. A long and dishonourable tradition | London Progressive Journal
A non-partisan journal of the left.

A long and dishonourable tradition

Tue 19th Mar 2013

George Osborne may be just about the last person in Britain to believe that austerity offers a real path to recovery from recession and the resumption of growth - and it may be doubted that even he remains a true believer. The repeated fall back into recession, a government deficit that goes on rising, and the loss of the country’s top credit rating are surely enough to shake the confidence of even the most arrogant and obtuse practitioner of the dismal science.

We now know for sure what Keynes and commonsense always told us - that responding to recession by cutting spending is akin to the medieval practice of blood-letting as a treatment for disorders. The Chancellor’s continued display of commitment to failed policies may, of course, be for public consumption only and it may be that his real purpose is not economic but political and social. His undeclared goal may well be to drive home - at whatever economic cost - changes in the balance between the private and public sectors, and rich and poor, that will take a generation to undo.

What is undeniable, though, is that in economic terms he has dug himself - and the rest of us - into such a deep hole that there is now no discernible way out. But while his may be the most egregious of all the errors made by successive Chancellors, it would be wrong to overlook the fact that others have also contributed their efforts to digging a hole that has grown ever deeper over four decades or more.

My own interest and involvement in these issues goes back to the mid-1970s, when - as a young Labour MP - it seemed clear to me that Britain’s real but unacknowledged economic problem was one of declining competitiveness. We refused to recognise then, and have done ever since, that the world has changed and that the rise of newly competitive economies has meant that we cannot rely on some kind of natural law that guarantees us a higher standard of living than others should enjoy.

The competitiveness issue thrust itself centre-stage in 1976 in the form of a fully-fledged sterling crisis; but, true to form, and rather than concede that sterling was then overvalued, the UK exhausted its reserves and virtually bankrupted itself in trying to defend sterling’s parity.

The resultant need for an IMF bailout did not arise, as popular (and an oxymoronic right-wing) wisdom often has it, because the Labour government profligately allowed public spending to rise out of control, but because it was determined to defend sterling at all costs. That same determination then dictated our (literally) counter-productive response to the course that the IMF suggested we should follow in order to overcome the crisis.

The IMF recommended that monetary policy (which was already assuming greater importance as monetarism became fashionable) should be conducted in terms of Domestic Credit Expansion (DCE); we were free, in other words, to grow the economy as fast as we wished, provided that a credit-fuelled domestic inflation was restrained. This recipe for export-led growth was an explicit recognition that our problem was one of competitiveness and an implicit recommendation that the exchange rate should be lower.

This advice was, however, under the influence of advisers like Terry Burns and Alan Budd, rejected by the Treasury who persuaded Denis Healey to go on protecting sterling and to frame monetary policy in terms of sterling M3 rather than DCE. In line with this decision, and as Denis Healey was forced by the crisis to turn back from the airport, Jim Callaghan told the 1976 Labour conference, “you can’t spend your way out of recession.”

The statement was of course a nonsense. There is no remedy for recession that does not involve spending more. Callaghan’s statement would have been more accurate if he had said, “we can’t do what is required to escape from stagflation because our fundamental lack of competitiveness means that spending more would make our inflation and balance of payment problems even worse.” The problem he was trying to describe was really one, in other words, of competitiveness rather than anything else.

By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, supposed monetarist certainties [i] were the order of the day and - with sterling floating and exchange controls removed - the much-heralded benefits of North Sea oil were confidently expected to resolve any balance of trade problems and to usher in a new era of prosperity.

But North Sea oil, combined with monetarism and a floating exchange rate, proved a toxic combination. The monetarist prescription made it inevitable that, as North Sea oil output became available, some other area of production should decline - and manufacturing duly obliged. The theory predicted that the discovery of a new source of wealth would inevitably drive up the exchange rate so that other sectors of production were priced out of markets both at home and abroad. It was never explained why this should be inevitable in Britain but not apparent in the case of Norway, a smaller economy where the advent of North Sea oil was proportionately even more important, but where steps were taken to protect the rest of the economy. The Norwegians in fact found ways of insulating the domestic economy against the boost produced to overseas earnings by oil exports and import saving.

Many monetarist economists at this time went so far as to work out the level of demand for money of a given economy (incidentally ignoring the significance of the velocity of circulation, which can vary substantially over time). This approach necessarily fixes a given economy in a given condition.

The British economy was assumed to have a lower demand for money than the German economy and if this was exceeded, increased inflation was inevitable. This assertion, which was unexplained or unsupported by argument, was necessary to explain the fact that growth in the German money supply ran at a significantly higher level than the British money supply while at the same time permitting the Germans to maintain a stronger growth rate and a lower inflation rate. No attempt was made to explain why this supposedly immutable condition of the British economy should apply.

