I have been on the search for historical turning points again today. The famous Mitterand austerity turn in 1983 is one of these points. Another, which I will consider today, was the British Labour Prime Minster James Callaghan’s speech to Labour Party Conference held at Blackpool on September 28, 1976 was laced with pro-Monetarist assertions that have been used by many on the Left as being defining points in the decline of the state to run independent domestic policy aimed at maintaining full employment. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016. Today, I am writing about the background events that turned Britain on to Monetarism. Margaret Thatcher was, in fact, a ‘johnny-come-lately’ in this respect. The British Labour Party were infested with the Monetarist virus in the late 1960s and Callaghan’s 1976 Speech just consolidated what had been happening over the decade prior. Further, it was not the oil crisis in the early 1970s that provided the open door for governments to reject Keynesian policy. In Britain, the Treasury and Bank of England were captivated by the ideas of Milton Friedman some years prior to the OPEC price push.
The foundations of national sovereignty are the currency-issuing capacity of the national government. The foundations of a democracy include the ability of the citizens of that currency zone (the ‘national government’) to choose the political representatives at regular intervals who will make decisions on their behalf. A direct chain of responsibility between the elected officials to the voters is thus established and the citizens can take action accordingly if they feel they are being disadvantaged by the legislative outcomes. The anathema of this sort of direct responsibility and accountability is the European Union, which is cabal ruled by unelected officials (in the conventional sense) who are not held accountable for their decisions, no matter how poor they turn out to be. The history of the Eurozone is one of policy failure with millions of people rendered unemployed, in poverty, or otherwise disadvantaged by the destructive decisions made by successive European Commission administrations. There was a good reason why the French president Charles de Gaulle resisted the development of supranational power blocks in Brussels and elsewhere (for example, in Frankfurt under the Eurozone). His preference for Inter-Governmental relations, where large common issues such as climate change, migration, rule of law, etc could be decided upon by representatives of each Member State government, without surrendering national sovereignty, was sound. Given all of that, the United Kingdom should exit the dysfunctional European Union immediately and only negotiate with other states on a government to government basis.
I use the descriptor ‘failure’ in a selective way, although it is probably the meaning that that vast majority of citizens would ascribe to the term. In this context, I’m thinking that successful policy improves the lives of the most disadvantaged citizens in a region. A small minority of people might think of success in terms of how rich the top end of the distribution becomes (in wealth or income). Yesterday (January 25, 2016), a UK research group, the Centre for Cities released their latest – Cities Outlook 2016 – which is a comprehensive analysis of how the larger cities in Britain are performing across a variety of indicators. In this release, the theme was centred on the claim by the British Chancellor that his policy design was intending to produce a “higher wage, low-welfare economy in Britain”. The report suggests the British government has failed and that “almost half of lower wages, and higher welfare, than the national average” and “welfare spending since 2010 has grown at a much faster rate in high-wage cities”. I’ve also been trying to disentangle the impacts of deindustrialisation on urban spaces, which began in the 1980s, from the more recent impacts of policy austerity, driven by misguided understandings of the capacities of currency-issuing governments. I want to address the claim from the Left, that the shifting patterns of capitalist production across regional spaces, is inevitable and undermines the capacity of cities to prosper. The shifting patterns might be inevitable but the conclusion that is drawn about the options available to cities are largely incorrect.
Last year (June 10, 2015), I wrote a blog – The myopia of fiscal austerity – which in part recalled my experiences as a PhD student at the University of Manchester during the Thatcher years. I noted that during my period in the city there were two major failures of public infrastructure – first, a rat plague due to spending cuts that had led to the reduction in rat catchers/baiters who had worked on the canals that go through Manchester; and, second, widespread collapses in the Manchester underground sewers which caused effluent in the streets, traffic chaos and long-term street closures. Major inner city roads were closed for a good 6 months while repairs were rendered. The reason – cut backs in maintenance budgets. The repairs ended up costing much more than the on-going maintenance bills. That experience brought hometo me the myopia of austerity. While the austerity causes massive short-term damage, it is clear that it also generates a need for higher public outlays in the future as a response to repairing or attending to the short-run costs. The problem wasn’t confined to Manchester. Margaret Thatcher’s destructive reign undermined public infrastructure throughout Britain. It seems that the Conservative British government is repeating history, this time the impacts are significantly more severe in human and property loss. In early December, the North-West of England experienced devastating floods. Areas south of Carlisle down through Lancaster were inundated with floodwater, which destroyed houses washed away bridges and claimed human life. On November 5, 2014, the British National Audit Office released a report – Strategic flood risk management – which warned the British government that “current spending is insufficient to meet many flood defence maintenance needs”. Now the repair bill will be many times the claimed expenditure that was cut in the name of fiscal austerity.
It’s my Friday lay day blog and I am wading through a pile of documents tracing the evolution of internal French cabinet discussions in the 1960s. That sounds like fun doesn’t? What doesn’t sound like fun is reading through the documents provided by the Office for Budget Responsibility to accompany the so-called Autumn Statement. The – Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2015 – is one of those extraordinary neo-liberal documents that is in denial of reality. The upshot is that the ridiculously optimistic forecasts from the OBR in the latest round of spending revisions are giving George Osborne the opportunity to once again talk tough (as an ideological warrior) but avoid ‘walking the walk’ for the time being any way. Politically, extreme austerity of the Conservative kind will not go down well in Britain right now.
The British Office of National Statistics published the – Gross Domestic Product Preliminary Estimate, Quarter 3 2015 – yesterday (October 27, 2015) which showed, unsurprisingly, that the British economy is slowing and heading back into recession under current policy settings. The annual real GDP growth rate declined for the third successive quarter as the impacts of the world slowdown and domestic policy austerity start to take their toll. The British government really has to reflect back on 2012 and realise that with non-government spending weak and a household sector carrying very high levels of indebtedness, now is not the time to be trying to cut discretionary net public spending. There is a need for a public spending injection to restore growth while the world works out which way it is going to go.
In 2012, the British government, which had for the first two years of its last term, realised that it was going to drive the economy back into deep recession if it maintained its fiscal austerity plans. It had spent the previous two years telling everyone how it had to cut into the fiscal deficit to save Britain but by 2012 the data was telling the government that their view of the world did not accord with reality. As a consequence they curtailed the austerity onslaught and allowed the deficit to grow and support growth. The result was that Britain avoided a triple-dip recession and the nation demonstrated to its EU partners across the Channel how stupid and reckless the Eurozone’s fiscal austerity was. But ideology often comes back to the fore when the emergency is over. Now with continued, albeit weak growth and a renewed electoral mandate, courtesy of the pitiful British Labour Party, the Tories are once again talking tough and in the Spring 2015 ‘Budget’, the austerity returned with vengeance. The focal point at present of that austerity is the impending parliamentary vote on cutting the benefits to low income families in Britain via the Tax Credits system. The attempt to force harsh austerity onto the poor in Britain is vile in its conception. But the Tax Credits system in the first place is the result of weak-kneed decisions by New Labour to avoid forcing British employers to pay a decent minimum wage which would have eliminated ‘working poverty’. Now the chickens are coming hometo roost. And as usual, when austerity is introduced it is the poor that suffer. A disgrace all around really.
The EU Flash Barometer surveys provide information about public opinion in Europe. The latest Survey(No. 418) – Introduction of the euro in the Member States that have not yet adopted the common currency – shows how confused people are in Europe at present. It seems that only 41 per cent of people in nations that “have not yet adopted the common currency” believe it would have “positive consequences” while 53 per cent think it would have “negative consequences”. That sounds as though they think the euro is a bad system. Well not exactly. The confusion might lie in the fact that the cruel system of austerity that the political elites have inflicted on the European nations is eroding the system of social stability that was established after the devastation of World War II. This is certainly the view taken by the ILO in a recent book it released. The ILO believe that the operations of the common currency (the austerity etc) is undermining the European Social Model, which is a core principle of an integrated Europe. So by insisting on maintaining the flawed currency system, the political elites are endangering the very thing they claim to revere – political integration – the ‘one Europe’.
I am fairly tied up today on the Gold Coast where I presented a Keynote address to an unemployment conference. But I was reading the news on the plane this morning from Melbourne. While in Melbourne for work last week, I stayed over and saw a great movie at the weekend at the Melbourne Film Festival – Human Capital – which I recommend. On the plane this morning I noticed our intrepid Prime Minister has taken to lecturing the Scottish about their political destiny. His exhortations are both hypocritical and reflect a failure to comprehend the options that national sovereignty would provide Scotland, which has a referendum coming up on September 18. But even if they build a bit of national solidarity in Scotland (against the foreigner), the First Minister who is pushing the YES vote is still proposing to enslave the nation to a foreign power – none other than Britain. His currency Plan A amounts to madness and would not underpin a vibrant independent Scotland. As such I would be voting NO at the referendum but feeling bad that the so-called progressive political classes in Scotland were so entranced with neo-liberalism that they forced obvious YES votes to become NO votes.
As a followup to Monday’s blog – UK growth not all that it seems – there was an additional issue that is worth exploring about the ONS data publication, given that the financial and economics commentators seem to mislead their readers, through ignorance or choice. Representative of the issue was the statement in last Friday’s UK Guardian article (July 25, 2014) –
Fresh boost for George Osborne as economy recovers banking crisis losses – which built on that title with the opening line “Britain’s economy has finally recovered the losses caused by the financial crisis, passing its pre-recession peak in the second quarter of the year …”. This conclusion was reiterated by many other commentators in different publications as a source of celebration. The only problem with it is that it plain wrong and to suggest that Britain has now made up the losses is deeply misleading.