Larry Elliott Q&A: ‘History shows that, right now, we’re playing with fire’ | Membership

Larry Elliott Q&A: ‘History shows that, right now, we’re playing with fire’ | Membership




When did you start working at the Guardian?

It was October 1988 – just over 31 years ago! I was hired to cover business, with a special responsibility for property. Canary Wharf was being built and the UK was in the middle of a house price boom. I remember my first day clearly. I reported on British Gas, with a deadline of about 5pm. Back then it was only a newspaper, so there was no huge rush to file copy like there is today.

Have you always been interested in this area?

A few years previously, I had graduated with a degree from Cambridge in history, having originally been accepted to study economics and switched courses because there was too much maths for my liking. I was deeply interested in the economy, but mostly from a historical perspective. After graduating, I worked at the Press Association as their economics correspondent and enjoyed some time as a cub reporter before my big break at the Guardian.

What are your biggest professional highlights so far?

It feels slightly ghoulish to say so, but the most memorable moments have often been in the middle of times of despair. The stock market crash of 1987, Black Wednesday in 1992, and the Financial Crisis of 2007-09 particularly stick in my mind. For an economics reporter, these are frenetic, exciting and often highly satisfying periods. There’s a lot to discuss and our readers often appreciate having complicated things made more explicable and less jargon-y – though many are specialists themselves, or at least highly interested and self-taught amateurs.

What are the biggest challenges of the role?

When the economy is doing well, it can be very challenging. The period from the 90s to the early 00s was dubbed the “nice decade” by Mervyn King, the then governor of the Bank of England. There was falling unemployment, interest rates were low, the economy was downgraded as a news story, New Labour had come to power. There was some debate over the euro, but otherwise it was fairly steady and not much to write about.

Looking at the period between the financial crisis and the Brexit referendum, what have been the most significant moments?

I think the moment when we knew the banks were going to be bailed out was hugely significant. It signified that those responsible were getting away with it. I knew that this was a financial crisis that had been caused by the financial sector, and I believe it contributed to the 2016 referendum result because the eurozone almost broke apart following crises in Greece, Ireland and Portugal brought about by the crash. Europe felt flawed and in need of fundamental change. Since 2016, we haven’t recognised the importance of that period on the result – the impact of austerity on those parts of Britain that feel left-behind – and we’ve had three wasted years when no one has really got to grips with the reasons we voted as we did.

Politics dominates economics, and it can be quite depressing when you see the same mistakes being repeated time and time again by the financially powerful. You can often pre-empt what’s going to happen because things happen in waves. People forget what’s come before, and then the same mistakes are made again, sometimes by the same people. It’s happening as we speak, because all the signs point to another financial bubble out there that will leave policymakers scrabbling around for a response when – not if – it pops.

Lehman Brothers sign on wall



Wall Street bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in the depths of the financial crisis in 2008. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

You’ve previously spoken about how in 2007 you came up with the concept of the Green New Deal. Can you tell us more about that?

I am very proud of the Green New Deal. It had modest beginnings in a bar in London. I was with Colin Hines of Greenpeace. We met during the financial crisis and were reflecting on what had happened in the deep recession that followed the Wall Street Crash in 1929, wondering what was to come. We needed a response from a progressive left, and felt that this was a chance to seize the agenda. The plan was to increase public spending, drive recovery, tax finance more heavily, get people back to work, retrofit homes with better insulation and introduce low carbon energy. There has been much more recognition of the green agenda, and climate is now a much bigger part of it. But nothing really happened back then. Everyone is talking about the green agenda again now, and people such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are focusing attention, but it feels like there have been 10 wasted years.

In terms of tackling the climate crisis, what could we learn from the financial crisis?

Sometimes it takes more than one crisis for fundamental change to happen. That was certainly the case in the 1970s when it was the second energy shock that led to the decisive shift to the right. This time could be the same. The financial crisis hasn’t yet blown over and we could be on the cusp of another after year after year of virtually zero interest rates. And in terms of energy, climate and the financial crunch, we are worse off than a decade ago.

When we first formulated the Green New Deal, the plan was to introduce jobs in every constituency, to reskill and retrain, invest in local communities. We wanted to use universities as centres of excellence for green technology. All of this is still yet to happen because of lack of buy-in from those in charge.

How does this view differ between the UK and the US at the moment?

Both countries are encountering similar issues around the economy, in particular the sense among many people that globalisation works for the better off but not for them.

Periods of stability and peace don’t last forever. There is nearly always something bad waiting around the corner. For the last 40 years, the western economy has been run on a free-market, trickle-down basis – there is surely enough evidence to see that that doesn’t work. We should have learned lessons from the financial crash, but we didn’t. In 2016 we had our second opportunity, and we missed that too. Now, the climate emergency means we’re playing with fire. Power structures have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, making change difficult. Global heating makes it vital that we work towards progressive change – even more vital than in the 1930s, in fact.

You anticipated the crisis in the EU. Do you still feel there’s hope for a healthy and prosperous future for the UK and Europe?

I think the worst thing that can happen is that the current state of purgatory continues. It’s difficult to address the problems. I think that if and when we leave, it won’t be as bad as people think. I believe we will find a way of surviving and indeed thriving. The British state works best amid a crisis, and a crisis is how change and progress happens.

Demonstrators in Athens protest about the Greek government’s planned austerity measures



Demonstrators in Athens protest about the Greek government’s planned austerity measures last year. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

You have written a lot about why you voted Leave and why it’s important to be open about this view at the Guardian. Can you tell us more about that?

I don’t regret how I voted because I believe we need to see radical change to the fundamentals of British economy. I think my views are valued by readers, or at least some of them! To me, 2016 was an expression of profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, of which the EU is part.

I’ve always thought Tony Benn got it right about the EU. He thought of it as pro big business, pro multinationals, anti working people, undemocratic and the embodiment of neoliberal economic ideas. I agree with that. I’m not sure, though, that the economic arguments matter all that much in the current Brexit debate. It is more about how people feel about themselves, how they identify themselves. For those on the Remain side, opposing Brexit suggests that they are liberal, internationalist, supporters of modernity and multiculturalism. I see no contradiction in being pro-Brexit and being an internationalist. I have never seen anything especially leftwing about the EU.

Fortunately, our editor in chief, Katharine Viner, welcomes a plurality of views in the paper. Scott Trust values matter in these circumstances and help to ensure views don’t go unchallenged. I don’t think I could have survived as economics editor of a different paper, for this reason.

What makes the Guardian unique?

News and comment are completely separate at the Guardian, which is useful in introducing multiple voices and making us a truly broad church.

I’ve always wanted to work at the Guardian and never been tempted to go elsewhere – other places just seemed second best. I have complete freedom here: not once has an editor tapped me on my shoulder and told me to toe the party line. Being a journalist is such a privilege – you never know what’s going to happen on any given day, and that makes it endlessly exciting. The Guardian isn’t perfect, of course, but we do our best to be truthful and honest.






Software

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.