Great Aunt Margaret, The Bishop of Litchfield, Downton Abbey Strip-0-grams.

Before I start I would like to make it clear that my Great Aunt Margaret had nothing to do with the Bishop of Litchfield or any kind of strip-o-grams, although all of these people will appear in this blog.

I wanted to write this after reading a series of  newspaper articles about the increase in inequality in the UK.  I have kids, and worry like most parents about the world they are growing up into.

Newspaper stories about inequality tend to fall into one of 2 categories.  The first type claim that inequality in the UK is the worst it has been since some point in the past; the 1980s, the 1950s, the 1940s. Each newspaper article seems to be outbidding the last for how far back they can push the historical comparison.

The second type claims that inequality has been rising inexorably since some time further in the past. This links to a narrative from writers like Thomas Piketty – an inexorable growth in inequality is baked into capitalism, and that a more equal society only happens after some kind of economic shock like a World War.  There are some examples of these articles in the references at the end.


This is a photograph of my Gran and her sisters, taken in the 1950s.  She is top row 2nd from the right, her Mum is in the middle. This is a photograph of an era which was deeply unequal, socially immobile and class based.  The kind of society, which according to a number of newspapers we are heading back to rapidly.

Of the woman in the photo most of them ran a home and raised large families of children, while the men worked in occupations which varied from skilled manual work through to running small shops. I knew some of them as old people when I was a child, and while there must have been some inequality of income between them it wasn’t immediately obvious.The lived in similar houses, ate similar food (pies).  They were also fiendishly good card players.

My Gran, and her sister Margaret both worked.  My Gran attended Sunderland Teacher Training college, now part of Sunderland University, and qualified as a Primary School Teacher.  The College was based in Langham Tower on Ryhope Road and was women only.  The college’s other course, Naval Architecture, was men only. She worked as a teacher in County Durham until she was married and gave up work.  The “marriage bar” in teaching had been officially removed by Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919, however the practice continued for decades afterwards in areas like Durham where male unemployment was high. The Civil Service itself only lifted its Marriage Bar in 1946. 

My Great Aunt Margaret is bottom right. She was the live in cook/housekeeper in a large house at Sandbanks, Dorset, kept by a Sunderland Solicitor named Wright as a holiday home.  She was the last of my family to enter service, although there had been plenty before her, particularly on the Modral side. Uncle Willie and Aunt Kate, worked for the Shuttleworth family at  Old Warden, in Bedfordshire – they were the last of a long line of gardeners and servants going back longer than I can remember.

There was never any particular reticence about her job, no-one ever seemed to be surprised or embarrassed.  It was a respectable job for a woman of our social class.  Margaret always spoke fondly of the family she worked for and they seemed to treat her well.  At the start of the C20th domestic service was the largest employer of woman in the UK (c. 1.4m) and I am surprised how little we talk about it.   When my Grandad bought his house in Longacres for £300 in 1933 his friend Bill Howe moved into a Council Houses at Moorlands nearby.  Bill had a live in maid, and the Council allowed him an extra bedroom to accommodate her.

From a modern perspective I find the idea of employing full time servants baffling.  The costs and resources needed for even a small sized domestic workforce are well beyond all but the richest middle class families today.  Yet back in the 1930s Solicitors, Doctors, even Vicars had servants.

Vicars are an easily tracked sub-group of British middle class society, partly because they have been round or a long time, and also because they have been complaining about being underpaid since the middle ages.  This makes them a great source of data.

Thanks to Lambeth Palace, Church House, Durham County records office and a few other sources I was able to put together some ideas of the incomes of Vicars and some similar professions, from  the first half of the 1930s.

The Bishop of Lichfield earned £4200pa, took home £2600 after tax and rates, paid £800 for servants, train fares and his motor car.  We know a lot about his income, and his Diocese, because he wrote a chapter on the Poverty of the Clergy for a report of 1933.  I was impressed that in accounting for his income he lumped together his servants and his motor car.  This was roughly double the salary paid to a Cabinet Minister at the time.   

My Grandfather, who was a School Master probably earned £300-400pa. Secondary School teachers and Headmasters earned more – between £500-600.

An Army Officer (2nd Lieutenant with 7 year service, married) earned £500pa

The average living for a Vicar in the diocese of Lichfield was £275pa*.  Wages for the clergy varied widely, and a small number earned considerably more.

A Durham Miner earned just over £100pa, in an era when unemployment was high in the coalfields.  Wages had fallen considerably from their peak in the 1920s.

Live in staff earned a lot less, largely because their employer provided accommodation; my Great Aunt probably earned between £50 and £60pa; a maid less again, between £20-30

By comparison at the time the Labour Party were campaigning for the National Living Wage of £250pa.

This tells us income for a range of professions, however to form a full picture we need to see what it costs to maintain a home with servants.  These are the personal accounts for a prosperous Vicar, married, with one child at School, and another living away at University from 1933.

  Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 09.50.33

It is commonly said that the decline of domestic servants in the UK started with WW1.  As men went away to the front woman replaced them in industrial jobs, which fundamentally changed the Labour Market.  As it got harder and harder to find servants, middle class woman got used to managing the house by themselves, with fewer and fewer staff.   

“You can’t get the staff these days” was a familiar complaint.

As technology improved it was easier for a woman who didn’t work to manage the home herself, with a part time cleaner, than to hire, accommodate and manage servants.   

Despite all of the changes in housing people might be surprised that there is still a good sized employment market for servants in the UK.   According to the Office for National Statistics from the 2012 Labour Force Survey, about 65,000 people are employed as domestic workers by British households. If you are interested in the kind of jobs available the on line version of The Lady always has adverts for Butlers, under Butlers, Cooks and Housekeepers.

Wealthy households don’t have as many staff as they used to, and the vacancies in The Lady reflect an ageing population – more carers, fewer nannies   Partly the fall in opportunities reflects technological change – it takes fewer servants to run a big house full of appliances, and partly discretion – rich people are more discrete about their servants that a century ago. 

In fact overall it takes a lot fewer poor people to meet the needs of rich people than it did a few decades ago.

[Anyone googling hiring Butlers at random needs to be careful that a good proportion of the sites are for nude Butlers, and Downton Abbey Strip-o-grams, which is a completely different part of the Labour Market].

