Fed up with the Conservative Party’s current psychodrama? This could be a useful distraction.
Aeron Davis has a new book out that is a 40 year history of the UK Treasury (HMT). As I found his previous book ‘Elites at the End of the Establishment’ fascinating, and as I’m always interested in anything about the most powerful economic institution in the UK which also gave me my first job, I was looking forward to reading this. It does not disappoint.
Like that previous book it is based on lengthy interviews, in this case with the key political and civil service people at the top of the Treasury over this period. As a result, it is very far from a jargon filled analysis of the details of macroeconomic policy over 40 years. Its brush is much broader, covering many themes from the growing influence of finance (financialisation), neoliberal ideas, and an internationalist viewpoint, but also dealing with the big historical crises of the period. As the book also roughly covers the years I have been working as an economist, what follows is not so much a review as a selected mixture of my own thoughts and those of the author. I’ll do my best to distinguish between the two.
The book starts, appropriately, in 1976 after the IMF crisis. I’ve written about this before based on Richard Robert’s book, and I agree with Robert’s interpretation of that crisis as mainly about fear of devaluation rather than the government no longer being able to borrow. Aeron is right that HMT used the shock of that crisis to re-establish its control of government spending, much as it did later in 2010. However I think the 1970s is more significant because of three large intellectual failures within HMT.
The first, which I discuss in that earlier post, was the pervasive view in the Treasury that it could cheat the Phillips curve using various forms of prices and incomes policy. The second, again touched on in that earlier post, was a failure to adjust to a floating exchange rate regime. It was clear to me while I was working there that while many junior economists understood how floating rates worked, those at the most senior levels did not. Both failures were central to understanding 1976, but were largely corrected by the end of that decade. 
A third failure that was not corrected was how to deal with the bonanza of North Sea Oil. It is today standard in the macroeconomics of resource rich countries that any temporary gain due to the discovery of a finite resource should be largely invested. That macroeconomics was not as developed at the time, but the basic choice for the government of consumption (cutting taxes) or investment was discussed at reasonably senior levels while I was there. Norway made the right choice but the UK did not, although how much that was down to politicians at the time is difficult to tell.
As Davis points out, this failure wasn’t just about North Sea Oil revenues, but was repeated with privatisation and council house sales. During the Thatcher period selling off public capital was treated as just another form of revenue, which is nonsense because unlike taxes it is not permanent. Sometimes people question why the OBR does 50 year forecasts for government borrowing, an innovation that started under Gordon Brown, and the abuses of the Thatcher period are one obvious answer.
A recurrent problem here and throughout any discussion of HMT is to separate out the views of officials and the politicians they served. In my own rather limited and out of date experience, those working in HMT have very varied views, and in a way this is helpful when the government changes. The arguments against can quickly become the arguments for when the political tide turns. One of the strengths of this book and the many interviews on which it is based is to try and tease out what decisions were political and which were down to thinking within HMT.
A good example, which Davis is right to discuss at length, is the pervasive doctrine within HMT that national firm ownership didn’t matter. A quote from an interview with John Grieve sums up the issue:
“On ownership, right from the ’80s, from Big Bang onwards, and indeed before, there’s been a running worry in government and in commentary about are we wise to let foreigners buy everything? … but in fact, there’s been a longstanding policy, successive governments have decided not to do anything about it … And, you know, of course most other countries think this is mad, and that ownership does matter.”
“[King] managed to spin a narrative over the next few years that the Bank of England lacked the tools and powers to do anything about it … I call him the Keyser Soze of the financial crisis. The greatest trick he ever pulled was persuading everyone that his responsibility for the financial crisis didn’t exist … Mervyn, can you point to where you said that prior to the financial crisis? Why did you cut the financial stability stuff? You were obsessed with monetary policy, weren’t you?”
“Those who had been part of the New Labour regime, such as Ed Balls, Dan Corry or Gus O’Donnell, got rather excited when speaking about economics, even with a noneconomist academic. It was the same with Alan Budd, Terry Burns and Nigel Lawson when talking about the Thatcher years. But for those leading the Coalition, economics was just another consideration in the wider matrix of Westminster party strategizing and news media lobby management.”
“When I asked him directly about the broader inspirations of his economic thinking, Harrison responded that he had no interest in macroeconomic thought. His policy views were ‘shaped by more general reading’ and by being ‘a centre-right leaning person’.”
“For one, I hold the Treasury (and successive governments) responsible for ushering in an economy that was so unbalanced and unequal. Years of trickle-down economics, and years of favouring finance over manufacturing, large foreign multinationals over home-grown companies, large asset-holders and rentiers over others, London over the regions, monetary rather than fiscal activism had had a cumulative impact. Austerity economics only exacerbated such trends, with several commentators linking that to the vote outcome.”