The impotence that corrupts: Paul Foot on why governments won't solve unemployment, and sometimes boast of it

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UNEMPLOYMENT, everyone agrees, is the top political issue, but can politicians do anything about it? Nice Mr Major says no, not really. Taunted on the issue almost every Commons question time by John Smith, the Prime Minister goes on saying that unemployment has nothing to do with his government. It is 'a worldwide problem' (23 February), 'the legacy of the recession' (4 March), the result of 'the state of the international market and of international demand' (11 March).

Deprived by their self-confessed impotence of straight talk, ministers resort to meteorology. The 'recession' is rather like a 'depression' which sweeps in from Iceland threatening Bank holidays. What can anyone do about that? Mr Lamont hallucinates about 'green shoots of economic spring'. In another metaphor, straight from the Cambridge Union and Rothschild's bank, he told us: 'Economies are like tides. They ebb and they flow.' As King Canute discovered, there's no point trying to fiddle around with tides.

Canutish impotence afflicts politicians only when they are in office. Opposition politicians demand remedies. If they were in office they would put those remedies into practice and curb unemployment. This combination (oppositions angry about unemployment, governments unable to do anything about it) goes back as far as universal suffrage. Mr Smith could learn some useful rhetoric from his illustrious predecessor, Ramsay MacDonald, who fought a general election 64 years ago on 'the paramount issue: the need to relieve our nation of the scourge of unemployment'. The scourge was hurting about a million people when a Labour government was elected in 1929. The figure tripled in less than two years.

More recently, Harold Wilson led Labour to two election victories in 1974 with the slogan 'Back to Work with Labour'. Some 800,000 British workers were unemployed. Back to Labour they went, but not back to work. The unemployment figures rose, again within two years, to 1.3 million.

James Prior, Conservative opposition spokesman on employment, was outraged. On 7 July 1976, he said that unemployment - then 1,208,942 - 'has risen to intolerable levels'. His new party leader, Margaret Thatcher, heartily agreed. On 4 May 1977, she devoted a large part of a party political broadcast to the issue. 'I think it's terrible,' she said, 'terrible if a person who wants to work can't find a job. You have no self-respect, you haven't got the respect of your family, if somehow you can't earn yourself a living and them a living too. Sometimes I've heard it said that Conservatives have been associated with unemployment. That's absolutely wrong. We'd have been drummed out of office if we'd had this level of unemployment.'

'This level of unemployment' was 1,269,000. Two years later, Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street and James Prior was Secretary of State for Employment. Unemployment rose quickly, far beyond the levels which Mr Prior had found intolerable in 1976. When the figures got to two million - for the first time since the Hungry Thirties - Mr Prior explained that neither he nor Mrs Thatcher nor any other minister could possibly be held responsible. 'The figures,' he said on 27 August 1980, 'reflect very clearly the impact that the deep world recession is now having in this country'.

When the Thatcher government came out of recession, it was said that Government policies had created a 'virtuous circle' where economic growth would no longer be subject to the twin scourges of inflation and unemployment. When, unforecast and unexpected, another mighty recession blew in from Iceland in 1990, smashing the virtuous circle, the government naturally denied all responsibility.

The peaks and troughs of unemployment this century bear no relation to the colour of the government. Labour ministers in the 1945-51 government were astonished by six years without a slump. They quickly convinced themselves that their interventionist policies must have been responsible. In 1952 and 1953, their former President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson, repeatedly assured his colleagues that the new free marketeer Tory government would lead the country to slump - 'another 1931'. Instead there was a decade and a half of full employment. Tory ministers preened themselves as absurdly as had their predecessors. They told the electorate: 'We have created full employment.' The only pattern to emerge from this is that when there is full employment, ministers are responsible for it, but when there is unemployment, ministers have nothing to do with it.

Tories have a special affection for the view that governments have absolutely no idea why or whether unemployment rises or falls, nor how to prevent it. It reinforces their prejudice that economics should be left to the free market. But what is the effect of their self-confessed impotence on the democracy they pretend to cherish? The cliche is that power corrupts, but there is no reason why democratically controlled power should corrupt. Far more corrupting is political impotence: the strut and swagger of politicians who pretend to have answers to the major issue of the day, when they have no answers at all. Why should anyone believe election promises about unemployment when a century of such promises has proved that they are almost certain to be broken?

At the beginning of the century socialists argued that an elected government cannot properly respond to the economic needs and aspirations of the majority unless that government owns and controls the economy. That was the thrust of Clause Four of the 1918 Labour Party constitution, which argued for common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. At the end of the century, the scourge of unemployment is as painful as ever. Tory ministers still boast that they can do nothing. Labour leaders denounce their constitution, insisting that they have no intention of freeing themselves from the market and appearing to all the world every bit as impotent as their opponents.

Modern, 'practical' politicians who hold up their hands in impotence are doing us much less service than the old socialists who preferred to be defeated than abandon their vision of a new world to which everyone could contribute and, in the process, make life worth living for everyone else.

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