Before we go any further with this I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that the return of big houses and servants is a good thing, nor am I equating having a cleaner to having a man in a Stressman suit who opens your front door.  But as  the gap between the rich and the rest gets bigger and bigger in the UK we apparently approach the levels of inequality that we last experienced in an era when having servants was common place and respectable.   

Which begs the question?  Why don’t people have someone in stripey trousers to open the door?  My household probably occupies a similar position in the economic hierarchy as a prosperous vicar did 70 odd years ago, if not slightly higher.

One of the most obvious economic changes is the cost of housing.   The Vicarage House, on the Old Warden Estate where Willie and Kate worked was sold in 1937 to Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, the local landowner, for a “consideration of £1250”. He then granted it to Revd Edward Wells, the Vicar of Old Warden.  I assume £1250 was the price agreed by Mr Shuttleworth and the vendors, who were the Church of England’s ‘Governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty’ a scheme set up in 1704 (during Queen Anne’s reign) to augment the incomes of the poorer clergy in England.  The Rev. Wells probably resembles the chap with the £1000 expenditure above

It is only when we inflate the salaries in the examples in line with inflation that the real changes become obvious.

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 16.48.40

The salaries for a housekeeper are starting salaries, an experienced cook/housekeeper with staff working for them can earn up to £50,000pa.   Live in Au-pairs start at around £8,000pa in London, although you would need to meet the costs of food and housing on top of that.  I am not sure how this works with the National Minimum Wage.

Vicars have seen their salaries increase by more than inflation, although they still lag well behind their equivalents in other middle class jobs  The pay of Bishops has collapsed.  The pay scales for Cabinet Ministers, Teachers and Army Officers are remarkable similar, which is a testament to the efficiency of Public Sector Pay Review Boards.

Our prosperous clergyman with expenses of £1000 a year would equate to the modern equivalent of a newly appointed NHS Consultant, Senior Civil Service Grade 1, or Headteacher Group 6.   A Downton Abbey strip-o-gram earns about £100 per strip, plus a £25 non-refundable booking fee, in case your are wondering.   

All of this would indicate that in 2 crucial dimensions our society is much more equal than in my Grans day.

Firstly the role of women in the workforce has been transformed.  If we took the same photo today of my wife, my sisters and sisters-in-law every single one of them works in high status, high income professions.   All of them come from 2 income families. Gender inequality, has been transformed, if not wholly solved.

Secondly – while the incomes of middle class earners has risen pretty much in line with inflation wages at the bottom end have increased much faster.   The real reason why domestic servants are so much rarer is because they are much more expensive.  The gap between the poorest paid and middle class people is much closer than it was.

So – why the do we believe that we are becoming a more unequal society?   Is it actually true?

The analysis above only shows a more equal society because it misses out 2 groups.  I haven’t dealt with anyone from the lowest income groups in the UK, nor have I included anyone in the very highest income brackets – the top fraction of the top 1%.   That’s because this is based on the real lives of my family, and over the last 100 years or so no-one in my family has been very rich or very poor. 

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 16.40.06

If we add in these groups the UK becomes the 7th least equal society out of the 30 Countries in the OECD LIS data, and the 4th least equal in Europe.  I leave it up to you to decide where on the graph we would like to be one day.

For most of us in our day to day lives we live in a much more equal, much more egalitarian, much less snobby or hierarchical society than our Grandparents.  While there are big differences in salary between a CofE Vicar and an NHS Consultant with a merit award they are not so big that it is impossible for them to be friends.  In fact despite the disparity in Salary most people would recognise both as belonging to the same extended social class.  Our definitions of class seem to have extended to cover wider and wider groups of people with similar experiences and tastes, despite wide ranges of income.

The people at the far ends of the pay spectrum live apart from the rest of us, and we don’t really interact with them.

There is also one final aspect of inequality which struck me writing this. Clearly my family have changed a lot since my Gran’s generation.  Like lots of families we have become upwardly socially mobile.   

If you come from the well off family, go to a good school, and are well connected the chances are that you will grow up to be well off.

If you come from a poor family, don’t have access to good education, live in a poor party of the country, and have a social circle of other poor people the likelihood is that you will grow up poor.

It is this respect – social immobility  – that our times most resemble the 1930s rather than income inequality.   

The 20th century expectation that each generation would be better off than the preceding one is no longer being met. People born in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s have lower incomes than their predecessors had at the same age. Those born in the 1980s are the first postwar cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership, the aspiration of successive generations of ordinary people, is in sharp decline, among the young especially. Most shocking of all, today only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high income earner as an adult.” State of the Nation 2016

For those are wondering what happened to Great Aunt Margaret, her younger brother John played outside right for Burnley.  He retired from football after a full back snapped his ankle, and went to work in Luton at the car industry.  Aunt Margaret moved to live nearby, and took a job in the factory too.  She moved back to Pittington, and lived up the road from us.   


Big thanks to the archivists at Church House, Lambeth Palace, Durham County Records Office for their help.  

The main sources I used for this were:

Clerical Incomes: An Inquiry int the Cost of Living Among the Parochial Clergy, Masterman 1933

The Deployment and Payment of the Clergy, Paul, CIO 1964

Office Holders in Modern Britain 1815-1879, University of London 1984

History of Durham Blue Coat Schools, R Chadwick, 1958

Royal Commission on the Coal Industry 1925, National Archives

Church of England Clergy Stipends Report 2016, Clergy Stipends Authority

State of the Nation Report, Social Mobility Commission, 2016

If you are interested in the kind of inequality thinking going on this blog, while well researched and accurate ,is typical of this trope:

The Guardian has a really good ongoing series of articles on inequality. This, from Yuval Noah Harari posits a singularity of inequality in the near future:

These are the accounts for a couple of other Vicars a bit less well off than our chap with a £1000+ a year.  The represent the rough equivalent to a family on an average income today:





Yuri Gagarin, Juicero, Texas Tom, and the Office of National Statistics.


We had our first ever meeting last week with a venture capitalist.  He was an impressive chap, knowledgable in the way that a professional investor should be.  I learnt a lot about investing just from one meeting, although not enough to decide whether Venture Capitalist should be capitalised or not.

Most people don’t ever meet VCs, Hedge Fund managers, or Private Equity investors, despite the enormous influence they wield over which businesses get funding, and which don’t.  My mate Pete slightly misheard and demanded to know why I was meeting with a French capitalist rather than a salt of the earth British one.  Brexit means Brexit after all.   

Mostly we associate these kind of investors with High Tech, cutting edge, industry disruptors, driving fast paced change in the economy.  We are used to thinking that we live in a world of dizzying technological change that is transforming our lives when in fact the rate of change in lots of fields of technology is getting slower, not faster.  The big transformative technological changes, flight, TV, space travel, through to washing machines happened a couple of generations ago.

When my Grandad was a small child the first motor cars were raced at over 100mph at Brooklands.   After centuries when the top speed that man could travel at was set by the velocity of a fast horse, this was a massive leap forward.  He lived near the goods depot at Gilesgate (when Durham had a goods station), and saw the first 100mph Steam Train – The Flying Scotsman.

When my Dad was a small child Chuck Yeager because the first human being to go faster than the speed of sound in the Bell X-1.   From 100mph to 770mph in one generation. 

When I was a toddler Charlie Brown, the Apollo 10 re-entry vehicle achieved 24,791 mph, the fastest speed ever by a human being.  A long way from the Flying Scotsman.

My children are 17 and 12.  They have never seen a major speed landmark achieved; the current water speed record was set in the 1970s; the fastest manned aeroplane was the 1960s, the land speed record was the early 1990s.  Apart from a few obscure records the pursuit of speed is over.   The world last supersonic passenger jet was scrapped a few years ago

Attempts to break speed records are about as cool as the World Strongest Man Competition, which is to say, a bit naff.

There are regular claims that the US will try and restart the Space Programme, but right now the only launches taking place are satellites to improve Internet or Mobile Phone coverage, and some experiments for high priced tourism. I took my kids to the Museum in St Petersburg to see the Russian space programme.  It was ancient history to them, and the analog nature of so much of the technology made it look even older.  Yuri Gagarin was as far away in time to them as the Tsar. 


At the risk of being too dismissive lots of the dizzying advances in technology in recent years have been aimed at improving our leisure time, rather than pushing the boundaries of the possible. 

The same pattern can be seen in Pharmaceuticals.  The number of patents being submitted in the UK remains high, and the number of breathless newspaper stories heralding the rise of medical miracles is equally prolific.   

The majority of these patents however are new uses for old molecules rather than new molecules themselves.  These patents are designed to extend the patent protection period on existing drugs by re-licensing them for new uses and new populations.  The number of genuinely new molecules emerging from the product development pipeline of major Pharmaceutical companies is falling.  A BMJ paper a few years back rated new patents on how innovative they were in offering treatments – the proportion of new patents they rated as highly innovative is falling, as companies try and extend the patent life of existing treatments.

At the heart of this problem are the economics of the pharmaceutical industry.  In order to keep shareholders and investors happy big Pharmaceutical companies have prioritised maintaining patents on existing drugs, and creating treatments for Western ailments such as obesity and erectile dysfunction.   Really useful stuff like a cure for Malaria has dropped down the priority list. 

If you want an image to represent the gap between the treatments that patients need and the economic priorities of Pharmaceutical companies watch the Great North Run. Loads of the athletes taking part will be wearing vests supporting medical research charities – Cancer Research UK is popular, MND also.  I ran for Arthritis research, which seemed like a positive investment in my own future. 

Each one of those brightly coloured vests represents a point of market failure.  People are raising money through charities to do the job that the big Pharmaceutical companies find uneconomic.

It can be hard intellectually to resolve the conflict between the newspaper headlines trumpeting the latest breakthroughs in pharmacology, with the decline in actual innovation, but the same gap between reality and headline occurs in lots of places.   We read loads of headlines about the rise of robots to take our jobs, but the biggest robot take over of the workspace is relatively mundane and low tech – the movement to self service check outs in supermarkets and DIY stores.  I say DIY stores but in reality I mean Homebase as they are close to the only company left in the business.  I miss Texas Tom.

It is possible to see the differential pace of changes in terms of cycles of technology, but fromm the perspective of a small business trying to raise funds to grow it is hard to separate technological innovation and business growth from patterns of investment.   

Some of the technological advances I listed above were driven high levels of state spending, on both sides of the ideological divide, during the Cold War.  Lots of them weren’t – they simply date from an era when investments, both private and state went into different things.   It is no co-incidence that the list of everything getting faster all of the time comes to an end around the time the Berlin Wall comes down.   It is even less of a co-incidence that the areas where technological change is still growing strongly are the ones where the state is still active in aiding development (this is a massive subject in it’s own right, and I will come back to it I promise).

From the 80s onwards deregulation of financial markets became a popular policy choice, first in the in US and UK, then, as the Cold War ended, in countries making the transition from Communism.  Financial markets like Wall Street and the City of London, which had always been important in allocating capital, became more and more powerful. 

The theory was that rational utility maximising actors such as Banks, VCs, Hedge Funds, Private Equity firms working in deregulated markets should have become more efficient at allocating resources as they were freed from regulation and government interference.  The greater the deregulation, the greater the efficiency.

Over the last 30 years it is clear that things haven’t quite worked out like that.    

It is easy to find examples where investors and capital markets have made odd decisions, without having to look deep into the heart of darkness that is the Credit Crunch.  Juicero recently raised $120m to develop a juicer that was linked to the internet of things.   Linking things to the internet of things is currently a good way of getting people to invest in what would ordinarily be a very humdrum business opportunity.   

Investments like Juicero look like innovation when they are pitched to investors, but in reality there is nothing innovative about it – it is 2 sensible ideas (fruit juice and the internet of things) mashed together to create one weird idea.   

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the on demand market.  Investors have backed the Uber of Hot Food, the Uber of Groceries, the Uber of Flowers, the Uber of Booze, the Uber of Gardening, the Uber of Dry Cleaning.    All of these have been lucratively capitalised despite the real Uber failing to actually make a profit.

Who would like to join me in pitching an on demand musical instrument delivery service – the Uber of Tubas?  On demand greasing and oiling services?  Lets set up the Uber of lubers.   

