LEADER : More gaffes, more truth

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The Independent Online
HERE IS how Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, could have committed an even bigger gaffe last week. He could have said: "The economy is improving but the `feel-good factor', in the old sense, will never return. Not before the election, not after it, not this century nor the next. Millions of Americans have got used to a decline in their real wages; millions of Britons will have to get used to it, too. The world that gave us secure jobs, full employment and steadily rising living standards has disappeared. We are trying to make Britain competitive enough for the new world. Don't expect it to be comfortable!"

Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, need not have been outdone. He could have gaffed in a big way, too, and said: "A return of the `feel-good factor' would be bad for Britain. People feel good when they have tax cuts, rising house prices and cheap credit, as they did during the Lawson boom of the late 1980s. And look where that got us! Static house prices and depressed private consumption are good for the economy. Given half a chance, the Tories will go back to their old ways and throw it all away. Don't trust them! Don't accept another dose of jam today! Labour promises better public services, more investment for the future, better protection for the poor, not another middle-class beanfeast."

For "gaffe", read telling the truth (or, at least, what ought to be the truth). But in contemporary British politics the truth is judged to be a banana-skin, which must be smartly avoided. Mr Clarke told a half-truth last week - "people aren't going to feel more secure, more comfortable ... for another couple of years at least" - and was denounced on all sides, not because he omitted the whole truth but because he admitted any fraction of it at all. Mr Brown responded with a soundbite - "this is an astonishing admission by the Chancellor, who clearly has no confidence in his own economic policy" and was no doubt congratulated by his frontbench colleagues on the safety of his hands.

The extraordinary truth is that the British economy is now on a course that has eluded it for the past 50 years. Increased national production is going to exports, not to higher domestic consumption. This is why Britain is at last achieving growth, and a fall in unemployment, without inflation. The Tories deserve no credit for this virtuous outcome. It was achieved by a series of accidents: the forced withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism which, by devaluing the pound, made exports cheaper; the huge debt overhang from the house-price boom which has inhibited a revival in consumer spending; the spread of job insecurity among the professional classes which has made these traditionally high spenders reluctant to take on new commitments. It is, indeed, a marvellous comment on British politics and economics that incompetence has succeeded where the brightest post-war brains repeatedly failed, rather as jackpots on the pools are nearly always won by old ladies using a pin, not by the experts with their clever permutations.

But it is also a telling comment that neither of the main parties wants to admit the truth. The Tories prefer to imply that the present state of consumer confidence is a mere blip, that normal service will shortly be resumed. The Opposition wants the electorate to believe that flat house prices, job insecurity and sluggish retail sales are all of a piece with the Tory errors of the last 16 years, that Labour can somehow lead them painlessly to sunlit uplands.

The argument at the next general election ought to be about where we go from here. Do we fritter away the gains with more tax cuts, leading to another consumer boom? Or do we rebuild public services - schools, hospitals, public transport - and invest for the future? Do we add to the harshness of the new world by making it easier for employers to sack people and by reducing social benefits? Or do we try to preserve, even improve, job protection and safety nets? Do we try to restore the "feel- good factor" for what J K Galbraith called "the contented majority"? Or do we try to improve conditions for that 20 or 30 per cent of the population who have never felt good at any time in the past 16 years?

But it is unlikely that we shall get any such debate. The nature of modern media coverage will leave us, instead, with the juvenilia of the soundbite. The victory will go to the politicians who make the fewest gaffes.

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