The summer of broken boundaries

The West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s inspired great pride in Britain’s black youth. A

Some years ago, I was returning late at night to a London hotel. As I stepped out of the taxi, I realised that the man emerging from the cab ahead of mine had, even in silhouette, an unmistakably fluid gait. Clive Lloyd was shorter than I had imagined, but as he loped towards me I stuck out my hand. "Thank you," I said. I wasn't sure how to explain why I was thanking him but he smiled genially and went on his way, as if no explanation were necessary.

Lloyd was the captain of the all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. He was a man blessed with a dignity that opponents immediately respected and he also possessed the diplomatic skills that enabled him to lead and discipline a group of supremely talented individuals who hailed from Jamaica in the north to Guyana in the south. Under his captaincy, the West Indies cricket team developed into the finest team in the world and a source of great pride not only for those in the Caribbean but for many in Britain.

Between 1948 and 1962, nearly quarter of a million West Indians migrated to Britain. The possibility of improved employment and educational opportunities in the "mother country" encouraged thousands to pack up their belongings and chance a future on the other side of the Atlantic. It is now part of the national narrative that this pioneer generation was not welcomed into the bosom of British society with open arms. Samuel Selvon's novel The Lonely Londoners (1956) superbly captures the grim weather, hard faces and social isolation that greeted many of these hopeful migrants. As the myth of British "fair play" was cast aside and the realities of prejudice and discrimination became evident, West Indians were able to comfort themselves by looking to the increasingly skilful displays of their cricketers, whose visits to Britain began to have a kind of ambassadorial significance.

In 1950, the West Indies team, under the stew­ardship of a white captain, achieved a notable series victory in England, and the team was immortalised in a Lord Kitchener calypso refrain, "Cricket, lovely cricket". However, when the team visited again in 1957, it was soundly defeated. It returned in 1963, this time with a black captain, Frank Worrell, and there were now enough West Indians in Britain to ensure significant groups of supporters at all grounds. A carnival-like following greeted the team both on and off the pitch.

As a five-year-old, I knew all about Garfield Sobers, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, Wes Hall, Rohan Kanhai, Charlie Griffith, Conrad Hunte and the other players, for in my house these were names that were whispered with an almost biblical reverence. When the West Indies came to play at Headingley in Leeds, the door to the house seemed to be open to a permanent crush of relatives and guests. I remember the excitement as my parents prepared to go out to a celebratory dance at which the players would be present. My own sporting world was dominated by Leeds United and an admiration for Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner. However, I understood that my parents were tolerating, not encouraging, my passion for this inelegant sport.

Much to their disappointment, I never developed a schoolboy passion for either watching or playing cricket. After all, the Yorkshire I grew up in firmly rejected the idea of anybody who hadn't been born in Yorkshire playing for the county. While other teams were eager to sign up "foreign" players from home and abroad, Yorkshire County Cricket Club remained stubbornly insular. By the mid-1970s, however, cricket had once again caught my attention. It was not English county cricket that had fired my imagination, but the exploits of the latest incarnation of the West Indies team.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, it became clear that the second generation - the children of the pioneering migrants - was not being properly assimilated into British society. Clashes with the police, exacerbated by overuse of the "sus" laws (which enabled the police to stop and search individuals at random), plus underachievement in the education system and discrimination in employment practices, had left a generation of black Britons feeling frustrated. But this generation was determined that it would not be pushed around. Britain was home and, as the poet Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in." He might have added "whether they want to or not".

As the second generation began to assert its British identity, it also searched for its "roots". While some turned to Africa, most looked to the islands that their parents had migrated from. Reggae music provided the soundtrack for the times. The second generation also looked to the West Indies cricket team, which, under Lloyd's leadership, was shaking off the pejorative label of "calypso cricketers" and establishing itself as an intimidating and commanding side.

Nineteen seventy-six was a crucial year. The West Indies team, having soundly defeated India in a home Test series, arrived in England. The unusually hot weather provided the backdrop for the visit of a confident team that, in Test after Test, tore into England. Before the start of the series, England's South African-born captain, Tony Greig, had unwisely declared that he hoped to make the West Indians "grovel". The team regarded this as a grave insult. As Vivian Richards puts it: "We took it seriously. Very, very seriously."

Soon enough, the uncompromising aggression that the West Indies team was displaying on the cricket field was being mirrored on
the streets of Britain. Throughout the spring and summer, tension between the black community and the police had been rising. This culminated in violent disturbances at the Notting Hill Carnival in August.

What Stevan Riley's new documentary, Fire in Babylon, makes clear is the extent to which the West Indian cricketers were aware of what was happening in Britain and the role they were playing in this chapter of British social history. "If the West Indies lose," says Michael Holding, "[West Indians] are even afraid to go to work because they know that their workmates will start abuse." Gordon Greenidge talks of wanting "to give the West Indians in England something to hold on to". Lloyd, Richards and Andy Roberts echo these sentiments with quietly stated eloquence and talk about their responsibility towards the people "who were looking up to you".

This sense of a link between West Indian cricket and British social history (and inequality) had already been established by Learie Constantine, who played Lancashire league cricket in the 1930s and also represented the West Indies. In 1954, Constantine published a book on racial prejudice in Britain entitled Colour Bar. Worrell had spoken out about the conditions facing West Indian immigrants in the 1950s. But 1976 proved to be a perfect storm, when the brashness of black British youth was married to the fearless determination of a young West Indian cricket team, as the empire struck back.

The West Indies team continued to dominate the game for another decade, during which time the second generation began slowly to enter the media, politics and the professions. Second-generation civil unrest on the streets of Britain continued into the 1980s, but as the hinge of generation continued to turn, black British youths began to move further away from the Caribbean, in their imaginations and loyalties. When Norman Tebbit proposed his "cricket test" in 1990, it was already irrelevant as the clumsy words fell from his lips.

It is now 35 years since Lloyd's touring team filled a generation with pride. In a Britain that was still plagued with social and economic problems and that seemed to have lost sight of us - its non-white citizens - as being anything other than a problem, the West Indies team of 1976 appeared as a resolute army, with power and creative genius in equal measure. It was fired by more than just a will to win; there was also the responsibility of representation that, to them, appeared not to be a burden. Indeed, thank you.

Caryl Phillips's next book, "Colour Me English", will be published by Harvill Secker in August
“Fire in Babylon" (12A) is on nationwide release from 20 May

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt