STEPHEN GLOVER: I don’t doubt we’re facing a serious crisis. But do the BBC and its favourite prophet of doom Martin Lewis have to be so apocalyptic?
We British like to see ourselves as a stoical race. We fancy that we are less excitable than other nations, especially the Latin ones, whose inhabitants are liable to get worked up while we stay calm and carry on.
Is this picture any longer true? Or have we become as prone to panic as anyone else? To judge by the media — especially the ubiquitous and all-powerful BBC — you’d think we were on the verge of one of the greatest catastrophes this country has ever faced.
That there is a very serious cost-of- living crisis coming our way I don’t doubt at all. Indeed, I suggested in these pages yesterday that the situation is so dire that we need a functioning Prime Minister in No 10 as soon as possible, thinking of the best ways of mitigating the effects of soaring energy prices.
But it doesn’t follow that this crisis is bound to tear the country apart. One gets the impression from listening to the BBC, and reading some newspapers, that somehow Britain is uniquely in trouble. As I shall argue, this is certainly not the case.
Another false assumption in the increasingly hysterical coverage is that we must all depend entirely on the Government for any amelioration of our supposedly pitiable condition. This is also untrue.
One financial guru who has been freely prophesying Armageddon is Martin Lewis. When the Beeb wants to make our flesh creep, which is often these days, it calls for Martin. For several months, he has been forecasting civil unrest if energy bills continue to rise and the Government doesn’t offer more help.
Yesterday morning, in the prime slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Lewis ranted as never before as he delivered his spine-chilling spiel. He declared that rising energy bills constitute ‘a national crisis’ on the scale of the Covid pandemic. That’s quite a claim.
Offered an alternative pulpit by ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the excitable pundit warned that Britain faces a ‘cataclysm’ that ‘risks lives’ if energy bills increase by more than double by January, as has been widely forecast.
One financial guru who has been freely prophesying Armageddon is Martin Lewis (pictured middle on BBC Politics Live)
I normally admire Mr Lewis and, as I say, don’t for a moment doubt that we are in the grip of an extremely serious crisis. But outbursts of this sort help no one. They serve to deepen the prevailing gloom and are apt to drive people towards mass neurosis.
Mr Lewis does not appear to consider the fact that the Government has already done quite a bit, having shelled out £37 billion of support so far this year. Under existing plans, the most vulnerable households will receive at least £1,200.
Without doubt, there will be more money where that came from — possibly much more. Boris Johnson suggested on Tuesday that he was ‘absolutely certain’ his successor will provide further help to households and I am sure he is right.
Though Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak differ about the form this support should take — she leans towards tax cuts while he favours more targeted payments — both of them clearly understand the gravity of the situation.
So why do Mr Lewis and innumerable other sages speak in such apocalyptic terms? Why do the BBC and other media outlets give them such an enthusiastic welcome and buy so eagerly into the narrative of collapse and disintegration?
I think it is because journalists sometimes exaggerate and they are especially prone to doing so in the time-honoured cause of bashing the Tories who, having been in power for 12 years, make a specially irresistible target.
Don’t get me wrong. When the Tories make mistakes — and they have made lots since 2010 — they deserve all the criticism they get. I simply observe that there is a particular tendency at the moment to magnify all our problems and to represent them as being unique.
For example, you might think, if you relied solely on the BBC, that the inflation rate in this country was aberrational by European standards. It’s not.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (which uses a different measure to the Government’s) inflation in the UK is 8.2 per cent, compared to an OECD average of 10.3 per cent. Inflation in this country is slightly below the rate in Spain, the U.S., Sweden and the Netherlands, and slightly above the rate in Italy and Germany. Inflation is a curse — but one shared by most advanced countries.
In other words, the cost-of-living crisis is far from being a phenomenon peculiar to Britain. It is also probable that several other advanced economies will experience worse energy shortages this winter than this country. Germany and Italy, being much more reliant on Russian gas than the UK, are especially vulnerable.
I don’t say all this to beat our drum. We are in a pickle. But so are most other developed countries and in some cases the pickle is worse. You wouldn’t think so if you relied on the BBC, which is so keen to bash the Tories that it often forgets to look south of Dover.
However, it’s not just the BBC, or even paid-up critics of the Government, that exaggerate our woes. Last week, Andrew Bailey, the lugubrious Governor of the Bank of England, might as well have carried a placard proclaiming ‘Britain isn’t working’ as he forecast a prolonged recession with what almost seemed like relish.
Last week, Andrew Bailey, the lugubrious Governor of the Bank of England (pictured), might as well have carried a placard proclaiming ‘Britain isn’t working’ as he forecast a prolonged recession with what almost seemed like relish
We are so busy talking ourselves down that pieces of good news which contradict the dominant thesis are virtually ignored. Were you aware that recent figures from the British Retail Consortium show that the total value of UK sales in July was 2.3 per cent higher than a year ago, when the economy was enjoying a post-Covid boost?
Not all is doom and gloom, though the likes of Martin Lewis would like us to believe that we are clinging to the edge of a precipice having mislaid the rope and dropped the crampons.
Which brings me to my final point. The Government must, and will, do more. But so must we. First of all, let’s not panic. The phlegmatic British coped all right 50 years ago with three-day weeks, frequent blackouts and reading by candlelight.
Not ideal, I grant, but endurable. Have we become so infantilised by the State, and so dependent on it, that we can’t improvise? I was brought up in a large crumbling rectory without central heating. You wear an extra jersey and don’t linger in the hall.
Which of us couldn’t save on electricity by religiously turning off lights and appliances? Just cutting the duration of a shower by a quarter will save pounds. Is that such a penance? This winter, unless it is literally freezing, we won’t have the central heating on at night.
If only there were more balance and perspective in this debate. But that would require the BBC and others to stop seeing this crisis as being unique to us, and somehow engineered by wicked, incompetent Tories.
We’ll get through it, we really will. The Government will help and we will help ourselves —and, I trust, one another. We just need a little good sense —missing in much of the media, I fear, but not yet totally absent from our country.
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