To find evidence of the disconnect between business investment and economic growth we can look at the ONS data set.  This shows wild swings in business investment, apparently unrelated to any kind of business cycle.   

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I was so shocked by this chart that I swapped a couple of emails with the Business Investment Team at ONS, to check that it was right.  Apart from the obvious collapse in investment during the credit crunch I can’t explain these wild swings other than irrationality in the market. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about low levels of productivity in the UK economy.  The inconsistent levels of business investment look like they are a big part of this problem.

Productivity is rubbish. Inefficiency rules. Why Craft Gin is better than United Airlines.

Despite all of this it is clear that there is plenty of money out there to invest in stuff.  Tech unicorns in the US are having billions piled into them without any clear idea of where the profit is going to come from.  It seems incredible with all of the opportunities from technology and globalisation that we are apparently running short of really good stuff to invest in

One of the obvious problems behind this is a lack of consumer demand. Companies who have surplus capacity already won’t invest in expanding, and instead will take advantage of low interest rates to do things like buy back shares and increase dividends rather than build new factories.  Share buy backs, particularly leveraged ones allow businesses to improve profits, particularly profit per share, without having to do anything messy like make things.   Lobbying for cuts to Corporation Tax has pretty much the same effect. 

It is pretty clear that globalisation has increased trade, and raised living standards in a number of countries.  However even in highly consumer oriented societies like the UK we are starting to get to “peak stuff”.   

Measuring peak stuff is hard, however to look into this we can look at the tonnage of raw materials we consume in the UK.  This is one of my favourite ONS datasets (we all have favourite ONS datasets don’t we?).

In 2001 the UK used 888.9 million tonnes of raw materials (15.1 tonnes per person), the highest on record.  By raw materials I mean biomass (crops, wood and fish), metal ores (iron and non-ferrous metals), non-metallic minerals (such as construction materials) and fossil energy materials (coal, oil and gas).

By 2011 this had fallen to 642.0 million tonnes (10.1 tonnes per person).

In the same period resource productivity had risen sharply – the amount of GDP we generated from a KG of stuff had increased from £1.87 per kilogram in 2000 to £2.98. 

This partly reflects people becoming more environmentally friendly.  it also reflects that technology is making things smaller and less resource intensive

But a big driver of this is the shift from buying lots of stuff, to buying less and better.  More personalised and bespoke.  For our last wedding anniversary some of the nicest presents we got were vouchers for experiences, rather than actual physical gifts.  Over the last year I have paid to go on 2 guided walks. We want experiences, not more stuff to go in cupboards.  This seems like a very middle class explanation, given that lots of other people don’t have enough anyway, but the shifts in tonnage are too great for it just to be a middle class fad.

Changing the metric from output per person, to output per KG of raw material changes fundamentally how we look at consumption.  All of a sudden the decline in efficiency caused by an economy which moved from high volume manufacturing to services and bespoke products doesn’t look as scary.  In fact the whole concept of economic performance, efficiency and growth looks different. 

If there was one really cool product I would love to own it would be a 3D printer.  I love the idea of making my own stuff.  If there was a way to recycle and 3D print I would love it even more – breaking down waste packaging and plastic into pellets to fuel my 3D printer. I could make stuff, use it, recycle it myself into something else.   

Central banks are still trying to boost demand for stuff by Quantitative Easing.  There is some evidence that this is working, for example in new car sales.  But across the economy it looks like they are better at boosting asset prices for things like houses than they are at stimulating demand.   In our experience there is actually money out there chasing investments, rather than investments chasing investment, which isn’t great for encouraging hard nosed decision making

But no amount of QE can solve the essential problem – from the 80s onwards investment has moved towards consumer products and global supply chains.  This has increased the amount of resources we consume globally, and accelerated environmental degradation.  But as markets mature the scope to sell more products in advanced economies is declining. 

We still want all the cool stuff that modern Capitalism produces.  But increasingly we want less of it, from smaller, more local producers, rather than from giant impersonal conglomerates with rubbish customer service.   We want more differentiation and more individuality.    Right now big financial markets want us to have a wifi juicer.

If you are interested in some of the data I have referred to in this blog you can find more at:

PSBR, PFI, Off balance sheet accounting, and Fred Wharton


My mate David requested I do something on Public Sector Borrowing.  As it happens my daughter Lily is doing A level History at Durham Johnston Comprehensive.  David and I did the same A level at the same school, but 30 years earlier.  I thought it might fun to do a short history of public debt since WW2.   When I say fun, I mean fun for people who like history, and numbers. 

DJ is still teaching exactly the same European History syllabus as it was when Mr Solon taught us all to memorise “L’Etat c’est Moi”. The British History syllabus has moved on, and now covers C20th British History.   A whole generation has grown up ignorant of the Corn Laws, which, as any fool knows,  is crucial to understanding Brexit.  Shocking.

I can still hear Freddie Wharton hissing “Hhhhhooooopeless, Mr Chadwick, hopeless” at me in a British History A level class.

He did that a lot.

Lily asks me about her History A level, which is great, although I am slightly concerned that she apparently believes I was an eye witness to the establishment of the NHS and the Suez Crisis.

Before I go any further I should probably declare an interest, in that I was a very small participant in the events below.  I was responsible for a Hospital PFI scheme while Brown was Chancellor, and gave outsourcers a dead leg for George Osbourne, among other things.  Feel free to boo and hiss if it makes you feel better.

In the style of Fred Wharton I am going to start by dividing the Chancellors up into sets.

There have been 23 Chancellors of the Exchequer since WW2. 15 Conservatives, and 8 Labour – the Conservatives have generally been in power more often, and change their Chancellors more regularly than Labour. The majority of them left the country with less debt not more – this is because at the end of WW2 we had very high debt which declined over time as the economy grew.

The 5 best Chancellors in the top set for managing debt are:

-53.16 Butler

-44.05 Cripps

-18.55 Gaitskell

-16.12 Barber

-15.42 Jenkins

The numbers beside their names are the reductions in debt over their time in office as a a percentage of GDP.  I chose percentage of GDP as a simple way to avoid inflation affects confounding the data.  If you look at cash instead it gives you a similar picture with one exception – Geoffrey Howe left office with very slightly lower debt as a percentage of GDP, but with more debt in cash terms.  He was in fact the first Chancellor since WW2 to leave office with more cash debt than he started.

