Saturday, 18 September 2010

Britain's shame

I wrote a piece for today's FT about Made in Dagenham and other factory films which is too long to paste in here but here it is:

And this is my last defining moment for the FT:

At a press conference held at the Treasury on 15 December 1976, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, looks to be sharing the nation’s anguish. He has just announced a drastic package of public spending cuts in an emergency mini-budget. The headline in the Sun the next day is “Britain’s Shame”.

The autumn of 1976 had seen a catastrophic loss of confidence in sterling. On 27 September, Healey, due to fly out to a finance ministers’ conference in Hong Kong, had to abandon his trip at Heathrow because the markets were so nervous, go back to the Treasury and apply to the IMF for a loan. From October to December the government negotiated tensely with the IMF, which was demanding £2.5bn cuts in government spending in return for a $3.9bn loan.

The IMF crisis has become part of national political memory. For the Thatcher government of the 1980s, it was rivalled only as a moment of national ignominy by the winter of discontent. And it is often cited today by ministers – for example, by George Osborne in his recent speech at Bloomberg - as they stress the importance of cutting the deficit and maintaining the confidence of the markets. Britain, the mantra goes, must never again become a charity case.

The reality is more complicated. The situation at the end of 1976 was not uniquely dire. The government had already made two applications to the IMF at the end of 1975, with far less publicity, and the balance of payments had been in much greater arrears then. Healey later claimed that the Treasury had grossly overestimated the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, the key figure used during the IMF crisis, and that if he had been given accurate figures he would not have had to ask for the loan at all. He also said that accepting the IMF’s strictures was a “Pyrrhic defeat”, forcing him into the proto-Thatcherite fiscal stringency he wanted to practise anyway.

But in 1976, just as in 2010, few Britons understood this language of exchange rates and public spending figures. What was really significant was the crisis’s symbolic elements: Healey’s volte-face at Heathrow, caught by the TV cameras, the arrival of the anonymous IMF team in the UK on 1 November with its humiliatingly infantilizing connotations, and the “shame” of the mini-budget. As often with the markets, what everyone thought and felt was just as important as the economic reality.


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