Wales politics

Should the government 'change tack' on the economy?

Edward Heath on his yacht in 1975
Image caption As a keen sailor, Edward Heath knew how to change tack

First Minister Carwyn Jones wants the chancellor to "change tack".

In case you're not familiar with that piece of sailing terminology, allow Barrie Metcalf, marina manager at Cardiff Bay Yacht Club, to explain.

"Very simply, a boat can't sail directly into the wind," he said.

"To change tack you change direction so that the wind comes across to the other side. It's a big change of direction."

One politician who would have understood all this was former Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

As a keen sailor, he knew exactly how to change tack.

And like the current UK government, he faced a gloomy economy when he was in charge of the country.

His government responded by pumping money into the economy.

Not so much a change of tack, as a full blown U-turn.

The political consequences were that the Conservatives fought two elections in 1974 and won neither.

It was a mistake the next Tory prime minister was determined to avoid. Remember Margaret Thatcher's slogan that "the lady's not for turning"?

The current government is holding firm to the course it has plotted, despite a deteriorating economic outlook.

But Tory peer Lord Roberts of Conwy, who served in the Heath and Thatcher governments, says there is "no comparison" between the present day and Edward Heath's predicament.

'Manoeuvre'

He said the current UK government has "no room to manoeuvre" because of the imperative to tackle the deficit in inherited.

"You don't borrow to get out of debt. You don't do that, and countries don't do it unless they are being very irresponsible," Lord Roberts said.

Image caption Chancellor George Osborne and chief secretary Danny Alexander leave the Treasury

Chancellor George Osborne has announced measures designed to revive the economy, including increases in spending on infrastructure and help for energy-intensive industries.

Nevertheless, he is sticking to the ultimate goal - to protect Britain's credibility and lay the ground for a stable economy.

"Plan A plus," is how the employer's organisation the CBI described his Autumn Statement.

Others, including the Welsh government, would have preferred a radical change of direction from the chancellor. The coalition is cutting too deep and too fast, they say.

The Welsh government will get a windfall of £216m to spend on building work from the chancellor's announcement on infrastructure.

But that follows a big cut in Wales' capital budget. By 2015, it will be half what it was in 2010, the Welsh government says. Hence the first minister's nautical-themed plea.

Mr Osborne hopes to send his party into the next election in 2015 having balanced the books.

Tuesday's statement told us he may not achieve that.

The lesson from history appears to be that when piloting the ship of state, Conservative governments are booted out of office sooner if they "change tack".

A final warning from our expert Mr Metcalf, who says changing tack isn't dangerous, but adds: "The sails do whip across the boat so if you're standing in the way you could be swept overboard."

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