30 March 2018

Britain’s lost decades

Jack May

It has been a long ten years. When Philip Hammond delivered his spring statement last week, it marked a decade since the last pre-crash budget of 2008, when Alistair Darling delivered rosy forecasts for growth and continued public spending to buoy up services, even as the clouds overhead had already become full-blown grumbling cumulonimbus beasts. Since then, the superlatives have rolled in. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies sets them out well: the deepest recession since the 1920s. The slowest recovery since the 1920s. The worst decade for earnings growth since the 1860s – if not earlier. The highest deficit since the second world war. The biggest peacetime surge in public debt. The Conservatives – first in coalition with the self-immolating Liberal Democrats and then with renewed vengeance alone – have presided over one of the most pathetic and febrile periods in our economy’s history.

Now, as the tiniest glimmers of a recovery finally seem to be growing brighter – though trumpeting growth forecasts of 1.5 per cent for an economy that very seldom failed to grow by more than two per cent pre-crash is weak at best – this Conservative government is now hell-bent on pouring sulphuric acid on the tiny green shoots in its own backyard.

According to government forecasts and policy announced so far, the economy will grow by at least five per cent less over the next 15 years than it would have been if we had stayed in the European Union, and could be up to eight per cent lower if no deal between the United Kingdom and the EU is reached. At every level, from Cameron’s bombastic and arrogant decision to call a referendum to the unholy duo of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove parading false promises, through to Theresa May’s repeated refusal to consider any exit approach that might vaguely pay lip service to the notion of a healthy economy, this state of affairs must be blamed on the Conservatives.

Thanks to their misadventures dragging the UK out of the world’s largest economic bloc, its largest free-trade area, and greatest, strongest supranational grouping, Britain will have, at best, another lost decade of lower and slower growth than what it is capable of. At worst, that drag on our national potential could drag into a second decade post-Brexit, meaning three decades since 2008 in which we will have achieved far less than we could have thanks to poor governance and national mismanagement.

With such a bleak path ahead of us, it is reassuring to be able to look across the aisle and see such a credible alternative programme, with the right balance of supporting growth and ensuring its dividends are shared as widely as possible along with keeping safe our position amongst our international trade partners and security allies.

No wait. Never mind.

While many of us had been lured into a false sense of security after the better-than-expected (but still not good enough) general election result, and cynical pivots seemingly towards business on ‘a’ customs arrangement and McDonnell’s occasional tea rounds, the past week has pulled back the mask once again.

Jeremy Corbyn’s daft, conspiracy-backing, Russia-loving response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter has reminded us of the international implications of tacitly supporting Corbyn as Britain’s next prime minister. A man who would believe our enemies over our own national security institutions; a man whose faith in NATO – our greatest international security guarantor – is flaccid on a good day; a man who appoints shadow cabinet members who support problematic boycott regimes; a man whose attitude to our greatest international cooperative body, the EU, is to ignore it in the hope that by the time he comes to reign it will no longer stand in his way.

None of these things are news, of course, but this past week has presented a renewed challenge to our consciences and to our sense of pragmatism. How do we hold fast to the careering ship, maintaining our belief that the Labour party is the greatest, most successful, and most powerful agent of positive change this country has ever seen?

This a question for each party member, each parliamentarian, and each potential Labour voter to answer for themselves. In the meantime, we have been reminded that Labour under its current leadership cannot be trusted to provide the more sensible solution – one that acts reasonably, firmly, and decisively on the world stage, and does its utmost to encourage responsible business to invest in Britain and in its people to create growth and share in its proceeds.

Between shady attitudes to international relations, discouraging attitudes to responsible enterprise, almost as dismal an offering on Brexit as the Tories’ and an approach to discrimination within its own ranks that certainly sets no decent precedent for how it might be expected to act equitably in government, Labour’s promise may well constitute almost as much of a lost decade in British ambition, innovation and success as the Conservatives’ current path.

Those standing in the halfway house looking for a way forward may have a long while to spend at the drawing-board.

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