The afterlife of Brian

Does a 30-year-old blasphemy row still have relevance today?

More than 30 years on, the controversy surrounding the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian seems more than a bit ridiculous -- a fit subject for a comedy. Certainly, the BBC thinks so: Holy Flying Circus, based on those events, will be broadcast on BBC4 in a few weeks. Taking centre stage is a recreation of a notorious TV debate in which the Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin took on a fired-up Malcolm Muggeridge, who denounced the film as "squalid", and the slightly milder Bishop of Southwark, who predicted that the team would "get their 30 pieces of silver".

That event (you can watch extracts on YouTube) is indeed rich in comic potential. The bishop, all wild hair and purple cassock, waves around an enormous silver cross. Muggeridge (in his day a significant public figure, though few now remember him) just looks demented. Palin looks, at times, genuinely distressed. The show was parodied shortly afterwards on Not the Nine O'Clock News but the original is much funnier.

At the time, though, the debate was deadly serious. Life of Brian was banned in several US states and a number of countries (including Ireland, in those days still virtually a theocracy -- and we all know how well that turned out). There were protests, too, in Britain, co-ordinated by the Festival of Light, an evangelical group associated with Mary Whitehouse. After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the BBFC to ban the film, the group masterminded a letter-writing campaign to local authorities. Thirty-nine responded by banning or reclassifying it.

There was even talk of bringing a private prosecution for blasphemy -- sufficiently serious for the team to take legal advice from John Mortimer QC, who had led the defence in Whitehouse's earlier, successful prosecution of Gay News.

It wasn't the Satanic Verses, nowhere near, but the principles at stake were the same. On one side, freedom of expression and the right to treat religion with not greater reverence than, say, politics or literature. On the other, the view that one shouldn't make fun of religion, either because it annoys God or, more pragmatically, because believers tend to get quite upset. The issues remain, sadly, as topical as ever.

Yet it can be hard, today, to see what all the fuss was about. Partly, that's because the film is such a classic. It has given immortal phrases to the English language: "Blessed are the cheesemakers"; "What have the Romans ever done for us?"; "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy." After all these years, it's still extremely funny; but the religious satire has largely lost its power to shock. In some ways, it has almost become an object of veneration in its own right, as one of the greatest comic films ever made, a high point of British popular culture.

Blasphemy, too, has gone, at least as a crime in British law. After a last, failed attempt to revive it in the case of Jerry Springer: the Opera, the ancient law of blasphemous libel was quietly euthanised in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It was probably the campaign against Jerry Springer (led by Stephen Green of the small pressure group Christian Voice) that nudged the then government into repealing the law. There was a rearguard action in both the Lords and Commons to preserve it but the illogicality of the blasphemy law was well summed up by the late (and much missed) Earl of Onslow: "If God does not exist, nothing will happen; if he does exist, it is up to him to get hold of the chap who wrote it and make sure that he does time in the diabolical house of correction."

Stephen Green is a much more marginal figure than Mary Whitehouse and the Church of England is no longer much of a force in the land. The same government that repealed the blasphemy law, however, introduced a new crime of "religious hatred", replacing the fear of insulting God with that of insulting believers. The talk is of mutual respect and social cohesion. Where insult is perceived, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the believer and the belief.

Here, Life of Brian remains as subversive as ever. If not an overt attack on Christianity, the film is devastating in its satire of religious behaviour. Blasphemy is parodied in the famous stoning scene. Just as pointed, in its own way, is the depiction of a would-be disciple who thinks that Brian will heal his wife's headache because "her brother-in-law is the ex-mayor of Gath". The scene in which Brian flees from a crowd of would-be worshippers manages to encapsulate the whole history of religion in around three minutes.

Brian himself is something of a holy fool. Though naive, and far more interested in getting off with Judith than in either revolution or starting a religion, he sees with more clarity than any of the idiots, charlatans and human sheep that constitute the local population. In some ways, he may indeed be the Messiah:

Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me! You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!

Life of Brian is about much more than just religion. All human life is there: at least, all human folly, which is to say much the same thing. It's a film about human vanity and stupidity, about pretension and wishful thinking, about people's almost irresistible tendency to think inside the box. The grammar-obsessed Roman centurion who forces Brian to write "Romans go home!" in huge letters all over the city wall as a punishment for getting his inflections muddled up is as caught up in his own self-referential universe as Reg, the all-too-recognisable leader of the People's Front of Judea, whose idea of defeating the might of Imperial Rome is to pass resolutions and inveigh against the "splitters" in the Judean People's Front.

Religion, in this wider context, is just another manifestation of human stupidity. Subversive indeed.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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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?