Michael Brown: Why not tell voters the truth?

Gordon Brown has no more power to abolish boom and bust than he has to control Britain's weather

Share
Related Topics

How the ghosts of Macmillan, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan must be having a quiet chuckle as they look down, from the great Downing Street in the sky, on the latest economic news facing today's politicians. Rising unemployment and inflation, high interest rates, the pound tanking south, public borrowing soaring through the roof – combined with zero growth – all seem to be combining to make this the moment when 1960s and 1970s booms and busts are back with a vengeance.

But in spite of the economic disasters of those times, at least their governments had, nominally, real powers of control at their disposal. Laws could be passed restricting rises in prices and incomes. Citizens would be forbidden to buy more than £50 worth of foreign currency. Interest rates could be altered on a whim to suit the political timetable, and physical import controls could be introduced to protect domestic industry. The fact that such powers ultimately impoverished and bankrupted the country still made it difficult, however, for Margaret Thatcher to convince many voters of the uselessness of such powers.

Of course, flexible labour markets and the diminution of trade union power make it possible for the present generation of politicians to reject suggestions that we are back to the days of Mr Macmillan's "stop go". But the proud boast from Gordon Brown as Chancellor that he had abolished "boom and bust" now looks like a sick joke as more hubris takes its toll on his popularity rating, in the latest ICM poll, giving the Tories another whacking lead. Mr Brown has no more power to abolish boom and bust than he has to control the weather.

The only silver lining for the Prime Minister is the finding that David Miliband has no greater electoral appeal than the present incumbent. So further leadership manoeuvres may be on hold until after the Labour Party conference next month. Now it appears that the voters of Glenrothes will be as likely to decide Mr Brown's fate as any attempted coup by Labour dissidents.

In the meantime, we are led to believe that Mr Brown has spent his summer break preparing the necessary bribes to forestall such political difficulties with one-off payments of £150 to families with children. This government – as most previous governments presiding over a boom have done – has fallen into the trap of believing that it has been primarily responsible for the good economic state of the country, allowing itself no exit strategy when it seeks to blame the world economy for the downturn.

In the past, whether things have gone well or badly, a government could legitimately claim that outcomes, beneficial or otherwise, were solely down to them. Equally, Oppositions were duly entitled to blame the government if things went pear-shaped. If the pound was devalued, it was perceived as directly attributable to the mis-management of the economy by the government of the day – even as recently as 1992, when Britain left the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Yet, as the pound has sunk in recent weeks by as much as the single devaluation necessitated by Britain's exit from the ERM, there has been barely a murmur from any other party. And, these days, neither the balance of trade or balance of payments even feature on voters' radar – although they played a central role in Harold Wilson's defeat in the 1970 general election.

Of course free exchange rates, along with the abolition of exchange controls by Geoffrey Howe in 1979, were probably the biggest single advances for this country's modern economic prospects. Others would also argue that Mr Brown's move to give control of monetary policy to the Bank of England was similarly beneficial.

But, unlike the 1960s and 1970s, when all the indicators point in the wrong direction, there is actually little, apart from fiscal policy, that any government can now do except to cross fingers and hope for the best. The dilemma is the extent to which politicians wish to continue feeding the public's belief that governments can make a beneficial difference to their standard of living. The truth is ministers can make things worse – but have few economic powers to make things better. On the one hand, Mr Brown has boasted that the good times were down to him. On the other, he claims that the bad times now are all the fault of the rest of the world.

But Mr Brown would be better placed today if he had consistently said during the good times that the economic well-being of the country had absolutely nothing to do with him or the Government. Because of this failure of strategy, the inevitable rise in unemployment, predicted to be two million, according to British Chambers of Commerce, by 2011, means that the Brown government will take yet another political hit.

If Mr Brown had not claimed the credit for "three million new jobs", since 1997, it would be easier for him to pass off any increase in the jobless total as the fault of the worldwide downturn. But unemployment will consequently be as much an issue at the next election, regardless of who or what is to blame.

All this is good news for the Tories but poses the familiar question: "What would you do instead?". The answer is probably "not much different" – apart from, hopefully, on public expenditure and fiscal policy. But equally, this provides the Tories with the chance to make the case that modern governments do not have the economic powers of their predecessors – and even when such powers existed most governments made a mess of their usage.

It may be that the growing inevitability of a Tory victory will enable Mr Cameron to put on the record that, unless he seeks to retake powers over interest rates, exchange rates and prices and incomes, modern governments in free democracies are largely economically impotent. Telling voters what they do not wish to hear is the bane of politics, but such modesty now may serve to re-educate voters that when the next downturn occurs – on the Tories' watch – it won't be Mr Cameron's fault.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
“I just wanted some chicken wings,” Tan Shen told the assembled media. “But once I got in there ... I decided I needed time to think.”  

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015