“Crisis? What Crisis?”
Prime Minister James Callaghan is supposed to have uttered those or similar words at the height of Britain’s economic troubles in the 1970s. Whether he said them or not, they made him a laughing stock, landing him in a heap of political trouble from which he never emerged. And, yes, there was definitely a crisis.
Today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in the midst of another crisis, is telling us we are in for a rough ride economically for years to come. He bravely said so on a day when hundreds of thousands of public sector workers went on strike to protest reductions in pension benefits.
We have been duly warned. Osborne, like Callaghan, will no doubt be publicly reviled and politically banished if he’s got things wrong.
What do we expect of our leaders at times of crisis, Callaghan’s breezy reassurances or Osborne’s cold-hearted directness?
I prefer the latter, but either way, is anyone listening? Hearing, yes, but actually listening?
Crises tend to generate fear. As I look around me I detect less an atmosphere of fear than one of sullen resentment. Most people who have jobs think they are grossly underpaid – as indeed they usually are when compared to their bosses. Those who are not working, for whatever reason, have access to significant benefits but still feel the handouts are not nearly generous enough. Public sector employees claim their pensions are being ‘raided’ by the government and that they are ‘undervalued’ by society. Those working for private companies, however, believe that their fellow-citizens in the public sector workers are mollycoddled to the grave. Native, mainly white, English people see madness in the immigration laws that allow workers from foreign parts to take jobs that ought to be filled by locals.
Yesterday, if one believes what one reads in the papers, thousands of striking workers preferred an outing to the shopping mall to a chilly vigil on a picket line. Spending money or just looking? The stores reported a boom in sales. Sales boom? We’re supposed to be in crisis. Yes, I know it’s the Christmas season, but even so…
My impression is that the public just don’t get the message the government is trying to convey or don’t yet truly believe it. The impression is that Britain is not so much going broke as going for broke.
Yes, people talk about ‘the mess’ the world is in, Europe in particular, and complain about any and all austerity measures. But meanwhile, they keep spending, keep borrowing, confident in the belief that someone, sooner or later, will sort out the mess.
Osborne may be right, but so far he’s whistling in the wind.