In times of struggle, the British buy cars

It's not a rational response to economic hardship, but it is a British one.

The UK car industry has in the past been associated with British Leyland’s unreliability, emptying factory floors and rusting scrap yards. It is now the most unlikely, but welcome, source of continuous good news in the post-2008 economy.

As the recession trudges on it’s become an accepted wisdom that consumers will not spend on luxuries, they will avoid large expense and they are not confident enough to invest in long term products. It seems a stretch to imagine that in a recession the car industry would remain buoyant; surely, it’s pure fantasy to say that it would do well?

There were early signs that the car industry held hope for consumers, GDP-watchers and policy makers alike. When the Labour government launched a car scrappage scheme in March 2009 car sales increased beyond expectations. Up to 400,000 cars, each around 27 per cent more efficient than its scrapped counterpart, were sold as a result of the scheme. The policy will go down in records as one of the most successful of the stimulus policies following the 2008 crash.

When that stimulus was taken away wouldn’t the car industry, which was already in decline before the crash, lose business? Maybe in the short term, but in the long term the good news has continued. Foreign companies have chosen to invest in production at plants in Sunderland, Ellesmere Port and Halewood. The first quarter of 2012 became the first time since 1976 that motor exports exceeded motor imports. With models like the Land Rover Freelander, the Vauxhall Astra and the Nissan Qashqai now built in the UK, the car manufacturing industry is now among the most viable and important in the UK.

British people aren’t buying cars in the middle of a recession, are they? Yes. They really are. In the year from July 2011 to July 2012, new car sales increased by 10.5 per cent even as we slipped back into recession. With their much welcomed GDP boosting powers this increase does not look like it is stopping.

On 1st September, when the new “62” registration plate is released, over 165,000 new cars will make their way from forecourts to the UK’s roads. This week Vertu Motors, a top ten UK motor retailer, released research which estimates that these sales will be worth in the region of £500m to the treasury in VAT alone, and an additional £20m in road tax.

Boosts in sales are not only good for the UK’s GDP, but for the budget too. New models are more carbon efficient than ever before, passing on benefits to consumers and relative improvements for the environment too.

In trying times, when all that we are given are negative stories and confidence is low, we can find a surprising and much needed boost for UK consumers and manufacturers in high cost luxury goods.

In times of struggle, the British buy cars. Go figure.

Cars pile up in a scrapyard as they're replaced with newer models. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.