First it was death by a thousand cuts; then it was death by a million mouse clicks.
It will take more than the retail Superwoman, Mary Portas, to save our high streets. Now, with people running scared at national and personal debt levels, there is a refusal to spend on all but the bare necessities.
Just a few years ago, the shopping ‘experience’ of going into town on a Saturday was something that all the family (except perhaps dad) looked forward to. That, I fear, will never come again. And councils have certainly helped to put the boot in by levying extortionate parking charges and granting all those out of town shopping centres where, of course, the parking is free. It is easy to forget that we are now in the fifth year of the recession
They tell us that it is not a recession until two quarters have passed with negative growth. By that yardstick, then, these four and a half years have not been a recession at all. Indeed, we have only qualified for six months by that definition and have seen flat-lining, marginally increasing, growth ever since. But tell that to the marines. For if this is not a recession, then they need to invent another word.
Calling it a downturn is to insult what people are going through. The whole scenario has been made worse by the constant diet of bad news which has fed into people’s psyche, inducing a ‘doom and gloom’ outlook. This, in turn, has helped reinforce people’s perceived need to batten down the hatches where spending is concerned.
It is difficult to believe that three and a half years have passed since Northern Rock became the first bank ever to seek help from its country’s central bank in September 2007. A bank in trouble? That was something new. Though it was relatively small beer in world banking terms, it represented the first significant shock to the global financial system. The collapse of a monster bank, Lehman Brothers, in America proved seismic and many have argued since that it was that much-touted phrase ‘too big to fail’ and should have been saved.
Throughout the autumn of 2007, we, in Britain, maintained an air of business as usual, even optimism, following the long stretch of apparent success that we had enjoyed since the Millennium began and in the few years before that. After all, had not our own prime minister told us that he had cracked the politician’s equivalent of the alchemist’s age-old dream of turning base metal into gold by ending ‘boom and bust’?
But four months after Northern Rock sought rescue from the Bank of England came the truly scary sight, just before Christmas that year, of depositors trying to get their money out of the bank. And it has been downhill ever since.
I have my own small shop on Plympton Ridgeway and for the first year of the recession (I insist on calling it that) I didn’t notice a thing, though many others did. I lulled myself into a false sense of security by saying that I was trading in necessities such as repairing shoes, cutting keys, fixing watches – things that even the Internet could not threaten.
Yet I felt immense sorrow for those businesses which did not enjoy my level of perceived protection, such as restaurants, builders, kitchen and bathroom fitters, furniture and carpet suppliers, taxi firms, fast food outlets and countless others including professionals.
But then came 2009, and I was brutally disabused of any notions of immunity; I had to take my share of the pain. During that year I took an enormous hit. I took a similarly big hit the following year. I prayed that it would not continue into another, for if it did I knew I would be up against it. Mercifully, the revenue decline bottomed out and the takings for 2011 matched those of the year before.
Now I am waiting on baited breath as the results for 2012 start accumulating. It’s very nerve racking, I can tell you. And right across this fair land of ours, retailers and so many others are suffering the same kind of anxieties.
But there is hope. America – that early invention of ours which bears a lot of the initial blame for our current woes with its reckless sub-prime lending – is showing real signs of recovery. That great can-do nation may yet lead us all out of this mess.
Only Europe – and it’s a very big ‘only’ – continues to cast a pall over future prospects, and that conundrum of the ‘one size fits all’ euro has yet to be resolved. If your biggest customer, by far, is in trouble then so are you: another good reason why we should diversify and market ourselves more effectively in the world beyond Europe.
We have such a huge advantage over all the others with our universal language, our Commonwealth connections and our all round understanding of the world that we cannot help but succeed, if we try hard enough.
We, for our part, are doing all the right things and this is reflected in our AAA credit rating. Despite our trillion-pound national debt, the markets still believe in us. We are, they consider, a safe haven for other people’s money. (As a point of interest, we are the only major nation – along with the US – never to have defaulted on our debts. They do not forget this.)
It will be an irony of the highest order if our European partners, who were so smug, even scornful, of the Anglo-Saxon economic model at the beginning of the crisis, have to sit back and watch us surge ahead while they continue to flounder in the swamp of the failed euro experiment.
