Austerity was a hard sell in the 40s. Today it’s harder still - by David Kynaston

22/6/2010 Guardian “No sooner did we awake from the six years nightmare of war and feel free to enjoy life once more than …the means to do so immediately became even scantier than they had been during the war,” lamented Anthony Heap, a local
government official living in St Pancras, in his diary at the end of 1945.
“Housing, food, clothing, fuel, beer, tobacco – all the ordinary comforts of
life that we’d taken for granted before the war, and naturally expected to
become more plentiful again when it ended, became instead more and more scarce
and difficult to come by.” In fact peacetime austerity had only just got going,
and it was not until July 1954, more than eight dreary, make-do-and-mend years
later, that rationing finally ended.
It’s now pretty clear that the Keynesians have been defeated in the
macroeconomic debate and that rapid, large-scale deficit reduction is the only
game in town. In the 1940s the shortage facing most people was of goods, not
money. This time it will be the other way round, but there is bound to be a
similar sense of frustration and resentment as unemployment rises, standards of
living at best stagnate, dreams and aspirations are put on hold, and the joy
generally goes out of life. Or as another diarist, Vere Hodgson, prosaically but
powerfully put it in 1949, “Oh, for a little extra butter!”
The lessons of history can be overdone, but the austerity of the 1940s – a
largely successfully managed operation, with society remaining broadly stable
and cohesive – has four to teach us.
Shared purpose. Although polls reveal most people accepting the need for deficit
reduction, this is still going to be an incredibly hard sell – far harder than
in the immediate aftermath of the war, where the evidence was everywhere of the
severity of the long, just, ultimately victorious struggle, not least the gaping
bomb sites in city centres. Pictures of the concentration camps served to
reinforce the necessity of the war and its unavoidably harsh economic legacy.
The ensuing mood of stoic acceptance, for all the day-to-day, safety-valve
grumbling, did not last for ever. By the end of the 1940s people were becoming
seriously fed up, epitomised by the transformation of the black market spiv from
a demonised figure into something altogether cosier – but it did much to ease
the worst years of austerity. Now we have no historic feel-good victory to look
back on, but instead a mismanaged economy and a disastrously out of control
financial sector. All the government can do is construct a moralistic
good-housekeeping, live-within-our-means narrative of future redemption, but the
modern appetite for exhortation is strictly limited.
Equity of sacrifice. When Doris Lessing arrived in England in 1949, she was
struck by the general shabbiness, and how nobody seemed to have anything. We
were, to coin a phrase, all in this together. Indeed, a mixture of fiscal and
welfare policy meant in those years a significant transfer of wealth from the
aggrieved, newly servantless middle class to the much poorer, much more numerous
working class. Now it is going to be lower-income people who will suffer
disproportionately from severe public expenditure cuts – an outcome so
grotesquely and damagingly unfair that pragmatic common sense as well as justice
demands not only significant fiscal pain for the better-off (many of whom will
barely notice the cuts) but a determined assault on the privileges of the City,
no longer an unaccountable offshore island. Symbols matter, and those who did so
much of the damage should pay the price.
Hope. The modern welfare state was the British people’s postwar reward – above
all the National Health Service, created in 1948. A Mass Observation survey the
following year found it to be overwhelmingly popular – more than anything
because of “the fact that it puts everyone on a basis of medical equality” – and
particularly for families with children it stood for a different, better, more
hopeful future. Can anything do the same, epoch-defining job in the 2010s? Given
how we have gone backwards in social mobility, and given the coalition
government’s professed belief in equality of opportunity, my preference would be
for an ambitious, quota-driven, once-and-for-all opening up of Oxbridge, the
media and the professions, belatedly completing what the mid-Victorians did to
the aristocratic stranglehold.
Confidence in the political class. Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin
– these were political giants, men of unimpeachable integrity and manifestly
driven by a high sense of duty. Indeed, the ascetic, carrot-crunching Cripps,
chancellor in the late 1940s, attained almost surreal levels of personal
popularity. By contrast, David Cameron et al have it all to do, against a
long-term backdrop, going back to the 1960s, of ever-increasing cynicism about
politicians, even before the expenses debacle. Vince Cable is arguably a
latter-day Cripps, but too many of his cabinet colleagues exude a sense of
social and material privilege that, put mildly, sits uneasily with the
widespread pain they are now in the process of inflicting. Cameron himself has,
I believe, old-fashioned “officer” qualities and will prove a more effective,
one-nation prime minister than many expect. Whether he can sufficiently lead by
example is another matter.
Although Goethe rightly warned against exaggerating the importance of one’s own
times, the stakes feel high. We have a society accustomed to the pursuit of
prosperity and individual gratification, often resentful of immigrants, and
possessing a perilously skin-deep attachment to democracy. There may be real
trouble ahead if our rulers get it wrong.
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