GDP grows by 0.3 per cent

The ONS figures show stagnation is still the name of the game.

The preliminary estimate for GDP growth in the first quarter of 2013 has come in at 0.3 per cent. That's higher than the vast majority of economists had predicted, coming in as it does against a consensus estimate of 0.1 per cent.

Clearly, the difference between growth of -0.1 and 0.1 per cent is where the real disconnect is in the political debate. If it were the first, then we would have been in a triple-dip recession. As it is, we aren't, and the chancellor will be able to begin a narrative of our slow return to growth. In fact, coming in at 0.3 per cent may even lead to a temptation to drop the "slow" part of that narrative. We're growing three times faster than the forecasts predicted! Break out the champagne!

And Osborne should allow himself a momentary pat on the back. Beating expecations, even vastly depressed expectations, is always a good thing. But even with today's news, the wider-scale conclusion is the same: Britain's growth is anaemic. In 2012, the economy shrank. In 2011, it grew less than one per cent. In 2013, NIESR predict that it will grow by slightly more than one per cent, and today's figures, annualised, are just 1.2 per cent growth. We won't have annual growth above two per cent until 2015.

That's disastrous on a number of levels. Our economic system is basically built around a paradigm of real economic growth in the two to three per cent range. We can handle short-term deviations from that norm, but the long-term trend must remain the same. Growth much below that isn't growth at all; it's stagnation by another name. On top of that, real GDP growth isn't the only figure we heard today; we also know the growth per capita. And in a country with a rising population like ours, we need to be growing just for that to stand still. With a population growing at around 0.6 per cent a year, that means this quarter's growth only "feels" like 0.15 per cent to any individual.

Lest you think this is just lefty attacks on Osborne, remember: I wrote much the same in February, when it seemed likely there would be a triple dip. The symbolic disconnect between recession and growth is too tempting, and too many people focus on it. The reality is, the British economy is going to be rubbish for years to come. Celebrating because it's marginally less rubbish than it might have been lies somewhere on the line between "blitz spirit" and "idiotic optimism".

Breakdown

So what's going on beneath the surface?

The GDP growth stems entirely from a growth in the service sector; that grew by 0.6 per cent in the last quarter, contributing 0.5 per cent to the overall GDP figure. That was offset by a massive fall in the construction sector, down 2.7 per cent – which knocked 0.2 per cent off the overall figure.

Those numbers show the discrepancy in the importance of the respective sectors; even more obviously, the contraction in the "Agriculture, forestry & fishing" sector, down 3.7 per cent, had no effect on the headline number. We are a service economy, and becoming more of a service economy every quarter.

Apart from that, one other figure jumps out from the release. The "government" sector, which shrunk by 0.9 per cent last quarter, grew by 0.5 per cent this quarter. That means it goes from contributing a 0.2 per cent contraction to the headline figure in Q4 2012 to adding 0.1 per cent to the headline figure this quarter. As the government has quietly put its deficit reduction plan on hold, shrinking PSNB by nominal amounts, it has been able to start spending on infrastructure. We're now seeing that effect.

An earlier version of this post confused quarterly and annual population growth. This has been amended.

GDP and main components. Figure: ONS

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.