Brown’s Churchill moment

. . . on affordable debt, the dangers of exercise, and cricketing legends

It was said of Winston Churchill that he was wrong about nearly everything - particularly about opposing India's independence - but right about the thing that mattered most: the need to fight Hitler and Mussolini. Will something similar be said of Gordon Brown? Many believe, and I agree, that he should have nationalised the banks and taken an iron grip on bankers' pay. Yet on the main point, he has surely been vindicated. Despite the alarm about public finances, a recent £5bn sale of government debt, a record sum, sailed through in one day, with buyers for £3bn more turned away. The pound, far from collapsing as Brown's critics warned, has recovered in recent months and is now comfortably above parity with the euro. It is still well down over the past 12 months but, as most judges see it, at levels more helpful to British exporters.

As I have pointed out before, the national debt - currently 56 per cent of annual GDP and projected to rise to 76 per cent by 2013-2014 -
is not high by either international or historical standards. In 2008, Japan's debt was 170 per cent of GDP, Italy's 104 per cent, Germany's 65 per cent and the US's 61 per cent. Through most of the 20th century and much of the Victorian era, UK national debt was far higher than it is now. So what is Philip Hammond, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, talking about when he describes it as unsustainable and threatens early spending cuts if the Tories return to power? Even in more prudent times, banks and building societies routinely lent 300 per cent of annual income to individuals buying houses. Why should anyone regard the UK government as less creditworthy?

All the evidence suggests that the threat to our future stability lies in an early withdrawal of economic stimulus, not with a few years' delay in controlling the growth of national debt. Brown is roughly where Churchill was in 1942 after the fall of Singapore. Churchill went on for three more years, when the electorate rightly threw him out. Let's hope Brown can scrape enough seats - probably in a hung parliament - to stagger on into 2012. By then, we may be able to afford a spell of Tory government.

***
President Sarkozy's collapse while jogging in Versailles proves what I have always thought: exercise is dangerous. A brisk daily walk is quite sufficient to ensure sound health; other violent or sudden movements of the body are unnatural. Contrary to medical wisdom, I have never come to harm while drinking in pubs or eating lunch, with good wine, in restaurants. The only time I needed more than an odd day off work was when
I broke my foot while playing, of all things, badminton, essentially a sport for those who don't feel energetic enough for squash.

I did once suffer, like Sarkozy, a vasovagal syncope (the doctors' term for a faint), causing an ambulance to rush me to hospital, siren wailing. That was after a doctor told me I should stop eating cheese.

***
A new report on the insurance industry recommends an assessment of "the scope for a greater industry role in helping people deal with risks such as unemployment, ill-health, and the need for a retirement income or long-term care". This sounds, to my simple and suspicious mind, like a proposal for privatisation of the welfare state. That is hardly surprising from a working group which includes nine executives from companies such as Aviva, Standard Life, Legal & General and Prudential, all eager for new markets and further profit-making opportunities.

They are entitled to press their case. The group, however, was formed under the auspices of HM Treasury, and its tenth member (and
co-chair) was Alistair Darling. Can anybody explain why a Labour chancellor - who has other pressing issues to occupy him - should be assisting a private industry with what amounts to a lobbying campaign?

***

One naturally has mixed feelings about the departure of Sarah Palin - public life will seem so much duller without her - but I wonder if British ministers could take inspiration from her resignation. I think particularly of Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, who has a sufficiently scandal-free and expenses-lite record to make the principled resignation for which the country yearns and which I have urged on him for some months. As Palin says, it's tempting to "just kind of hunker down and go with the flow". But in her stirring words, "We're fishermen. We know that only dead fish go with the flow." (One might observe that, if Palin had continued with her pro-pollution policies, most fish in Alaska would indeed be dead.) In his long-awaited resignation, Miliband could echo Palin's rousing quotation from General Douglas MacArthur: "We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction."

***

The Times has just finished publishing its list of the top 100 performers in Ashes Tests down the years. It is based on some impenetrable statistical formula, which is quite obviously flawed. Nobody will argue with Shane Warne and Don Bradman getting the top two places, nor with Ian Botham being the top Englishman. But incredibly, Jim Laker, the England off-spinner, doesn't make the list at all. It is often said of Bradman's records that some will never be broken - his Test batting average of nearly 100, for example - but that is even more true of Laker's achievement in taking 19 Australian wickets for 90 at Old Trafford in 1956. In the series, which England won, he took 46 wickets, a record exceeded only by S F Barnes against South Africa. Laker also played a significant role in the Ashes series of 1953, taking five wickets in the final Test to secure
the urn for the first time in 20 years. Eventually, though, he became a BBC commentator. For that reason, he was probably left out of the Times list on Murdoch's orders.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005