Sunday, 7 December 2008

A New Age of Austerity? Not Quite.

The past week has been one of the coldest of the year and, with the timing that typifies their trade, it was also the week when the engineers arrived at my door to fit a new central heating system. For four days I shivered indoors and shivered whenever I stepped outside; wore several layers of clothes when I ventured out to buy my morning newspaper and went to bed wearing not much less.

At the risk of sounding like someone on the verge of delivering a homily it was an instructive experience. Not least because this week Britain has been told in no uncertain terms that it must take drastic action in order to meet its obligations on carbon emissions, that means coal fired power stations will have to close and energy prices will rise as alternative sources of energy struggle to keep pace with demand, pushing another 1.7million people into fuel poverty.

In short, wearing our overcoats indoors could be the shape of things to come for most Britons.

Certain decades seem to attract a one word description that sticks permanently in the public mind, so the sixties will always be thought of as swinging, the 1890’s as naughty and the current decade, christened the noughties, probably by a sub editor somewhere forced to work on Millennium eve, seem, if the past six months are anything to go by, on their way to wresting ‘austerity’ from the grip of its former owner, the forties.

The gloomy message being put out by press and politicians alike is that hard times aren’t coming; they’re here and they’re here to stay. While, as the word of an old song put it, there may be trouble ahead, I don’t think comparing our situation to that faced by our grandparents makes sense.

The shops may have windows plastered over with SALE signs, but there are things on the shelves to sell, if you can get the credit to pay for them. How very different from the not so roaring forties when the motto for shoppers was whatever you want you can’t have it.

Food prices may have risen alarmingly but there is still more than enough food to go around, whatever else keeps Gordon Brown and his cabinet awake at night it isn’t worrying about shortages turning into a full blown famine and the resulting public anger boiling over into revolution. The Attlee government faced just such challenges in the first couple of hungry years after the war and it is to their credit that they and the country survived more or less intact.

The current economic problems serve to highlight the differences rather than the similarities between our generation and that of out grandparents. The depression and then the war had taught them not to panic at the first sign of trouble because there may be something worse around the corner that would require all their reserves of resilience just to survive.

The world, however brightly we make it glitter with things we’ve bought on credit is and always has been built on sand, from time to time the foundations shift but they have never yet, thankfully, sunk completely. If the past fifteen years was a playground of easy credit and guilt free consumerism then the current economic crisis should perhaps be prefaced by the wording of a sign that that hung by the exit of a bar I used to frequent some years ago, it read: ‘You are now entering harsh reality.’

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