The 5 Chancellors in the bottom set for managing debt are:

4.28 Lamont

8.69 Darling

10.96 Clark

22.3 Dalton

36.6 Osborne

Dalton is a bit different to the rest because his time as Chancellor included the immediate end of WW2 which isn’t really comparable to the rest of the series.   

If we exclude Dalton the average Labour Chancellor since the war has reduced debt by 12.16% of GDP. The average Conservative reduced it by 7.5%.   I excluded MacLeod and Thorneycroft from the Conservative numbers as each was only Chancellor for a brief period and would have distorted the average.  For stats fans if we include Dalton, MacLeod and Thorneycroft Labour chancellors are still ahead, by 7.3 to 6.4, which starts to question why the Tories tend to be better regarded for managing debt.

Looking at the performance of Chancellors we can split the post war period up neatly into 3 periods.   

From Sir Stafford Crips through to Denis Healey every Chancellor of the Exchequer left office with less debt than they started.  None of them particularly ran a campaign of fiscal austerity – instead they focussed on growing the economy and paying down debt gradually.  Fans of Bustkillism – the period where Labour and Conservative politicians converged on a centrist consensus  – should feel particularly pleased with themselves.

There is a second clear period starting in the 1990s. From Lamont onwards all Chancellors of the Exchequer except for Gordon Brown leave office with more debt than they started.  Of the worst Chancellors for running up debt, 4 of the bottom set are in the last 25 years.

There is a narrative that the UK was doing great for debt until New Labour came along and “Maxed out the Credit Card”.   It looks rather like the deterioration started way before then.

The question is … what happened in the middle period – the 1980s – to change us from an economy where debt fell to an economy where debt rose? Other than spending lots of money on Duran Duran records. 

There were 3 Chancellors of the Exchequer during the 1980s.  Howe reduced debt by only 0.49% during his 4 years, but increased it in cash terms.  If we are looking for a moment when the economy turned from declining debt to increasing debt Howe is a good suspect.   His performance on debt was markedly worse than Denis Healey (-4.26%) even though Healey had to ask the IMF for a bailout.  The UK fiscal position under Howe looks at least as weak as under Healey, the only difference being that Thatcher held her nerve better than Callaghan.

By contrast Nigel Lawson looks much better.  He reduced debt by 13.8% and narrowly missed a place in the top set.  Major had only a brief stint as Chancellor and managed a slim 2.61% reduction in debt.  He continued to push for lower debt as Prime Minister, but only succeeded in pushing the economy into a recession, which was unfortunate as I was leaving University at the time. 

Down the PFI Rabbit Hole

Before we go further there is a further complication we need to consider – off balance sheet debt.

One of the biggest criticisms of Gordon Brown is that he signed up to a lot of PFI deals which increased debt, but were designed so they didn’t show up on the balance sheet. Actually lots of Chancellors from the 1980s onwards used off balance sheet and non-recurring measures which makes it difficult to work out what actually happened to Government debt.

To try and explore this I created a notional charge to the national accounts based on the value of PFI contracts signed per year, including all future payments accruing to these contracts.     

This gives us this table:

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This adds roughly 22% to public sector borrowing.  This is far too much for several reasons:

  1. Not all PFI was off balance sheet – some of it was always counted in the national accounts
  2. Not all off balance sheet transactions were PFI – there were lots of transactions linked to privatisation which moved debt on and off the governments books creating a notional reduction in government borrowing
  3. FM bundling.  Lots of PFI deals in the NHS included the facilities management costs of running the buildings as part of the deal.  For example – when a new hospital was built in Redcar the FM costs were bundled into the PFI deal.  The hospital that it was replacing  – Stead Memorial – already had an FM budget (a very big one).   Including the FM costs in the PFI costs risks double counting. Deciding which FM costs you should include when calculating how much debt the government hid when moving stuff off balance sheet isn’t straight forward

To correct this we can start by taking out PFI’s which were on balance sheet, and adjusting for FM bundling.   I did this crudely, by looking at a long list of contracts and using my skill and judgement to take out the ones I thought were already on balance sheet, then adjusting for FM bundling, where the FM costs would have been incurred anyway.  At this point the numbers are pretty crude, but without a researcher to chase down each contract it is hard to make them more accurate.

This changes the sums for each of the Chancellors from 1995 onwards, but probably doesn’t change the overall conclusion… from Lamont onwards every Chancellor of the Exchequer increased debt except for Gordon Brown, who reduced debt by less than he claimed when we add the PFI costs in. I say probably because it is possible to make a different set of assumptions which would have a radically different set of results.

Even this doesn’t tell us the full picture because it doesn’t show us off balance sheet transactions which weren’t PFI, typically the result of a privatisation deal.  For example when Royal Mail was privatised a chunk of debt left the Government’s books in return for the Government accepting a long term revenue charge.  The flow of funds looks a lot like a PFI off balance sheet transaction, so much so that a couple of years ago RailTracks debt was recategorised so it counted against public debt.

Calculating the impact of privatisation based off balance sheet transactions is difficult.

It is possible to track central Government privatisation receipts during the main phase of nationalisation up to 1997.   Between 1997 and 2010 privatisations still took place but often they weren’t carried out by central Government – for example Airports which had been owned by Local Authority Consortia, or parts of the BBC.  Off set against those receipts for privatisation are the costs of nationalisation – largely the effects of the investments which the Government made into the banking system in 2008.  Post 2010 privatisation receipts increased, closer to the levels seen under Lawson, mainly from the sale of banking shares the Government had acquired in 2008. 

Taking these numbers out crudely shows us the impact of non-recurring privatisation receipts and PFI costs on the performance of each Chancellor:

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Where does this leave us?   Nigel Lawson fairs better than I expected by a long way, and while Gordon Brown’s track record of investment in public services is still excellent, and it is creditable that he achieved this without adding to government debt, it is less credible to regard him as doing much to reduce the deficit. 

One thing is clear- it is hard to actually make sense of the PSBR data from the mid 80s onwards.  Governments increasingly used forms of financial engineering to disguise the true picture of public finances.   

If I were to try and construct a narrative to tie together the numbers from the 1980s and afterwards it would go like this….

