A lesson from Joan Collins for Mr Brown

He must change economic course if he doesn’t want to go the same way as Dynasty’s fashions

Nick Cohen
Sunday February 3, 2008
The Observer

Scholars argue about why the boom years of the Eighties led to an explosion of shoulderpads. Fashion historians see the ‘bigging up’ of clothes as little more than a manifestation of the money that was about in the south of England. Placing a masculine emphasis on the shoulders was also a sign that women outside the devastated industrial regions weren’t just rich, but breaking the glass ceiling and moving into jobs that had previously been for men only.

Showbusiness historians dismiss over-complicated explanations and emphasise the role of chance. They say that Dynasty was one of the most popular series of the decade, watched by a global audience of 250 million. Nolan Miller, its costume designer, had to cope with Linda Evans’s naturally broad shoulders. She decided to emphasise the shoulders of Joan Collins and all the other actresses as well. The pads got bigger as the show caught on and the fashion swept the world.

Everyone agrees, however, that once recession came, taste switched. Professor Aileen Ribeiro of the Courtauld Institute told me that pundits who try to find neat connections between changes in society and changes in fashion are usually disappointed, but at the end of the Thatcher years, the link couldn’t be clearer. Women abandoned beefy suits and costume jewellery. Almost instantaneously, the glitz of the Eighties came to symbolise the false hopes of a greedy decade. Flaunting wealth felt grotesque when millions lost their jobs and homes. As grunge replaced power dressing, even those with money felt obliged to dress down. In the early Nineties, rich women embraced what fashion writers nicely called ‘stealth wealth’ and bought plain but still expensive cashmere.

You don’t see excess in shoulderpads this time around, although a couple of fashion houses tried to revive them last year, but in bling, Botox and the vast and vastly vulgar handbags, whose main purpose is to emphasise the wealth of their owners.

It’s hard to imagine a man less interested in clothes than Gordon Brown and I’m sure the conspicuous consumption in the current boom isn’t at the top of his long list of worries. But as a student of political history rather than hemlines, he should still know that the backlash against bubble economies and the leaders who preside over them can be ferocious when a recession comes.

And it surely is coming. I was struck last week by the release of the most unfashionable film of the year to date, Trapped, a grim account of one family’s journey into homelessness, which Rowland Jobson has made for housing charity Shelter.

Jobson, homeless himself once, Patsy Palmer from EastEnders and the rest of the cast and crew worked for nothing because, as Jobson said, their concern was to make the audience understand how hard it is to get back on your feet once you’ve dropped through the holes in the safety net.

You can watch the results on Shelter’s website. Interactive technology allows you to intervene and make choices on the family’s behalf. Whatever story line you follow, however, mother, father and the two sick children end up stuck in a room in a dingy B&B hotel because Britain doesn’t have enough cheap housing.

More telling than the film was Shelter’s publicity. Charities normally exaggerate, making their case as strongly as they can to get the attention of government and the public. In this case, Shelter may be guilty of underestimating the potential scale of the housing crisis.

On Monday, its officers were quoting the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors which estimated that about 45,000 homes could be repossessed in 2008 as the cost of servicing mortgages shot up. By midweek, the Financial Services Authority was warning that one million people will struggle to repay mortgages. They had taken out loans with small or non-existent deposits, borrowed for more than 25 years or burdened themselves with debt repayments far higher than they could comfortably afford.

In other words, they had imitated the hedge funds and badly managed banks. They had geared up in the expectation that asset prices will rise forever and not realised that hard times could turn their speculations from shrewd gambles into arrant folly.

Labour politicians brought up on Keynesian economics should know what to do to limit the potential misery. In the US, the unlikely figure of George W Bush is showing them the way by proposing tax cuts for business to revive the economy. The Democrats say that, as always, the Republicans aren’t thinking about those at the bottom of the heap and want tax cuts directed at the working poor, but whatever their disagreements, all politicians accept that emergency relief can and must be applied.

In Britain, it’s nowhere to be seen. As every economic analyst is pointing out, Labour has run up huge debts in the good times and has lost its freedom of manoeuvre. Indeed, a shocking report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week went further and warned that not only is Labour unable to implement the Keynesian solutions of cutting taxes and raising spending, it may well have to raise taxes to meet existing spending commitments. Brown is as trapped as Shelter’s homeless family and, at the moment, it seems he has no way out.

Recessions make fashions of the previous era ridiculous. Capacious designer handbags will soon seem risible extravagances, but hard questions and mocking gazes will also be directed at policies less fashionable men and women once took for granted. Who conned a Labour government into giving undeserved tax breaks to private equity billionaires? Why did it throw so much money at schools, hospitals and the police without first ascertaining that it would be wisely spent? What did it think it was doing when it ordered the legalised extortion of the Private Finance Initiative?

Above all, historians will shake their heads at Brown’s decision to risk £50bn of other people’s money on rescuing a clapped-out northern bank on the very eve of an economic emergency.

At least there is still time for that folly to be stopped. Brown should reflect that he and his fellow citizens are going to need whatever billions the Treasury can find. If he can’t find the strength of character to admit a mistake and change course, he risks making Labour governments look as outdated as Joan Collins’s suits.