We were warned

It's turning into a golden autumn for <strong>Gordon Brown</strong> - but it would have been a bette

Credit where credit is due - and you have to say that a £37bn injection of cash into high-street banks is one shedload of credit - Gordon Brown has had a good autumn. There is a year between Brown's darkest night as Prime Minister when he called off "the election that never was" (Friday 5 October 2007) and the announcement of the government's part-nationalisation of the banking system (Wednesday 8 October 2008). When students of history come to study this period, which of these momentous events will define this government's legacy? Which, if either, of these decisions was wise?

The conventional wisdom may turn out to be wrong in both cases. It is by no means settled that Brown was wrong to cancel the election. What if Labour had scraped home in a snap election last November? Would a hobbled government working with a reduced majority have been better placed to deal with the present economic situation? And, there was the real prospect that David Cameron's novices might have ended up in charge during the credit crunch, an even scarier prospect.

Will the bank bailout prove to be the correct decision? It was right, morally, to protect the general public from the ravages of the credit crunch by shoring up the institutions that hold their savings. But there is no guarantee that the measures to "recapitalise" the banks, announced on 13 October, will work in the long term. At his press conference, Brown was uncompromising in his criticism of market speculators, a point he pushed home when speaking to City figures later in the day, saying there should be no "unfair incentives for irresponsibility or excessive risk-taking for which the rest of us have to pay". But there has been little talk from the Prime Minister or the Chancellor about the consequences politicians should face for the risks they have taken with our money.

To be fair, they haven't often been asked. When the question was put directly to Brown at his Thomson Reuters lecture to the City, he answered in the only way he could: ultimately he has to bear responsibility.

The Prime Minister insists we should look on the billions being spent on the banks not as debt, but as an investment in essentially robust institutions. Almost everyone, from Labour's hard left to the City, is united in their support for the measures, but it is hard to imagine being persuaded by such an investment in any other circumstances.

"It's like this," says your friendly government financial adviser. "We want you to put £37bn, that's almost three times the budget for primary schools, into these institutions. We admit they have already been extremely irresponsible with their customers' money and that the management of these banks is seriously flawed and their top-heavy bonus system is a scandal. We have been slow to introduce the necessary safeguards to stop them gambling away your hard-earned cash and we cannot guarantee a good return. But, despite what you may have heard recently, shares do go up as well as down."

Already, the Prime Minister has stated there now needs to be a "second wave" of measures to shore up the system with far-reaching reforms to ensure that nothing like this happens again. As we go to press, Brown is telling EU leaders in Brussels that there should be a thorough overhaul of the international banking system, which would include increased transparency, an end to the culture of speculative incentives and reform of the International Monetary Fund.

Gordon Brown's reinvention as a European is one of a series of ironies. Brown has always been determined to win over the Europeans to his "British model" of economic management: that is, the liberalisation of markets, an end to subsidies, an openness to globalisation, increased competition. In short, the Americanisation of the European economies. He has now found his opportunity to lord it over Europe, just as the American model has been shown to fail.

There is a notion around that Brown has been looking with disapproval for some time at the excesses of the market. But, until he became Prime Minister, Brown chaired the International Monetary and Financial Committee, an advisory body to the IMF's board of governors, which is responsible for "supervising the management and adaptation of the international monetary and financial system, reviewing developments in global liquidity . . . and dealing with disturbances that might threaten the system". Take a look at his October 2005 encomium to the global economy, Global Europe: Full Employment Europe. This was a Treasury paper written almost as the economic manifesto for Britain's presidency of the European Union. Not much sign of caution in this document, which called for the EU to adopt a "risk-based approach to regulation" by rewriting the EU's "enormous and unwieldy rule book". Brown argues for stricter regulation now, but then he was militating for something quite different. He was a crusader for the "British model" in Europe. See, too, his Mansion House speech of June 2005 "Global Britain, Global Europe: a presidency founded on pro-European realism", or his 2006 Treasury paper The Case for Open Markets: How Increased Competition Can Equip Europe for Global Change.

The Prime Minister is now keen to reform the IMF to create "a new international financial architecture for the global age". In his Thomson Reuters lecture, Brown announced: "With the same courage and foresight of [its] founders, we must now reform the international financial system around agreed principles of transparency, integrity, responsibility, good housekeeping across borders." This, he said, would act as a global early warning system, a kind of economic tsunami alert, rather than leaving the IMF to mop up after the event.

Brown has pushed the line that it gives him "no comfort" that he has been proposing such reforms for some time. Yet the international institutions he now criticises have been warning for some time about the dangers of the "British model". In fact, the IMF issued just such an "early warning" about Brown's stewardship of the British economy more than 18 months ago.

The chilling prediction can be found in a publicly available IMF document dated March 2007 with the technical title "United Kingdom 2006, Article IV Consultation, Staff Report; Public Information Notice on the Executive Board Discussion; and Statement by the Executive Director for United Kingdom". Such country reports are produced each year as a result of discussions between the IMF and individual nations.

