A flap of a butterfly's wings to freeze the UK economy

The economy has been sailing smoothly this summer. But winter is coming…

The coalition’s economic policies have benefited, like all of us, from the summer sun. But now the nights are drawing in, and the party conference season approaching. We all know that butterflies fluttering over the Amazon can cause snow in Chicago, and there are at least 4 butterflies whose flapping wings may deliver equally chilling results here in the UK in the next few weeks.

The first butterfly starts to flap a month from tomorrow, on September 22, as Germany goes to the polls. The approach of the German election has put the Eurozone crisis "on hold" for the past year. But the delay has made the problems worse, not better, with the Bundesbank warning again this week about the risks from "ongoing uncertainty about the economic policy situation" and the Eurozone debt crisis. The UK cannot therefore rule out the risk of a triple-dip recession in its largest trading partner, if Southern European economies continue to struggle. 

The US will set the second butterfly fluttering in October, when Congress debates the future of the sequester programme and the need to increase in the country’s debt ceiling. As in the Eurozone, US politicians have made a habit of postponing hard decisions in the hope that, Micawber-like, “something will turn up”. But government departments are now having to impose short-time working as a result of the sequester. For example, 650,000 Department of Defence workers are effectively on a 4-day week till September. And markets do not always stay calm once uncertainty rises and the rhetoric starts to fly.

Over in the east, October also sees a third butterfly released at China’s crucial economic policy meeting, the so-called “third plenum”. This is expected to endorse major reforms aimed at boosting domestic consumption from today’s miserably low level, and abandoning the current reliance on export-led growth. But this will not be easy, as China’s city-dwellers have average incomes of only £3000/year, whilst the half of the population still living in rural areas earn just £1000/year. This enormous shift in the world’s second largest economy must inevitably have consequences for us, most of which are currently unknowable.

The fourth butterfly is closer to home. New Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s much-heralded policy guidance has so far been ignored by the markets. Yields in the government bond market for the benchmark 10-year gilt have instead risen by 100 basis points, 1 per cent, since May. This lack of a honeymoon period is a clear omen of potential difficulties ahead for both borrowers and savers. Whilst an out-of-control housing market in London and the south east is making life very difficult for many buyers and renters.

Any of these butterflies could easily send a severe winter chill through an unprepared UK economy. They also highlight how wishful thinking about growth has come to dominate economic policy.

We know, for example, that consumption is 60 per cent of UK GDP, and that consumption falls away as people reach the age of 55. At this age, people already own most of what they need, whilst their earnings decline as they begin to enter retirement. Yet although the average boomer turns 55 this year, policymakers are still failing to connect the dots as regards the implications for GDP.

With 30 per cent of the UK’s population now in this New Old 55+ cohort, it is unrealistic to expect a repeat of the sustained growth seen when the boomers were in their prime wealth-creating years. Voters are not stupid. The party that talks about the new policies needed for today’s new normal, and not around them, will find itself best positioned for the 2015 election.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder