EVERY CRISIS is in some sense a crisis of confidence. It is Our faith in ourselves and in one another that ultimately determines our condition. It is the faith or lack of faith of others in our capacity to master our problems that largely shapes our destiny.
It is, of course, true that the circumstances of nations, like the circumstances of individuals, change through no fault of their own. We are no longer the centre of a Victorian Empire; we are no longer one of the world's dominant military powers; we are not as rich as we were.
Yet none of these factors can excuse or explain the condition of intermittent crisis which has haunted successive British governments during recent years. What is it in our circumstances or in our national character that compels us to lurch from one calamity to the next, vociferously blaming one another as we jostle our way along the downward slope?
In part, of course, the blame must rest with governments. Governments determine the pace of the advance. They spend money upon a scale which makes £1 million appear a trifle. They are in charge of the accelerator. They are also, as we all know to our cost, in charge of the brake.
THE DREARY round of higher taxes, hire purchase restrictions, increased interest charges, and the like, are painfully familiar. The acrid smell of burning now everywhere apparent is due in large measure to the habit of pressing both the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Indeed. the present Government have actually put a separate man in charge of each of these two pedals.
Yet governments are only ourselves writ large. We give them power to commit our follies upon the grand scale. Above all, we encourage them to spend money—not, be it said at once, that they need much encouragement.
No Prime Minister likes to earn the label attached to one of his more cautious predecessors of being a man "who would make a good Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year".
Far from it—Prime Ministers are constitutionally inclined to erect monuments to be remembered by. Free doctors; free drugs; free education; free meals, generous aid to the poor abroad; generous aid to rich and poor alike at home where no invidious distinctions must be drawn; the ardent protection of an archaic railway system; the salvation of a bankrupt shipyard here or an uneconomic pit there: the architect of military power in Asia and in Europe; the investor upon a world scale; the generous patron of arts and sciences alike.
Much of this is, of course, admirable stuff and has been pursued by the best of men of all Parties for the best of motives. The trouble is that in total it is beyond our means.
THE BUILDING and the preservation of these monuments have been pursued with an enthusiasm which makes the propensity of the mad Ludwigs to build vast castles in Bavaria look positively parsimonious.
Under the pressure of these events wages and prices have surged upwards; skilled men are in short supply; imports have been sucked in and a large part of the potential for exports diverted to a buoyant home market.
Men who have banked their money with us look nervously at our activities and ponder the wisdom of storing it upon less flashy premises. Their fears are accentuated by periodic suggestions that we might announce one morning that we have devalued the £ and thus written down the value of their holdings.
Faced with this situation, how should ordinary men and women conduct themselves? Most of us after all are neither politicians nor economists and cries of warning from the top tend to fall upon ears a little deadened by constant repetition.
First, three things to beware of. Beware of any slick short-cut solution. Too many men are wandering around at this moment saying "if only we could devalue the £—or if only we were not International Bankers—or if only currencies could never be measured in terms of gold". What they really mean is if only they could continue our rake's progress entirely unobserved.
BEWARE, TOO, of the theory that we can continue profligate expenditure at home by abandoning our responsibilities abroad. The idea that we can go on living it up by abandoning first defences East of Suez, then West of Suez, then investment outside the Sterling area, then inside it, and finally cutting it down at home is comparable to living in the grand scale by selling off the furniture.
Finally, beware of placing too much reliance in freezing wages, prices and profits. This is a desperate short-term expedient rather than a remedy. This country expands through a complicated process in which they all arc changing all the time.
To fix them at today's level will not only bring change and expansion to a halt but if persisted in for long will build up some almost insoluble problems for the future.
Basically there is only one solution for this country. It is both simple and very hard. It is to spend less and produce more.
It is moreover a solution to which most citizens can in one way or another make some practical contribution.
THIS IS NOT a sermon on thrift and I am painfully aware that so far as private individuals are concerned, the Government have themselves taken measures which are designed to ensure that we all have less cash to spend.
We must bear this with such fortitude as we can muster. We can all, however, do something to persuade the Government that reductions in their own expenditure, and for that matter in the expenditure of Local Authorities, so far from being resented would be applauded.
Public demand for a reduction in public spending is much rarer than one might suppose. It is time it started. The foot really must be lifted from the accelerator if we are ever to feel an easing of the brake. Plainly, however, we need something more than good brakes if we are to live through the second half of the 20th century in a manner worthy of our previous history.
The key lies in increased production. While clearly a lot of people could work harder, something more than sheer hard work is needed. The Americans don't work all that harder than the British, yet in many industries they produce three times as much as their British counterparts. They earn much more yet produce many goods more cheaply.
The reason is simple. They really use the machines that technological advance has made available. In Britain a vast network of restrictions, vested interests and hide-bound traditions stultify the life of British industry. The introduction of a new piece of machinery has to be preceded by lengthy and tortuous negotiations, and at the end of them the public will be lucky if they derive more than half the potential benefit that is possible.
I EGISLATION could do something to help and certainly should be attempted, but a real upsurge of public indignation at the follies of archaic Trade Union Law and the obstruction to modern methods such as the introduction of Liner Trains, could do as much or more.
Even a few stalwart trade unionists determined to root out restrictions in their own organisations would light a candle in some of the darker places of our industrial scene.
The margin between success and failure is not a large one and somehow as a nation we have got to cross it.
A government that was prepared to concentrate its all upon saving the £ Sterling, leaving for a time all that was irrelevant aside; a nation that was ready to accept for its more affluent sections cuts in the present scale of social welfare and reductions in the rates of subsidy; a recognition by all that some reductions in overseas expenditure on aid and defence must accompany economies at home, and above all, men who are ready to use the tools that modern science has provided would soon turn the tide.
Whether there are enough men within the nation who wish these things is as much a moral as a political question.