2012 in review: The New Statesman on... identity

From the new patriotism to Ed Miliband's Jewish heritage, the best NS writing on identity.

Welcome to the fifth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on the media, is here.) 

After a year in which the Olympics revived the debate around patriotism and Britishness, today's theme is identity. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

The Olympics changed what it means to be a winner

A week after the opening of the Olympics and in the wake of the euphoria that greeted Mo Farah's first victory, the author and former England cricketer Ed Smith asked what the Games told us about modern Britain. Arguing that our vision of "a champion" was no longer defined by Thatcherite notions of "aggressive individualism", Smith held out the possibility that the Olympics could provide a basis for national renewal. 

The Olympics, however, is no longer really a sports tournament. Sport provides the surface and the pretext; the real point is the opportunity to reboot a city, perhaps even a country.

Olympics sceptics once used that fact as a criticism: look how detached the Games have become from sport, they complained. Yet if the Olympics aren’t about sport, the logic follows that Britain must have succeeded at something much more important. Perhaps we can’t yet be sure exactly what that is. But the prospect of finding out is thrilling.

Ed Miliband: the patriotism of a refugee

In a piece for our special issue in May on the British Jewish experience, Ed Miliband reflected on how his Jewish heritage helped shape his political beliefs.

Above all, what I see in so many parts of the Jewish community is a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it. Whatever people’s politics, that is so familiar from the upbringing my parents gave me.

I was not indoctrinated with Marxism. Nor was I brought up with religion. But I was given a sense that the world could be a better, fairer and different place. And we all have a duty in our own way and our own time to seek to make it so. 

Tale of a city: From hell to hipsville

A lifelong east Londoner, Bim Adewunmi explored how Hackeny, the borough that her mother warned her never to go to unaccompanied, became a playground for hipsters. 

There are still the distinctive Caribbean and African accents I remember but there are lots of younger Home Counties ones, too: it’s no coincidence that the Office for National Statistics reported an increase in Hackney’s white population between 2001 and 2007. Hackney is a very young London borough – second only to Newham – and it shows. Come Christmas, the streets empty as the non-natives go back to their parental homes for the break. They leave behind all her old people; and the lifelong Hackneyites come out to play.

"Plastic Brits" - and the Mail's struggle to decide who isn't British

Back in March, after the Daily Mail took to describing some foreign-born British athletes as "plastic Brits", British Future director Sunder Katwala probed the inconsistencies in the paper's approach. His prediction that the crowds at the Olympic stadium would "cheer for every athlete representing Team GB" proved prophetic.

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

Twelve per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring those born in this country (66 per cent), as a State of the Nation poll found.

They don't think they are Plastic Brits; instead, they fly their flags with pride.

The NS Profile: Tim Soutphommasane

In May, Ed Miliband transferred responsibility for Labour's policy review to Jon Cruddas, who has since invited a range of international thinkers to address the party on the subject of national identity. One of those was an Australian political philosopher, Tim Soutphommasane, whom I profiled for the NS in August. His call for Labour to develop a "nation-building story" and to "reclaim patriotism" from the right was a key influence on Miliband's "one nation" speech to the Labour conference. 

In Soutphommasane’s view, Ed Miliband could yet succeed where his Australian counterparts failed and develop a convincing “nation-building story”. “The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project,” he says.

In 1945, Clement Attlee campaigned on the promise of building a “new Jerusalem” in postwar Britain. Nearly 70 years later, a patriotic vow to “rebuild Britain” has the potential once again to sweep Labour to power.

Girls with toy guns and boys with doll's houses - what on earth is the problem?

After Swedish toy chain Top Toy produced a gender-reversed toy catalogue, Glosswitch explored the controversy and fear that the subject provokes. 

I don’t have particularly strict ideas about which toys my children should or shouldn’t play with, although I prefer it if said things are one, cheap and two, not mind-numbingly boring. I buy some things which are deemed to be for boys and some things which aren’t. This shouldn’t be a big deal, yet it is. Giving your children gifts that transgress “accepted” gender boundaries can be surprisingly controversial. Even so, those who object the most tend to be the same people who’ll tell you “but they’re only toys!” the minute you point out how rubbish the gender stereotyping that goes into all the advertising can be.

Ed Smith wrote of Mo Farah in the New Statesman: "When he crossed the line first, blowing a kiss to the crowd, we knew it for certain: London had a triumph on its hands." Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?