Pieces of writing can do lots of things: challenge, comfort, exasperate, inform, entertain. Occasionally, though, one reads a piece that, in prose far more clear, lucid and fluent than one’s jumbled thoughts, nonetheless perfectly describes those thoughts.
I’ve long been a fan of The Economist’s David Rennie, and have praised him here on the Voice before. Last summer he took over the paper’s Lexington column (in tragic circumstances), but before that he was for two years British political editor and author of the weekly Bagehot column.
In May last year he wrote one of those columns I describe above. Unfortunately, I read the piece on a bus at 4.30am, and didn’t have the foresight to save the link. Some months later I wanted to re-read the piece, but couldn’t find it anywhere on the site, but have now re-discovered it thanks to Twitter’s archive download facility.
What Rennie does is something that should be done far more often: he puts the current economic situation in the historical and global context in which it must be seen.
Here’s how he opens the piece:
IN “The Night Face Up”—a 1956 short story by Julio Cortázar, an Argentine master of magical realism—a young man lies in a hospital at night, one injured arm held aloft by weights and pulleys. He is tormented by a recurring nightmare in which he is being hunted by Aztec warriors. The dreams are vivid, from the cling and reek of the jungle swamp in which he is captured to the chill of a dungeon floor and the hands dragging him up stone steps to an altar slick with human blood. The gore is mostly hinted at. The story’s menace turns on the man’s repeated struggles to wake and return to his darkened ward.
Across the rich world and above all in western Europe, lots of voters know just how that young patient feels. They yearn to hear that today’s unhappy realities—of austerity and spending cuts, debt, intermittent growth and relative decline—are a nightmare from which they can wake. They long to return to the “normality” of the boom years ended by the credit crunch of 2007. As incumbents wobble or fall across the continent, opposition politicians fall over themselves to agree with voters that today’s miseries are a bad dream which their policies would end. Dismaying numbers have turned to extremists, peddling fantasies that would do this trick: vows to “reject austerity” and confiscate elite wealth; plans to slam the door on foreigners or enact rules to keep global competition at bay.
And he puts Labour firmly in the category of “if only” politics, promising escape from reality:
Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer, blames Britain’s economic woes on the government’s plan to eliminate the structural deficit within five years (a plan that nonetheless saw Britain run a deficit above 8% last year, a hefty support to the economy). Mr Balls talks up micro-wheezes that would supposedly change everything: plans to tax bank bonuses to create 100,000 jobs for young people, tax breaks for small firms that hire workers and a temporary cut in VAT. In one sense, Mr Balls’s Keynesian conscience is clear, because he is merely making a technical argument about the optimal pace of deficit reduction and the impact of stimulus spending. Labour “can’t reverse every Tory cut,” concedes his boss, Mr Miliband. Yet for all that supposed realism, lots of voters are meant to hear a simpler promise—that they can wake from the nightmare of austerity, because Labour has “pro-growth” plans that pay for themselves. As Mr Balls puts it, Britain’s recent return to recession was “entirely avoidable”.
He returns to Cortázar’s story at the end of his piece. And it’s his final paragraph that most eloquently, yet concisely, sums up the position of the over-indebted West:
Cortázar’s story ends with a twist: the man realises that he is, in reality, an Aztec prisoner. Modern life, the hospital, his motorcycle like “an enormous metal insect, whirring away between his legs”, was the absurd dream, falling away as he awaits death.
Britons and other Europeans need to go through a similarly vertiginous moment. For decades workers, faced with exploding global competition, were compensated by governments with cheap goods, early retirement and welfare on credit: a dream of affluence for life to replace jobs for life. Now the competition is as intense as ever, societies are ageing and their nations are poorer than they thought only a few years ago. The boom years were the dream. Hard work and tighter belts are the new reality.
“A dream of affluence for life to replace jobs for life” – 11 words that sum up the twenty years of economic policy that preceded the financial crash.
Weening ourselves off our addiction to debt – both private and public – used to fund ever-increasing living standards will, by its very nature, be difficult. The pain now will be intensified by not having confronted reality many years ago. But that makes it no less necessary. Those who advocate short-term ‘fixes’ are arguing for nothing more than delaying such a confrontation for longer still. That might sound attractive now, but we can’t go on dreaming forever.
* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.