The new coalition government have inherited the highest inflation rate in the G7. Higher even than China. And as they consider any sort of increase in VAT to pay off national debt they need to think about how they keep their finger on the national pulse as the country faces these challenges to their living standards.
Immediately on coming to power, Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor raised VAT, much against her initial reluctance. And this was the start of a process that lead to the popular perception that living standards had been badly hit under Margaret Thatcher. And for no lasting gain.
This chart shows the official story of living standards in the UK. We are supposed to be about twice as prosperous as we were in the 1970s.
The hard times under Thatcher and Major are merely slight setbacks that we quickly recovered from. But if people really bought that story, why did the Tories, even with the mess that Gordon Brown made of our economy, face such reluctance to allow them an overall majority in 2010? Birmingham and the West Midlands are a striking example of this reluctance.
Contrast this blight on the Tories to what happened in the US under Ronald Reagan whose heirs have never been blighted by Reaganism. Two George Bushes stand as evidence of this.
This chart shows that Reagan’s legacy was because living standards in the US were hit more under Nixon and Carter, and actually stabilised under Reagan. This chart and this outcome were in large part because they had good quality inflation and prosperity indicators.
When Reagan came to power, the US had long had monthly inflation figures for most big cities and even had regional indices. However, in the first years of Reagan they improved their inflation indices by revising the way housing was measured. This allowed them to apply counter-inflationary policies while having their finger on the pulse of the people’s economic life.
History often seems to repeat itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce. A government presiding over austerity that looses track of prices as they are felt across the country, would be a farce none of us would want to see. The coalition needs to allow the best inflation indices to be put in place and allow it the priority it deserves.