Then as now, the most totemic shortage was of basic foods. During the second world war, Britain’s food rationing was successful not only in uniting people, but in its material consequences. Despite the severe curtailment of food imports, average nutrition rose. Shortages intensified in the early post-war years. Devaluation and coal shortages in 1947 were followed by the ‘Austerity Olympics’ which Britain hosted in 1948 on a shoestring budget: ‘the friendliest and least competitive of all Olympics’ in the words of one competitor.
Rationing was the right policy for those exceptional times, but within the Labour party it took on a more generic appeal as a permanent alternative to the market. The overdue ‘bonfire of controls’ which the Conservatives embraced in 1951 has, perhaps, left an equivalently misleading folk memory within the party: exaggerated respect for the miracle of the market. I trust markets to allocate most goods, but enthusiasts who want to extend them to tasks for which they are ill-suited bring markets into disrepute. A current instance is nuclear power with its tiny but existentially uninsurable risks. France made the same mistake, but Emmanuel Macron – an investment banker steeped in market philosophy – has just been forced to renationalise the industry. That forced renationalisation has revived the legitimacy of nationalisation in France as an acceptable strategy. The implication for the current choice of leader is that enthusiasts who do not understand the limitations of markets sound appealing to other enthusiasts, but they rightly scare voters.
Under Johnson, the party was briefly captured by those who admired the ‘hard-faced men’. We needed Henry George; we reverted to Lloyd and peerages for donors. That loss of a moral anchor contaminated a wider range of behaviour. As inflation surged and living standards were squeezed, many voices noisily demanded pay increases. This cacophony has provided cover for those already fortunate. Despite the tax hikes, the loophole for ‘carried interest’ is still vying with ‘Carrie’s interest’ for favours. CEO remuneration, already excessive, has taken a further leap, as have the incomes of tax lawyers. Britain’s trades union for doctors, among the highest paid medics in Europe, is asking for a rise of 30 per cent over the next five years. Such behaviour would be less offensive were these groups notable for their exceptional contributions to society.
We have forgotten the lessons of wartime rationing, and we need those few who recall them to speak out. In their absence, who are the people who have been left at the sharp end of shortages? They are the weak and the meek: the groups lacking bargaining power, and those too modest or public-spirited to scream for their own interest. The old will recall not only rationing, but the moral code in which they were raised: the weak and the meek should inherit the Earth.
LKY offered a divided people a hopeful path around which they could unite. It was ambitious yet convincing. Its economic credibility came not from a cheap and cheerful cosmetic facelift, but from a coherent multifaceted strategy of transformation. Its moral credibility came from that old answer to the questions of ‘Who should be making the sacrifices that mount the first step along that path to prosperity?’ and ‘Who should inherit its fruits?’ We need a leader with the moral authority to return us to such a sense of purpose. The revulsion against recent conduct has made that crystal clear in the minds of voters.