Austerity economics – how it failed 35 years ago


Since winning the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives had embarked on an economic policy described as ‘monetarism’   This entailed rigorous control of the money supply in order to curb the great British disease of inflation.  The outgoing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, no stranger to cutting government spending himself, had dubbed the new creed as ‘sado-monetarism’.

9780436164859-uk-300The high priest of monetarism was a professor at the Chicago school of economics by the name of Milton Friedman.  Without going too far in to the vast detail that any debate on economics can become mired in, Friedman essentially threw out the conventional Keynesian wisdom that in a depression, governments should spend to keep people in work.

Out of control public spending, he argued, would lead to something called ‘stagflation’ – stagnation with high inflation – which was a prevalent condition of many economies in the 1970s.  The answer was a kind of shock therapy where high interest rates, as one weapon, would make it unattractive to spend money.  This would then lead to restraint in wages and prices, which would result in inflation coming down.

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JK Galbraith

Oh that life was so simple, Keynesians retorted angrily – in many newspaper columns and on the letters pages.  Friedman’s leading Keynesian nemesis on the global stage was the elderly but highly alert J K Galbraith, who had served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration steering through the New Deal.  He warned over and over again that Friedman’s medicine would lead to idle industrial plants and high unemployment.

Just because it hurt, Galbraith thundered, didn’t mean monetarism was actually doing any good to Britain.

“Suffering must have a purpose: out of much suffering there must come much good.  No one is quite sure how this works in economics; one only knows that the bad times are somehow the price of the good.  Pain and punishment are considered especially salutary for other people.”

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General Pinochet – enthusiastic supporter of austerity economics

So agonising were the effects of monetarism that many on the left pointed out that in its most undiluted form, it had only successfully been applied in Chile – which still languished under a military dictatorship.  The implication being that a democracy could not hold the lid down on a population tormented by the rigours of this doctrine.

Within the trade unions, the widespread suspicion was that the Conservatives were using high levels of unemployment deliberately to beat down pay demands.   With an instinctive hatred of state regulation of the economy, Thatcher didn’t want to get involved in imposing incomes policies (as Labour had tried to do in the 1970s) but fear of the dole, it was thought, was her preferred weapon against wage inflation.

In reality, the Conservatives quietly dropped monetarism and adopted a more pragmatic and less doctrinaire approach after 1982.  But not before they would experience a bitter lesson from Britain’s hugely pissed off youth on how far you can pursue an experiment before the subject bites back.

Predictions for Maggie’s future – from 1979


The Economist
The Economist – December 1979

Maggie had been in power for eight months at the end of 1979. The Economist magazine (broadly sympathetic to her aims) was making its predictions for a new decade – the 1980s. So how did The Economist think Thatcher was going to fare in the years ahead? Well, the next election was due in 1984 and they thought that was way too close for a government rapidly losing the level of popular support it had enjoyed in the May, 1979 General Election.

Like Cameron today, Thatcher was pleading for more than one term in office to achieve her aims but at the end of 1979, the polls were suggesting Labour would come back to power. The Economist thought the Labour faces just rejected by the electorate – Peter Shore, Dennis Healey, John Silkin – would be back in ministerial posts.

And there wouldn’t have been much surprise there. After all, through the 1960s and 1970s, Labour and the Tories took turns in power. Nobody would have thought in 1979 that Thatcher would last to 1990. The Economist believed it was “conceivable” that Thatcher would be dumped as Tory leader before 1984.

Europe was a big problem for Thatcher – senior Tories were horrified by her roughing up of the EEC (as the EU was called then). Foreign minister Lord Carrington was seen as a restraining influence on the Prime Minister (he would resign when the Falklands War broke out).

The Economist wrote that Carrington and Home Secretary William Whitelaw might move to “bell the cat” – put Thatcher under firm control and force her into a U-turn towards more traditional One Nation Toryism. She would be forced to adopt a more Ted Heath approach or resign.

The revival of the Liberal Party made a Lib-Con coalition – similar to what we have now – a real possibility. But The Economist thought that Labour – under Dennis Healey, who by 1984 would have defeated the left wing of the party – was more likely to return to power. The magazine correctly predicted that Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams would form a new political party and for a while, that party would exercise a big influence.

So, how wrong was The Economist? The election was called early in 1983; an unexpected war in the Falklands boosted Thatcher; the Labour left put up a stronger fight and Dennis Healey did not become Labour leader; Thatcher purged her enemies within the Tory party and no bell was put on that cat!