to provide the goods or services they wanted to sell because they genuinely believed they would meet a need other people had. There was a characteristic they also shared in common: whilst they recognised the need to make money to provide for themselves and to perpetuate the business they had little interest in making money as a goal in its own right. In fact it took very little time at all to realise that those wanting to create a business to make money were the born losers. Precisely because their priorities were wrong they were the ones most likely to fail.

The reason for this was not hard to work out. They were not driven by a desire to serve, so their service was not good enough.

Their obsession with money meant they would not invest enough.

Or pay staff enough.

And they would demand payment terms of customers and suppliers that were too aggressive and be bound to irritate.

Their focus was on the bottom line when it should have been on the top.

That, of course, is the conventional accountant's view. I never was interested in being a conventional accountant. I saw all the importance of financial discipline, controls and reporting, but only as tools to serve a greater goal. They were not ever ends in themselves, which is what the person obsessed with making money made them, for which reason they failed.

Translate that to current political debate and the obsession with austerity springs from the same mindset as the obsession with money making that I saw as the cause of too many failures in the business community. Its small minded pettiness indicates a failure to comprehend the very purpose of the business of government that these who are seeking power at this election should have at the heart of their desire.

That purpose is to meet need. That is what government is for. The whole point if government is to meet the needs of the community that is governed that cannot be cost effectively met in any other way. Since such needs are manifold there should be ample opportunity for politicians to discuss their visions for society.

But that is not what we get. We have instead lessons in book-keeping, cost control and denial of service, withheld investment and opportunity lost, all of which are the very opposite of what successful politicians with the vision to inspire should be delivering.

Let me be clear, at the risk of repetition: I am not denying the importance of financial competence. But it has been elevated way beyond it importance. And in the process the accountant's ability to count anything and value nothing has become predominant. The result is sterile politics, inappropriate focus in election debate, the rise of Paul Johnson and Robert Peston as media stars, and a loss to society that is literally inestimable.

If only we could bless the visionaries who deliver what is of worth. We are, I fear, a long way from achieving that hope, and that is precisely why the choice between austerity programmes that is the supposed centre piece of this election is so utterly uninspiring.