Public borrowing starts to deteriorate under Howe.  He is a poor Chancellor who increases debt and unemployment.

Lawson clears up Howe’s mess and manages to grow the economy and reduce debt but only at the cost of high unemployment.  Lawson saves Thatcherism, which is either good or evil depending on your political standpoint. He also introduces a lot of complexity into government finances which starts to make it harder for governments to understand the real debt position.  He uses non-recurring funds to pay for recurring tax cuts, which sets a dangerous trend.

Major isn’t really around long enough to make a difference

Lamont and Clark are a total shambles.  They run up debt on the balance sheet, and loads more off balance sheet. They take Lawson’s already complex toolkit and make it even more complex. I am not even sure if they realised how much debt they were piling up.  Lamont was actually worse than we thought he was after Black Wednesday, which is hard to believe.

Brown does well in terms of investment in public services, and probably does reduce debt, but not by much.  I am no longer sure that I can give an accurate assessment of the state of PSBR under Brown, it is probably better to give a range of values for the likely debt reduction somewhere between 0% and -3%.

Darling is the Chancellor during the Credit Crunch, he increases debt by loads, but lots of this is the costs of nationalising the banks.  I could have picked a range of numbers for the costs of nationalising the banks, and I picked the lowest.  Interesting to note that between Brown and Darling they nationalise a lot more than they privatise.

George Osborne comes into Number 11 in 2010 and is hopeless.  A total clownshoe. No matter how big a mess you think Osborne inherited his performance is unbelievably bad.  He is worse than Lamont and Clark added to together.   

As Fred would say; “errrr… hopeless, Mr Osborne, hopeless”.

If I had to point to an underlying reason for these problems I can find no better explanation that from the late 1980s onwards Government started to give away tax cuts.  These tax cuts eroded the tax base, and drove up Government debt.   Privatisation receipts reduced this amount temporarily, and PFI deals disguised it.  Governments told us that the tax cuts were funded by growth, when in fact they were funded by debt, and hidden by financial engineering.

Whether you agree that underfunded tax cuts were the cause or not, we will all have to accept that if we want to repair the damage we are in for a long period of tax rises. 


Michael Gove was right. Maybe we shouldn’t trust experts?


I met Paddy MacAloon from Prefab Sprout today, in the food hall at Fenwick. He looks like Gandalf.   

As well as being one for the greatest song writers of the 80s he had a rather cool looking man bob, which as a young man I decided to copy.  The 80s man bob hasn’t aged well, particularly if like me you have a touch of ginger.


At the time that I was growing my floppy hair I was studying Economics at Warwick as an undergraduate.  I was so good at it that I graduated with a History degree from Liverpool University.

In fact I was a rubbish economics student.  Admittedly some of that may have been lifestyle choices I made at the time, but I just didn’t get it.  I went from being great at Economics A level to being totally lost with undergraduate studies.   

At the time we spent a lot of lectures and seminars studying a set of ideas which would later become lumped together as neo-liberalism, chief of which was the efficient market hypothesis. I am not really sure how much we should regard neo-liberalism as an actual ideology, or really just a way to describe an assortment of techniques used to move resources from poor to rich.

The efficient market hypothesis states markets are inherently more efficient at allocating resources, setting prices and volumes than any other system.  It is based on the assumption that people are inherently rational.  The freer the market, and the more rational the participant, the more efficient it is.

The attraction of the hypothesis is because it is easily understood and you can think of examples from everyday life where it works well… like buying fruit and veg in the market. 

Somewhere along the line the hypothesis bit became forgotten, and despite being really hard to actually prove it became accepted as true by economists and politicians. 

Because it was such an easy to understand idea it was introduced as a fits all solution.   Where markets did exist, like financial markets, they were de-regulated to make them freer and more efficient.   In areas like healthcare markets were introduced, despite the high risk of market failure.   Transaction costs soared, as gangs of contracts managers, outsourcers and commissioners were recruited. 

When Margaret Thatcher came to power management cost in the NHS was about 6% of budget. By the time she had introduced the internal market and Unit General Management they were 12%.   Given how stingy the uplifts to NHS budgets were during her era it is shocking that so much of it went into administration.

I spent 20 years in the public sector most of which was spent as an intermediary – creating and administering markets for public services, most of which would have worked at least as well without me.   That doesn’t mean that my time was wasted, just that the system could have deployed my talents a lot more usefully.  Despite being awful as an Economics student I was naturally gifted at creating and administering markets for public services, mainly because I ignored all of the guff about rationalism and just kept everything brutally simple – do what I tell you and I give you money.

The problem with EHM at it’s core is that people just aren’t as rational as the theory would like us to think. 

Back end of last year I was looking for a new pump for the distillery on Ebay. Ebay is the closest to a perfect free market that we are ever likely to encounter.   I spent ages comparing price, specification and ATEX rating (the ability of the pump to operate in contact with explosive gases like Ethanol with causing an explosion).   

In the end I got bored and bought a new pair of swimming goggles instead. 

I bought my new pump a few days later from Durham Pumps (the North East’s number one pump supplier in my opinion), not because they were particularly cheap, but because they have an old bloke who knows loads about pumps, and has a massive box of old parts so that he can fix pretty much any kind of commercial pump no matter how old. 

Also because I find the name Durham Pumps childishly funny.

We are not rational utility maximising consumers, but a mess of conditioned responses, emotions, and aspirations.  Sometimes we are so predictable that our actions can be guided by Google algorithms.  At times that makes us predictable, other times hard to guess.   Sometimes were act in a way that Economists would never predict, particularly when we act in groups, sharing ideas, debating.  We are easily swayed by arguments that economists regard as irrational, particularly in the internet age.  Predictability and rationality might not be the same thing.

What this means is that predictions based on efficient markets and rational utility maximising participants don’t always work, no matter how prevalent these ideas are among economists.  Rational people wouldn’t have celebrated Brexit by borrowing loads of money to buy brand new, big engined Diesel cars.  But they did, and the boost to consumer spending helped turn a recession into a palid form of growth.

