Peter Rhodes on rampant shortages, 60 years of the Eye and the real lesson of history

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Happy 60th birthday
Happy 60th birthday

In political terms, how damaging are chronic shortages of everything from cars to chickens, from petrol to avocados? Do such issues bring down governments? Let's start with a 1980s joke from the Soviet Union.

A man wanting a new car goes to a dealership in Moscow where he's told there is a 10-year waiting list for cars. Undaunted, he pays the money and arranges a date, exactly 10 years later, to collect the vehicle. He asks: “Can I pick the car up in the morning or the afternoon?” The dealer replies: “It's ten years from now, does it matter?” “It certainly does,” says the customer. “You see, the plumber's coming in the morning.”

A classic cartoon from the same period, making a point about damp flats, showed a Muscovite finding a fish in his mousetrap. The point is that the Russians themselves laughed about life's difficulties under the communists for 70 grim years.

Forty years on, consider the Daily Telegraph Matt cartoon on Tuesday, set at the Tory Conference. A man whispers to his wife: “You listen to Rishi Sunak's speech while I go and siphon the petrol out of his car.” Back in the USSR they'd have loved that.

The lesson of history? People may tolerate a lot of hardships, so long as they believe we are all in the same boat. The greatest threat to Boris Johnson's government is not material shortages, no matter how irritating they may be, but the suspicion that while ordinary people suffer, the toffs are making a mint. So has this Conference week persuaded the Brits that we're all in this together? This weekend's crop of opinion polls will be fascinating.

I should add that any use of the phrase “the lesson of history” should always be considered alongside the declaration by that thoughtful old Prussian, Otto von Bismarck: “The only thing we learn from history is that nobody learns from history.”

Private Eye is celebrating its 60th birthday and I wish it well. The Eye has always been a great opener of secrets and exposer of humbug. Many years ago it gave me a kicking for something I had written but, to its credit, apologised in the next edition. To be honest, I was thrilled they had even noticed me.

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