Tuesday 3 February 2009

Confidence is the last trick we need

The Prime Minister has asserted that all Britain needs to conquer recession is confidence in itself. I beg to differ. It was precisely an excess of misplaced confidence that landed us in this mess in the first place.

What else motivated Sir Fred Goodwin to make the final acquisition that brought the Royal Bank of Scotland to its knees, or Chancellor Brown to predict in his last budget that 2009 would be another year of stable growth for the British economy, and that there would be no return to the bad old days of boom and bust?

Who would have expected the authors of so much of our economic misfortune to come from Scotland, a land long noted for its prudence and caution, particularly when it comes to opening a wallet or purse?

Well, I would, as it happens, but only through naked prejudice. And, to be fair, excessive confidence is most commonly associated with the products of our great, mainly English, public schools. As a grammar school boy from the North East competing in Cambridge and the City, I was constantly in awe of the huge, unjustified faith in their own abilities evinced by those whose parents had paid heavily to have them subjected to a decade of sexual abuse and casual violence in boarding schools.

(I am sure it is not like that now, I had better add before angry letters start coming in, but for the historic validity of my summary, I refer you to the memoirs of almost any product of the public school system born before about 1960.)

Ally such overweening confidence with charm, and the consequences can be fatal. Look no further than Anthony Blair, who timed his arrival and departure from the national political scene with such dazzling brilliance, and who must hope that his years in office will be fondly remembered as a new Macmillan era of “Never had it so good”, endowed with a Ready Brek glow as the years of lost content and ever-increasing prosperity.

Clearly Mr Brown has been doing his homework on the 1930s, and is searching for a catchy update of Franklin Roosevelt’s great line about having nothing to fear but fear itself. But, as is so often the case, the memorability of the words obscures the fact that they were tosh. When they were uttered at his inauguration in March 1933, there were many more tangible things to fear in the world, not least the toothbrush-moustached maniac who had become Chancellor of Germany two months earlier.

Could we be headed for a repeat dose of 1930s racist demagoguery, protectionism and global conflict? There are some worrying signs, not least the recent protests made inevitable by Mr Brown spouting that populist line about “British jobs for British workers” while conveniently ignoring the fact that many of them would be “British” only in the sense of living here after being imported from Italy, Poland and other points east.

The proper counter to all this is not more confidence but realism. A bit of humility from those in charge would not come amiss, either, particularly in conceding that this country is likely to be worse affected by the recession than any other partly because of our own Government’s misjudgements and lax regulation, and not simply because we are the innocent victims of global events beyond our control.

But be realistic. It is certainly not the end of the world if we find ourselves temporarily out of work, unable to indulge in binge drinking, buy a new high definition television or take the kids to Disneyworld. Indeed, judging by the obesity statistics, even having less food on the table should positively do us good.

Yes, we will get through this crisis, just as Formerly Gloomy Gordon says. And, to look on the bright side, if there is any justice in this world, he won’t.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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