What can Cameron do?

Ross McKibbin

In 1931, as the European banking system seemed to be collapsing, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that people felt the ground giving way beneath them, and not merely those with bank accounts. Many in Britain and America must be experiencing similar tremors now. Yet, in Britain at least, there are huge differences between 1931 and today. The 1931 crisis had profound political consequences – it almost wrecked the Labour Party and established the extraordinary hegemony of Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and the Conservative Party – but it was a balance-of-payments crisis that was resolved the moment Britain went off the gold standard and devalued the pound. Almost uniquely among major economies, Britain didn’t experience a run on the banks or a threat to people’s savings. No high street bank collapsed or was likely to. In so far as there was a nervous shifting of money it was from the banks to the building societies, whose golden age it introduced.

The stability of 1931 was based on large, conservative institutions – the Midland Bank (now HSBC) was the biggest bank in the world. Unlike so many of the American banks which collapsed, British banks were not dependent on the savings of rural and small-town communities (whose incomes had begun to fall even before Wall Street ‘crashed’). Nor, unlike the great German banks, were they large investors in perilously unprofitable industries. They were cautious organisations run by cautious men. The building societies were exactly that, societies for building: building houses in local communities to which many were tied. Nearly all were ‘mutual’: ‘owned’ by their depositors, they were products, like the co-operative societies, of the 19th-century tradition of financial mutuality. They were not investment or commercial banks; and did not want to be.

Again, the London Stock Exchange, unlike Wall Street, wasn’t a site of crazy speculation. There was less loose money sloshing around with no other profitable outlet; a stiff tax was levied on all Stock Exchange transactions; and the culture was different. The members of the predominantly Conservative governments of the 1930s were not wholehearted admirers of the City. They imposed exchange controls on capital exports and they believed in a ‘managed’ currency. This reduced the authority of the City banks that had been so influential in the 1920s and before the First World War. Free trade was abandoned: Britain became a protected and cartelised economy. These governments were often suspicious of the state and believed in balanced budgets, but even so they nationalised mining royalties, brought the national grid under public control and established Imperial Airways (the distant precursor of BA) as a state monopoly. They believed in capitalism as a system of private ownership, a system of social and economic virtue, but not in the piratical capitalism of the United States. The Conservative Party of the 1940s was not seriously hostile to the nationalisation of the mines and railways, or of the Bank of England.

How things have changed. That kind of Conservatism is (or was) one with Nineveh and Tyre. We are faced with the possibility of a Conservative government in less than two years’ time led by men who have hitherto represented the purest form of freebooter capitalism. Despite a couple of brazen attempts by George Osborne to pretend that the banking crisis has nothing to do with them, all its ingredients, to the extent that they are home-grown, were cooked up by the Tory Party – mostly under Thatcher. The first was the abolition of exchange controls, which had the effect of strengthening the City and its institutions at the expense of other sections of the economy, as well as permitting the uninhibited export of capital regardless of what it did to British economic and financial systems. The second was to allow the value of the pound to rise considerably, rendering much of British manufacturing uncompetitive. This led not only to the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs but to a ‘rebalancing’ of the economy in favour of the financial and service sectors – which the country’s elites convinced themselves was the way of the future. It also had long-term consequences for the current account that were hardly less damaging. The third was the ‘Big Bang’ and the process by which the City and the banking system were effectively deregulated.

If you wanted a ‘competitive’ and risk-happy City, as the Conservative government did, then getting rid of all the understandings and conventions that regulated the old City was entirely proper. The Big Bang undoubtedly reinforced the City’s international standing; but it encouraged ecstatic risk-taking everywhere – often via financial devices themselves intended to spread risk. It also encouraged, as in 1920s America, huge inflows of loose money that were hard to control and were usually seeking speculative returns. The Big Bang initiated the process by which the old merchant banks, still largely home-owned, passed into foreign ownership or simply disappeared. The result, whatever the intention, has been to make the British largely (and almost uniquely) indifferent both to who owns the country’s assets and to the purpose for which they are owned. (Since these assets had to be sold to cover ever widening current account deficits this is probably a mere quibble.) The inevitable accompaniment to the Big Bang was the deregulatory legislation of the 1990s which, among other things, allowed the mutual building societies to ‘demutualise’ and become banks.

Finally, and most important, the Conservative governments began the politicisation of British housing and its manipulation for electoral reasons. The desirability of owning one’s house has a long history in all English-speaking countries and there are good social arguments for private ownership. But there is a thin line between social desirability and political calculation, and Thatcher crossed it with complete insouciance. The mandatory sale of council housing was pushed through not for social reasons (though many defended it on those grounds) but as a way of re-engineering the electorate. When Conservatives spoke, as they often did, of a ‘property-owning democracy’, what they had in mind was an owner-occupying, Tory-voting democracy. Thus the councils whose houses were compulsorily sold were not allowed to spend the proceeds on new social housing, since that would create more Labour voters. New housing was almost always privately built – i.e. rationed. Since demand could never be met, owner-occupiers achieved an effortless rise in asset-wealth and privately built housing was increasingly used as security for consumption on credit. Again, that was its purpose. Although the rhetoric of Thatcherism was ‘productionist’ – thrift, hard work and so on – what it actually stood for was private consumption.

