Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

If Europe wants Thatcherism, it must abandon austerity

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 11, 2013 16:43 UTC

Among all the obituaries and encomiums about Margaret Thatcher, very few have drawn the lesson from her legacy that is most relevant for the world today. Lady Thatcher is remembered as the quintessential conviction politician. But judged by her actions rather than her rhetoric, she was actually much more compromising and pragmatic than the politicians who now dominate Europe. And it was Thatcher’s tactical flexibility, as much as her deep convictions, that accounted for her successes in the economic field.

Governments in Europe and Britain today are obsessed with hitting preordained and unconditional targets: Inflation must be kept below 2 percent; deficits must be reduced to 3 percent of gross domestic product; government debt must be set on a declining path; banks must be recapitalized to arbitrary ratios laid down by some committee in Basel. In sacrificing their citizens’ well-being and their own political careers to these numerical totems, modern leaders often claim inspiration from Thatcher. And when voters turn against them, Europe’s leaders keep repeating Thatcher’s most famous slogans, “There is no alternative” and “No U-turn”.  But are these the right lessons to draw from Thatcher’s political life? A closer look at her economic achievements suggests otherwise.

In the 20 years she spent in parliament before becoming prime minister, Thatcher first saw Harold Wilson’s Labour government wrecked by currency crises and trade union militancy; then Ted Heath ousted by a miners’ strike; and finally James Callaghan humiliated by the 1976 sterling crisis and driven out of office by the wave of public-sector strikes that came to be called the “winter of discontent.” After these searing experiences, her immediate priority on becoming prime minister was to turn British monetary management and labor relations upside down. Yet her actions were much more cautious and pragmatic than her rhetoric.

In fact, the Thatcher revolution started with a huge tactical surrender: Within two months of taking office, she gave the public-sector unions that had brought the country to a standstill pay raises averaging 21 percent. This huge award resulted in the biggest increase in inflation in British history – from 10 percent when Thatcher took over to 22 percent a year later (as measured by the retail price index). Controlling this inflationary upsurge required stratospheric interest rates and an overvalued currency. These, in turn, led to a trebling of unemployment and the collapse of many British manufacturing businesses. In response to this economic disaster, Thatcher quickly abandoned the monetary targets she had initially claimed as the lodestar of her economic policies. While Thatcher’s recession seemed to go on forever to Britons who lived through it in the early 1980s, her U-turn against austerity came dizzyingly fast by the standards of today’s obstinate politicians, especially those in Europe.

After just 18 months in office, Thatcher effectively abandoned the monetarist policies that are still often regarded as the bedrock of her economic philosophy. In the two years from the autumn of 1980, she slashed interest rates from 16 percent to 9 percent and presided over the biggest currency devaluation in British history, with the pound falling from $2.40 to $1.45. Ironically, this U-turn on macroeconomic policy began within weeks of her most famous rhetorical commitment to unyielding monetarist austerity, when she challenged the October 1980 Conservative Party conference: “You turn if you want to; the Lady’s not for turning.”

Even Britain has now abandoned austerity

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 21, 2013 16:09 UTC

The Age of Austerity is over. This is not a prediction, but a simple statement of fact. No serious policymaker anywhere in the world is trying to reduce deficits or debt any longer, and all major central banks are happy to finance more government borrowing with printed money. After Japan’s election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the undeclared budgetary ceasefire in Washington that followed President Obama’s victory last year, there were just two significant hold-outs against this trend: Britain and the euro-zone. Now, the fiscal “Austerians” and “sado-monetarists” in both these economies have surrendered, albeit for very different reasons.

Much attention has been focused this week on the chaos in Cyprus. Coming after the Italian election and subsequent easing of Italy’s fiscal conditions, the overriding necessity to keep Cyprus within the euro — and its military bases and gas supplies outside Russian control — will almost surely mean another retreat by Germany and the European Central Bank from their excessive austerity demands. But an even more remarkable shift has occurred in Britain. The Cameron government, which embraced fiscal austerity as its main raison d’etre, was suddenly converted to the joys of debt and borrowing in this week’s budget.

Of course, the rhetoric of British Chancellor George Osborne’s budget speech gave no hint of his Damascene conversion. On the contrary, it ridiculed “people who seem to think that the way to borrow less is to borrow more.” But Osborne’s trademark sneers could not disguise the meaning of the policies and numbers he presented.

The age of austerity is ending

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 28, 2013 15:35 UTC

Whisper it softly, but the age of government austerity is ending. It may seem an odd week to say this, what with the U.S. government preparing for indiscriminate budget cuts, a new fiscal crisis apparently brewing in Europe after the Italian election and David Cameron promising to “go further and faster in reducing the deficit” after the downgrade of Britain’s credit. But politics is sometimes a looking-glass world, in which things are the opposite of what they seem.

Discussing the outcome of Friday’s “sequestration” of U.S. government spending is best left to the month ahead, when we see how the public reacts to government cutbacks. But in Italy, Britain and the rest of Europe, this week’s events should help convince politicians and voters that efforts to reduce government borrowing, whether through public spending cuts or through tax hikes, are both politically suicidal and economically counterproductive.

In Italy, and therefore the entire euro zone, this shift is now almost certain. After the clear majority voted for politicians explicitly campaigning against austerity and what they presented as German economic bullying, further budget cuts or labor reforms in Italy are now off the agenda, if only because they would be literally impossible to implement. If Angela Merkel demands further budget cuts, tax hikes or labor reforms as a condition for supporting Italy’s membership of the euro, a majority of voters have given an unequivocal clear answer: Basta, enough is enough. Most Italians would rather leave the euro than accept any further austerity – and if Italy left the euro, total breakup of the single currency would follow with an inevitability that might not apply if the country exiting were Greece, Portugal or even Spain.

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