The lessons of past economic downturns
Saturday, 06 September 2008

Adrian Hamilton

It is a sobering thought that nearly two-thirds (62 per cent to be precise) of the members of Parliament only entered the House of Commons in 1997 or after. In other words, not only have they known no other life than under a Labour government but they have known only the good times in the economy. Indeed it is only a small minority of MPs who can probably remember any of the recessions that Maggie, Major and Harold Wilson all had to endure.
They should start teaching their younger colleagues the facts of life in those days, for it is in many ways the era of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s that the closest parallel with politics today can be found. MPs of the 1960s and 1970s saw months – years indeed – when the state of the economy dominated all political debate, swayed the opinion polls from side to side and led to regular eruptions of open party factionalism as MPs sought to distance themselves from the troubles and position themselves to take over from a discredited leadership.
History, as is often said, never repeats itself exactly. But then history usually provides some lessons that can be learned even if it doesn't enable you to predict the future, as politicians and economists keep rifling it to do. So here are some.
One is: never underestimate the importance of statistics when the economy turns bad. Harold Wilson partly lost the 1970 election because of unexpectedly poor balance of payments figures due to a one-off purchase of aircraft. All sorts of figures from retail sales to house building which, in the good times, are relegated to the bottom of the financial pages suddenly zoom up to the front pages.
It's unfair. Economic figures are notoriously misleading. But at a time when people are worried which direction the economy is heading, they are taken as iconic. Even the currency can come into that category. Economists can argue until the calves get slaughtered about whether a strong or weak currency is a good thing. But at certain times the voter will regard its strength as an indicator of the strength of the national economy. Even Mrs Thatcher was forced to reverse her policy of benign neglect when the pound was heading towards parity with the dollar.
Equally tricky is the question of what stance to take at Budget time. Roy Jenkins was roundly blamed by his colleagues for impelling Labour towards defeat by a too tough Budget in 1969 and John Smith was castigated for proposing too negative a shadow Budget in an effort to make Labour look financially responsible before the 1992 election. It is not clear, however, that they were responsible for Labour's subsequent defeats. The English in particular tend to veer from the Cavalier to Roundhead when economic times get hard. There is something in the British spirit that likes a degree of self-discipline in times of difficulty, not least because of a sense that all should share the pain.
In that sense Alistair Darling may have shown a shrewder sense of mood when he pronounced his gloomy prognostications for the British economy than his master, who was still claiming that Britain would suffer less than other countries. The reason why the trade figures hit Wilson's standing so badly in 1970 was that they seemed to belie his apparent complacency over the economic prospects and confirm the anecdotal sense of the electorate. "Never contradict the gut instincts of your voters when it comes to the economy" should be one of the first tenets of a good politician.
But the biggest question is whether, if a recession happens on your watch, you can escape responsibility. Few governments have ever lost elections when there is growth. Blair was re-elected twice in times of prosperity, so was Mrs Thatcher. But does the reverse apply? Do you inevitably lose when the GDP figures turn from black to red?
Both Mrs Thatcher, in 1984, and John Major, in 1992, were returned after or in recession, and Gordon Brown must hope for the same. But Mrs Thatcher had the Falklands to turn opinion round (the opinion polls were dire beforehand), while John Major had against him an opposition led by a man the public never took to. Look further back and all you have is a steady stream of premiers – Douglas-Home, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan – all brought down by the economy.
Brown's hope must be that he can repeat the experience of Major in 1992 if Cameron will allow him (lesson for the Tories – learn from the mistakes of Neil Kinnock and look as if you have a policy for downturn). Brown's fear must be that he'll repeat Major's fate in 1997, when the Tory PM lost to an electorate that never forgave him for the humiliations of the ERM.
The Independent's comment editor, Adrian Hamilton writes a weekly column largely on international affairs with particular focus on the Middle East, Iran and foreign policy issues.

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