Austerity and frustration with government spending are nothing new, with the only comfort being that the UK usually gets there in the end, says Robert Bruce
This article was first published in the October 2017 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
It may feel as though we are living through a period of extraordinary uncertainty, chaotic behaviour, economic and political ineptitude in a country characterised by decline and enormous self-inflicted reputational damage. At least, that is how it seems and how it is portrayed. The question is whether this is new.
Underneath maybe it has been the same old, same old. ‘Disappointing’ has been the common thread in recent economic comments. But what if this is just the traditional underlying mean to which we are reverting?
Next year, for example, will bring a paean of praise for our skill at creating infrastructure when London Underground’s new Elizabeth line, aka Crossrail, is unveiled and starts to revolutionise, expand and ease the way millions of people travel. I have spent time with people involved and it is indeed a triumph of engineering and of the ability to bring a massive transport project to fruition. Yet we should remember that the Paris metro first started planning its version of Crossrail, the RER, in 1961 and delivered the first complete line in 1977; other lines were added subsequently.
The tendency in the UK is for occasional serious and brilliant successes to blind us to what is going on elsewhere. The UK hasn’t built a new full-length airport runway in London or the south-east of England since 1945. Meanwhile Paris and Frankfurt now have four runways each, and Amsterdam six. Here in the UK we have only one – a rather dodgy and doubtful one – on the drawing board.
The UK has serious difficulties with infrastructure, decision-making, and its self-induced current damage, whatever your views on the Brexit divide, to what had been a hugely successful global brand. In the quieter parts of the country there is an unreal assumption that the UK will, almost without any effort, still triumph.
Bemused by realities
When the Financial Times sent a reporter down to the leafier parts of the Thames valley recently to ask what they thought of the Brexit negotiations, they found an air of bafflement. ‘A lot of people I work with thought we would be out within a week if we voted to leave,’ said one. People are bemused by the realities and don’t engage with them. Or as Winston Churchill reputedly said, the English will try everything else before finally accepting the solution.
But this is not necessarily anything new. While browsing a selection of elderly Penguin books at a bookstall recently, I came across Age of Austerity – a selection of essays, published in 1963, looking at aspects of British life between 1945 and 1951. I lit on the one dealing with the planning and execution of the project that created the Festival of Britain in 1951, which eventually provided the war-scarred population with something to be joyous about.
The essay was by Michael Frayn, in those days just starting out as a journalist and these days a veteran playwright. It is a story of chaos ultimately turning into an almost incidental triumph. As he says at the outset: ‘The idea had now been fed into the official government processing machinery, from which ideas habitually emerge squeezed to the pips by the intermeshing teeth of incompatible political expedience.’ The finances were chaotic, the site reduced to mud after floods, the work interrupted by interminable strikes and go-slows. The economy collapsed, with the value of the pound tumbling. The Korean War broke out. But the Festival of Britain was a huge success, despite the politics.
After the war and the long period of austerity, ordinary people were determined to have a good time. ‘The crowds came in,’ wrote Frayn, ‘and wandered round in a state of somnambulism, forming queues with such abstracted readiness that the attendants found difficulty in preventing the accumulation of queues that led nowhere at all. No one had ever seen anything like it before.’
Perhaps we should try sometimes to learn from history. Our present difficulties are really – and quite depressingly – nothing new.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist
"The finances were chaotic, the economy collapsed, and the Korean War broke out, but the Festival of Britain was a huge success despite the politics"