Where does the European impasse now leave Britain?

One month on, Cameron's veto looks an even greater folly.

There is another side to David Cameron's eurozone veto that hasn't been told. Staying out of the euro was not a cunning example of British sagacity but rather a potent symbol of the weakness of the British economy. What was not admitted was that, though still the sixth largest economy in the world, Britain was judged not fit to compete in an open European economy where a single currency was underpinned by fixed exchange rate and interest rates.

That judgement has been amply confirmed by events. In 1982 Britain had a surplus on its trading account in goods of £1.9bn. Since then it has steadily deteriorated to the point where UK deficit on traded goods reached an unprecedented £100bn, no less than 6.8 per cent of our GDP. What makes this decline so staggering is that it occurred despite a 23 per cent devaluation of sterling over the last three years.

Such a precipitate decline is simply unsustainable. We cannot continue to enjoy our standard of living when it is dependent on such a huge loss of competitiveness.

In that context to try to preserve the City of London untouched -- when it is a major cause of that competitive breakdown as well as largely responsible for the £850bn increase in Britain's indebtedness following the financial crash -- is utterly perverse.

Instead the number one objective for Britain should now be a single-minded concentration on a renascence of British manufacturing as the only means to regain the competitiveness on which our future depends. That should be accompanied by a radical reform of UK banking so that its prime role becomes the promotion and enhancement of British industry. This approach should then determine our policy towards the euro and any future EU directive on financial services regulation.

Hitherto Britain has attracted foreign direct investment largely as a base for export to the EU market and because costs are lower through low pay and de-regulated working conditions. R&D is generally centred abroad and profits generally repatriated to the foreign country. This is not an adequate platform on which to build a dynamic, competitive and sustainable manufacturing base as the core of UK economic growth.

Instead a successful national manufacturing system requires indigenous supply chains which profitably connect the different competences of a diverse population of small-medium-giant enterprises within powerful cluster networks. British manufacturing at present has few large corporate players with UK headquarters that have a global reach, broad capabilities and a large workforce over 50,000. Yet critically these are the companies that boost cost recovery by selling branded finished goods, sustain civil R&D, build high-tech capabilities, as well as connect backwards to domestic suppliers.

Britain lacks these crucial chain-supporting enterprises because short-termism always trumps long-term market share. Giant manufacturing firms like GEC, ICI, Lucas and TI were broken up when assessed as inadequately profitable, and privatisations (for example, rail and electric power) were carried through without regard to a domestic supplying industry.

As a result Britain is now an economy of small workshops, with less than 2,000 factories employing over 200 compared with 107,000 employing less than 10. The UK propensity to import is therefore much higher largely because of reliance on foreign-owned assembly within global systems, and UK balance of trade prospects project an unsustainable increase in the deficit which will require permanent deflation to damp down import demand.

All these entrenched problems point to the need for systematic prioritising on capacity building and investment right across the whole spectrum in manufacturing, as indeed has been advocated by the CBI 20-year export recovery plan. Central to achieving that is radical banking reform. The City of London remains heavily focused on mortgage lending, derivatives and offshore speculation. Worse still, many banks lend on a one-off basis for a specific project on a limited timescale and expect high annual returns on investments to meet their loan repayments which often appear too risky in uncertain market conditions.

By contrast, relational banking is a central factor underpinning German manufacturing success, linked with the clustering concept of the Mittelstand offering a strong local or regional network uniting major manufacturing companies with their suppliers, ancillaries and customers as well as their banks. This is a business model in Baden Wurttenburg, Aemilia Romagna and other European regions which the UK should develop in manufacturing arcs round Birmingham, Manchester-Liverpool, Newcastle as well as the South-East.

But the key banking reform needed is the restoration of public control over the money supply. As a result of the Competition and Credit Control measures in 1971, the lifting of exchange controls in 1979 and the abolition of all controls over consumer credit and the de-regulation of housing finance in the 1986 Big Bang, the commercial banks have now become responsible for the issuance of over 97% of domestic credit creation.

They have used that power to become the major generator of unsustainable asset bubbles and thus of great economic instability. Through the shadow banking system, proliferation of derivatives and securitisation they have gone to great lengths to evade public controls and to pursue their private interests at the expense of the national interest. They have used their control over the money supply largely to feed the property boom and foreign speculation whilst allocating as little as 8 per cent to productive investment.

For all these reasons control over the money supply should be brought back into the public domain. This was the mechanism used by many of the most successful countries in this last century, especially Japan, Korea and Taiwan after the Second World War.

Under this "window guidance" the central bank would determine the desired nominal GDP growth and then estimate the amount of credit creation necessary to achieve this. Then in consultation with the main financial and industrial sectors, but in accordance with strict criteria, it would spread this credit across the range of various types of banks and industrial sectors.

Speculative transactions like today's lending to hedge funds was firmly suppressed. Consumer loans on any significant scale which would trigger inflationary demand for consumer goods and draw in increased imports were discouraged and hard to get. Priority was given to productive investment - plant and equipment, key services, and enhanced productivity via new technologies and R&D.

By contrast, rejection of the eurozone and keeping the City untouched and unregulated is a tunnel vision leading to economic unviability and ultimately self-destruction. Only a sustained revitalisation of UK manufacturing, the real lifeblood of the economy, together with fundamental banking reform, can now save Britain.

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle