False alarms and just deserts

The pundits are virtually unanimous. Alistair Darling, they say, hasn't done enough to show that Britain can reduce its £178bn budget deficit. Our credit rating will be downgraded and investors won't buy government bonds. It will then be impossible to service our debts.

Several things make me sceptical. First, a consensus among economic and financial "experts" is nearly always wrong. The last consensus was that booms no longer turn to busts. Second, we heard the same warnings about the deficit early this year. Since then, the government has sold £177bn of debt without difficulty, save for a brief blip in March.

Third, most alarm about the UK comes from the agencies that rank countries according to creditworthiness. These were arguably responsible for the financial crisis in the first place. They gave thousands of "structured instruments" a triple-A rating; these turned out to be so much junk, full of sub-prime mortgages. Why trust their judgement now? Fourth, because serious tax increases risk choking economic recovery, the only immediate way of reducing the deficit is to cut public services. Since the well-heeled folk who talk up the crisis have little use for such services and want to keep taxation low, this is mightily convenient for them.

What worked for Thatcher

If WMDs were just the best excuse Tony Blair could find for invading Iraq - as he implied in his interview with the BBC's Fern Britton - what was his real motive? Blair's answer, that he thought the world would be a better place without Saddam Hussein, doesn't really stack up. I think the world would be better without Rupert Murdoch, but that wouldn't justify me hiring a hit squad to achieve regime change at News International. Besides, Blair seems happy to associate with brutal regimes in the former Soviet republics, provided they'll pay him a five-figure sum to open a factory.

Nor am I convinced by the former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald, who argues that Blair was guilty of "sycophancy before power". At least initially, Blair was keener on overthrowing Saddam than was President Bush. Indeed, throughout his premiership, in Yugoslavia as well as Iraq, Blair seems to have goaded Washington to go further. The clue to his liking for wars lies, I suspect, in his early political career. He was chosen to fight his first parliamentary election, a by-election in the safe Tory seat of Beaconsfield, on 27 May 1982. Voting support for Margaret Thatcher's government hadn't been above 35 per cent in the opinion polls for more than a year, and had been only 23 per cent the previous December. Then came the Falklands: Tory support soared above 40 per cent, the Labour vote in Beaconsfield was halved and Blair lost his deposit. In short, he received an early and telling lesson in the electoral benefits of waging war.

Passing the buck

But will he get his just deserts? A friend suggests we are all misreading the Chilcot inquiry. What we are seeing is the British establishment - civil servants, intelligence chiefs, leading law­yers and so on - admitting terrible errors were made but absolving themselves of blame. Soleresponsibility, they suggest with varying degrees of subtlety, rests with Blair. He has become very rich and still commands respect in America, but is no longer of consequence here. He has no patronage, lacks influential friends, and didn't go to a particularly important public school. The inquiry, my friend thinks, will hang Blair out to dry and portray just about everybody else as upstanding folk who were fed false information and didn't voice doubts lest they undermine national security or demoralise our troops. I think my friend is right. That is how the British establishment works. Perhaps I shall end up feeling sorry for Blair.

The law of averages

Sometimes, a few simple figures tell an eloquent story. The Office for National Statistics reports that the average net financial wealth of a UK household is £40,000, which makes us all sound reasonably comfortable. However, median financial wealth is £5,200, which means half the country's households have less than that and, in many cases, negative wealth in the form of overdrafts and other debts.

Why the disparity? Because a few, very rich people hugely distort the average, which is reached by adding up everybody's money and dividing it by the number of households. The big difference between average and median wonderfully illustrates the extent of inequality. To put it in terms that this football-obsessed nation will understand, imagine that, one weekend, six Premiership matches ended 0-0 and the other four 6-3. The average goals per game would be 3.6. The median would be 0.

On gardening leave

The picture at the back of last week's New Statesman, of Dennis Skinner addressing print workers in 1979, reminded me of how, as a Sunday Times hack, I was then in the bizarre position of being employed full-time but required to do no work whatever for nearly a year. This was because a management lockout of printers - not, please, a strike - had stopped publication at all the Times papers.

This so fascinated Thames TV that it sent a camera crew to my home in Loughton, Essex, to film me gardening, despite my protests that I had never pruned a rose in my life. The necessary implements had to be borrowed from my neighbours. This explains why Loughton has a cluster of people who don't believe a thing they see on television.

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

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special