As Adam Smith knew, the experts think they know best, but what do the people say?

The high-powered experts who make up the LSE’s growth commission have proposed a blueprint for reviving Britain. To achieve its goals, though, we’ll have to get rid of those blasted MPs and councillors. What say we?

What makes economies grow? You could say it is the oldest question in economics: the complete title of Adam Smith’s foundational work is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

It took Smith nearly a thousand pages to set out his formula. This past week, an independent “growth commission” convened by the London School of Economics provided a modern answer – albeit for the UK only – in a mere 36 pages.

Not that the LSE’s commission’s report ever risked being superficial. Its authors include a Nobel Prizewinner, a former chief economist of the World Bank and the first woman to become a deputy governor of the Bank of England. And its attempt to prescribe “the institutions and policies that should underpin growth for the next 50 years” is timely. For the past four years, the policy debate in the UK has been dominated by the question of how to escape from the slump induced by the financial crisis, yet few would deny that the UK needs a long-term economic strategy as well as short-term tactics.

So what is the commission’s answer to the question of what Britain needs to do to reinvigorate its economy in the 21st century? It identifies three critical determinants of prosperity in which the UK is deficient and which policy should therefore cultivate: skills, infrastructure and innovation.

On one level this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious. Can you win a Nobel Prize for working out that it would be a good thing if the workforce was better educated, railways and roads got an upgrade, and if private companies spent more on research and development? Where do I apply?

But we should cut the report’s authors a bit of slack. Yes, it is unfortunate that economists’ theories of growth are formulated at such an Olympian level of abstraction that by themselves they generate only the most platitudinous of conclusions. For this very reason, however, the test of a body such as the LSE commission is whether it is brave enough to advocate more specific policies – and on this score, it does not disappoint. The constraints it has identified may not come as much of a surprise; but the solutions it proposes are more controversial.

In secondary education, the authors endorse the academy model of more autonomy and greater centralisation of funding and accountability for schools. They advocate the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank. On innovation, they back proposals for an allowance for corporate equity that would remove the existing tax incentives to finance businesses with debt, and thereby encourage risky start-ups for which equity funding is the only realistic option. These are serious policy proposals, backed by detailed argument; they deserve a serious hearing from the government.

Unfortunately, the commission makes a further, overarching recommendation – one that is not just controversial, but positively dangerous. How, it asks, did Britain get into this mess in the first place? Why did it lose its historical lead in skills, infrastructure and innovation? The ultimate answer, it says, is simple: the root of our problems is politics.

The trouble with Britain is that it allows elected politicians to make policy. Worse still, we allow local politicians a say in things such as planning and schools. And, to cap it all, we have an unfortunate habit of changing our minds and electing different parties every few years. The result is a chronically unstable environment for long-term investment. Public priorities never stay the same for long enough to get anything done, and the private sector is at the mercy of Nimbys and the political cycle.

So, if we want to make Britain grow again, we need not only to make the right policy choices, but to take those choices out of the hands of politicians. We need a “new insti­tutional architecture” that can “put politics in the right place”. Only then will we bid farewell to interminable “flip-flopping”, the inevitable harvest of “political bickering”. Economic policy will at last be in the capable hands of independent experts: an infrastructure planning commission to decide, say, where nuclear power stations should be built, and a national growth council to dispense an industrial strategy.

It is a seductive view of what constitutes economic progress – one that has bewitched well-meaning technocrats down the ages, from enlightened imperialists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued for a “government of leading-strings” for Britain’s colonial possessions, to the socialist planners charged with the instant industrialisation of the eastern bloc’s developmental nation states. If only the benighted people and their annoying representatives would get out of the way, the impartial experts could get on with modernising the country.

The reality is that policies made by unaccountable experts are unsustainable – because they do not reflect what the people want. Only a democratic process, however flawed, can do that.

The LSE commission’s report was published in the same week as it was announced that it will take 20 years to complete the High Speed 2 rail link, in large part because of the need to follow time-consuming planning procedures. Such is the price of a democratic economy. No doubt unelected bureaucrats handing down compulsory purchase orders could do the job in half the time. But policy would no longer be reflecting people’s interests; it would be reflecting what the experts say their interests are.

It is a critical distinction – and, as it happens, one of which Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations remains the original exposition.

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist and bond investor. His book, “Money: the Unauthorised Biography”, will be published by the Bodley Head in June

Adam Smith. Image: Getty Images

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.