Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Prudence, Patience: the economy needs a new Virtue

When Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the standard joke was that the woman in his life was called Prudence, since he called on her so often as the guiding principle in his stewardship of Britain's finances.

Gordon Brown: always calling on Prudence
Today, we have George Osborne and we need a new woman with the name of the virtue: Patience. As Evan Davies pointed out on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning:

One thing that can be said for George Osborne’s economic strategy is that it demands patience… The year at which the debt burden looks set to fall keeps getting put back: in fact it’s always four years away, as each year it’s put a year later.

He was in Nottingham, talking to ordinary people about the impact of the difficult economic situation we’re in. He asked the owner of the café in which he was doing his interviews, ‘How long are you willing to give them to sort it out?’

‘Not much longer,’ she replied, ‘there’s nothing happening.’

George Osborne: calling on Patience – from all of us
But it's beginning to run out...

Well, she’s right in the sense she meant: nothing’s happening that would make things better. Quite a lot is happening, quite fast, from the point of view of decline. For instance, between 5 December when he made his Autumn statement and 20 March, today, when he unveiled his budget, Osborne had reduced his growth forecast from 1.2% to 0.6%. That’s fast work in anybody’s book.

Davies also spoke to a joiner who is getting by with difficulty: he’s having to resort to the ‘necessary evil, as I call it: agencies. They’re keeping me afloat because no-one’s taking on the books any more.’ The trouble is that agencies just keep body and soul together, and no more. ‘I don’t get no pension, no holidays,’ he pointed out.

Things aren’t that bad for everyone. The third person on the interview ran a hi-fi and home cinema shop and business wasn’t going too badly for him: ‘the rich people always seem to have some disposable income, so we’re surviving.’ 

Yes, this government has certainly made sure that the rich don’t suffer too much, preferring to leave the burdens to people like the joiner, to say nothing of the disabled or unemployed.

Certainly, Osborne needs Patience at least as much as Brown needed Prudence. But how much longer will people keep patient for him? In a democracy, it’s reasonable for voters to decide to give another lot a chance in power, but there comes a time when they have to start saying, ‘OK, that’s enough. Nothing’s happening,’ as the café owner pointed out in Nottingham, ‘time to move on.’

It’s not as though everything’s bleak. I was fascinated to hear yesterday about the Swedish bank Handelsbanken, now opening its 155th branch in Britain. Its staff have no targets and no bonuses. Their mission is to know their local communities intimately and provide them with unrivalled financial services. It’s old-style banking.

When I think of the role the new-style banks played in creating today’s misery, and that senior bank executives keep rewarding themselves with indefensible bonuses, I think a touch of the old style would be most welcome.

And maybe it’s time to find another virtue to be the lodestone of our economy. Perhaps Compassion would be a good replacement for either Prudence or Patience? Combined with Competence it could even lead on to Joy.

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