Everything's familiar. Everything has changed: Leading Article

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The Independent Online
Look around and what doe we see? We see the 1970s, that's what. Black Forest gateau, prawn cocktails and Chicken Kiev are alleged to be ''in'' again - guilty looks all round among those of us who'd never noticed they were out. Silly shoes, flares, Jesus Christ Superstar and even the colour brown are back in fashion (apparently brown is the new black, whatever that means). Furniture shops are stuffed with plastic chairs with holes in.

Styles wash around us endlessly. A more interesting and difficult question is whether Seventies economics is coming back too. After the devaluation of the flower-power days, wage settlements rose, unemployment fell, inflation began to pick up. But Conservative government shrugged. Its chancellor cut taxes and avoided raising interest rates, bequeathing his name - Barber - to the boom he fuelled.

Two decades on, the story sounds a little familiar. With Oasis rather than the Beatles ringing in our ears, the jobless queues are now falling fast and inflation is nudging upwards - all in the aftermath of the Black Wednesday devaluation, rather than the Wilson one.

It isn't difficult to imagine the current Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, as a political throwback to the Toryism of the Seventies - all kipper ties, welfarism and pro-Europeanism. Certainly plenty of Tories hope that, with the election only months away, he will be a mini-Barber, cutting taxes and repelling pleas from the Bank of England for an interest-rate hike. Even New Labour, waiting in the opposition wings, could be included in this game of retro-politics. Labour, we will be told, is ready to return to beer and sandwiches with the unions - or croissants and claret, perhaps, since this new corporatism is to be accomplished via European federal initiatives.

It is a neat theory. There is something in the human mind that thrives on nostalgia. But it is, we hope and believe, absolute nonsense. There will be no return to Seventies economics and it would be a disaster if there were.

The climate in which chancellors make their tax and interest-rate decisions has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Voters are better informed about politicians' tricks, and pundits have more access to the secrets of the policy-making process. Much has changed in the economy that should have changed our attitudes as well.

Indeed, the really remarkable thing is that it would probably be politically shrewder of Clarke to deliver only modest tax cuts, or none at all. After being burned in 1992, voters are highly sceptical about pre-election cuts. The better-informed are well aware of Britain's larger public sector borrowing constraints. For the Tories, restoring their tattered reputation for prudence matters far more than a day of good headlines in the cheaper papers.

Nor, despite Conservative propaganda, is new Labour under Blair like old Labour under Wilson and Callaghan. It has learnt the lessons of 1992 too. Voters are so sensitive to the idea that every new policy must be paid for (ultimately by taxpayers) and so willing to believe Labour profligate by instinct, that the party is taking prudence to extremes. The chances of Tony Blair blowing all in a post-election spending spree or knuckling under to union pressure, all seem slim. Because voters are wiser, and because financial markets are quicker to punish mistakes, any government must act within strict fiscal limits.

Among many of us, attitudes towards inflation have changed. It is now abundantly clear that you can't exchange unemployment for inflation in the long run. Whatever the short-term rush, inflation hurts and Gordon Brown now sounds as hawkish about its corrupting influence as the Chancellor himself. As strikingly, both politicians are almost as ferocious in their rhetoric as the Bank's inflation-obsessive governor, Eddie George. Thus, common sense suggests, Seventies nostalgia can remain safely within our wardrobes, our CD collections and our fridges. Too much in the economy and in the political climate have changed for us to slip back.

There are even yet, however, some who will regret that. Cooing to themselves that they have suffered enough in the last few years, many people are sorely tempted by the prospect of a little boom. Homeowners and borrowers really wouldn't mind a bit more inflation to raise the value of their assets and wither away their debts. Employees, fed up of pay restraint and job insecurity, are eyeing the possibility of good times with glee.

Some of the experts are as bad. A majority of city economists and industrialists would be happy for interest rates to remain at their current level, despite the rising risk of inflation. We seem to be getting tired of all this prudence and abstinence. It has happened before: the damaging effects of inflation in the Seventies didn't stop Nigel Lawson creating another boom at the end of the Eighties. At the time so many of us told ourselves we deserved it, for we had participated in an economic ''miracle''. The economy had changed and inflation had been conquered. Yet we roller-coasted through an old-fashioned boom and bust all the same.

So complacency is unwise. The surrounding economic world may have changed, bringing harsher if more invigorating times; but people don't change so quickly. So long as there are democratic politics, and politicians to offer easier times, there will be inflation. But this time, on balance, we are optimistic that the lessons of the late Eighties, as well as the Seventies, will resound through the next election. Fashion cycles in modern food, clothes and furniture seem to be around 20 years. Business cycles are rather shorter. Whatever we eat, however we look, we can afford no nostalgia in our economics.

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