April 6, 2008
The major risk now for Brian Cowen is that, like the Tories after Thatcher, the Fianna FÃ¡il party after Ahern might lose the image of being sound on the economy.
When a developer is giving away Volvos to entice people to buy houses in Dublin 15,you know there is a problem in both the housing and car markets. Brian Cowen, too, has a problem. Out in Deckland, the new suburbs of the Bertie era, Breakfast Roll Man is getting uneasy.
Breakfast Roll Men won the last election for Ahern. These lads, who were buying places in Dublin 15 for fun, and who are more interested in foreign football trophies than domestic political tribunals, saw Ahern as one of their own.
More significantly, Breakfast Roll Man got rich through the housing market on Ahern’s watch. For Fianna FÃ¡il, the big question is: has Brian Cowen got Ahern’s appeal? Can he cut it in Deckland? Ahern was Breakfast Roll Man’s hero.
The reasons are very clear. BRM does not do ideology. He does pragmatism. He votes for whoever he believes will keep the show on the road. He has only one allegiance, which is to his colours – be they football or GAA. He is politically agnostic.
He will drop Fianna FÃ¡il if it is not seen to be able to manage the economy. As long as Fianna FÃ¡il doesn’t mess with Breakfast Roll Man’s wallet, backhanders, bungs and bribes don’t matter.
The major risk now for Cowen is that, like the British Conservative Party after Thatcher, Fianna FÃ¡il after Ahern might lose the image of being sound on the economy.
As the housing market deteriorates, the new boss will have to come upwith a new plan for the country which, while not quite offsetting the loss of the feel-good factor of the old days, will suggest to everyone that someone with a strategy is in charge.
Under Ahern, a new social contract evolved in Ireland between the state and the citizen, almost exclusively based on the continuing rise in the price of houses. In the past, people voted for the party they believed could deliver on whatever it was those individuals wanted, whether it was health, education or taxes.
Not any more. Under Ahern, that old social contract has been discarded – and Breakfast Roll Man (and Woman) out in Deckland vote for the party they believe will make them wealthy.
Ireland is now a country that lives in the future. An entire generation believes in the New Irish Dream, which is based on the chimera that tomorrow will always be better than today. The financial engine fuelling the dream is housing wealth.
As long as house prices are rising, Breakfast Roll Man, even if he is married with kids, will tolerate traffic, expensive childcare and over-crowded schools. He will tolerate immigrants bidding down wages on-site. In fact, because he may be a subcontractor now, he’s quite happy for the immigrants to be elbowing out Irish labourers.
So, the new social contract works like a conveyor belt. Once you are on, you have a vested interested that it keeps moving. Bertie guaranteed that house prices would keep rising, so Breakfast Roll Man feels that he is getting richer and, as a result, believes in the power of tomorrow. This allows him to ignore the realities of today. Ahern was the custodian of the future. He was the dream keeper.
The sting in the tail for Cowen is that the housing market is in freefall. Last year, Fianna FÃ¡il just about managed to paper over the cracks. In the coming years, the market is only going one way – and that is down. This is the Achilles’ heel because, as it falls, the New Irish Dream will shatter and Breakfast Roll Man will realise that, for the first time in a generation, the future is not so bright.
In the early- and mid-1990s, the Conservatives in Britain faced a similar dilemma. Their power base was an aspirant middle England, who had become rich on the back of the housing market and became the fodder for caricatures such as Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character. After four consecutive election victories, they were suddenly confronted by a property slump which bottomed in 1994.
The Conservatives, who, throughout the Thatcher years, had portrayed the Labour Party as a bunch of economic losers, lost the halo of economic competence. The voters of middle England realised that all the Conservative promises were based on cheap credit and rising house prices.
When this bubble burst, they defected, in their millions, to Tony Blair – who fought the 1997 election on the economy. This could be the fate of Cowen, if he does nothing. The mistake the Tories made was to react to the housing slump with a ‘business as usual’ approach. Other countries which experienced similar dilemmas reacted much more definitively and with vision.
Take Finland, where the banking system collapsed following a housing slump in the early 1990s.The Finns reacted by changing the focus of the economy. Through their largest company, Nokia they bet on high-tech and, in Nokia’s case, mobile telephony. They also enacted a root and branch reform of the education system, giving priority to maths and sciences.
Finally, reacting to 1970s and 1980s evidence that Finns – of all Europeans – were most likely to die of heart disease, the state engineered a change to the national diet, beginning with school dinners.
The result has been that, today, Finland has the biggest mobile phone company in the world, the highest educational rating in the OECD for maths and science, and the lowest rate of heart disease in the EU!
The US state of Massachusetts did something similar, following its housing bust in the late 1980s and early 1990s.Today, Boston is – outside of Silicon Valley – the high-tech start up hub of the US.
Meanwhile, Japan, which experienced a decade-long depression following its housing slump, never stopped investing in technology, and today remains the world’s most innovative country.
We in Ireland have huge advantages in terms of people, our education system and the existing multinational companies. There is no reason we can’t follow the Finnish or Bostonian examples and invest, not only in education but, more significantly, in bringing over to this country the venture capitalists who make the American high-tech economy tick.
To do this, we need to reinvent the script. This is Brian Cowen’s opportunity to stamp his authority on the economy. If he does so swiftly, the success of the Finns, rather than the plight of the Tories, could well be his prize.