This piece was written in autumn 2019 and published before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Years have happened in the last few months. Unemployment has soared to the highest level since World War II, locked down businesses are fighting for survival and livelihoods have vanished almost overnight. In response, central banks have launched a tsunami of monetary stimulus and government cheque books have been blown open to help plug the gap. One effect has been to catalyse the forces of inflation explored in this article.
The Barber Boom (1971-1974) is the story of an economic gear shift which sent post-war Britain careering around country lanes, before skidding on an oil slick and being sent ditchward. There it was left, engine smoking, entangled in the brambles of inflation. It wasn’t until 1980 that road-side recovery eventually arrived in the shape of Paul Volcker and his inflation curbing toolkit.
Following the sudden death of Iain Macleod, Anthony Barber was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ted Heath’s cabinet. It was a popular choice, at least with the opposition. Labour leader Harold Wilson remarked that Barber’s appointment was the first time he realised that Heath had a sense of humour. During his time in Number 11, Barber implemented experimental monetary and fiscal policies leading to an extraordinary, but short-lived, economic expansion which came to be known as the Barber Boom.
The scourge of early 1970s Britain was that of stagflation – simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment against a backdrop of waning economic growth. Remedial, if not radical, measures were required. Barber set in motion a ‘dash for growth’, a hugely ambitious budgetary policy aimed to deliver 10% growth over two years (twice the economy’s productive potential). The Heath-Barber government pushed both the fiscal and monetary pedals to the floor in a no holds barred attempt at igniting growth.
The scourge of early 1970s Britain was that of stagflation – simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment against a backdrop of waning economic growth.
Barber’s first assault was on the tax system. In his speech accompanying the 1971 budget, he said of taxation in Britain ‘it too often stultifies enterprise. Too often it discourages the pursuit of profit. Too often it penalises savings on which the nation’s worth and the growth of the economy so largely depend.’ Comprehensive reform was required and so began a series of income tax cuts, an overhaul of the ‘purchase tax’ and the introduction of VAT. It was vintage Keynesian fiscal expansion.
Alongside this fiscal stimulus, Barber embarked on a major liberalisation of the banking system under the title of ‘Competition and Credit Control’. In the revamped regime, bank lending rose from £71 million to £1.33 billion, government borrowing soared and a deluge of new money flushed into circulation. Money Supply (M3) had grown a total of 25% in the three years to 1970, an increase of this magnitude was shown in 1972 alone.1
Barber’s expansionary fiscal and monetary policy had oiled the engine and growth was beginning to tick up. In his 1972 budget he determined, however, that a further boost was required. In terms of the inflationary effect, Barber seemed relaxed; ‘I do not believe that a stimulus to demand of the order I propose will be inimical to the fight against inflation. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research agreed, they too could ‘see no reason why the present boom should either bust or have to be busted.’
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A deterioration in the balance of payments following a record drain on reserves exerted heavy pressure on the Heath-Barber government. The decision was taken to ‘temporarily’ abandon the fixed exchange rate in June 1972. This meant the value of sterling was left to market forces resulting in a 15% decline in value over the following 18 months.2 Fears of rising prices loomed large once again and a notable change in tone was evident in the 1973 budget.
Things then took a turn for the worse. On 7 October 1973, Arab oil ministers proclaimed an oil embargo, targeted at nations perceived as supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur war, of which the United Kingdom was one. Oil prices quadrupled overnight. In November, the government declared a state of emergency and was forced into a wages freeze, sparking industrial action led by the TUC (Trades Union Congress). A three-day week was imposed on 13 December in order to conserve energy. Growth fell short of the formidable targets laid out by Heath and Barber and as annual growth in broad money ballooned, inflation did likewise, reaching 24% in 1975.3
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Both the fiscal and monetary pedals were at full throttle, eventually the engine spluttered and out chugged the blackened fumes of inflation. The Barber boom is a warning of the dangers of monetary and fiscal profligacy. With monetary easing close to exhaustion and fiscal expansion all but guaranteed, the economy is at biting point – the challenge now is one of clutch control.
Chart sources: Datastream
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