QE, austerity, trade… has the UK anything left to prop it up?

"No action" is not an option.

You would have to travel a long way to find anyone more safety-conscious than a coal miner. So you might have found it strange that when steel pit props were introduced miners objected with a ferocity that shocked management. Their reasoning was simple; before a wooden pit prop broke it gave out a characteristic creak. Steel props shattered without any warning signal. Your chances of getting away before the cave-in became vanishingly small.

So where’s the creaking pit prop in the UK economy? You wouldn’t have to look much further than the behaviour of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England. The committee seems to have been intent on stealing the thunder of the "Greatest Central Banker of His Generation", otherwise known as Mark Carney, even before he has had time to warm the seat of the out-going Mervyn King. The MPC has been implementing Carney’s favoured ideas (promoting bank lending) whilst laying the ground to stop him increasing the Quantitative Easing (QE) programme by voting Sir Mervyn down on the issue four meetings in a row. At the same time Charles Bean, a voting member of the MPC, has, once again, been waving the spectre of negative interest rates in the face of the markets. As the old leader faded others have jumped into the vacuum before the new one arrived.

But the reality is that the lending policies won’t deliver the impact that some expect. The Funding for Lending Scheme is tiny compared to the size of the overall economy whilst some of the Help To Buy schemes meant to promote the housing market look positively dangerous if interest rates start to rise. Besides, consumers, who are seeing their real incomes decline, are still historically geared-up to their eyeballs and are highly sensitive to even small interest rate movements. They aren’t likely to throw a credit party whilst government expenditure is continually cut in real terms during the next five years, a policy to which both the UK coalition and the opposition parties are committed. In short, as in the past four years, housing approvals are going nowhere – that prop has been taken away.

The spending freeze has reinforced the sense of economic hibernation to the point that there is no obvious domestic engine for growth in the UK. To compound the situation our nearest and arguably most important trading partner, Europe, is still in the grips of a decline. Either Mr Carney will get round the MPC nay-sayers and extend QE to a level unthinkable even to the Japanese or politicians are going to have to start spending again; such a volte face would provide the Labour Party with a purpose and relevance that it has now lost.

"No action" is not an option. The electorate won’t have it, especially when they can organize themselves through social media on a level and with ferocity never seen before. Either way, by design or by accident, the pound would take the strain if more and more stimulus is poured into the economy just to prop it up. The defining moment for Mark Carney may yet be how he handles a sterling crisis that will feel like a mineshaft collapsing in on him. The creak is there if he wants to hear it.

Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.