Bank of England independence 20 years on: Let’s hear it for the unsung heroes

Lucy O’Carroll
Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn K
Mervyn King's favourite cereal was Weetabix, if I recall correctly (Source: Getty)

A colleague recently reminded me that it is 20 years this month since the Bank of England was granted full independence. At the time I was working at the Bank helping to write its quarterly Inflation Report.

I was toiling away on a particularly troublesome chapter over the bank holiday weekend in May 1997, completely oblivious to the fact that several floors down preparations were being made for the announcement of Bank independence (though I did wonder at the unusual commotion, not to mention the wheeling in and out of the Bank’s infamous, dreaded sandwich trollies).

It isn’t the Bank that writes the Inflation Report as such, nor the Monetary Policy Committee. Rather, it’s a small band of economists, toiling away – increasingly wearily – as deadline day approaches. At least, that was the case in my day.

Each quarter’s publication had its own rituals, starting with a “stories” meeting, when the four of us pitched chapter ideas to Mervyn King, and ending in waiting and yet more waiting around for comments on our draft chapters – particularly once the MPC appeared on the scene.

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We passed the time making in-team accumulator bets on various statistical data releases. One member composed haikus. Another wrote a version of Macbeth in which Eddie George and King featured. Somehow we got hold of a wooden hula hoop and practiced our moves with that.

There were many, many late nights of sandwiches on a trolley, which led to a rebellion when a colleague from the Australian central bank informed us that their Inflation Report team was allowed to call out for pizzas. We never did secure the luxury of hot food, though a fruit plate was conceded.

There were also early mornings and the occasional breakfast drafting meeting with King, which prompted speculation (and more betting activity) on his favoured cereal. Weetabix, I seem to remember, though that may have reflected the very limited choice (another food grumble).

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It was terribly stressful, especially if your designated chapter was complex (the labour market) or one where the data were last-minute, potentially blowing out of the water the “story” of six-weeks’ crafting (money and credit). We calmed ourselves with raids on the chocolate machine and such heavy use of the local coffee shop that I was given a cake and a chorus of “Happy Birthday” by the staff when I turned 28. Two of the four of us got shingles, heavy colds were a constant, and during my first Report I developed a spontaneous and highly inconvenient nosebleed whenever King appeared.

But it was very exciting to sit in the post-publication press conference and see in real life journalists such as Bill Keegan and Sam Brittan, heroes from when I first studied economics at school.

Whenever I tune into the press conference for the Inflation Report now – live streamed, of course, something unimaginable 20 years ago – I think of the current writing team and wonder how they feel about it. They say that youth is wasted on the young, and it probably was. But being part of the Inflation Report was also a combination of economics in the raw and Blitz spirit – and, as a result, a great life experience.

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