‘…since the war’ was once the most overused barometer for measuring a crisis; you couldn’t avoid it when I was a kid in the 1970s – though considering anyone older than, say, 35 back then would have had a first-hand memory of some aspect of the conflict, perhaps it’s no surprise it was the suffix of choice. Watch archive BBC coverage of the February 1974 General Election and the phrase peppers the programme; but one has a real sense of what prompted its recurrence when even revellers in Trafalgar Square watching the results come in are forced to do so in the dark. ‘The gravest economic crisis since the war’ is the context, though one wonders how many times that particular expression had been uttered by opportunistic politicians in the 29 years following VE Day.
The winter of 1946/47 produced literally the gravest economic crisis since the war – or at least the first such one experienced. Retrospectively relegated to a footnote when the far more celebrated 1962/63 cold spell is recalled, the chill that descended upon the British Isles in January 1947 was equally devastating. In some respects, its impact was even greater than the winter of 16 years later in that it stretched the limited resources of a country already struggling through a protracted recovery from the battering it had taken on the home front. The Arctic temperatures wiped out a quarter of the nation’s sheep, decimated up to 20% of crops and were responsible for industrial production falling 10%. The standing of Attlee’s Labour Government plummeted as fuel stocks and food supplies dwindled in the big freeze, with imposed emergency measures having a seismic effect on morale; the floods that came with the March thaw were an additional blow to a beleaguered Britain.
When another Labour Government 20 years later dithered and delayed before belatedly devaluing the pound – at a time when such an action was viewed as a national humiliation – the chaos that cost Jim Callaghan his tenancy of No.11 Downing Street and fatally damaged the Wilson administration was regarded as…’the gravest economic crisis since the war’. Yet Wilson’s immediate Conservative successor came a cropper within three-and-a-half years of redecorating No.10, as quadrupling oil prices exploited by the key-holders of the country’s prime fuel supply – the miners – panicked Ted Heath into switching out the lights and passing round the candles. At the time, I remember asking my dad why the Germans were richer than us when they’d lost the war. This was when I found out parents don’t have all the answers.
Where Heath’s Tories had failed, Labour – under Wilson and then Callaghan – soldiered on in impossible circumstances, but still had to suffer the shame of crawling cap-in-hand to the IMF in 1976. Less than three years later, the unions ‘Sunny Jim’ had always been able to depend upon bit the hand that fed them because they had acquired the appetite of Oliver Twist. Another terrible winter – this time of Discontent – handed electoral victory to Margaret Thatcher as we once again endured ‘the gravest economic crisis since the war’. I have vivid memories of that winter, and as even the all-powerful omnipotence of television joined the catalogue of public services falling into stasis like donkey-jacketed dominos, the palpable feeling of imminent collapse made an impression that I’ve tended to view subsequent crises through the prism of. As a consequence, they rarely measure up and I tend to take Lance Corporal Jones’s advice.
It was almost 30 years before we encountered a comparable crisis – though even the Credit Crunch and the severe Austerity measures introduced by the Coalition in 2010 didn’t induce the same sense of being on the brink as 1978/79 did. The situation may have claimed the scalp of yet another Labour Government and exacerbated the schism between the haves and the have-nots, but the 2010-2015 Con-Dem regime acted like a ruthless receiver dividing the assets of an insolvent company. The climate was not one of the country being ungovernable or out of control. It took the unexpected outcome of a certain unnecessary referendum to finally return us to the state of existential emergency that provoked the return of ‘…since the war’.
It’s interesting that the most hysterical reactions to the result of the 2016 EU Referendum emanated largely from those born and raised in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period now regarded as a rare oasis of economic calm – strong and stable, one might say. And that’s not merely the general public; many children of Blair whose degrees in Media Studies facilitated their rises through the broadcasting and print medium ranks were similarly green when it came to a crisis and responded to a scenario for which they hadn’t been prepared in a fittingly OTT manner that has spiralled out of all proportion over the last three years. ‘Crashing out of the EU’, ‘stolen my future’ and ‘staring into the abyss’ have joined ‘…since the war’ in the Remainer lexicon; but WWII has also been revived as an unlikely yardstick by the other side, with ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ and misplaced allusions to Churchill making a comeback, even though (unlike the 1970s) they are being evoked by those who may as well talk of Trafalgar or Waterloo for all the relevance they have to their own experience.
Maybe a generation or two subconsciously yearned to have their malnourished mettle tested by a crisis. There’s an almost masochistic relish in fantasising about apocalyptic scenarios of the kind George Osborne forecasted on the eve of the Referendum, and the prospect of No Deal seems to have ‘turbo-charged’ (© every f***ing Boris Minister) the nightmarish imagery, fetishising the vision of empty supermarket shelves, bare chemist’s cupboards, martial law and primeval anarchy. Perhaps sitting through more zombie movies and games than is advisable has convinced some too young to know any better that a crisis only has the one outcome.
However, if history has taught us anything it is that crises are no more permanent than their polar opposite; no boom without bust and vice-versa. The wars Brits have been engaged in since 1945 have all taken place in far-flung locations, giving non-combatants an abstract perspective on conflict that doctored news reports from distant war-zones seem to have played their part in. Domestic economic crises, on the other hand, impinge upon our lives in ways that personalise their offensiveness and amplify their impact. But the genuine crisis in so many of our public services, for example, has bugger-all to do with Brexit; they’re in a bad way because they’ve been under-funded for decades, and the blame is with the Remainer village of Westminster, not the rest of Brexit Britain.
When it comes to a crisis, it’s probably best not to hang on every word of that metropolitan Mother Shipton, Emily Maitlis – the Remoaner Lord Haw-Haw issuing proclamations of doom ‘n’ gloom on a nightly basis. Many of us have experienced personal crises that have hit us at times when the nation had allegedly never had it so good, and the state of the nation has had no bearing on mine at all; the damage was restricted to the smallest of circles rather than the widest of canvasses. External events might occasionally contribute to the picture, but whether we find ourselves in the Promised Land or downtown Dystopia on 1 November, the nation will keep buggering on and so will we. However bad it gets, it then gets better – always.
© The Editor