Nor did the parents of any of my friends – right or left – discuss it. What would be characterised in today’s hysterical terms as overwhelming debts that threaten the life of the nation simply did not figure in any of their conversations, or more widely. If anybody had solemnly declared that the overriding national purpose should be to cap the national debt’s share of GDP at 80%, they would have been considered deranged. Their generation had more important things to talk about – the defence of the realm, for example, the creation of a good society and the need to do whatever Britain had to do to stay great. The politicians of the day traded their competing visions and debated how they would achieve the common good.
Today’s Conservatives would say they were all dupes – but were they? The debt was plainly affordable and a non-problem. Indeed, the ability to sustain large volumes of government, so-called “gilt-edged” securities, was understood to be part of the national settlement, the fair order of things. There was a vague understanding that Britain had been fighting and winning wars for centuries and creating an empire through its sophisticated approach to creating and managing large levels of national debt.
It was this, as much as martial valour, that had won the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo – or the Battle of Britain. The debt would sort itself out as it had in the past – which it did, falling over the 1980s and 1990s as inflation eroded it in real terms. Nobody would think to crucify the nation’s public services, its security and the wider state over delivering an artificial debt ceiling. My father and his generation were perfectly sane.
The political debate, from 1918 to 1950 or so, was almost entirely dominated by how the fuck do we pay for this debt?