Britain on the brink of a double-dip recession

GDP fell by 0.2 per cent in the final quarter of 2011.

In the end, it was even worse than expected. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that the economy shrunk by 0.1 per cent in quarter four of 2011 but this morning's preliminary figures show that it shrunk by 0.2 per cent. What's more, the detailed breakdown of the figures shows that without a rise in "government services" such as health and education, which were up by 0.4 per cent on the quarter, GDP would have fallen even faster, by 0.3 per cent. So much for a private sector-led recovery. Should the economy contract again in this quarter, Britain will officially be back in recession.

The negative figure was, as the Treasury noted, hardly unexpected. Indeed, George Osborne had prepared the ground in his Autumn Statement, warning that "if the rest of Europe heads into recession, it may prove hard to avoid one here in the UK." But that does not make it any more less unpalatable for the Chancellor. His 2010 promise of "a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment" is a distant dream. Unemployment is heading towards three million, debt has reached £1 trillion and, in the last year, the economy has grown by just 0.8 per cent, one of the slowest rates in Europe. Conversely, over the previous year, partly thanks to Labour's fiscal stimulus, the economy grew by 1.6 per cent.

The lack of growth will make it even harder for Osborne to meet his deficit reduction targets, forcing him to add to the £158bn of extra borrowing already announced. It will also, inevitably, revive speculation that the UK could lose its AAA credit rating. Explaining its recent decision to downgrade the ratings of nine eurozone countries, Standard & Poor's cited concerns over growth, not borrowing. "A reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating," it warned. And in the case of Britain, there is plenty to be concerned about.

In political terms, however, today's figures may change little. Osborne will continue to stand by his deficit reduction plan and Labour will (rightly) continue to argue that the government is cutting "too far, too fast". As you were, then. But while the Chancellor will probably be able to shrug off one quarter of negative growth it would be a lot harder for him to explain away the first double-dip recession since 1957. The pressure for a change of course could then become irresistible.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times