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The Budget points towards a decade of gloom and conflict

I've been trying to pick my way through the detail of yesterday's Budget statement to find some good news and have been getting ever more depressed as I do so. I have come to the conclusion that we are heading for a decade of economic gloom against a background of political and, perhaps, increasing industrial conflict.
It looks like a re-run of the 1970s.
At the end of the 60s - a decade of hope, growth and change - the UK economy hit the buffers. Inflation was the emerging problem then while public debt is the millstone we have round our necks now. In 1970 the Labour government of Harold Wilson was voted out and Ted Heath's Tories came in with promises of radical economic reform. These promises were not delivered as the harsh economic realities the Conservatives inherited knocked them off course time and time again. By the end of 1973 we had descended into industrial chaos with most people working a three day week. An early election in 1974 on a "Who governs the country" theme saw the poisoned chalice handed back to Harold Wilson who passed it on to James Callaghan after two years. He sent us cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund, presided over massive cuts in public spending and led us into the Winter of Discontent when I remember walking past Leicester Square everyday where the bin bags were piled ten feet high and covered the whole square - it stunk. At the end of the decade the country was so disillusioned with Labour that they were prepared to take a risk on the ultra-radical Margaret Thatcher.
We are at the turn of a decade again, face a General Election next year and have dismal economic prospects. It seems depressingly familiar territory. The 1970s was also an era of highly polarised politics and the Budget seems to be taking us back in that direction too.
Much of my gloom has been made worse by the fantasy forecasts the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, deployed yesterday: there isn't a single economic expert that shares his optimism that we will start to see a recovery later this year and reach the dizzy heights of 1.25% growth next year. Unless he is right and everyone else is wrong this means that next year's Budget will see further significant tax increases and cuts in public spending as the Treasury struggles to close a widening gap between revenues and spending. If this is the scenario then we might even see a slightly early election so that Labour doesn't have to administer the medicine because for Mr Darling to have to present a Budget admitting the forecasts he made yesterday were wrong would cause catastrophic political damage to Labour.
This doesn't mean that David Cameron is set fair to sail into Downing Street, although his rather blustering speech yesterday got a good press this morning so he probably feels quietly confident at the moment. He will have to be pretty honest about the medicine he intends to administer and convince the country that the Tories have the courage to administer it. This is where Ted Heath's government failed: it wasn't honest enough, tough enough or sufficiently long term in its thinking. Its first Budget was willfully misconceived because it ignored all the warning signs about inflation. I suppose one difference this time is that there is no way anyone can be unaware of the huge public sector deficit that is encircling us. 

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