And that may not be so fanciful a notion as you might think; the OECD, no less, has predicted that by the year 2050 we will be the third richest per capita nation in the world, beating Germany and just about everybody else. Whoopy!
What a turnabout from last year! In the Christmas week of 2010 we were in the deep freeze, with snow and ice which had bedeviled us since late November and would not yield till January. But replacing the rigours of the weather that year have been worries and gloom concerning the economy and global instability. What has given the whole business an extra edge of frustration is that we had started to believe the worst was over.
But the Autumn Statement put us right on that. To add to the three we’ve already had, we have six years more of belt tightening – a period as long as the Second World War – before we can expect to see the ‘sunny uplands’. Seldom have we looked at a future so bleak and protracted.
And compounding it all is the worry that, despite all our best endeavours, the whole Europe house, and with it very possibly the world economy, will come crashing down about our ears. We can, however, take some comfort from the fact that we have battened down the hatches in good time and so can hope to weather the storm better than most.
Yet hard times encourage new, or should I say resurrected, values to take hold again. What passes today as hardship would be regarded as luxury living by those who lived through the late ’40s and early ’50s. So perhaps we should not feel too sorry for ourselves. Earlier generations knew much worse. Today we have an overarching, cradle-to-the-grave Welfare State which has, in my opinion, got out of hand and is now arguably very much part of the problem. No one needs to go to bed hungry, have no roof over their head or worry about medical bills.
But at least we have upon us that special time of year which is sure to bring some cheer! As I write this the weather is supremely benign – with primroses coming out – and Christmas only a few days away.
I personally have been amazed at how people have been determined to cock a snoot at the recession by putting out their Christmas lights, with certain regulars still trying to outdo the Vegas Strip. Some will have done so because, although they are suffering financially, their pride will not allow them to advertise the fact to their neighbours. But most will have done it because they love a good display, perhaps accompanied by a harmless desire for a bit of showing off.
All in their own way, including those of us who have put a modest wreath on our door or a little display of lights on our shrubs or windows, we are sending out a message of good cheer. And sad, indeed, it is to walk past a string of houses where not one has made any concession to this very special time.
We would all like to be better than we are: less selfish, more caring and forgiving. Christmas appeals to our better angels and for a few precious days we declare an armistice and genuinely feel a greater warmth toward our fellow man than we do in the rat-race that passes for normal living. It is a spirit wholly to be commended and encouraged.
The fact that it is a Christian festival is almost beside the point; whether you are from another faith, Agnostic or an Atheist, I defy you not to be swept up a little in the euphoria of the celebrations to come. Even most of the criminal classes desist, I suspect, from many of their activities.
What is important in this great coming together of people and families is that we do not forget that there are a great many people out there who, for whatever reason, are alone. The very nature of the goodwill directed everywhere except to them serves only to reinforce their sense of loneliness.
We cannot know what 2012 will bring; no forthcoming year in living memory has had so many questions marks hanging over it.
The ‘Arab Spring’ which promised so much may yet turn into a nightmare: Syria is already that. Iran’s pursuit of the bomb can only be galvanised by the attention paid by the world to the tuppenny-halfpenny basket-case of a state of twenty-two million which is North Korea. The Iranians will say to themselves: ‘Look what respect you get if you’ve got the bomb!’ But Israel is unlikely to stand idly by while the final touches are put to a bomb which could enable the barmy Ahmajinedad to carry out his threat to ‘wipe it off the map’. And if they do strike first, then the Iranians will close down the Straits of Hormuz through which 25pc of the world’s oil passes.
Nuclear-armed N. Korea is now in the hands of an inexperienced boy ruler who only last year ordered the unprovoked sinking of a S. Korean warship and the equally unprovoked shelling of S. Korean installations, all with substantial loss of life.
And as if all this is not enough, the West faces economic meltdown if the euro crisis achieves critical mass.
But hey, look to! Humankind will always bounce back: we’re hardwired to do that. It has even been suggested this year that our very intelligence came about entirely due to climate change which forced us to seek out solutions to survive. So who knows, maybe a little climate change will stimulate our little grey cells some more. But meantime, let’s all party and remind ourselves that there is much that is decent and uplifting in our aspirations.
Finally, to my readers: my heartfelt thanks for allowing me the privilege of sharing my thoughts with you here and in The Herald.