Having spent much of yesterday in a state of baffled disbelief, this overwrought analogy came to mind – it seemed quite profound this morning; I’m not so sure now…
Let me tell you a story about a ship: HMS Economy. She has a long and proud naval history, but now she is (mostly) a civilian vessel. She is run by the Captain, and every so often the crew and the passengers on board vote whether to sail under a red flag or a blue one. When they have voted, the Captain with the relevant flag goes to the ageing figurehead at the prow, and receives her blessing to take the helm.
What do the flags’ colours signify? When the passengers and crew feel that HMS Economy is in danger, they tend to vote for the blue flag. These Captains are hard taskmasters. They do “whatever it takes” to keep the ship afloat and on course. They lash the crew to the oars, man the pumps and make liberal use of the cat o’nine tails. Red captains are elected when the crew need respite – they untie the rowers and even let some of them come up on deck to stretch their legs and see what life is like for the passengers. It was a Captain sailing under a red flag who gave the crew free access to the ship’s doctor, for example.
After a while, the passengers grew most comfortable sailing under a blue flag. Some of them felt a bit bad for the crew below, but it seemed very important for HMS Economy to keep progressing in the right direction, to speed along as fast as possible and not risk losing her way under a red flag. There was more dissent among the crew, although many of them also agreed that it was better to keep a blue flag so they would all benefit by reaching their destination (wherever that was) sooner and with the ship in a good condition, even if many of the crew were not.
So the red flags changed their approach. “Ok, y’know, alright,” they said, holding their arms out, palms turned trustworthily towards the audience. “We’ve been watching the blue Captains and we think they’ve got pretty much the right approach, actually. So we’re not going to unlash the crew from the oars any more. What we will do – and this is the crucial difference now – what we will do is let them have a tea break, as long as it doesn’t threaten to damage or slow down the ship. HMS Economy is what matters and we will look after her and her passengers really properly from now on.”
And this persuaded most of the passengers and the crew to trust the red flag, and it seemed as though the course was set for years to come. Life was much the same as it had been under the blue flag, but perhaps a little easier on the crew.
Then disaster came. Yes, the conditions were bad – other ships nearby were making the sea choppy. But HMS Economy herself, it seemed, was in far worse condition than anyone had realised. The blue flags began telling passengers that the red flags had failed to fix the sails while the sun was shining; that we were heading straight for the rocks; that we would all be sunk.
Everyone panicked. The ageing figurehead was called upon to support a Captain and First Mate, sailing under a flag that was mostly blue but had a bit of orange on it, too. The crew were lashed harder to their oars, the cat o’nine tails came out more often, and all hands were put to the pumps (except the top-deck passengers who, quite discomfited by the thought of the ship sinking, were reassured and given lavish new cabins with TVs and inflatable life-savers built in to the walls).
Five years later, HMS Economy was becalmed. She seemed in less immediate danger of capsizing, although the Captain and First Mate had done relatively little to repair her, but she just wasn’t making any headway. Some of the passengers and crew began to regret having been so harsh on the rowers below decks. They thought HMS Economy would probably have survived just as well under a red flag, and without so much harm to the crew – and maybe there hadn’t even been that many rocks. Perhaps it was time to go back to a red flag?
But although lots of people were chattering about this – also the unexpected rise of the yellow flags (dour engineers, for the most part) – it seems most of the passengers and crew meanwhile had quietly put the blame on the First Mate, and quietly believed the blue flags when they said this was no time to risk the ship by hoisting a red flag. Why, a red Captain might fail to get HMS Economy moving again at all, or if they did, it would be in the wrong direction, or on to the rocks – like they did the last time. Better trust the blues.
And so the people voted and the ageing figurehead had to let the Captain keep sailing under a blue flag (no orange required any more). And the Captain vowed to work the crew harder, and make the passengers more comfortable, and to keep HMS Economy sailing on to glory.
That’s the story, then; but it is all codswallop.
The economy is the sea, not the ship
I don’t really believe that politicians have anything like as much influence over the direction and speed of the economy as they claim. Labour didn’t ‘break’ the economy in 2008, any more than a sailor can ‘break’ the ocean. Equally, the Coalition government deserves as much credit for the recovery as a sailor gets for a storm dying down and the sun coming out. The ship they sail is not the economy; rather, the economy is the water that keeps our ship and all of us afloat.
This is not to say that governing is as simple as setting a course and sticking to it. Clearly, the nature of the economy is that it has swells and currents, tides and tsunamis. A good captain is one who maintains the ship and responds well to changes in the weather, keeping the people safe from the sharks in the economical ocean all around.
By confusing the nature of the ship (deliberately or otherwise), the Conservatives make HMS Economy the be-all and end-all of government. If HMS Economy is faring well, they claim, then she is carrying us all to a brighter place. But HMS Economy is a ghost ship, and she has no destination for there is no endpoint to the economic journey of any country. All she can do is continue to push on, keep the crew slaving below deck and the passengers comfortable above. Heaven forfend she should slow down, or even drop anchor, and let everyone enjoy the view.
Labour’s failure in 2015 was not that they couldn’t persuade people they were capable of captaining the ship – though they signally failed to do that, too. The real failure was that they didn’t even try to show us that HMS Economy is a con.
We do not exist to keep the economy afloat. The economy has the potential to drown any of us, and so the ship we have built – the state; HMS Britain, I suppose – is a means of surviving the chaotic waves of economic fortune. The ship exists to keep us afloat. And given that the ship has no destination, there is no need to lash ourselves to the oars in order to maintain a notional speed of growth – we could just as easily hoist the sails, come up on deck and maybe even engage in some water sports (while the Captain keeps an eye out for any banks of stormy cloud on the horizon, of course).
Perhaps that is more akin to the narrative the SNP (not dour engineers at all, of course) offered this time round with their anti-austerity plans. Perhaps so many people want to shake off the red and blue flags because they stick too slavishly to the frightening ghost story of HMS Economy and sea monsters and rocks. But for all the ‘success’ Labour had beating the blue flags at their own game from 1997 to 2008, most of the electorate still seems prone to panic and vote for the blue flags at the first sign of trouble.
I really hope Labour choose a leader who can take this opportunity now to undermine the game: make the red flag stand for real change, and put the quality of people’s lives ahead of the health of the economy, which the government really can’t affect very much anyway. Paint over the ship’s old misleading nameplate, relaunch her with a new bottle of Champagne (or maybe Scotch), and focus on her true purpose – to carry the people so we can live our lives free from the risk of ‘drowning’ in the economy, not enslaved to it.
God bless this ship, and all who sail in her!