Not surprisingly, the decision by Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) to give an interview to The Guardian and use it to utter a dire warning about the state of the economy has provoked much political comment. He spoke of the economic times faced by Britain and the rest of the world as arguably the worst for 60 years. He admitted that the Labour Party had been lacklustre.
The questions being raised include: is he out of step with Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister? Will the government be able to win back popular support? Will the government produce policies to deal effectively with the economic problems that the country faces?Refreshing frankness
It is unusual for a senior politician, and particularly one currently in the government, to speak as frankly as Alistair Darling has done, and without being partisan, I find such frankness refreshing. As a digression, it reminds me of a broadcast in 1940 by Winston Churchill, reporting the fall of France to Hitler’s Nazi Germany. I was eight years old, and I still remember what he said: “The news from France is very bad”. There was no spin. Churchill told it as it was — and went on to assert that Britain would never give in. It struck me at the time, and still strikes me, as an effective way of boosting morale.
Whether or not Mr. Darling’s approach proves to be morale boosting, time will show. How the government tackles the country’s economic difficulties, and how the international economic turbulence develops, also remain to be seen. There is one aspect of the situation, however, which I suggest deserves some thought. It is the fact that the world’s economic problems are of an extent, and of a seriousness, that have not been experienced for several generations; in Alistair Darling’s words, perhaps for 60 years. This means that most of those in key positions, in business, in government, in the public service, have no direct experience of such conditions. They can react intellectually, and they can bring into that reaction historical knowledge. Knowing the facts, obviously, is of crucial importance, but it is not quite the same thing as having a feel for what is happening.Importance of experience
One could argue that this ought to make no difference, but the evidence suggests that it does.
I will take an example from my own experience. In the early 1970s there was a period of economic difficulty in the United Kingdom. One result was that a number of large industrial employers cut back their recruitment. This meant that, for the first time in their lives, students who were about to graduate could not assume that moving into employment was merely a matter of choosing what kind of job they would like. My colleagues and I at the University Careers Service decided to warn tutors about the situation (a situation which the government of the day was slow to admit to) and urge them to warn their students.
The situation which employers, and students, faced, though difficult, was not likely to last for ever. It had to be taken seriously, and that required a change in attitude and approach. Achieving such a change was bound to be difficult — and always is when the circumstances that require it have not been experienced before.
There are lessons to be learned for our approach to the current economic difficulties, and it would be foolish to pretend that they will be easy lessons to learn. There is certainly no easy answer as we face rising unemployment, rising costs of fuel and food and, for many, increasing difficulty in paying for housing.
We shall all have to face hard questions, and there will be no easy answers. One of the most difficult adjustments, I suspect, will be for the politicians. Criticising one’s opponents, and scoring points off them, is the very stuff of politics, and generally it is a reflection of a healthy democracy. If Alistair Darling is right in saying that the problems which we face are arguably the worst for 60 years, it will be sensible for politicians on both sides of the political divide to be cautious. Of course, the government’s attempts to tackle the problems should, as always, be subject to critical scrutiny, but it will be wise for all politicians to recognise that the situation is one of which they have no experience — and, as they look at what the government faces, to reflect “there, but for the grace of God, go I”.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
6 months ago