Osborne may gloat about recovery, but his “hard slog” will leave Britain worse off

The recovery of the British economy, which started under Labour, was aborted in 2010.

George Osborne is bound to crow at the Conservative party conference about the superior performance of the British economy under his stewardship. After three years of “hard slog”, there is at last some good news to report. In the second quarter of this year, the economy grew by 0.7 per cent after “flatlining” for the previous three years. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has revised its annual growth forecast upwards twice in its latest forecasts. The British economy is now expected to grow by 1.2 per cent in 2013, 0.5 percentage points more than was forecast as late as in February, and in 2014 this will surge to 1.8 per cent. The tables, the media will gush, have been turned on Labour. George has pulled it off. And Osborne will claim a number of things that are either false or implausible.

First, he will say that his critics (people such as me) have “lost the battle”, because they can’t explain why the economy is improving. I haven’t yet met a critic of Osborne’s policy who claimed that the economy would not recover from the collapse of 2008-2009. Economies always recover from their low points, whatever the policies pursued, sooner or later. Things happen, in the country or in the world, to revive business’s “animal spirits”. The question is whether they happen sooner or later and how long the recoveries last. Here, policy does matter.

The critics’ charge against Osborne is not that he caused the slump but that his policy of fiscal austerity delayed the recovery, possibly by as much as three years. His failure was a failure to offset the decline in aggregate demand, or total spending, which followed the crash, by a policy of fiscal expansion. Instead, his policy, which aimed at cutting the Budget deficit and reducing the national debt, added to the depressive forces created by the financial collapse.

That is why the UK economy is still about 3 to 4 per cent smaller than it was in 2008, whereas in the US, where fiscal stimulus was sustained, the economy is now larger than before. The recovery of the British economy, which started under Labour, was aborted in 2010. A recent US study by the economists Alan Taylor and Òscar Jordà suggests that each year of Osborne knocked 1 per cent off the growth of the British economy; that is, £92bn all told, enough to restore Labour’s schoolbuilding plans and still have enough change to plug the funding gap in the NHS. For the average household, this amounts to a loss of £3,500 over three years – and, as Taylor and Jordà point out, this is a conservative estimate.

Osborne’s second claim will be that the “hard slog” was necessary to ensure sustainable recovery – one that didn’t lead to “boom and bust”, as allegedly Gordon Brown’s pre- 2008 boom did. A critical policy aim has been to shrink the size of the bloated state sector, which was supposedly sucking vitality out of the “wealth-producing” private sector. A more plausible view of the cause of the crisis is that the British economy had become dangerously dependent on an oversized banking sector pumping money into private housing.

In this view, a “sustainable” economy is a “balanced” economy, like the balanced portfolio prudent investors are advised to hold. Instead, government-backed schemes such as Funding for Lending and Help to Buy are quite likely to create a housing bubble.

Crucial to both the strength and durability of recovery is the level and distribution of expected demand. Unfortunately, the main effect of quantitative easing (QE) – the only kind of stimulus the government accepts – is to boost asset prices; that is, to make the rich richer. It does nothing for most wage and salary earners, the main source of effective demand. Moreover, this boost to the wealth of the rich comes on top of decades of rising income inequality.

And it is worse than this. In so far as it increases inflation, QE depresses the purchasing power of exactly those people on whom a strong recovery depends. With earnings lagging behind prices, the TUC estimates that average real pay has fallen by 7.5 per cent since 2008. Higher-paid public-sector jobs have been replaced by lower-paid privatesector jobs. In lauding the “flexibility” of the British labour market, the Chancellor has ignored the consequences of this flexibility for the level of demand. That’s leaving aside its effects on our long-term future as a highvalue- adding economy.

“Demand” is the one word that has never passed George Osborne’s lips. He doesn’t believe in it. He is a prisoner of Say’s law: that supply creates its own demand. Look after supply – especially the supply of credit – and demand will look after itself. Keynes taught the exact opposite – look after demand and supply will look after itself. This is not always true but it is valid in a slump.

Yet Osborne is the chancellor who, a few weeks after the collapse of the world’s financial system, declared that Keynesian measures aimed at maintaining the level of aggregate demand would be like a “cruise missile aimed at the heart of a recovery”. So we always knew where George was coming from.

Keynes believed that without a jolt, or stimulus, a depressed economy could remain in a state of “underemployment equilibrium” for decades. By this, he did not mean that nothing would change. There would still be booms and busts. What he meant was that the average level of activity over the cycle would be lower than it would be if the economy were fully employed. The average level of unemployment would be higher, the rate of economic growth lower; people would be employed in less rewarding jobs and below their skill level; discouraged workers would leave the labour force.

There would be less work to do, not because people needed less, but because most were too poor to buy what they needed. For all his talk of recovery, this is the future that Osborne offers.

Lord Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and the pre-eminent biographer of Keynes
George Osborne. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt