Making sure the green shoots don’t wither away

The UK may be in recovery, writes Scott Barnes, but how can we keep it that way?

Recent third quarter GDP figures for the UK showed a growth of 1.0 per cent, however when these figures were announced, many commentators were keen to point out that discounting this summer’s Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee spending, the economy has remained stagnant year on year. Although this is a continuation of the current pessimism around the UK economy, the question is whether when you take a closer look at the situation, this is justified. 

Some recent research undertaken by us in conjunction with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that mid-sized businesses have actually, for the most part, been growing well during the past few years of economic stagnation. After taking a closer look at this growth, it found that mid-sized businesses have been able to boost their productivity, with turnover per employee 18 per cent higher than the UK average, and as a result increase their turnover by £25.7bn over the past year. 

In addition, the third quarter of 2012 company liquidations were down 2.8 per cent from the previous quarter, and 6.6 per cent less than the same quarter in 2011. One of the major factors behind this is that the current low interest rates mean that struggling businesses are better able to service their loans and pay off the interest. As a result, banks are less concerned about calling the loan in. Those businesses that can’t afford to tackle the debt itself are given a bit more breathing space, allowing them to concentrate on growing revenue, rather than struggling to meet loan payments. 

The latest quarterly Business Confidence Monitor from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales and Grant Thornton shows that business confidence is actually higher in regions outside of London and the South East. There have been some encouraging initiatives recently from the Government and it will be interesting to see how this glimmer of regional confidence is affected by the recent review by Lord Heseltine and the Coalition Government’s "City Deals" plan. Together, these schemes have called for more government funds to be diverted to regional governments and greater powers for mayors to support this entrepreneurialism and dynamism across the UK.

The pervading economic climate continues to be a proving ground for companies, with those that are still in business emerging lean, organised and efficient. Businesses are taking a fundamental look at how their business is run in order to weather the worst of the economic storm. Clear effective governance, robust planning and attention to financial levers mean they are now equipped to deal with this kind of environment. 

Before businesses start to invest again, economic confidence needs to come from somewhere, and the government must shout about how well we’re doing, and keep providing support for British businesses. If just a fraction of the estimated £720bn of cash reserves in British businesses was invested back into the economy, business investment would return to pre-crisis levels. While the "new normal" means we have to adjust our growth expectations, confidence is needed to ensure the recent economic growth doesn't just prove to be an anomaly and continues.

Green shoots. Photograph: Getty Images

Scott Barnes is the CEO of Grant Thornton UK.

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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