It's time for Osborne to use the I word - 'Intervention'

We need the state to invest in business innovation and infrastructure that commercial investors fear

It's not looking good for Osborne. Output, employment, sectoral data and confidence all point to an economy either on the brink of recession or stuck deep in the doldrums. Inevitably, the debate about how to escape this very nasty patch intensifies and the battle lines dividing fiscal hawks from doves become ever more stark. But it is a debate that masks an even nastier truth for the UK economy. Even when we are through this crisis, we will still be an economy unfit to fight the big global economic battles ahead.

As a new paper published this week by IPPR and written by myself and David Nash shows, the UK is a serial under-performer compared to our competitors on those OECD, IMF and other international economic indicators which are most vital for successful competition in the global market.

On investment in business, on skills, on innovation and productivity, and on presence in emerging markets we are decidedly mediocre and, in some cases, worse than mediocre when compared to similar economies.

This should be troubling at any time but at a point when new, confident players from the East are striding into global markets and as business practices and markets are being turned upside-down by web technologies, fear and trepidation should be stalking Whitehall and the business world.

But because of the intense focus on the short-term crisis there is a real risk that once the economy is growing healthily again, a 'job done' mentality will seize policy-makers. It would hardly be a surprise. There is a long history of complacent back-slapping in British economic policy-making: Macmillan's "never had it so good" as inefficiency ate away at the economy, Nigel Lawson's self-satisfaction at rapid growth in the late 1980s just before the property market crashed under its own weight, and Gordon Brown praising the City to the skies in his 2007 Mansion House Speech while the credit crunch (and worse) rumbled in the distance.

A continuation of this ignoble tradition could prove equally disastrous now.

We can avoid the potential crisis of the future not just by acknowledging the threat but also by moving beyond ideological shibboleths about the state as the enemy of enterprise that has gripped government for too long. Instead we need a new pragmatism that learns from those economies that have long out-performed us on business investment, skills, innovation and exports. These are countries have a hugely healthy respect for the free market and intense competition as the main drivers of growth and innovation but also recognise that the market simply is not very good at delivering some of the fundamentals.

Germany, Japan, the Scandinavian economies and, yes, even the USA use the state to invest in business innovation and infrastructure that commercial investors fear. At their best, they take an active role in predicting skills needs and so can shape their education and training systems to get ahead of the curve. They positively target innovative firms not just with tax breaks but with world class generously funded research. And when firms want to export they get generous credit guarantees plus a whole range of other supports. In short, they intervene. Not out of some ideological love of the state but because it works. Of course, these economies have their own problems and they are far from perfect but on the measures mentioned above, they consistently do better than us.

Intervention has, of course, had a very bad name in the UK. This is partly because the Thatcherite world view became so successfully embedded into Whitehall and into Party political debate (even though Thatcher herself could be quite the intervener when she wanted). But it is also because intervention became confused in the public mind with the economic planning of the 1940s and 1950s when the focus was actually on controlling employment and prices, not on the modernisation of business, as it was in the rest of Europe. The only time when intervention was seriously tried in the 1960s, it was all too late and ill-conceived to save out-dated British business and it degenerated in the 1970s into support for lame duck firms and fading industries.

The intervention we need today should have a very different focus. It is not about predicting the economy of the future and plotting a path there. It needn't even be about identifying high growth sectors and giving them special support. It should focus instead on the very significant long-term weaknesses of the UK economy relative to our competitors by building a bold policy framework to address those weaknesses before it is too late and we find ourselves once again in decline mode. In short, it is the opposite of our tradition of complacency replaced by an embracing of the pragmatism and common sense displayed overseas.

Adam Lent is Associate Fellow at IPPR.

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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