Off to war with Vince Cable

Did British Business Secretary Vince cable feel the hand of history on his shoulders yesterday when he declared the economic equivalent of war?

Was he flanked in his mind’s eye by Presidents Nixon, Carter and Bush Jnr as he rallied us to share hardships, stiffen upper lips and – I must assume – risk losing loved-ones for the sake of brighter, safer, fairer tomorrow?

Nixon declared war on drugs in 1969. Carter declared the ‘moral equivalent of war‘ on wasteful living standards in 1977. Bush declared war on terror when he was told to.

Nixon’s and Bush’s wars have chewed through trillions of dollars and wrecked hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives for no discernible result. More Americans use drugs than ever before. The US remains mired in Afghanistan, long after declaring victory.

But, for Mr Cable, Carter’s war speech is probably the most poignant. His message was closest in spirit to Cable’s; urging listeners to lower their expectations and dig in for tough times ahead.

Naturally, the listeners didn’t like it. You could say that the speech cost Carter his job – although the Iran hostage crisis was a more proximate cause.

Too early

Worst of all, Carter’s timing was out by 30 years. It really was in the interests of the American people to turn around in 1977 and start becoming less dependent on imported fossil fuel.

But there was another course open to any populist politician who was happy to let the problem grow unseen until it became a huge predicament for a generation not yet born: cut a new deal with the oil producers and party on.

So Ronnie Reagan declared not war but ‘morning in America’. He knew that in 25 years or so the flow of oil would stop increasing, and that when it did the growth party would be over.

But what a party it would be! And in any case, Reagan believed quite sincerely in the Rapture.  So no need to fret about life in a post-fossil-fuel, post-industrial civilisation because all the righteous folk (read: Americans) would be in the arms of Jesus by then.

Timing

So why would Cable want to put his head on the war block unless he felt history was on his side? When Reagan beat Carter, around half of oil the that’s been burned between 1859 and now was still (fairly accessibly) in the ground. That all went in a short, three-decade splurge. Now we’re left with ever-more anaemic flows of difficult, slow, expensive stuff.

President Carter aside, few politicians deliver unpalatable messages unless they know the people are up against the wall. Even Churchill waited until the invasion of France in May 1940 to promise the British people nothing but ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.’

Looks like Mr Cable recognises a wall when he sees one. He isn’t asking us to fight our expectations on the beaches yet. But he is the Business Secretary and he used the word ‘growth’ a mere seven times in a 2,100 word speech yesterday .

Is that the equivalent of declaring war? Perhaps it’s the equivalent of what Churchill told General Ismay on May 13 1940: “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”

(N.B. Doubtless, most people in 1940 would gladly have swapped their kind of disaster for the sort of trouble Mr Cable is preparing us for).

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