The housing boom of the late 1980s, ending, as it was bound to do, in the recession of 1990-91, eventually did for the Conservative government. In their criticisms of Labour’s ‘credit bubble’, Cameron and Osborne are right only to the extent that Labour further refined the politicisation of housing and carried it to its logical electoral conclusion. But there is no evidence that the Tories would have acted differently. Labour didn’t invent the credit bubble.

The banking crisis has understandably caught the Conservatives on the hop, and Cameron’s responses have been pretty incoherent. Much of what he recommended with confidence even a few weeks ago now sounds dated – as he knows. Fundamentally, he is trying to adjust Thatcherism to inappropriate political and economic circumstances. Thus he wants light regulation; he is opposed to forced nationalisation of financial institutions; he wishes somehow or other to cut taxes; he still believes in the overriding efficacy of the market as against the state; he is a man whose sympathies lie wholly with finance and financial institutions – probably inevitable in someone whose experience of life outside Parliament was a brief stint in a PR firm. He has, however, committed the Conservative Party to Labour’s current spending plans; he has reluctantly admitted that nationalisation of banks could be defensible (the sight of savers struggling to open accounts in Northern Rock must have shaken the faith of every committed free-marketeer); he has conceded that taxes might have to rise given the ‘mess’ his party will certainly inherit. In other words, he is all at sea. The banking crisis has undermined the whole edifice of Tory policy, which was founded on high levels of public expenditure plus a deregulated economy – i.e. exactly the same assumptions as New Labour’s, but tweaked in an even more free-marketish way.

The events of the last few days, however, have driven him far from free-market triumphalism. In fact, he has had little option but to support the public recapitalisation of the banks. The banks themselves want it and nothing else seems likely to restore the money markets or the mental balance of increasingly irrational stock traders. He has done this with reasonable aplomb; even trying to snatch some moral credit by appearing as the scourge of the money-lenders; something the City probably won’t forget. But we don’t know whether this is merely a tactical switch – to be abandoned when the good times return – or an expression of genuine doubt about his political inheritance.

In either case Cameron needs to accept that Thatcherite Conservatism is not the only form of Conservatism, and doesn’t have a unique political legitimacy. What is the function of the Conservative Party? It is to defend inequality: to make acceptable the social and economic unfairness inherent in a predominantly capitalist economy; to preserve the interests and privileges of social elites. But historically it has not been committed to a particular strategy to fulfil these aims. Thatcher appears to have thought that she was the first ‘proper’ Tory prime minister since Chamberlain. But Chamberlain was not a proto-Thatcherite, and the predominant Conservatism of the last thirty years has been unlike any other in the history of the party. As its behaviour in the 1930s suggests, the party has always been prepared to allow an active role to the state if circumstances required. It has not always given primacy to the unfettered market: indeed, it has hardly ever done so. And it hasn’t always been the party of banking and finance – and to the extent that it has been, it was in its role as the party of property rather than of finance. In the past, powerful forces within the party have aimed to divorce it from finance. Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for protection before the First World War had precisely this intention; by 1914 the protectionists had won control of the party – and they kept it in the interwar years. Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were products of that campaign. In Chamberlain’s case it simply ran in the family.

The Tories have had recourse to many specious slogans in the defence of inequality. One was ‘fairness’. Believing that Conservatism actually stood for fairness was doubtless naive on the electorate’s part, but it wasn’t wholly absurd. Until recently the party was reluctant to be seen sanctioning displays of conspicuous unearned wealth, but the difficulty with the economics it has espoused in the last thirty years is that unfairness and the display of conspicuous unearned wealth are intrinsic to it. That is its point. And this is what landed the party in so much trouble in the 1990s. There are no doubt many explanations for the debacle of 1997, but the deliberate abandonment of ‘fairness’ and the open cultivation of unearned wealth was one. For a time Cameron could get away with being in a muddle. That he is not Labour is his strong suit, just as not being Conservative was Blair’s in 1997. But as he gets closer to the election and, even more, if he wins it, muddle will become increasingly disabling. The policies to which he is naturally drawn will almost certainly be discredited and in any case won’t work. If, on the other hand, he comes to see that the party has other traditions, less heretical than neo-Thatcherism, he is unlikely to lose support among the electorate or his own party membership. If he doesn’t, he risks either losing the next election or leading a government even more unsuccessful than the present one.

