Tuesday, April 09, 2013

History is hard!

Journalism too, I guess. This is why so many of us think in cliches, simplifications and broad-brush untruths. Tim Worstall illustrates a classic of the genre here. Why bother trying to understand the subtleties of politics if you can just mischaracterise your opponents' opinions to make them easier to argue against?

Probably the best exponent of this style of debate is Owen Jones - who has carved out a particularly good little niche as the go-to guy for unreconstructed Bennism. Have a look at the following short paragraph from today's tirade against 'Thatcherism':
We are in the midst of the third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three have taken place since Thatcherism launched its great crusade. This current crisis has roots in the Thatcherite free market experiment, which wiped out much of the country’s industrial base in favour of a deregulated financial sector.
I count four 'facts' here and an opinion. While the opinion (that today's crisis has its roots in Thatcherite reform) is debateable, all four of the facts are flatly incorrect.

There have been three economic collapses since the Second World War

It's hard to be entirely sure exactly what Owen is talking about. Globally, there was a short shock in 1953, a more severe downturn in 1958, a global recession in 1973-5, a global recession in the early 1980s, another one in the early 1990s, a financial crisis in East Asia in 1997, a widespread recession in the early 2000s, and then the global financial crisis from 2007-8, with the long tail of recession following. Which three is Owen referring to?

All three have taken place since Thatcherism

Well, no. In the 34 years after the war, there were three distinct recessions (although for the UK, the entire 1970s was essentially one long crisis). In the 10 years of her time in office there were two. In the 23 years since there have been 3 (one of which the UK avoided entirely).

Thatcherism wiped out much of the country's industrial base

This is simply untrue.

Manufacturing output was higher when she left office than when she entered. There was no wholesale destruction of industry. There was a sharp recession in the early 1980s, followed by more or less steady growth for the rest of the decade: the concept that Thatcher wiped out UK industry is a myth.
And deregulated the financial sector
This is practically an article of faith on the left - that Thatcher deregulated the financial sector and let the banks off the leash. Once again, it isn't true. Big Bang was a significant deregulation of the stock exchange, but its reforms only went as far as allowing foreign ownership of City brokers. The new working practices are more a product of globalisation (and increased computing power) than a result of 1986 reforms. As to banking, the Thatcher Government introduced by far the most stringent regulation seen up to then in the UK - the Banking Act of 1987 saw a substantial increase in the state's power to regulate the financial sector - a power that had been introduced for the first time only in 1979.
Traditionally, you are entitled to your own opinions; but not to your own facts. But then, cheap polemic must be a lot easier if you don't have to get your facts right.


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