We haven’t been reading papers like the Mail and the Telegraph all these years without getting to know that the Queen is a historically brilliant woman but, even so, it came as a bit of a shock to learn that, with all her other talents, she can speak Latin. Or at least she can make a rather feeble joke in Latin, complaining that for her 1992 was the Annus Horribilis (when it might have been the usual sort of Annus Mirabilis with lots of money being made for her, lots of sumptuous living and lots and lots of crazily adoring subjects cheering her).
Of course she still had all these things in 1992: what she was regretting was the exposure of her children’s activities and relationships in a way which would not once have happened. But this is not 1936, with the press muzzling itself over Edward VIII dallying with Mrs Simpson; nowadays a fierce circulation war among the tabloids practically guarantees the quickest and most glaring exposure of any royal misbehaviour. And then a small bit of Windsor Castle caught fire which did not leave the Queen and the other Windsors exactly homeless but which might have been a public relations triumph until some rather nasty questions were asked about how much money the Queen has, and how many homes and whether she should pay to repair the Castle. But more about the royals later; at the moment we want to consider 1992 and just how horribilis or mirabilis it was and why and what about 1993 and the year after that and so on.
We should remember, first of all. that 1992 was supposed to be the Big One, the year “we” went into Europe, the year “we” joined the ERM as a start to solving “our” economic problems, the year “we” found a new prosperity by moving towards a single European currency. It was also the year when trifling difficulties like the recession, unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness and increasing numbers of people losing “their” house because they can’t keep paying the mortgage would be solved at a stroke by a Tory election victory. In particular a Conservative win would be such a boost to business confidence that there would be a rush to invest huge amounts of money in industry, which would trigger off a stupendous boom and stimulate everlasting popularity for John Major and his government especially his Chancellor Norman Lamont.
During the election Major was quite clear about this. For example, at the beginning of April—just before votes were cast—he told fawning Jimmy Young (who else?) that economic recovery was already under way:
We will not see the statistics to prove it until after the event but there is clear anecdotal evidence, clear survey evidence. that it has started.
Well, enough of the voters believed that to put Major and Lamont back in their homes in Downing Street and what is the situation now? Another kind of anecdotal evidence was provided by the Confederation of British Industry conference last November. This gathering was once a congratulatory jamboree for Tory ministers but this was 1992, the Annus Mirabilis turned Horribilis. One speaker after another blamed the government for the slump (which shows that ignorance about how capitalism works, and why, is not confined to the working class) and complained bitterly about falling profits and investment and mounting bankruptcies. One speaker thought it a criminal matter:
If the (Conservatives) election manifesto had been a company manifesto it would have landed the entire Cabinet in jail.
The government’s response to this kind of assault is as predictable as it is feeble. Last September on Sky News, Major had some explaining to do about the financial crisis which threw the government into such desperate chaos, putting interest rates up and down several times in the same day and then abruptly taking sterling out of the ERM after they had been telling us for so long that keeping it in the ERM was the only way to save it as an international currency. Major said that the government had been “overwhelmed by circumstances that neither Mr Lamont nor anybody else foresaw or could have dealt with”. This is hardly good enough since Lamont, when it suits him. claims to be able to foresee circumstances—famously he once told us all about noticing the “first green shoots of recovery” and he has by now pretty well exhausted his stock of metaphors in making the same claim. Nor is it good enough for Major to tell as that “what actually happened was an irrational market movement of a size we have not seen before” because the Tories won power in 1979 on a programme based on the assumption that the market is the rational force in society which, left to itself, will sort out all economic problems. In fact the Tories never seriously adopted that policy; the latest proof of this is their intention to intrude in the labour market by trying to hold pay rises in public sector employment below 1.5 percent.
On the matter of economic forecasts and a Chancellor’s ability to control events, Norman Lamont has recently revealed the true limits of his talents to some obviously sceptical journalists:
What you seem to be asking me is “Why don’t I press some button and the world will change overnight and we will look up and see a rainbow in the sky”. I’m afraid that it just isn’t like that and there aren’t these buttons to press.