Maybe I am being unfair to economists, after all there are plenty of them who don’t agree with the Efficient Market Hypothesis, and who don’t have a mechanistic version of rationality baked into their thinking.  The problem is that the economists who matter – those who advise Governments, big Companies, and appear on TV, too often do.   This is the consequence of the way business and Academic Economics have blurred.  A relative of ours was lucky enough to graduate recently from Harvard in Economics.  He recognised the right wing bias in what he was being taught but believed that was a natural feature of economics departments because of their close relationships with the big companies who funded their research and hired their graduates.

Free markets in people are the worst of all for unpredictability and market failure.   If people don’t act rationally when they are buyers and sellers then rational action is even harder when you are the commodity being bought and sold.    That’s why markets in people need to be regulated more than markets in products

It is also why free movement of people within the EU has produced so many problems, and so many examples of market failure.   The demands to regulate free movement are really just demands to regulate the market in people to prevent people suffering the consequence of market failure.

For some reason both major political parties are going into the General Election with daft policies; The Conservatives/UKIP want to de-regulate the Labour Market, but tightly regulate entry into the Labour Market from outside the UK.   Labour want to de-regulate entry into the Labour Market from outside the UK, but reintroduce regulation into the Labour Market.   Both are equally preposterous.

Don’t get me wrong – I hate the idea of more government regulation as much as the next small businessman, and I benefit from being able to hire from the widest possible pool of workers.   And I like the idea of free movement, because I am in internationalist.   

But the whole concept of efficient markets is flawed, and nowhere are the consequences of market failure more obvious than in Labour markets.   

The distrust of experts that Michael Gove tapped in to so successfully is a conflation of 2 things.    

The first is the belief that life, not books, is the best teacher.  Clearly this is a dictum of limited value – there are lots of things where  book learning is essential;  brain surgery, building suspension bridges, designing aircraft.   But this does tap into a real truth – that academic learning is far divorced from most people’s ordinary lives, particularly in fields like social sciences.   Middle class economists study the lives of working class people with the same patronising detachment that white anthropologists used to use when studying people with darker skin tones. 

The second is the sense that independent experts aren’t really as objective as they claim. They have their own agenda, often shaped by business and academic norms – pro-market and socially liberal.   To people outside of these institutions these seem less like timeless truths or eternal values, and more like fashionable things to say.

Chancers like Michael Gove are able to tap into popular distrust of experts because people instinctively had worked out that their objective opinions are simply another persons agenda dressed up in fancy language, annunciated by people with no connection with their lives. 

The agendas that lots of economists, both academic and popular, promote was formed in the 1980s. Post Credit Crunch it looks like the intellectual equivalent of my man bob.

Maybe young people aren’t politically apathetic snowflakes. Maybe they are cleverer than the rest of us?


When I say the rest of us, I mean older people.  I am 49, which is well beyond the cut off for being young.

I had 2 experiences this week which were in such stark contrast that I found it hard to reconcile them.

The first was the announcement by Theresa May that we would have another general election.  Psephologists were quick to assure us that this election, just like the last one, and the Brexit vote, would be decided by older voters.  Young people don’t turn out to vote in the same numbers as older people and as a consequence would be largely ignored by political parties. 

Political influence in the UK is firmly in the hands of older voters, a Gerontocracy.

At the same time as the media were working themselves up into yet another election frenzy my company was doing the final round of interviews for a new PR and Advertising Agency.   The Gin market is getting very crowded, with lots of flashy brands who buy in their products mass produced, and try and pass it off as small batch craft make. We needed a new approach to help differentiate us from the fake craft Gins jumping on the band wagon.

Each agency who pitched to us included a special section on younger consumers, who they called Millennials or Generation Y.   This group of consumers are particularly influential, very loyal to brands who they perceive as sharing their values, and willing to pay a premium for high quality products that matched their aspirations.  No-one included a special section on older consumers – they tend to be less willing to switch to new brands, and prefer established mass market products like Gordons.  While older people are richer younger customers were prepared to spend more on products like craft Gin.  We were frequently advised to leverage our brand values.  If anyone has a large brand lever I could borrow I would be grateful.

Economic influence is firmly in the hands of younger consumers

The apathetic younger voters that the psephologists were talking about aren’t exactly the same group as the young consumers the Agencies were targeting – we don’t target 18 year olds for example, for reasons of corporate responsibility.   There was, however, a big enough cross over between the 2 groups to make it a real clash – the people who were being written off as irrelevant in the political arena, were the same ones who our advertising and PR agencies were telling us were economically hugely influential.  Taste makers.

One of the key principles of free market economics is that Governments don’t have to regulate markets in order to produce moral or ethical outcomes.  Markets can do this by themselves.  Consumers will choose to buy from producers who share their values, and will shun companies who do things they find ethically undesirable. 

This is David Cameron a few years ago making exactly this point:

Promoting deregulated free markets has been very popular with Conservative politicians, who, I think, expected that the moral and ethical framework that they would promote would match with their own Conservative world view.

Instead it has become a tool for younger voters to express their own, more Liberal worldview.   Once Trump took power businesses who were seen as pro-Trump, or who stocked Trump products, were targeted for boycotts, as were companies who advertised on websites like Breitbart.   

Businesses who want to sell to younger consumers need to demonstrate that they share their values, which are pretty much exclusively Liberal.  That is why Pepsi decided it was a good idea to make that terrible commercial trying to align itself with protestors. 

This has led to the odd phenomena recently of Conservative politicians arguing for deregulated free markets while simultaneously criticising younger liberal customers for exercising their free market economic power by boycotting businesses aligned with Trump.   

I am picking on the US for examples because the culture wars between Liberal and Conservative values are more in your face than in the UK.  This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen here too.

High Tech economies like the UK and US have an increasing demand for graduate and skilled technical employees, and a declining demand for manual labour.   As a logical consequence their wages go up, and they become more influential economically and culturally.  A glance at cinema listings reveals how influential the tastes of this group have become. When right wingers portray themselves as a counter culture fighting the established order there is a degree of truth in it.  The dominant culture in the UK and the US reflects the values of college graduates, Liberal and progressive.   One of the biggest complaints of Conservative older voters is that the world has changed, and that no-one asked them.  The Brexiters slogan – Take Back Control – was so powerful for exactly that reason.  Governments have indeed given up power, but not to Brussels.  They have given it up to companies, big and small, and by extension to those companies customers.   

It seems unlikely that this situation will change any time soon, regardless of how Conservative the next Government is. 

