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Britain approaches the 1976 currency crisis

When the Labour Party resumed minority government in March 1974 after a close victory over the Tories in the February election, which had delivered a hung parliament, the British economy was in recession and inflation was running at 12.9 per cent. To resolve the political impasse, he called a further election on October 10, 1974 and gained a majority. The contraction in real GDP began in the third-quarter 1973 under the Tories as the Dash for Growth ended badly and Britain recorded three consecutive quarters of negative growth. Thus, British Labour was on the back foot from day one as a result of inheriting an economy that was in decline as a result of declining investment in best-practice technology as British capital sought lucrative speculative investments abroad. Productivity was falling and the scope for rising standards of living were becoming limited, thus intensifying the struggle over the distribution of income. Many coalmines, a major source of employment and growth, were also reaching the end of their economic life. However, key figures in the Labour government (such as the Chancellor Denis Healey) had fallen into the sway of the emerging Monetarist thinking, which had the consequence of elevating the fraught Monetarist causality to centre stage at the neglect of policies that might have actually addressed the underlying issues. The IMF entered the fray and made matters worse, as usual. Today, we trace the events leading up to this turning point.

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The British Labour Party path to Monetarism

The Bank of England’s failure in the early 1970s to control the money supply under the Competition and Credit Control (CCC) policy should have discouraged the Monetarist support base. However, while the monetary targets were abandoned, the Monetarist infestation was firmly alive among economists in the British Treasury and the Bank of England and the junior ministers in Edward Heath’s government. The City was also a hotbed of Monetarist support, with the likes of Gordon Pepper, an economist in the private sector who edited the Greenwell Monetary Bulletin prominent. Pepper, was very vocal and very influential within government circles. The ‘Greenwell Monetary Bulletin’ became a vehicle for the monetarist views to penetrate the highest levels of government. The British Labour Party was struggling with its factions. On the one hand, the Left was becoming more powerful within the Party and deeply rejected the attempts to diminish union operations. They formulated a new and far reaching industrial policy, which was light years away from the approach adopted by Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s. But there was also a significant rump of Labour Monetarists, mostly concentrated in the Parliamentary party who were closer to the Tories on macroeconomic policy than their colleagues on the Left. Major tensions developed and would, ultimately lead to the famous 1976 surrender to Monetarism by James Callaghan at the National Conference. We trace this evolution in this blog so that we can understand the next instalment, which analyses the 1976 IMF loan arrangement that the British government entered into. This arrangement is a significant turning point in the way that social democratic governments have been captured by the neo-liberal myths.

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Rising urban inequality and segregation and the role of the state

Last week, 61.1 per cent of Dutch voters who turned out (the turnout was above the legal threshold to make the vote legal) voted against the referendum proposal to ratify a ‘preferential trade’ agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. It means that the Dutch government cannot, from a political perspective, ratify the EU initiative. It is the second time in its history that the Dutch have rejected a referendum about the EU – the last time was in 2005 when the EU Constitutional Treaty was soundly rejected. Then, the EU elites just ignored the democratic intent and bundled the initiative up into the Treaty of Lisbon and went about business as usual. Democracy is only useful to the EU elites if it ratifies their own self-interest. The same will happen this time. Merkel and Hollande have already said (in as many words) that they will disregard the Dutch outcome. The interpretations of last week’s voting outcome are now coming ‘fast and furious’ and the denialists are out in force – ‘oh, it doesn’t mean what it appears’ etc, and so the EU will just go about business as usual, as it always does, and that ‘culture’ is one of the reasons the whole European Project (now dominated by the common currency) is now proving to be an abject failure. It is a dysfunctional dystopia! Then citizens are watching the unfolding story from The Panama Papers, which only serve to confirm how top-level corruption, hypocrisy etc is rife and there is one (no) rule for them and another, harsher, binding rule for the rest of us. And, recent research findings suggest that our social settlements, where we live, bring up families, develop our aspirations and behaviours, are riven with rising inequality and increased segregation. Juxtapose that with the facts coming out about the urban backgrounds of young Belgians who achieve their aspirations by blowing themselves up and taking as many of us with them. The souls typically come from highly segregated urban enclaves in our cities with joblessness and poverty a daily burden. All of the above has been created by a neo-liberalism that works for the elites and aims to extract as much real income out of the system for the few as possible with as little democratic oversight as possible.