In the same way, each economy was assumed to have a naturally occurring rate of unemployment which could not be changed by policy. A NAIRU, or (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment), was ascribed to each economy. In the case of the United Kingdom, it was assumed to be relatively high and, more significantly, impervious to attempts to bring it down. In fulfilment of this prophecy, unemployment rose sharply through the 1980s, despite the repeated attempts to massage the statistics downwards. The number of claimants of unemployment benefit jumped from just over 1 million in 1979 to over 3 million in 1986.

The UK balance of payments remained in substantial deficit throughout the period, reaching record levels at times in relation to GDP. The deficit reflected, of course, the decline of manufacturing and the deterioration in the balance of trade in wide areas of the productive sector.

That in turn reflected the loss of competitiveness, which was shown - but ignored - by the various indices used to measure competitiveness.

John Major’s government, supported by Labour, sought to address the continuing economic problems by taking refuge in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, thereby handing responsibility, in effect, for restraining inflation over to a foreign central bank and avoiding - it was hoped - any opprobrium for the price to be paid for such “discipline”. But, true to form, an inappropriate parity and the mistaken analysis that identified inflation rather than a lack of competitiveness as our fundamental problem wreaked such damage that we were eventually forced out of the ERM.

By this time, our policymakers were running out of options. There was some respite as the UK, freed from the shackles of the ERM, performed a little better than most of our European partners. But we had long since surrendered ourselves to the belief that we could no longer - in the face of newly competitive developing economies - compete as a manufacturing economy.

Instead of addressing that problem, and exploring appropriate remedies for it, however, we determined to find an alternative way of paying our way. I was the Opposition spokesperson on financial matters in 1986 at the time of the so-called Big Bang - the removal of effective regulation from City institutions - and had led the Opposition in the Committee stage of the Financial Services Bill.

I had argued in vain that self-regulation would be ineffectual in restraining excesses and maintaining prudential supervision. But an essentially unregulated financial services industry was - with heroic optimism - advanced as the ideal substitute for our declining manufacturing; it had the advantages of requiring a great deal of capital (which could not be replicated because it was not at that time available to most developing economies) but little by way of real skill, and it also offered the political bonus to Thatcherite politicians of disabling the large industrial trade unions.

These dazzling prospects seemed for a time to be delivered. As recently as 2007, and as evidence of how thoroughly New Labour welcomed these developments, Gordon Brown, in his annual Mansion House speech - his swansong after a decade at the Treasury - heaped praise on the financial services industry developed by the City of London, and predicted that "it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the industrial revolution, a new world order was created".

We now know, courtesy of the global financial crisis, that financial services did not provide the secure base for economic development that had been hoped for, and that such benefits as were delivered went in large volumes to a very small proportion of the population. Even more seriously, our neglect of manufacturing as a wealth-creator has meant that we are denied the great advantages that manufacturing alone can deliver - as the most important source of innovation, the most substantial creator of new jobs, the most effective stimulus to improved productivity and the provider of the quickest return on investment.

George Osborne, and his dwindling band of supporters, seem bereft of any understanding of this sad history. Their insistence on austerity as the cure for recession is just the latest instalment in a total refusal by a long succession of Chancellors to face the reality of our long-standing difficulties - so that we are now facing the probability of permanent economic decline.

We now seem to have run out of options. We have tried qualitative easing and low interest rates, apparently unaware that using monetary policy to promote recovery is like pushing on a piece of string. We reject an expansionary fiscal policy in favour of cutting spending, refusing to acknowledge that this has meant, inter alia, a larger rather than a smaller deficit. Even if we now wished to take the commonsense path, and focus on rebuilding our long-neglected productive industries, we would find that we have lost much of the technological lead, the workplace skills, and the available markets that were once ours. Without the political will to change tack completely and to plan and make provision in the long term to rebuild our industrial strength - learning to think, in other words, as a developing economy and eschewing short-term fixes - the future looks grim.

George Osborne, in other words, is heir to a long and dishonourable tradition. But his commitment to prolonging it means that we will not only fail to meet the immediate challenge of escaping from recession but will again refuse to recognise and deal with the long-term problems. It is little comfort to the victims - the great majority of working people - that he is able to share the blame with the rest of the British political establishment.

[i] See Monetarism or Prosperity by Bryan Gould, John Mills and Shaun Stewart, Macmillan, 1981

Bryan Gould's new book Myths, Politicians and Money is to be published later this year in the UK by Palgrave Macmillan.

You must be logged in to post comments on the site or you can use Facebook above.