Brown's assiduous biographer, Simon Lee of Hull University, noticed the warning signals contained in the report. He wrote last year, in his book Best for Britain?: the Politics and Legacy of Gordon Brown, "as the IMF has noted, by encouraging the UK economy to become even more linked to global financial markets, the British model has increased the vulnerability of the UK economy to global risks and contagion".

The report warned of the UK's high levels of household debt, not something the Prime Minister can blame on global markets, and it noted the UK housing market was overpriced and could be heading for a crash. More crucially, it contained a warning of "the gap between customer lending and customer funding through deposits" leading to a reliance on the wholesale markets - precisely what brought down Northern Rock.

When the business journalists reported the IMF's findings on 5 March last year they concentrated on the headline statement that Britain's economic performance remained "impressive". But that was a historical judgement. A far more significant part of the report concluded: "Given these growing cross-country linkages, global risks are particularly important to the UK financial system, more for their potential severity than for their likelihood of being realised."

In other words, it probably won't happen, but if it does, the British financial system will be hit very hard indeed.

Well, it did happen. And the IMF's early warning system had sounded the alarm. In bilateral discussions, the UK was warned in March 2007 that our system was particularly vulnerable to shocks in the international markets precisely because of Britain's unique links to those markets. The government simply chose not to listen.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is Britain about to leave the European Union?

A series of bad polls have pro-Europeans panicked. Are they right?

Is this what Brexit looks like? A batch of polls all show significant movement towards a Leave vote. ORB, a phone pollster, has Leave up four points to 46 per cent, with Remain’s leave cut to four points. ICM’s online poll has Leave up three points, putting Brexit ahead of Remain by 52 per cent to 48 per cent once don’t-knows are excluded. ICM’s phone poll shows Leave up six points, a Brexit lead of three points.

That two phone polls are showing advances for Leave are particularly significant, as telephone polling has tended to show lower figures for Brexit. There is a lively debate over which method, phone or online, is likely to be more effective at predicting the referendum, although no-one knows for certain at the present time.

In any case, whether on the telephone or the Internet, the latest polls have pro-Europeans worried, and Brexiteers jubilant. Who’s right?

There are reasons to start trusting the polls, at least as far as voter ID is concerned

So far, the performances of the political parties in local elections and by-elections has been about par with what we’d expect from the polls. So the chances are good that the measures taken post-2015 election are working.

Bank holidays are always difficult

I would be deeply cautious of reading too much into three polls, all of which have been conducted over the bank holiday weekend, a time when people go out, play with their kids, get wasted or go away for a long weekend. The last set of bank holiday polls gave Ed Miliband’s Labour party  large leads, well outside the average, which tended to show the two parties neck-and-neck.

Although this time they might be more revealing than we expect

One reason why the polls got it wrong in 2015 is they talked to the wrong type of people. The demographic samples were right but they were not properly representative. (Look at it like this – if my poll includes 18 actors who are now earning millions in cinema, I may have a representative figure in terms of the total number of Britain’s millionaires – but their politics are likely to be far to the left of the average British one percenter, unless the actor in question is Tom Conti.)

Across telephone and online, the pollsters talked to people who were too politically-motivated, skewing the result: Ed Miliband’s Labour party did very well among young people for whom Thursday night was a time to watch Question Time and This Week, but less well among young people for whom Thursday is the new Friday.  The polls had too many party members and not enough party animals.

But the question no-one can answer is this: it may be that differential turnout in the European referendum means that a sample of hyper-politicos is actually a better sample than an ordinary poll. Just as the polls erred in 2015 by sampling too many political people, they may be calling the referendum wrong in having too many apolitical people.

These three polls aren’t the scariest for Remain released today

IpsosMori released a poll today, taken 15 days ago and so free from any bank holiday effect, without a referendum voting intention question, but one taking the temperature on which issues the British public believe are the most important of the day.

Far from growing more invested in the question of Britain’s European Union membership as the campaign enters its terminal phase, concern about the European Union has flatlined at 28 per cent – within the margin of error of last month’s IpsosMori survey, which put Britain at 30 per cent. The proportion who believe that it is the biggest single issue facing Britain today also remains static at 16 per cent. Evidence of the high turnout necessary to avert Brexit seems thin on the ground.

Pro-Europeans should be further worried by the identity of the groups that are concerned about the European Union. Conservative voters, the over-65s and people from social grades A (higher managerial, administrative and professional workers) and B (intermediate managerial, administrative and professional workers), are more concerned about the European Union than the national average. The only one of those three groups that is more likely to favour Remain over Leave are ABers, while Conservative voters and the over-65s are likely to vote for Brexit over the status quo.

Among the demographics who are least concerned about the European Union, the only pro-Brexit group that is significantly less concerned about EU membership than the national average are people from social grades D (semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers) to E (state pensioners, casual workers and jobseekers). The other groups that are least concerned with the European Union are people who live in urban areas and people aged from 18 to 24, the two most pro-European demographics.

The prospects of a Brexit vote are rather better than the betting odds would suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.