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Potentially worrying time for old Blighty!

Posted by Daltons chin dimple on Wednesday, May 5, 2010

There is a general election here tomorrow. I know which way I am voting, but all opinion polls point to a hung parliament, with no overall majority.

Whilst this is, in some ways, quite exciting as nobody knows what will happen and it actually makes staying up late to watch the results come in nearly as nail biting as a sudden death penalty shoot out in sports, it is also fairly frightening if you know about recent political history and the way these things work.

Bearing in mind throughout the following that Conservative and Liberal mean very different things in the UK political landscape to the meaning in the US.

In the Seventies, as today, the roots of the crisis began with economic hubris turning to disaster.

Years of reckless spending and monetary incontinence came to an end on New Year's Day 1974, when Edward Heath's Conservative government imposed an unprecedented three-day week to cope with the aftermath of the OPEC oil shock and industrial action by the militant miners' union.

Factories and shops were limited to just three days of power, street lights were turned off and even television ended at 10.30 every night.

Heath warned that Britain faced a 'great emergency' and begged for national unity. But like Gordon Brown, the grumpy, irascible Heath was a terrible communicator. And like Brown, he bore a large share of responsibility for the crisis.

Thanks to the misguided profligacy of his Chancellor, Anthony Barber, the public finances were in a terrible state, with Britain's monthly trade deficit approaching £400 million (the equivalent almost £4 billion today).

But when the miners walked out for good at the beginning of February, an exhausted Heath called an election, asking the voters 'Who governs?' in a desperate attempt to get a popular mandate for a new regime of cuts and austerity.

Even though opinion polls forecast a clear Tory win in the election (held on February 28, 1974), the outcome was deadlock.

Heath won the biggest share of the vote - almost 38 per cent - but only 297 seats, while Harold Wilson's Labour Party, split between hard Left and centrist factions, won 37 per cent and 301 seats.

Full of self-pity, Heath tried to cobble together a coalition with the Liberals - which is exactly what Gordon Brown may do if there is a hung parliament on Friday morning.
But negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe collapsed over electoral reform.

Devastated, Heath drove to the Palace to resign.

Against all the odds, the tired, shabby figure of Labour Leader Harold Wilson was back three-and-a-half years after he had last occupied Downing Street. 'We've got a job to do,' he said - rather understating the challenge of the biggest economic crisis since the war.

Wilson's minority government ran Britain for the next seven months - probably the worst seven months in our modern history. His first act was to bribe miners to go back to work with a massive 32 per cent pay increase.

Whopping pay deals followed for postmen, public service workers and nurses, yet the unions wanted more.

As wage inflation headed for 20 per cent, Chancellor Denis Healey raised spending on benefits and food subsidies, with the top rate of tax up to a whopping 83 per cent and borrowing at almost £8 billion a year (the equivalent of about £80billion today). The country was heading for economic meltdown.

Wilson decided to call an election on October 10, 1974, to try to entrench his position. He won a narrow majority of just 3 seats.
In a remarkable preview of this year's events, disillusionment with the major parties had encouraged a Liberal surge as middle-class voters flocked to the banner of the debonair Jeremy Thorpe.

Meanwhile, the Tory leader Ted Heath promised a 'national unity' government with ministers from all three parties. But Wilson had prevailed by putting off the spending cuts that analysts warned were vital. In effect, he'd bribed voters to give him a new mandate.
Heath was finished and a few months later was replaced by Margaret Thatcher. But the real tragedy was that - in 1974 just as in 2010 - the politicians had failed to tell voters the truth about just how catastrophic a state the economy was in.

But Wilson had got away with it - even though, as his policy chief Bernard Donoughue wrote in his diary the day after the election, 'the nation is going bust'.

Are we really willing to repeat that mistake in 2010?

What happened in the next 12 months was an object lesson in the recklessness of delaying tough decisions - and one to which today's politicians should pay close heed.

By the summer of 1975, as Wilson's government continued to accede pay increases, wage inflation reached a staggering 26 per cent - even though Britain's GDP was declining.

The country's public services sank into decay as union barons continued to demand hefty increases for their members.

'Goodbye, Great Britain,' said the Wall Street Journal, 'it was nice knowing you.'

After two years of floundering with his perilously thin majority, Wilson stood down in March 1976 - just weeks after a sterling crisis had revealed how far the markets had lost confidence in Britain's ailing economy.

Jim Callaghan (another old friend of the unions and nicknamed 'the Keeper of the Cloth Cap') took over as Labour Prime Minister. At a time of economic turmoil, he was seen as experienced, reassuring, a familiar figure loved by Labour activists - the Jack Straw of his day.

Nemisis was catching up with Labour. By refusing to cut spending in 1974 and allowing inflation to approach terrifying proportions a year later, ministers had forfeited all confidence on the international markets.

After the pound began a calamitous slide, Chancellor Healey warned that unless the government cut spending, collapsing confidence might force it to call in the International Monetary Fund for help.
But a desperate struggle to stave off disaster culminated in the shambolic events of September 28, 1976, when - with the pound in free-fall - Healey was forced to call in the IMF. It was a moment of utter national humiliation.

By the beginning of December, Callaghan had been forced to agree to a massive £2.5 billion cuts package - a fraction of the amount of cuts our next government will have to implement if international confidence is to be maintained in our debt-ridden economy.

Although Callaghan and Healey had learned the hard lesson of failing to cut early enough, most of their Cabinet colleagues were unconvinced and their loyalty to the unions took precedence over basic rules of international capitalism.

Then, as now, too many politicians put short-term ideological interests above economic rigour and the interests of the nation.
In the summer of 1977, three Labour ministers went on the picket lines at the Grunwick photo-processing plant in North London where a bitter strike, whipped up by extremists such as Arthur Scargill, became a symbol of the confrontation between union militants and employers.