Well rainbows make a nice change from green shoots as metaphorical portents of economic boom but the message is the same: the experts who say they can control capitalism can’t do it. If their luck is in and they are in office during a boom they may take the credit for it and so become famously popular. If things go the other way they have a rather different attitude; they don’t accept any blame but pass it on to unforeseeable difficulties, or the underhand machinations of foreigners or intractably greedy workers . . . One whose luck seemed to be in, and for a long time, was Nigel Lawson but even he has little cheer to offer Lamont. even he thinks now that Chancellors can’t make any promises:
I misjudged the strength of the boom. The official forecasts were all over the place . . . there was this enormous climate of optimism . . . on the whole a good thing, much better than pessimism, much better than gloom. But again things went too far. (To Terry Coleman. Guardian, 7 November).
So Lamont is the Chancellor for whom the bad things have gone too far and Lawson was the Chancellor for whom the good things went too far. This makes sense only when we realize that capitalism makes impotent all the experts, the economists, the politicians. It works—as it worked in 1992—to its own laws and to satisfy its own needs regardless of what Chancellors do or plan to do, regardless of whether they see green shoots or rainbows or other mirages.
At times of crisis—if it is appropriate to use such a word about capitalism’s never-ending upheavals—the system’s figureheads come into their own, reassuring everyone that, no matter what evidence is before their eyes, all is well. In Britain at such times the royal family are expected to be more prominent, to make even more meaningless speeches, to force their company onto even more distressed people. The message is that, no matter how severe their suffering as loyal, patriotic British workers they will pull through. At least that is the ideal. Our difficulty now is that unemployed people, struggling along on state benefit, are not taking too kindly to hearing this sort of cant from a woman whose personal wealth amounts to anything between £50 million and £6 billion. No-one is exactly sure about the true figure. And then there is the embarrassing fact that recently the royals have been neglecting a most important part of their job—setting an example to the rest of us in the lower orders of society.
As their marriages collapse one after the other under the spotlight of some triumphantly scurrilous press coverage, it is blindingly apparent that this family’s supposed position as guardians of the repressions of Christian marriage—which is bad enough as it is—is pure humbug. After all, the royals are paid a lot of money to do the job of telling the rest of us to be docile, unquestioning subjects of capitalism, by not being sexual adventurers, by not having unstable marriages and by not getting divorced. To some extent the royal conditions of employment can be breached and the media bludgeoned into ignoring it. But the 1990s’ Windsors have simply overwhelmed the customary official concealment of their misbehaviour. So they have had a very bad press; even the fire at Windsor didn’t help, raising more inconvenient questions about the extent of royal wealth and how it contrasts to working class hardship. If 1992 was a horrible year for the Queen it was because so many of the delusions on which her position depends became under such intense and hostile questioning.
It is ironic that so many of those delusions fester so powerfully among the class whose suffering should compel them to deal only in reality. Unlike Lamont’s forecasts, one which is well on the way to being realized is Shelter’s estimate in December 1991 that over the next five years more than a million families would become homeless. At that time Shelter said there were nearly 3,000 people sleeping rough and 55,300 households in temporary accommodation. By June 1992 the figure for Greater London alone was nearly 43,000 representing over 100,000 people—an increase of 12 percent over the year. Shelter’s director recently described what this means:
. . . families in bed and breakfast are forced to live in often overcrowded, usually depressing and sometimes downright dangerous hotels for anything up to two years. Imagine what it must be like to have no privacy, for your children to have nowhere to run and play, to have to share a bathroom with an average of 16 other people and a cooker with 21.
It is not just the homeless who are destitute. In 1989—the last year for which official figures are available—12 million people were living below a poverty line of half the average income; by now. as unemployment gets worse, that figure will be much higher. And what does this do to human relationships, so often fragile anyway in capitalist society? The NSPCC lists unemployment and family debt as key causes of child abuse; Relate, the marriage counselling service, calls it all “devastating”. Especially poignant is the fact that unemployment is now hitting those areas in which one seemed relatively safe from it, while Tory MPs sat on Gibraltar-like majorities. Among the leafy towns of the South-East and the Home Counties a bitter lesson is being taught—that economic booms are not everlasting, that workers who experience a brief, relative prosperity do not do so through their own ingenuity but because capitalism is then operating in such a way as to allow it.
The hopes that 1992 was to be an Annus Mirabilis were based on misconceptions encouraged by deliberate deceit. It has turned out to be a typical year, in which a huge burden of misery and fear has fallen on an enormous number of people. For those who understand capitalism, as a year it came up to expectations. So what about the New Year? It could see the start of serious work for a society free of delusions—a society without classes and their representatives whether royal or political. We don’t need aristocrats and political confidence tricksters to run the world; we can do it ourselves for ourselves. And. yes, we can do it now. In 1993.