It all started with a pair of shoes. At the CPS’ annual Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, presented this week at the Institute of Directors, Professor Niall Ferguson told a packed room that he first appreciated the human cost of high inflation when he observed his mother’s shock at the price of his new school shoes in 1974. So moved was he by this discovery that at 10 years old, he penned a letter to the Glasgow Herald articulating his thoughts.
Many of us will have had such grim revelations. But few have been bold enough to look society’s dragons in the eye, size them up and propose how they might be slayed. This is where Professor Ferguson comes in.
The subject of this year’s lecture was why Conservative politicians keep ‘repeating the mistakes of the past’. With the number of issues facing us, you might wonder how long he went on for, but with trademark concision and verve, it took Professor Ferguson only 45 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the speech took a rather pessimistic tone. First on the agenda was monetary mismanagement. For many readers, this might feel like a uniquely modern problem. After all, we are bombarded with headlines decrying Threadneedle Street for fueling inflation through quantitative easing – a policy that, since its introduction in 2008, has injected around £1trn into our economy. However, as Prof Ferguson pointed out, in 1972, the annual broad money growth rate exceeded 20%.
The inflationary period of the 1970s was, much like ours now, set against a backdrop of successive government deficits and sluggish growth relative to many of our neighbours. As Prof Ferguson highlighted, a great deal of this malaise was down to excessive fiscal looseness at the hands of Conservatives – yet another error the party has been condemned to repeat.
But there is hope. One astute audience member asked Professor Ferguson about the threat posed by China, presumably expecting a terrifying response. However, he argued that the nation’s rise is a fundamentally good thing – because it will encourage complacent states such as ours to rise to the growing challenge. As Ferguson reminded the audience, under Thatcher, ‘winning the Cold War and winning the domestic economic war were two related victories’.
The task of mending our domestic failings and competing in this fast-moving global economy is a difficult one. But that is what figures such as Keith Joseph – and the think tank he founded, the Centre for Policy Studies, which owns and operates CapX – are there for. As Prof Ferguson concluded: ‘No matter what your shoes may cost, my ministerial friends, you need to be kept on your toes’.
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