‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ This was a phrase I remember my grandfather using years ago. As a child I did not know that it came from Hamlet and was spoken by Polonius, that ‘tedious old fool’ who traded in clichés and possessed an unsuspected genius for enabling tragedy.
A good deal of borrowing and lending went on among the gentry in Shakespeare’s time and Polonius’s sententious advice to his son, Laertes, as he sails for Paris to complete his education as a gentleman, must have raised some ironic smiles among audiences. Shakespeare scholars have debated among themselves as to whether Polonius, being chief minister to King Claudius, might have been based on William Cecil (Baron Burghley) who was Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister. But what interests me is the fact that we can see versions of Polonius crowding round prime ministers and their cabinets in our own time. It is they who draft the speeches for party conferences.
Margaret Thatcher compared her job as prime minister to the head of a family who looked after the household. She treated the country as if it were a large family unit that belonged to her and was careful not to spoil us. She had to balance the country’s accounts and pay off its debts – she reminded us – as responsible families balanced their own accounts. We were in effect being treated to Polonius’s guidance on husbandry with Mrs Thatcher starring as the exemplary housewife.
Although Attlee turned his back on public appearances and Heath was never happy in the limelight, more recent prime ministers have breathed in publicity ever more deeply, nourishing their careers as if with an elixir. They are the leaders of our tedious celebrity culture and are themselves led by the camera and the microphone, seeking photo opportunities anywhere and everywhere – at cricket matches and schools, on building sites, in tents of soldiers and by hospital beds. They cannot resist intruding into criminal trials, athletic events, royal happenings and the deaths of famous peoplethey never knew, walking among us as Polonius walked among the actors, speaking with good accents and good discretion (though without much content) and confusing popularity with democracy. They seem strangely unaware of how soon we grow sickened and exasperated by their devious attempts to please us. And so we vote them out. ‘I took thee for thy better,’ Hamlet says over Polonius’s dead body.
Polonius was unable to follow his own advice, often giving tongue to what was called ‘unproportioned thought’ and self-important rhetoric. He was a windbag and a busybody who discovered too late that being ‘too busy is some danger’. Far from being true to himself, his political manoeuvrings at Court put him in the service of a murderer as he connived with the King to spy on Hamlet in order to advance himself. Such unproportioned thought comes naturally to our own politicians. We heard it when Gordon Brown famously declared that, as the result of his financial management, the days of boom-and-bust were finally at an end. We heard it again in Tony Blair’s wishful thinking as he warned us how Saddam Hussein could send his devastating weapons into Britain within forty-five minutes. Blair and Bush started their ‘war on terror’ by trying to manufacture terror within us (that is the only sense that can be made of the phrase). They appeared to eliminate the past – the great depression of the 1930s, the fact that Saddam Hussein had been our ally, the retreat of the Soviet army from Afghanistan – and replace all this sombre reality with adventurous and lethal fantasies. Better in general to avoid interfering in civil wars – even in Libya. All countries, as part of their history, must be allowed their civil wars with no more than medical intervention from abroad.
I was brought up to mind my own business and to believe in the good sense of saving a proportion of my money. My father introduced me to his bank in the early 1950s and I am reminded of it whenever I see Dad’s Army on television and hear the words of Captain Mainwaring, the local bank manager at Walmington-on-Sea. Those were simple, straightforward days. We trusted our banks – there was no question of them ‘failing’. Indeed, the verb ‘to bank’ meant the same as ‘to save’.
It is all borrowing and lending now. No politician dares to speak against saving money – they simply make it very difficult. The Treasury’s National Savings and Investment products have been severely reduced and rationed.
Premium Bonds send out smaller cheques and the interest on NS&I direct ISAs are kept lower than those available at banks and building societies. Easy-Access Accounts have been closed and put, alongside Pensioners’ Guaranteed Income Bonds and Capital Bonds, in the dustbin. At the time of writing no Savings Certificates are available.
What has taken the place of savings has been the inflation of house prices that are not calculated as part of inflation and give us a sense of being richer than we actually are. We must not save as my grandfather attempted to do, we must not budget as Mrs Thatcher believed we should and we cannot follow Polonius’s advice any more than he could. Those who hoard the past and do not invest or gamble in the future are likened to the man who buried his one talent in the ground and had no interest to show God the Banker on the day of reckoning. We must spend, even to the extreme of impoverishing ourselves, so that the country may be rich and the Treasury pocket more of our money as it circulates happily round and about us.
Capitalism is the most ingenious and seductive of all economic dreams. It is a Utopia which introduces us to something we had never thought possible: the ability to borrow from the future to pay for everything we want. We have done this in the belief that we would never reach that future but exist eternally in the present. Now we have woken from our dream and can see a country made barren and infertile under the accumulation of our debts. We have reached a wasteland of our own making. ‘The rest is silence,’ says Hamlet at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy. It is in the silence of our politicians, the words they do not speak, that we learn the truth.