“The government has NO money!!!” – so erupted a speaker at a lunch at the House of Commons, and he brought down his fist so hard on the table the water glasses bounced into the air. As they landed, even I received the message that this was someone with a sense of conviction.
To be fair this wasn’t the first time I had come across Professor Tim Congdon: he was one of the first people to warn of the impending problems in the UK economy in a 1987 Channel 4 opinion piece just at the time when everyone else was congratulating themselves that the Thatcher government had achieved the holy grail of a deunionised, free market economy based upon borrowed money. People had been persuaded that everybody could be materially equal as long as you were up to your neck in debt but Congdon was intent on pricking that particular bubble. Much to everyone’s annoyance, he was right.
Fast forward some time from the tub-thumping House of Commons moment and Congdon is standing for the leadership of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) against Nigel Farage. He loses, but in the process has imbedded himself deeply into the early intellectual base of the party, mainly because he is usually right on economics. His main area of interest is how money dictates inflation. Or, more to the point, how the growth of borrowed money dictates inflation: the more borrowed money there is, the more inflation there is. It seems a self-evident truth but some are apt to violate it from time to time. The departure from this mantra led Congdon to become disappointed with Margaret Thatcher in the latter years of her premiership. Unforgivably, inflation had hardly changed, at some 10 per cent, at the end as at the beginning of her premiership, because according to Congdon she ignored the law of controlling broad money supply – it was a betrayal of his principles.
Congdon is famously unforgiving to people who contradict him on economic matters, especially when he believes himself to be uncontrovertibly right. But it isn’t out of a sense of hand-wringing fear that one wonders why he is so absent in UKIP’s public statements on economic policy even though he is officially UKIP’s economics spokesman. Perhaps even more interesting, why there are no economic policies on UKIP’s website? There is a long exposition on their position on tax, written by Godfrey Bloom MEP, but that is all. Bloom laces his text with classical references from Adam Smith through David Ricardo, Arthur Laffer and the Regan/Thatcher nexus. You get the feeling Aristotle is missing merely because there wasn’t enough room.
There are some economic principles within Bloom’s thesis: an acknowledgement of the UK’s chronic debt position, recognition of the rising UK interest bill and the desire to reduce taxes to increase the tax take. There is also the claim of being able to reduce government expenditure by £90bn a year without touching front-line services, including defence. There is advocacy of low and flat taxes and the idea that people are better than governments at spending their own money. If you shut your eyes and had it read out loud you would be forgiven for confusing it with a Conservative Party political broadcast (particularly if you left out the stuff about Europe but even that is beginning to harmonise).
What UKIP appeal to is what they would call common sense economics. They are “sound money” advocates: they see the economy like a PLC or a household. They certainly don’t advocate policies that would put them in the camp of those who would use that last hiding place of failed economic policy – currency devaluation – as a tool for economic management. The economist David Blanchflower would be shaking his head in disbelief at this omission, as though – in a famous similie -- they were going onto a golf course with only a driver and a putter in their bag.
On the surface you could be forgiven for assuming that if the UKIP economic thesis, such as it is, could be brought together into something with specific implementation points, there would be many in the clubs up and down Pall Mall and the wine bars of the City of London nodding in agreement with the principles evinced. But this forgets that proper capitalists don’t necessarily want sound money policies: they may welcome low taxes but in capitalist societies all profits are financed through a lavish debt cycle which is the antimatter of sound money and, by extension, of Tim Congdon. Rapacious and calculating capitalists beset by cold ambition for profit would rather see a party in power which lets society at large flash the cash than one that saved up for an indulgence sometime in the future. So to say that the City, or business generally, would automatically welcome UKIP on the basis of ostensibly right-wing policies is too simplistic.
The right isn’t synonymous with capitalists and capitalism isn’t synonymous with financial temperance. In fact, arguably, the opposite is true and may be what is needed in the future. UKIP have a problem.