I have never heard a millennial or a Generation Yer articulate the view that it is easier to wield economic power than it is to wield political power.  Rather than a conscious ideology I think that it is the consequence of a generation who grew up being told that there is no alternative to free market economics.  They see the world in those terms, and when they want to change the world they use the exact same tools of free market capitalism to do it.

Clearly this approach has it’s limitations – you can’t boycott Brexit for example.  But in a free market capitalist economy economic power beats political power 9 times out of 10. 

The idea that younger voters are apathetic is wrong. They are wielding power and changing how the world works – just not by the ballot box.  Often they are doing so much more effectively than any politician.  This is why the US and the UK continue to become increasingly Liberal and tolerant societies despite the noisy prevalence of politicians who promote Illberal and intolerant politics.

Maybe the meek will inherit the earth after all….?

Productivity is rubbish. Inefficiency rules. Why Craft Gin is better than United Airlines.


Anyone who reads the research papers and speeches from the Bank of England will have come across loads of scary reports about the terrible state of productivity in the UK. 

All of the data shows that the UK lags behind most of our competitors in output per capita – British workers are less productive than their foreign counterparts.   Currently we are 18% less productive than the G7 average.

All of this plays into a set of vague and lazy stereotypes about British workers not being as hard working or well qualified as their competitors, stereotypes that have been around for decades, and which are often used to support a political agenda.

This nonsense from Sky follows this idea of pampered British workers and adds in a whole lot of fact free snarkiness about Millenials and snowflakes.  I’ve taken a picture of it so you don’t have to search out the link, and give them your clicks.

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As you may have spotted from my recent posts I believe that a lot of the data we use to calculate productivity is wrong.   The UK has less employment than we think.   I also think that we are underestimating small business manufacturing output (I will come back to this in a few weeks).   

But even if you assume that some of the problem is rubbish data it is hard to explain away a gap that big as data noise.  It looks like something happened post credit crunch that sent the UK in a declining productivity path, with predictably low levels of growth. 

In theory efficiency should improve as inefficient companies go bankrupt and their market share is taken by more efficient ones.  Research however doesn’t support this – since the credit crunch efficient businesses have gone to the wall, and the firms replacing them aren’t as productive.  During the credit crunch we all got a stark lesson at how bad US and UK capital markets are at allocating resources to businesses.  It looks like a lot of reform of banking is still in needed.

This matters hugely, because post Brexit as we strike the Global trade deals that we need to survive British  companies  will be exposed to the full force of international competition.  Even the world most famous Liberal Economist agrees:

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker” Prof Paul Krugman

But what if inefficiency or lack of productivity is a feature not a flaw?  What if customers actually prefer inefficient or unproductive businesses over efficient ones?

My business is inefficient, and has very low productivity.  The number of bottles of Gin which each worker produces in Durham Distillery is much lower than Gordons, Bombay Sapphire, or Hendricks.   Most UK Gin is actually made in a small number of massive Gin factories, which produce lots of different brands, with slightly different branding, some of which try and pass themselves off as local craft distilleries.   There are 3 different “Lake District” Gins on the market, 2 of which are made in Warrington.

Even though we work very hard the nature of our product and our production process means that we make fewer bottles of Gin per person than lots of our competitors.   We will never ever be as efficient as the industry average, and frankly we don’t want to be.

The same is true right across the entire food and drink industry; craft beer, artisanal bread and cheese, in fact anything that is “small batch” or “craft” is by it’s nature inefficient and has low productivity. 

Lots of customers actively prefer this, to the extent that big producers try and disguise mass produced products as small batch or local.  Tesco’s recent launch of yet another “Farm” branded range of intensively farmed food is a good example.    

I wrote a few weeks ago about Doctors, hairdressers and why as customers we don’t really want them to be efficient.  We want them to spend time with us, because that is what we value.   Even if we don’t ever meet the craft distiller or artisanal baker we are bought into the idea that we are paying for an individual with skill and talent to make us something which is more valuable than mere mass production.  It honestly doesn’t take Starbucks that long to make a decent cup of coffee, but the rigmarole of the barista is part of the experience.

The same trends are hitting clothes too. The last pair of jeans I bought were made in the UK, rather than mass produced in the far east where labour laws make it easier to exploit workers and environmental protections are weaker. 

Post Credit Crunch we are more and more skeptical about big business, and about the dodgy practices of some big companies.  We value products more when we can see that they have been made to a higher standard, and where we can identify with the producer over mass produced high volume stuff.

At the other end of the economy high productivity/low cost production has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  The best example of the awfulness of productivity this week was United Airlines, who apparently decided that it was OK to actually beat up one of their own customers because he had got in the way of the productive allocation of human resources.  This is an extreme example, but the rest of us will have had experiences of businesses who organise themselves around an efficient and productive workflow which makes no sense at all to customers who find themselves trying to navigate through endless uncooperative departments.

This would explain why productivity declined post credit crunch. As we lost our faith in mass produced, intermediated capitalism we rediscovered our love of small batch, inefficient and local.   We don’t however want to get rid of capitalism, because we like the stuff that capitalism produces for us, and enough of us remember how awful most of Eastern Europe was before the wall came down.  We just don’t want horse meat in our Lasagne.   British jeans companies may not be as cheap as Sports Direct but they are less likely to be doing ghastly things to the people who are making their clothes.

Post Brexit prices will rise as the pound falls, and the bureaucratic cost of doing businesses rises. This is bad news for low price/high productivity businesses who import production from abroad. But is has less of an impact on local producers.  This will make small batch, locally made, unproductive products relatively cheaper against imported, mass produced high productivity industries.     The unlikely end point of Brexit could look like a revival of the craft based William Morris version of Socialism.   The hipsterish new artisans and Edwardian radicals do share a similar taste in facial hair after all.   

It probably won’t improve the customer service of companies like United Airlines though.


I haven’t referenced this blog academically, but if you want to read more…

This is Andrew Haldane from the Bank of England’s on productivity

This is a House of Commons Library paper on the same subject

This is a Bank of England paper which looks at inefficient businesses replacing efficient ones

As does this NESTA paper on unproductive entrepreneurship

This is a great blog looking at poor management and low productivity

And this is where I bought my jeans from: