Dear Prudence

Sir Stafford CrippsThe budget cuts have already hit close to home. Prior to the election, Gordon Brown and his minions had promised my university a large share of a £30 million grant in order to set up a high-technology research institute. Everyone here was elated. It was announced far and wide. However, the cheque hadn’t been signed prior to May 6; thus when the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary of the Treasury had to make choices, they had no problem rescinding the funding. I have not yet spoken to the academics affected, but my understanding is that they are naturally livid. In any case, there will be a prevailing sense of gloom hanging over higher education until we know the full extent of the cuts: this is going to be ugly and painful. It’s impossible to forget that what has been announced so far represents less than 10% of the structural deficit: a lot more horror is on the way.

The Coalition Government, by and large, will get away with this, particularly if they front-load the pain and subsequently take the credit once the all-but-inevitable recovery arrives. Those who believe that recovery won’t arrive are fooling themselves: almost nothing gets worse forever, and it is very likely that the bond markets will help out this particular administration. The blame for this state of affairs partially belongs to a feckless and servile media, but Labour deserves a share of the opprobrium too: indeed, Labour has done left-of-centre politics a terrible disservice by implanting a dreadful idea in the mind of the British public. They’ve made it seem like prudence and thrift are qualities which are the exclusive province of the centre-right.

This fate was not pre-ordained. Norwegian Independence Day was commemorated again last Monday, the 17th of May. They have much to celebrate: Norway has had a rather better recession than most, with unemployment and economic growth more moderately affected. Norway is led by a left-of-centre government which has been in charge for the larger part of the past twenty years. Their abundance of natural resources have been invested into one of the largest sovereign weath funds in the world. Furthermore, their books are balanced: when the oil eventually runs out or another crisis comes, they have an admirable financial cushion which means that the most vulnerable will be protected. There, it is the right, in the form of the Progress Party, which wants to splurge, while the Norwegian Labour Party and its allies exemplify caution.

Chile is another potent example. They have been led by Socialists since the year 2000. In their case, the abundance of natural resources is in the form of copper ore. However, they too “saved for a rainy day”. When the economic crisis hit, Chile was able to use what they had kept aside to stimulate the economy. This led to a rather uncomfortable moment for Gordon Brown: during a press conference while he was visiting Chile in March 2009 the redoubtable President Bachelet stated that her country was better able to weather the global recession “because of our decision during the good times to save some of the money for the bad times.”

Some might argue that Chile and Norway are special cases because of their relatively small populations and their ability to export valuable commodities. However, I would suggest that these factors are relatively insignificant in comparison to a difference in philosophy. Brown loudly proclaimed that he had abolished boom and bust. Despite being in the possession of apparent abundance, the left-of-centre parties in Norway and Chile weren’t so sure. Scepticism turned out to be a valuable ally.

It can also be argued that Labour used to exemplify Norwegian and Chilean virtues. Few may recall or want to remember Labour’s real Iron Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps. Teetotal, vegetarian and parsimonious, he was responsible for managing the nation’s finances through the tricky post-war period. He often had to say “No”: rationing was particularly severe and it grated on the nation’s sense of fun. But no one doubted his seriousness, nor did they feel Labour was being slack in trying to get to grips with the nation’s financial problems. His boss, Clement Attlee, possessed a quiet and modest style which also helped: neither the Prime Minister or Chancellor appeared to be spendthrifts nor at all complacent. Subsequent Labour governments were neither so lucky nor so brave. Worse, Brown refused to believe in the limits of his prescience: as Andrew Rawnsley made clear in his recent book, “The End of the Party”, he pushed spending to limits which the Treasury considered dangerous. Furthermore, he didn’t rein in the City to the extent that even he has stated that he should have done. In essence, New Labour proved to be the ultimate wastrel government, a “have your cake and eat it too” mob, which believed that both equality and unlimited greed could be maintained at the same time. We couldn’t and we can’t. Now there are many lives which will be thrown into the metaphorical meatgrinder because of this awful mistake; Labour’s future attempts to stand up for equality will look particularly hollow, especially if they choose a leader who was part of the previous administration which did politically idiotic things like spend as if there was no tomorrow during their final days. The Coalition can and will lay the blame for the cuts on their predecessors, and they will likely get away with it.

Labour should remember: there are moments in history when political parties lose their reputation for a particular virtue; the Conservatives lost their perceived ability to manage the economy and the country on Black Wednesday in 1992. It was an undeniable humiliation and New Labour’s massive victory in 1997 can be charted from that moment onwards. From a historical perspective, Labour’s abandonment of prudence could be even more dear, for the suffering will not come in the same form as a shock adjustment of a currency’s value, but rather it will be seen in unemployment queues, pared back public services, and higher tuition fees, in other words, it will be pain that stretches over a long period of time. It may even be that Labour cannot recover from this in its present state; in that case, it will fall to the other parties of the left to pick up the cause of equality. In the words of the Green Party motto, “fair is worth fighting for”: however, in order to restore the reputation and the integrity of the Left, it must also be stated that its benefits have a pricetag.

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