Sunday, October 19, 2008

Zeitgeist Surfing

I’m giving up television production and learning brick-laying. If I read Alistair Darling’s “spend our way out of the recession” plans correctly, soon the only jobs going will be on building sites. After the Olympic site, Crossrail and Heathrow’s third runway, the odds on getting the A1 north of Morpeth “dualised” have risen dramatically.

This return to Keynesian-style economics is predictable. The worst thing the Government could do is sit and wait for unemployment to hit three million and the recession to walk right into Middle England’s living rooms; especially with an election due in 2010.

We all mocked when Darling predicted the scale of the crisis. Now, with Brown the Hero of the Western World, the Chancellor is preparing us for the second phase of the drama. The stock market was eerily calm last Friday, but we’re really only in the eye of the hurricane. There’s worse to come.

One surprising outcome of this maelstrom has been the lack of any constructive response from the Conservatives. Apart, that is, from David Cameron’s ludicrous assertion on Friday that the crisis is Gordon Brown’s fault. A claim so hypocritical it’s almost breathtaking. Apart from the fact that it was Cameron’s city cronies who were the lead architects of the malaise, if any single political leader is to blame for the events that have engulfed us it’s Margaret Thatcher, whose policies started the process that led directly to the current crisis.

Actually I don’t actually blame Thatcher at all. For this would give politicians far more credit than they deserve. Thatcher didn’t invent the economic revolution; like all great politicians, she sensed a swing in public mood and then ran with the flow. Thatcher’s legacy served us pretty well for the subsequent twenty years, so could anyone seriously expect Brown to suddenly shout out “Hang on a minute, let’s stop people spending so much”? Even though the signs of impending doom have been there for years, you can’t really blame him for not putting on the brakes. Let’s be honest, we’re the ones who ran up the credit card bills and extended our mortgages, not him.

This month the tide has caught up with Brown. He’s the right man at the right time, and it’s making the Cameron/Osborne duo look like irritable schoolboys. Brown’s problem is that this performance will only run for a limited season. When we come out of the eye of the hurricane, when manufacturing shuts down and service industries go bust, it’s everyone to the lifeboats. So spending our way out of the problem is, for him, the only solution. If he can avoid a deep recession, my hunch is that we’ll see an election by next Spring.

If I’m wrong, and Brown hangs on for the inevitable economic upturn in 2010, then it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out on top. Brown’s public image is perfect for these dour, gloomy times. But the trick for both parties will be to predict the future. I’ve written in this blog before that television producers try to predict national mood swings – a colleague of mine called it “zeitgeist surfing”. We create ideas that we hope will hit a popular nerve by the time they become programmes. Likewise with politics. The leaders who go down in history are those, like Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, who successfully match their policies to the mood of the nation.

So what will be our frame of mind in 2010? I foresee two possibilities. One is we’ll all need a jolly good party; shares in Mothercare and breweries will go up, and the Tories could do a lot worse than installing Boris as leader. Alternatively, we might just crave a new era of social responsibility. In which case, Brown needs to learn how to smile, and Cameron will have the uphill task of creating a new, caring persona.

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