Balls has got the Tories on the run

The energetic shadow chancellor is challenging the coalition's missteps at every turn.

The battle over the appropriateness of the coalition's economic policy has truly commenced and the amateurs are no longer dominating. A professional economist has arrived on the scene in the form of the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, whose energetic interventions, as I suspected they would, are beginning to put coalition ministers on the back foot. Ed is highly effective and is challenging the coalition's missteps at every turn. His alternative strategy is to cut the deficit more slowly and not to compromise growth.

The shadow chancellor's Budget broadcast seemed particularly on point and contained a big apology. Balls agreed that regulation should have been tougher but: "Every government in the world got that wrong -- and I'd like to say sorry for the part that I and the last Labour government played in that." And he rightly pointed out that the Tories are not innocent, as they continually argued for even lighter regulation.

Ed had several sound bites that will surely have some resonance with the general public. "Our economy, which was working, has now ground to a halt." "By cutting too far and too fast, George Osborne isn't solving the problem -- he is in danger of making it worse." "But George Osborne is going too far and too fast and we're paying the price in lost jobs and slower growth." "So I fear that George Osborne's plan won't just hurt, it won't work." This counterattack seems to be working: at PMQs last week, an obviously rattled David Cameron snapped angrily that Balls is "the most annoying person in modern politics". Ed is obviously getting to the Prime Minister. Good. That means our shadow chancellor is doing his job.

Of particular interest are the claims made by Chancellor Osborne that the OECD is a big fan of his policies. He even referred to a letter he received from the right-wing boss of the OECD, Angel Gurria, in which he said that "while this budget contains hard measures, we are convinced that they are unavoidable in the short term to pave the way for a stronger recovery. By sticking to the fiscal consolidation plan set out last year, the United Kingdom will continue along the road towards stability."

Interestingly, today, in its interim assessment of the G7 economies, the OECD made clear that it thinks that the UK economy will grow more slowly than any other G7 economy except Japan, which has just been hit by tempest and flood. The OECD also revised their forecast for Q2 2011 from 1.3 per cemt to 1 per cent on an annualised basis. At the same time, it upgraded its forecasts for many G7 economies, predicting second-quarter growth in the US, France and Germany of 3.4 per cent, 2.8 per cent and 2.3 per cent, respectively. If the policies are so great, how come the OECD lowered their forecast for growth in the UK but raised it in all the other OECD countries that are not implementing austerity? I suspect Ed may well be picking up on this rather glaring contradiction.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder