Leading article: The painful truth

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The Independent Online

The comments that Tom Harris posted on his blog this week were never going to win any awards for political tact. Contradicting the prevailing tone of economic gloom, the MP for Glasgow South pointed out that "when we go shopping, whether for groceries or clothes, we spend money in quantities that would have made our parents gasp". The junior transport minister also refused to feel the pain of motorists, arguing that "there are more two-car homes in Britain today than there are homes without a car at all". Mr Harris concluded by asking a simple question: "Why is everyone so bloody miserable?"

These musings were seized upon by the Conservatives as an indication of how out of touch the Government is with the public's concerns. According to the Tory Treasury spokesman, Philip Hammond, Mr Harris "clearly lives on a different planet from ordinary hard-working families". Many will see this as a reasonable charge. As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, pointed out this week, the economic outlook for Britain is less rosy than it has been for many years. The price of fuel and food is rising, squeezing the incomes of the poor and the elderly. Economic growth is slowing, which is likely to increase unemployment.

All this is true. But it is important to draw a distinction between the reality of this economic slowdown and the impression given by some apocalyptic headlines. The underlying argument put forward by Mr Harris were correct. Our economy might be on the brink of recession, and there will be real pain for some, but for the vast majority this will mean a period of belt-tightening rather than penury or hunger. Come what may, our standard of living will remain far above that of previous generations.

The latest retail sales figures show that spending in the high street has just registered the biggest monthly rise since records began. This spending splurge is likely to be an aberration. But it is nevertheless informative to see the sort of goods people can afford today: gas barbecues, iPods, flatscreen TVs. These are not the essentials of life; they are luxuries. Mr Harris is right when he argues that "our citizens have never been so wealthy".

It was Harold Macmillan who remarked in 1957 that most Britons "have never had it so good". As indelicate as it might be for a politician to point it out, Supermac's observation is as true today as it was half a century ago.