Frantic Boasts and Foolish words – or – pretentiously thinking about hard times.
I had forgotten, or only half remembered, that Kipling’s “Recessional” was composed to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. At the height of imperial power, the poem stands as prayer against hubris. Given Kipling’s own imperial reputation and personal loss and decline, it makes sense that “The long recessional” was David Gilmour’s chosen title for his Kipling biography.*
Moving from the poetic to the quotidian**, Britain is today more than accustomed to decline, and so warnings of the inevitable loss of imperial might seem addressed to other nations. This Diamond Jubilee, the falling off we endure and fear is economic, not imperial. Yet I can’t help but feel that a lesser, but related, strain of hubris helped get us here, and perhaps even now prevents us from addressing the challenges ahead.
This isn’t purely a criticism of the Tories. Over-confidence can be found in my own party’s apparent belief that our desire to avoid boom and bust meant we had removed the risk of such. But if the recession has exposed Chancellorial triumphalism on the Labour benches, yesterday’s terrible GDP news shows that Osborne’s more recent over-confidence is more presently damaging.
This Tory hubris was not just that he had solved the crisis, but that the solution was simple, already underway, and easily delivered. It is seen most of all in the Chancellor’s belief, back in 2010, that the economy was strong enough and our export markets expanding enough to allow the withdrawal of government support, that consumers would consume despite a VAT increase, and that the economic storm had not just abated, but been fully weathered. The problem, I fear, was not that Osborne was too pessimistic about the consequence of further borrowing, but that he was not pessimistic enough abut the fragility of the UK economy.
It now looks increasingly likely that Britain, and perhaps Europe, will face a lost decade, a long recessional.
How do we cope with that, if we are equipped only with political and economic models designed for easier times? If our only politics is a politics of over optimistic confidence?
An easy response to the extended recession is to argue that it shows exactly what Osborne got wrong. This is right. It does, as Anthony Painter and I argued back in December. Yet let’s not kid ourselves. We must not mirror Osborne’s over confidence that the storm has passed with an argument that all it takes to solve the deeper crisis is the avoiding of his most blatant errors.
If we were to reverse, or amend our current course, it would certainly help our economic situation and help counter the turbulence beyond our shores. But it would not solve the broader crisis of living standards , investment or full time job creation, nor address our long term cost and deficit issues. There are few immediate solutions, no easy ones. I don’t envy the next Chancellor, destined to wrestle with the limitations that George Osborne doesn’t even bother to address and doomed to satisfy no-one.
As Francois Hollande is discovering, being “against Austerity” is only a part of the answer. We can avoid the mistakes of an Osborne or a Sarkozy, but for any future, wiser, government, there remains a reckoning ahead. For such a government, answering what you are for, and how you achieve your aims, is a much harder challenge than atoning for past – and exposing current – over-confidence and error.
The present “short” recession will eventually end, perhaps this year, possibly next. But the long recessional that seems likely to follow – the loss of economic capacity, the waste of talent, the overhang of debt, the restraint on public provision, the stagnation of living standards – all mean that we will carry our current burdens for many years.
Turning this around – the gradual, slow process of rebuilding capacity, of lifting living standards, of increasing investment and recovering demand – will not be easy. It will involve a focus of resources and a renewed religion of priorities. It will mean a politics able to say no more often than it can ever say yes.
I started with Kipling. The last time Britain faced a challenge of this economic magnitude, Kipling was the cousin and confidant of a Prime Minister beset by unemployment, industrial conflict and an overmighty press.
The response of British politics to these pressures saw two decades of failure, of one, even two, wasted generations. On one side, there was the self identified conservatism of complacency and indifference. Yet on the other we found a different, equally destructive conservatism – one of bold rhetoric but ill-thought through, impractical, unworkable solutions.
Between them, these two conservatisms killed off even those few practical steps that could have made things a little better. I suspect the challenge for the coming recessional is to avoid both.
A focus on the practical, on the workable, on the achievable, however imperfect and limited, is as good a place to start as any. To quote Kipling again: “the everyday affair of business, meals, and clothing, Builds a bulkhead ’twixt Despair and the Edge of Nothing.” Perhaps, rather than verbless prose, this is the downbeat poetry the next government will be forced to govern with.
*A strange, related story. The only time Tony Blair ever took something from me was when his party were travelling on train down from Darlington to London, when he was Prime Minister and I had tagged along. I was reading the Long Recessional and Kipling’s complete works, and he asked to borrow the bio. Kept reading it for much of the journey.
**Which is really the whole point of this pretentious beginning, and might serve as my whole political worldview.