"Factual errors" and "slipshod research" - the Britannia Unchained Tories must try harder

Proper policy recommendations require hard graft, which is distinctly lacking in this book.

The authors of Britannia Unchained – five Conservative MPs including Elizabeth Truss and Dominic Raab – argue that Britons are “idlers . . . obsessed with the idea of the gentleman amateur”. Sadly, so far the reaction to the book has proved their point. They’ve had headlines in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph and the Guardian has marked them out as the young Tories to watch. Job done. Yet they’ve done it without doing any serious research, let alone thinking about what that research might mean. They have joined the political version of celebrity culture – the same culture that they argue, to some extent compellingly, makes Britons believe they can get on without doing any hard work.

You don’t need to plough through the book and itemise the factual errors or slipshod research to see just how lazy they’ve been. The first statistics in the book, on page two, point out: “The dependency culture has grown dramatically. By February 2012, 5.7 million people were claiming some kind of benefits. At over 13 per cent of the working population, this is one of the highest proportions in the OECD.”

What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? No footnote (in a book that contains several hundred, most to newspaper articles). What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort.

Most of the book follows this pattern: a randomly strung-together mixture of anecdote, assertion and rehashed articles from a wide variety of sources, ranging from the Mail to the Economist to that old staple, “A research study found . . .”

Hard graft

All this is a pity, because I found myself warming to much of the tone and content of the book. The authors’ basic message is one of hard-headed optimism; that is, the UK, despite our current problems, has plenty of inherent strengths and our destiny is under our control. They want us to learn from other countries but do not fall into the trap of arguing that we’d be fine if we just copied – insert one of the following according to ideological preference – China, Sweden, Germany, Singapore or the US.

Nor do they succumb to the easy pessimism that is currently prevalent among commentators (and, sadly, too many economists) that we are doomed to no or slow growth or that our children will be worse off than we are.

As a consequence, many of the broad implications of their arguments, at both macro and micro levels, are entirely sensible. Our children need to understand that they are unlikely to make it as pop singers or footballers but that if they study and work hard they have an excellent chance of succeeding. At a national level, policymakers need to be more ambitious, take more chances, encourage innovation and risk failure. Unfortunately, as a result of the sloppiness of both the research and the writing, the authors fail to translate this into concrete policy recommendations.

To take one example, it is a clear implication of many of the arguments they make – that we should be open to new ideas; promote competition and innovation; reduce unnecessary red tape, especially in the labour market – that the UK should be more open to immigration, especially skilled immigration. This would not be a panacea but it would certainly help. Now the government they support is moving in precisely the opposite direction, in a manner likely to do considerable economic damage – and yet immigration policy is not even mentioned. They are courageous enough to insult the work ethic of the British labour force, apparently, but not brave enough to confront the shibboleths of their party. That is a pity.

Doing evidence-based policy analysis and turning it into credible policy recommendations is neither quick nor easy. You need to be prepared to trawl through the data, work out what it means, translate that into something that policymakers can understand and help them think through the potential policy implications. On the basis of Britannia Unchained, we still lack politicians who are prepared to get down to this sort of “hard graft”.

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

Read Simon Heffer’s review of “Britannia Unchained” in this week's New Statesman, on sale today

Lady Diana Cooper as Britannia at the Empire Ball in 1924. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation