Stop focusing on triple dips. Anaemic growth is just as bad

Welcome to stagnation. It's not a nice place to be.

Tomorrow, the ONS will release its second estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter of 2012. The revisions may be up or down, and you'd be a fool to bet on which direction it will be. But barring a miracle, it's still going to be terrible growth.

That's true even if the revisions push the estimated contraction into positive territory. Such is the focus on whether or not Britain will enter a "technical recession" for the second time running that we have started to act as if anaemic growth is acceptable. It isn't.

If nothing else, it's important to remember that GDP staying flat is the equivalent of every individual in Britain getting poorer. That's because the British population is growing, usually by somewhere between 0.5 and 1 per cent a year (0.7 per cent according to the most recent figures from the World Bank). As a result, GDP per capita, the share of the national income that each of us receives, is correspondingly lower than GDP. Unless annual GDP growth is higher than population growth, it's not even really fair to say we're "stagnating". We are getting poorer.

But even discounting that possibility, stagnation above the rate of population growth remains an extremely concerning phenomenon. 2013 overall will probably experience real growth in GDP per capita. NIESR's economic forecasts put it at 0.4 per cent growth per capita, and 1.1 per cent GDP growth:

But 1.1 per cent growth is far, far below anything that Britain would need to either keep deficit reduction on track (the main worry if you're George Osborne) or to prevent further erosion of crucial public services (the main worry if you're anyone else). The Bank of England, which made similar projections to NIESR, is so shocked that it is prepared to overlook its entire raison d'être and allow a period of above-target inflation to get us out of those doldrums.

The OBR, kings of the downward revision, have spent the last three years forecasting that 2 per cent growth was just around the corner. That remains their forecast, and currently that growth rate is projected for 2014. The OBR has previously forecast two per cent growth for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Whether that continued optimism is justified or not, when future economic plans are based on it, every miss hits even harder.

(To be clear, the problem isn't that the OBR is frequently wrong. All economic forecasts are hugely variable, and the agency makes clear in its outlooks that the rage of probable outcomes is large. The problem is that the OBR is frequently wrong in the same direction. For over two years now, it has predicted growth above the actual outcome. If someone misses the bullseye nine times in a row, they're just unlucky — but if every one of those shots hits above the centre, it's pretty likely that they need to start aiming lower.)

The worst thing about accepting stagnation as a natural, even positive, outcome is that it will lead to a huge amount of unnecessary pain. It's not just that we won't grow fast enough. It's also that we'll be trapped in a dead zone of investment, too poor for the government to finally decide it has "enough money" to start dealing with our broken housing market and crumbling infrastructure, but growing just enough that it won't be forced to abandon austerity and enact pro-growth measures which actually work.

But if the right is wrongly promoting the acceptability of stagnation, there's a parallel criticism for the left. A "technical recession" isn't that much worse than minuscule growth. The difference between 0.1 per cent contraction and 0.1 per cent growth is 0.2 percentage points. A truism, certainly, but if the Chancellor's forecast was for 2.0 per cent and the outcome was 1.8 per cent, there would be little commentary.

As our economy floats along at the zero line, sometimes slightly over, sometimes slightly under, the temptation may be to crow every time the latter occurs. But that runs the risk of implying that the former is acceptable, when it really isn't. Our corrugated economy is the problem, and that's not going away any time soon.

This puppy is sad at British economic stagnation. Photograph: Getty Images

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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”