The land of broken promises

The coalition may claim to be committed to front-line services and public-sector jobs, but the econo

I listened to the Old and Sad by-election results online on Radio 5 Live from sunny Florida, which, incidentally, was the only US state that didn't have snow this past week. The British electorate was inevitably going to turn against the coalition and Nick Clegg was only able to avoid disaster because the Tories didn't try very hard. Apparently, they were away skiing with their banker friends -- George Osborne was, anyway.

Economic data continues to worsen in four crucial areas -- construction, net trade, business investment and unemployment -- even before the cuts and tax rises take effect. The volume of construction output in the latest data release fell by 0.7 per cent. New work fell by 0.5 per cent and repair and maintenance fell by 1.1 per cent. The biggest fall -- 6.4 per cent -- was in infrastructure new work. Construction was the main driver for the growth that was observed in the second and third quarters of 2010.

New figures for 2010 Q3, published by the Office for National Statistics [PDF] on 22 December, show that business investment, in seasonally adjusted terms, rose by 3.1 per cent. This is good news -- but total manufacturing investment decreased by 2.5 per cent compared with the previous quarter. Apart from a period of strong growth in 2010 Q1, business investment is yet to show any significant momentum since GDP started to recover in 2009 Q4. No individual industry has acted as a catalyst for overall growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility's forecast assumes that investment is a major driver in the recovery and will grow by more than 10 per cent per annum.

The latest net trade data was also bad. The UK's deficit on trade in goods and services was £4.1bn in November, compared with a deficit of £4.0bn in October. On average, forecasters expect the UK net trade deficit to make a 0.5 per cent contribution to GDP growth in 2011, having detracted from growth in 2010.

Worst of all, the number of unemployed youngsters under the age of 25 has hit a record 951,000, surpassing the previous record of 944,000 reached in June and September 2009. This represents an increase of more than 50,000 over the past three months.

More than 225,000 youngsters have been unemployed [PDF] for more than 12 months, increasing fears of a "lost generation". What a shame, then, that Alastair Darling's plan to tax the bankers and use the money to pay for measures to reduce youth unemployment has now been ditched for no good reason by the Con-Dem coalition

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The list of the government's broken promises is growing. Before the election, the Tories promised a "fair fuel stabiliser" to keep petrol tax rises down when oil prices are high. It looks as if they have reneged on that promise, even though David Cameron raised hopes that it would be implemented. And then there are those bankers. In opposition, Osborne and Cameron played a dirty political game, suggesting that they were going to restrict bonuses. They said that no banker's bonus would be higher than £2,000 -- a policy that is still on the Conservative Party website. Slasher Osborne has also delayed plans to force banks to disclose all bonus payments exceeding £1m -- despite the government naming every public official earning more than £55,000.

As my old friend Will Hutton wrote in the Observer this week:

Bankers' bonuses unite everyone in outrage -- from captains of industry, bewildered how top bankers can earn so much more than they do, to the newly unemployed, who wonder what they have done to deserve poverty and hardship while the money men pocket millions . . . The banks, far from serving the real economy, have become a tax on it.

The public has no objection, as far as I can tell, for payment for performance. The objection is mostly about payments for lack of performance.

Comments by the CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, in front of the Treasury select committee that the "period of remorse and apology for banks . . . needs to be over" didn't seem to capture the public mood. You would have thought Diamond's advisers would have warned him about other recent PR disasters, including that of BP's Tony Hayward, who said "I want my life back" after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and leaked 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, the CEOs of the big three car makers flew in on luxurious private jets to give testimony to the US Congress that the auto industry was running out of cash and needed $25bn in taxpayer money to avoid bankruptcy. The next time they testified, the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford and GM drove the 500-plus miles in their latest fuel-efficient models.

People compare themselves to their friends and neighbours and workers care about the salaries of their colleagues. So taxpayers are angry about bankers getting big bonuses at a time when almost everyone else is experiencing declining real incomes. The recently published earnings data from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (Ashe) for 2010 show how tough things are. Mean annual earnings for the 25 million employees in the UK grew, on average by only 0.2 per cent on the year; while in the private sector earnings fell by 0.8 per cent. Public-sector earnings grew by just 0.6 per cent. However, this wage growth partly reflects the transfer of the publicly owned banks Lloyds and RBS in October 2008 from the private to the public sector -- moving a number of relatively well-paid workers with them. And there is a public-sector wage freeze, along with a hiring embargo, so there is no likelihood of an explosion in wage inflation.

The table below shows the differing levels of importance of the public sector by regions in Britain, according to the Ashe survey. The public sector accounts for 39 per cent of workers in Wales, 38 per cent in Scotland and 37 per cent in the north east; it accounts for around a quarter in London and the south east. The second column shows that public-sector jobs outside London and the south east, on average, are better paid than private-sector jobs. Public-sector job losses are going to hit hardest regions such as the north east, Wales and Scotland, which have relatively high unemployment rates. We are demonstrably not all in this together.

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In a speech on public services on 17 January 2011, David Cameron said: "As we take the tough but necessary steps to deal with the deficit, our first priority is to protect front-line services and to protect jobs in the public services." Don't laugh.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and a professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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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.”