During several matches leading to the almighty centre-court battle that climaxed this year’s Wimbledon I reflected on how the game has altered over the 50 years I have been watching it.
I recall days of serve-and-volley, preceding Borg’s dogged baseline perseverance that exasperated more excitable opponents. I remember the exquisite yet deadly net play of the miniscule, pigeon-toed Pancho Segura; and the astonishingly accurate roof-high lobs of the delightful Nicolo Pietrangeli. But nostalgia apart, the biggest change is in the department of integrity, or what we used to call sportsmanship.
Before tennis racket technology launched products capable of supersonic serving, we relied on visual line-calls rather than Hawkeye. I remember instances when patently incorrect line decisions were met with a patient shrug rather than abusive whingeing, only to be followed by the opponent deliberately knocking the next ball out, acknowledging that he should have lost the previous point. That was the norm.
even infrastructure investment costs money that the exchequer does not have
As in sport, so in politics. Perhaps the analogy is unfair because politics has always been a dirty game, but how refreshing it would be if we were to witness an unexpected outbreak of honesty in the matter of, say, public finances. Instead of more hogwash from the wordstore of bankrupt ideas, can you imagine how refreshing it would be to be told that even infrastructure investment costs money that the exchequer does not have and cannot print because it is already bang-to-rights on borrowing a further £175 billion on existing commitments? That consequently the dosh will not be forthcoming without some really harsh cuts in public expenditure? And hence that the “investment versus cuts” argument is a sterile charade? To treat two sides of a single equation as mutually opposed is absurd and every pronouncement to that effect insults the public intelligence.
Reforming the public sector
While fantasizing let’s pretend that instead of refusing to review public expenditure before the election, the government admitted what the entire nation knows: the public sector is bloated and inefficient, and the enforced sacrifices inflicted in the private sector – wage cuts, redundancies, pension losses – must be matched with spending reductions in the state sector. Wouldn’t that be a good start?
An honest government would then lead the debate on how to achieve financial restructuring without loss of key services. Top of the list for reform is public sector pensions which now equate to a true liability of £1.2 trillion – as a percentage of economic output that’s three times higher than in Canada and the US. In his usual no-nonsense style Vince Cable commented: “Behind the fat-cat culture in the public sector is a wish to enjoy the rewards available in the private sector without the risks. But the truth is that many of those senior civil servants, parliamentarians, local government bosses and others who feel underpaid on their generous packages would sink without trace if they had to manage a business through the recession.”
There is no cross-party consensus on reining in public expenditure, but there is plenty to debate: the need for Trident; identity cards; prisons; time-limited welfare benefits; and labour costs in the NHS, which has moved from paying some of the lowest to some of the highest salaries in the world.
Tackling these issues would give a welcome boost to public confidence in current efforts to get lending going again. Crucially, lending increases the money supply, and banks can achieve this by lending to businesses or by buying government debt, which has been the method of choice for nigh on two years.
The drying up of lending created a vacuum and, as Aristotle put it, nature abhors a vacuum. Returns to private lenders are now sufficiently attractive to warrant their assumption of a significant funding role, and they seem able to dodge the dross far more effectively than the formal banking sector ever did. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing natural law at work.