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A winter of discontent

Official figures show that this is the longest, deepest recession since the war

Britain is the last major economy still in recession, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released today.

While the US, Japan, France, Germany and the rest of the eurozone have all come out the other side, we remain mired in recession. According to the ONS figures, the economy shrank by 0.2 per cent in the third quarter of this year (July to September).

Save your tears; there's more. This means that the economy has shrunk by 6.03 per cent in total since early 2008. The key part of that figure comes after the decimal point. That sneaky 0.03 per cent pushes the figure of decline just above the recession of the early 1980s, when there was a 6 per cent decline between 1979 and 1981.

I won't pretend that I remember the agonies of those early days of the Thatcher government, but the symbolism of the lost generation -- the three million unemployed -- and the collapse of businesses small and large still holds strong. It is shocking that this recession, here and now, has surpassed that, however incrementally.

There is another dubious honour, too. This is the sixth consecutive quarter in which the economy has contracted, taking us ahead of the last downturn, when the economy shrank for five quarters between 1990 and 1992. We are now in the longest recession since records began in 1955.

Why it so much worse here? It is difficult to say without falling into a debate that has become increasingly dominated by party politics in the run-up to the general election -- over whether to invest, in the Keynesian model, or to cut and bear the devastating consequences.

The particulars of the crisis that triggered it are fundamental, as are those of our economy. Certainly, Britain is disproportionately reliant on financial services and property investment, and Gordon Brown's comment in January that we are "well placed" to emerge from the downturn appears misguided at best.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope in the figures.

The 0.2 per cent contraction is better than the previous estimate of 0.3 per cent, which could imply that the current quarter -- the fourth of 2009 -- will mark a formal exit from the recession. This is the official expectation of the Bank of England and the government, though it is optimistic, and weak consumer spending may yet throw a spanner in the works.

With some economists predicting that unemployment could reach that three million figure in 2010, we must hope that today's are the last benchmarks that this recession passes.

 

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