In view of the pickets' violence, public opinion turned against the unions.

By March 1977, it seemed that Callaghan's government had run out of time. His majority had been reduced by deaths and by-elections, and many of his own activists had lost faith in Labour after the IMF humiliation.

His government was effectively paralysed - virtually unable to pass any legislation without relying on the support of fringe parties.

In the face of Opposition leader Margaret Thatcher tabling a Commons vote of no confidence, Callaghan set about secret talks with the Liberals and agreed a Lib-Lab Pact to ensure the government's survival - as many predict Gordon Brown will attempt to do in the event of humiliation tomorrow.

Thus began long days of horsetrading with the Liberals' David Steel, as the pact became a cynical parliamentary deal to keep a dying government alive.

Like Brown, Callaghan had never been elected by the British people. Yet as Thatcher put it at the time, he seemed determined to 'cling on to power' by 'political wheeling and dealing' with the Liberals.

Even the hard Left's Tony Benn saw the pact as a compromise too far, saying: 'It will compromise the integrity of the party and the government.'

The pact also delivered few benefits for the Liberals - not even electoral reform - and was marked by blazing rows between Healey and his opposite number, the Liberals' pugnacious John Pardoe.

From then on, Callaghan's government teetered on a parliamentary tightrope, unable to contemplate radical measures to rescue the country's economy.

When the Lib-Lab Pact ended in the summer of 1978, Callaghan was left with a paralysed minority government.

Most people thought he'd call an early election - rather as Gordon Brown was expected to do in 2007. But, like Brown, he flunked it, preferring to hang on. The result was a catastrophe.

Hoping to keep inflation down, Callaghan tried to limit pay increases to 5 per cent, but after years of weak government, the unions were in no mood to listen. When Ford car workers extracted a 17 per cent deal, the Winter Of Discontent began.

Oil-tanker drivers went on strike for a 40 per cent increase, and by January 1979 all the country's lorry drivers went on strike. Ports were picketed, petrol stations closed, the railways were shut down, and even supermarkets ran out of food.

Yet as Britain shivered in blizzards, Callaghan was swimming in the Caribbean sun at an international summit. On returning to Heathrow, he uttered the immortal words: 'Crisis? What Crisis?'

Britain's agony was not over yet. As the government began to collapse, more unions stepped up the pressure.
Public sector unions staged an unprecedented 'Day of Action' to demand 25 per cent pay increases - even though the government was still struggling to get inflation down.

In London, dustmen refused to collect the rubbish and piles of filth grew in Leicester Square. In Liverpool, even the grave-diggers notoriously walked out.

Britain has never come closer to anarchy: it was a terrifying sign of what can happen when discipline and decency collapse.

The agony finally ended in the spring of 1979. At the end of March, almost exactly five years after Labour had surrendered to the miners, Mrs Thatcher won a vote of no confidence against Callaghan's enfeebled government, forcing a general election.

His aide Bernard Donoughue recalled how he saw old ladies waiting to vote, and saw 'from the determined look in their eyes' that they had come to vote against 'every trade union thug who stood in a picket line...and every Labour local authority which had left piles of rubbish in the way of their shopping'.

For five years, the Labour government had postponed tough decisions and ignored the realities of the international markets. But it was the people who had paid the price - in surging prices, mounting unemployment, the humiliation of the IMF bail-out and the horrors of the Winter Of Discontent.

After years of weakness and paralysis, voters were crying out for strong, decisive leadership - the very leadership that will be denied Britain in the event of a hung parliament this week.

In Margaret Thatcher, they finally got that leadership in May 1979. She is seen as so unpopular today because of the tough decisions she made.

As Bernard Donoughue observed, it took her victory 'to restore some efficiency to our economy, some discipline to the public sector, some priority to the consumer as opposed to the producer, and some sense of responsibility in society as a whole.'

Mrs Thatcher relished tough decisions, even at the cost of shortterm popularity.
With a healthy Commons majority of 43, she cut taxes, brought down inflation and revived national pride with victory in the Falklands.

A lot of her decisions amounted to shock therapy, but without it Britain would have continued to drift into inexorable economic decline.

Never has there been a more compelling reminder of the perils of weak government and economic indiscipline.

Unfortunately, we may be about to make the same mistakes all over again. Greece, here we come!!!!

The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 10 years 42 weeks ago

Source?

Daltons chin dimple
Location:
Posts: 12800
Posted: 10 years 42 weeks ago

The history bit was cobbled together from a few of the nationals, then topped and tailed.

All the polls this morning are still pointing to a hung parliament. It is properly squeaky bum time. We could be doomed.... doomed I tell ya!

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 10 years 42 weeks ago

Daltons chin dimple wrote:

The history bit was cobbled together from a few of the nationals, then topped and tailed.

Explain "[t]he history bit," "a few of the nationals," and "topped and tailed."

Quasar
Location:
Posts: 7588
Posted: 10 years 42 weeks ago

Explain "squeaky bum time."

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Daltons chin dimple
Location:
Posts: 12800
Posted: 10 years 42 weeks ago

It is a phrase coined by Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United Football club, probably the most successful manager in global football. It is used to describe the end of a very long season when the title race has gone right down to the wire and is very close even in the last few days, with no clear front-runner as champions-elect.

In the UK, bum doesn't mean homeless person, it means ass (arse), backside, bottom etc. etc.

The squeak means the noise of a high pressure fart, leaked under extreme tension at moments of nervousness at an unpredictable outcome.

"Squeaky bum time" - means a very close contest is in it's final stage, and too close to call.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"