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Distributional conflict and inflation – Britain in the early 1970s

In the previous instalment of this series of blogs I am writing, which will form the input to my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi, I covered the role of trade unions in a capitalist system where class conflict is a major dynamic. One of the characteristics of the post-modern Left is the denial of the role trade unions play in inflationary episodes. However, once we accept that the unions are creatures of capitalism and embody of the conflictual nature of income distribution within that mode of production, then it is clear that as a countervailing force against capital, unions can precipitate economic crisis if they are ‘too successful’. Too successful in this context refers to the use of their power to control the supply of labour which negative impacts on the rate of profit earned by capital and leads to a decline in investment and a rise in unemployment. Trade unions are a problem for capital. Today, we consider the way in which this ‘problem’ manifested in the inflation in Britain in the early to mid-1970s and the failure by the British Labour Party to fully understand the causation involved. By the mid-1970s, the British Labour government had surrendered to the growing dominance of the Monetarist school of thought, which diverted its gaze from the true nature of the economic crisis. They unnecessarily called in the IMF as a result of this blindness.

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British trade unions in the early 1970s

The mainstream economics (by which I mean neo-classical economics and its siblings in a History of Economic Thought context) constructs trade unions as being market imperfections that interfere with the freedom of supply and demand to determine optimal price (wage) and quantity (employment) outcomes. The textbooks teach students that the supply of and demand for labour without the intrusion of trade unions (and other impositions from the state – minimum wages etc) will deliver optimal outcomes for all in accordance with the respective contributions of each ‘factor of production’ (labour, land, capital etc). The real world isn’t like that at all and the determination of shares in national income is the result of a continuous struggle between labour and capital for supremacy. It is very easy to construct the trade unions has job killers in this context and to blame them for inflationary outbreaks. That certainly is how the British trade unions in the early 1970s were constructed by the conservatives and later the Labour Party itself. By the early 1970s, Monetarism was gaining a dominant hold in the academy and strong adherents in policy circles. Trade unions were considered by the Monetarists to be ‘market imperfections’ that should be destroyed by legislative fiat. Governments came under intense pressure to introduce legislation that would constrain unions. However, once we understand history, we can see the early 1970s in Britain leading up to British Labour Prime Minster James Callaghan’s speech to Labour Party Conference held at Blackpool on September 28, 1976 in a different light. It also allows us to see just what surrender monkeys the British Labour Party became after that period. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016.

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The right-wing counter attack – 1971

The early 1970s brought into relief the internal contradictions of the capitalist system of production and distribution. This was never more evident than in Britain at the time. The trade unions, previously illegal had become more powerful and integrated as they defended the rights of their members. The very existence of the union movement exposed the conflictual nature of capitalism. The trade unions caused havoc in Britain in the early 1970s. But before we consider the role of the trade unions, it is important to understand what was happening on the capital side at the time. After the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago and beyond had seeped out of the academy into the policy and lobbying circles, it became obvious that capital would mount a major action against the unions and governments that gave them succour. Corporations and big money were far from passive. They didn’t buy the line that the Left has been lured into believing that the state had become increasingly powerless as capitalism became more global. Far from it. They got more organised than ever! The British Labour Party became lambs for the …

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Britain and the 1970s oil shocks – the failure of Monetarism

This blog provides another excerpt in the unfolding story about Britain and the IMF. We pick up yesterday’s story with Britain mired in inflation and rising unemployment as the OPEC oil price rises impact in late 1973. The Tories under the leadership of Edward Heath were trying to deal with internal divisions between the traditional One Nation Conservatists (Heath) and the emerging, right-wing Monetarists. Edward Heath resisted the Monetarists through his term of office and used very traditional ‘Keynesian’ remedies in an attempt to reduce unemployment (for example, the ‘Dash for Growth’) but maintained the usual Tory hostility towards trade unions. His efforts in stimulating growth were stymied by the oil price rises, which spawned a major inflationary outbreak. The Tories blamed the unions and OPEC for the inflation, which, in part, was correct, but then invoked a period of damaging austerity which left the nation in a sorry state. They lost office in February 1974. In this blog, with Harold Wilson back in charge for the second time and his party becoming increasingly infested with Monetarist thinking, we consider the inflation problem in some detail, the lack of any credible evidence to support the Monetarist causality, as a means to understanding how disappointing Prime Minister James Callaghan’s famous 1976 Black Speech to the Labour Party Conference was in terms of maintaining the credibility of the British Labour Party then – and how it opened the way, not only for Margaret Thatcher to wreak havoc, but also for the emergence of the insidious New Labour, which continues to hobble progressive elements in the Party today. It was a major turning point in Left history and needs careful deconstruction.

