Friday, 19 November 2010

Lord Young Resigns

Lord Young's job at Central Office has been to mediate between government and industry and recommend regulatory improvements that can help British businesses succeed. Talking up the positive aspects of the financial environment in which our businesses now operate (though perhaps not strictly part of Lord Young's brief) is as important as any government initiatives for encouraging business investment and ultimately creating more jobs.

Lord Young's error, however, seems to have been to translate this wishfully positive view of Britain's business landscape into a description of the state of our population as a whole.

Statistics offered by the NIESR suggest that Lord Young's "Britons have never had it so good" assessment was not too far wrong. It was, nevertheless, about 12 months out. In fact, it was this time last year, despite the recession, that Britons really had never had it so good in terms of spendable income.

So could Lord Young's analysis be forgiven for being "within the margin of statistical error" over the lifetime of the recession? Unfortunately, this surprisingly rosiest period for the average Briton occurred under the management of the previous Labour government. For it was they, we will remember, who were desperate to delay necessary cost-cutting measures that might affect the well-being of the population – at least in advance of the general election.

Since that election, all has changed. The effects of tax rises, inflation and the beginning of public service job cuts have taken the edge off the unprecedentedly celebratory good times of 2009! And, of course, we have all known this must happen.

In the end, this unfortunate political incident leading to Lord Young's resignation is all about relative perceptions. Undoubtedly, GDP growth has resulted in the nation as a whole being better off during this last recession than those before, such as 1981 (when David Young was special adviser to the Dept of Industry and a year later Chairman of the Manpower Services Commission).

But that was then – this is now. Such memories do not serve today's 30 year-olds facing redundancy.

Nor do such comparisons serve a government needing to justify the severe measures required to correct the public finances.

The government's preferred message now is the need for a period of haircloth and ashes, in atonement for the financial excesses encouraged by the previous government. Woe betide anyone in government preaching that our immediate future might be relatively painless. It seems those bearing such embarrassing off-messages shall be hurriedly cast out.

It remains at least debatable whether it is Lord Young, or David Cameron, presenting us with a misleading impression of our present state of well-being. For example, we are certainly better off than than our Irish cousins.

Less debatable, unfortunately, is the sad political wisdom of Lord Armstrong when Cabinet Secretary that the prudent course is often to be economical with the truth.

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