Events of the last year or so – certainly since the run on Northern Rock – have imposed several almost inescapable obligations on any responsible government. The first is the restoration of the regulatory systems that were set up in most Western countries just before or just after the Second World War. Everything suggests that light regulation or self-regulation of financial institutions never works. In the General Theory, Keynes said he expected the state increasingly to determine the patterns of investment because the state, unlike everyone else, can take the long view. Keynes went further than we would want to go, but it is surely correct that among economic actors the state is best placed to arbitrate between differing and often antithetical economic interests and best able to regulate financial systems dominated by short-term decisions. What has happened in Britain and America is that the state has abdicated its responsibilities to such agents as the Financial Services Authority, whose regulatory touch has indeed been light. The question is how much of the regulatory regime can be re-established. Demutualised mortgage lenders can be remutualised only with difficulty, but they should at least be subject to adequate regulation, whether by the Bank of England or the FSA. Even if it is unlikely that the present political class will entirely restore the credit discipline of the 1950s, when governments controlled access to credit by fiat, something like it seems unavoidable.

The second inescapable obligation is the return of housing to its proper function: as providing places to live in rather than to speculate on. The relationship of housing to politics in both Britain and the United States is not fully understood even by those who transformed it. They don’t understand it because that would require confronting awkward facts about Anglo-American democracy. Fundamentally, private housing has become a compensation for the increasingly gross maldistribution of income. Inadequate incomes mean that large numbers of people don’t have access to the style of life that has always been the ultimate justification of neoliberalism and to which, reasonably enough, they now believe they have a right. What does give them access to it (in the short term) is credit. But credit has to be secured, and that’s what housing does. However, it works only if house prices keep rising and people have enough income to repay debt. When prices stop going up and people can no longer repay what they owe, the financial system begins to disintegrate. This is what has happened; and it has happened because we have replaced something like social democracy with credit democracy, or universal access to credit, and credit is a thoroughly inadequate substitute because sooner or later it has to be repaid. Which means that people’s incomes have to be sufficient to repay it, and in many cases they aren’t. What we have put in place is a dynamically destructive cycle. The number of houses is rationed in order to force up prices; people buy houses in order to secure credit on the strength of those prices; this encourages a heady belief in perpetual profit and thus both risky lending and risky borrowing; this renders the banking system unstable; and lending both to individuals and among banks then collapses. Such a cycle involves a paradox. Since these credit democracies still hold elections, governments are forced to underwrite savers at the expense of creditors and stockholders. And if savers are also small shareholders, as many are, the price they pay for protecting their deposits is the devaluation of their shares. This is absolutely not what was originally intended. The rationing of house building has one other consequence: it means that many cannot acquire somewhere adequate to live.

As a way out of this, stricter regulation, though necessary, is not enough. Governments must restore house building to something like postwar levels. When Richard Crossman was housing minister in the 1960s, some 400,000 houses were built every year, most of them council houses. In the last few years the number has scarcely exceeded 150,000. This year it is unlikely to reach half that level, and little of it will be social housing. Increased house-building programmes would both stop the development of credit bubbles based on artificially inflated house values and would have a ‘public works’ effect as an expansionary mechanism should the economy go into serious recession. The housing market obviously has to be restored – some want to sell and others want to buy – but not on the pattern of the last thiry years.

Governments must also reduce the demand for private credit. Since it is unlikely that people will lower their lifestyle expectations very much, and since falling house prices diminish their value as security, the only way demand for credit can be reduced is by increasing the income of those who want it. That is something any British government would hate to do because it involves redistribution, which in turn involves the taxation of high incomes. But if there isn’t to be some form of income redistribution, we will be back on the same old treadmill.

British governments, of whatever party, should also think carefully about our relationship with the United States. It is largely one-sided, has been very damaging and has left the political class in a world of illusions, a world where above-weight-punching is thought indispensable. Gordon Brown has been careful to emphasise that the banking crisis had its origins in the US. In one sense that is self-evident: almost any crisis in American banking is going to be a crisis in Europe. But it is an error to assume that the lending and borrowing practices of the demutualised societies in Britain, or Brown’s role in encouraging those practices, were immaterial. The run on Northern Rock was, after all, the first and so far the only serious run on any bank anywhere. Equally immaterial, Brown would like us to think, is his own profound admiration for the economic and financial system of the United States. Although our own bankers hardly needed it as a model, it has been New Labour’s model, whether Brown admits it or not, as it has been the Conservatives’. If the crisis induces the government to increase its distance from the United States and display greater scepticism as to its financial and economic virtues, that is only to the good. But it will be difficult for New Labour, since the ideological superiority of the US over ‘Europe’ has been central to its formation. And it will be even more difficult for the Conservatives. If anything, their illusions are stronger, heightened by the party’s infantile and dangerous Europhobia. It has been under Cameron (who must surely know better) that the Conservatives have threatened to withdraw from the Christian Democratic grouping in the European Parliament and join the ratbags of the extreme right. Cameron might still be the favourite to win the next election, but the last few weeks, to the extent that they have forced disagreeable choices and unpalatable facts on him, have tested him more than anyone else.

9 October