Page 4, 26th February 1993

26th February 1993
Page 4
Page 4, 26th February 1993 — Unemployment: public enemy number one

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Unemployment: public enemy number one

Richard Cockett

ON THE eve of Mrs Thatcher's election victory in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, was being driven around Parliament Square in his official car to one of the last press conferences of the election campaign.

With him was one of his advisers, Bernard Donoughue. Seeking to cheer the Prime Minister up in the face of some gloomy opinion polls, Donoughue remarked that with a few new policies and a little bit of luck, Labour would still squeeze home.

The normally confident Callaghan refused to draw any comfort from Donoughue's optimism, and replied quietly: "1 should not be too sure. You know there are times... when there is a sea-change in politics. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now a sea-change and it is for Mrs Thatcher." Callaghan, an ex-sailor, was, of course, quite right about this seachange, and he was duly beaten at the polls a few days later.

Furthermore, the most important element in that sea-change in public mood and opinion that Callaghan was observing was the change in attitude towards the great scourge of the 1930s unemployment.

Whereas all of Mrs Thatcher's predecessors had regarded it as their primary political duty to maintain, through Keynesian demand. management, a level of high, if not dull, employment, Mrs Thatcher was on quite a different moral crusade against inflation.

To Maggie, inflation, not unemployment, was the great evil, eroding the hard won savings of the middle-classes, the "new poor", of the 1960s and 1970s. She would frequently refer to the "immorality" of inflation to er p vete s I as t ep v-. Ionest and hard-working dfirens of the fruits of their labour.

Not the least of the Iron Lady's achievements, if it can be called such, was to convince the electorate that everything else should take second place to the maintenance of stable prices, even at the cost of unemployment.

Remarkably, she won three general elections whilst presiding over a state of mass unemployment, frequently over two million. She seemed to have convinced the electorate that, in the words of one of her acolytes, Norman Lamont, unemployment was a "price well worth paying", if low inflation would follow. But here we are, 14 years a generation on and unemployment has once again reached three million, and the real figure is probably more like 4.1 million.

Yet that was remarkable about the coverage of the release of the unemployment figures last week was not only the universal condemnation of the figures, but the strange unanimity, even amongst the Tory press, that the government now had to act directly to bring unemployment down a heresy less than ten years ago.

And through it all emerged the central moral theme, that most of the new unemployed had done all that had been asked of them during the 1980s, and had been robbed of their prosperity through no fault of their own much like the victims of inflation in the 1960s and 1970s. For the first time in a generation, the public feel that the government has been responsible for the situation, and that it can and should do something about it.

Almost unnoticed, we are now in the midst of another sea-chanee in public mood and opinion.

There are some Conservative MPs who would, perhaps, still like to think that the release of the new unemployment figures and the death of James Bulger at the hands of two ten year old vagrants from broken, unemployed families in the same week was merely a coincidence.

However, the rest of us are only too well aware of the fact that the Bulger Case, and the television pictures of teenagers in balaclavas in the streets of our cities, are all symptoms of a society rotting under the impact of mass unemployment. Once again, unemployment is a moral issue, and the future lies with the politicians of the party that can grasp this sea-change in the public mood.

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