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The Heath government was not Monetarist – that was left to the Labour Party

This blog provides another excerpt in the unfolding story about Britain and the IMF and the Monetarist sell-out by the British Labour Party once it was reelected in February 1974. As I noted in this blog – The British Monetarist infestation – I am currently working to pin down the historical turning points, which allowed neo-liberalism to take a dominant position in the policy debate. In doing so, I want to demonstrate why the ‘Social Democrat’ or ‘Left’ political parties, who still have pretentions to representing the progressive position (but have, in fact, become ‘austerity-lite’ merchants), were wrong to surrender to the neo-liberal macroeconomic Groupthink. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. Today, we trace the tensions within the Tory Party during the period 1970 to 1974, when the old school “One National Conservatism” represented by Edward Heath came into conflict with the growing Tory Monetarists, who would eventually be the bulwark of Margaret Thatcher’s pernicious regime later in the 1970s.

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The Monetarism Trap snares the second Wilson Labour Government

This blog provides another excerpt in the unfolding story about Britain and the IMF. As I noted in this blog – The British Monetarist infestation – I am currently working to pin down the historical turning points, which allowed neo-liberalism to take a dominant position in the policy debate. In doing so, I want to demonstrate why the ‘Social Democrat’ or ‘Left’ political parties, who still have pretensions to representing the progressive position (but have, in fact, become ‘austerity-lite’ merchants), were wrong to surrender to the neo-liberal macroeconomic Groupthink. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016. In the last instalment, I traced back and demonstrated that Britain was engulfed in Monetarist thinking long before Margaret Thatcher took over. She really just put the ‘(rancid) cream on the top of the (inedible) cake’. I showed that the British Labour Party were infested with the Monetarist virus in the late 1960s and James Callaghan’s famous 1976 Black Speech to tge Labour Party Conference was just a formal recognition of that disease. It really just consolidated what had been happening over the prior decade. This historical journey also helps us understand that it was not the OPEC oil crisis in the early 1970s that provided the open door for governments to reject Keynesian policy. In Britain, the Treasury and Bank of England had fallen prey to Monetarist ideas following the elevation of Milton Friedman onto the world stage. These subsequent events just helped keep the insurgency moving until total dominance in the contest of ideas was won. Today, we start with the Bank of England’s so-called Competition and Credit Control (CCC), which was introduced in September 1971. This formalised the growing emphasis among the banking sector and economists that the central bank had to ‘control’ the money supply. It failed – but empirical failure doesn’t matter when people are becoming swamped with propaganda that says otherwise.

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The British Monetarist infestation

I have been on the search for historical turning points again today. The famous Mitterand austerity turn in 1983 is one of these points. Another, which I will consider today, was the British Labour Prime Minster James Callaghan’s speech to Labour Party Conference held at Blackpool on September 28, 1976 was laced with pro-Monetarist assertions that have been used by many on the Left as being defining points in the decline of the state to run independent domestic policy aimed at maintaining full employment. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016. Today, I am writing about the background events that turned Britain on to Monetarism. Margaret Thatcher was, in fact, a ‘johnny-come-lately’ in this respect. The British Labour Party were infested with the Monetarist virus in the late 1960s and Callaghan’s 1976 Speech just consolidated what had been happening over the decade prior. Further, it was not the oil crisis in the early 1970s that provided the open door for governments to reject Keynesian policy. In Britain, the Treasury and Bank of England were captivated by the ideas of Milton Friedman some years prior to the OPEC price push.

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