This was no Autumn Statement for growth

The measures announced today by Osborne will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent.

Today’s Autumn Statement was a strange creature. The Chancellor has gone to great lengths to implement a bunch of expensive supply side measures to help the economy grow. But at the same time, the Office for Budget Responsibility appears to have gone in the opposite direction, suggesting that it’s the demand side, not the supply side of the economy that is where the problem lies. That would imply a rather different set of measures to the ones we saw today.

In the run-up to today, the government set a few hares running about how it was going to reallocate current to capital spending to boost growth. Since capital spending tends to raise economic output by more than current spending, building schools and roads could provide a sorely needed boost to the stagnant economy. Just what the doctor ordered. And such a shift was exactly the sort of thing the Social Market Foundation advocated last February as a way to provide a fiscal stimulus without deviating from the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan.

In the event, the investment is a pretty paltry £2.3bn next year and £3bn after that. On its own, that might boost output by about the same amount: a piddling 0.1 per cent of GDP in each year. Unfortunately, even this microscopic growth measure is all but cancelled out by where the funds have been raised from. The decision to uprate benefits by just 1 per cent for three years will suck demand out of the economy from next April, all but off-setting any stimulus effect of the investment plan. Quite apart from the fairness debate, if you need to save money from the welfare bill, it would have been far wiser to wait until the economy is back on its feet.

By contrast, one bright spot – and it was only a spot – was the decision to raise £600m from limiting pension tax relief for top earners. Cutting spending on measures that encourage people to take money out of the economy is an excellent example of a demand-friendly cut. Well done the Lib Dems. They should have done more.

Unsurprisingly, then, for all the infrastructure investment chat, the OBR estimates that the measures in the Autumn Statement will increase output by a meagre 0.1 per cent. This was no ‘Autumn Statement for growth’, whatever the rhetoric.

What this statement was really about was supply side measures, and here the Chancellor has really pulled out the stops. Raising the personal allowance and capping fare rises will make work pay more for the middle classes. Eroding benefits will sharpen work incentives by making life more uncomfortable for those out of work or on low wages. The populist fuel-duty give-away will cut the costs for firms and families. And the corporation tax cut will marginally encourage investment. But it is very unlikely that these measures will do anything to stimulate growth, in the short-term at least.

And here the OBR seems to be saying that the Chancellor has misdiagnosed the problem. Last month the SMF replicated the OBR’s models for estimating how much of the current deficit will remain once the economy gets back to normal. Had the OBR stuck to its models, they would have said that the demand shortfall in the economy was relatively minimal. In that world, supply side policies might make some sense. But today, the OBR junked its models wholesale, adopting a totally different technique. Now they’re saying that the economy is suffering from a large and increasingly persistent shortfall in demand.

The biggest threat to the supply side of the UK economy is from a yawning output gap. Weak demand means that unemployed workers will slip into permanent inactivity, while capital will depreciate. Incentives to invest will remain weak, and banks will see no advantage to calling time on their zombie company clients. This is all very bad news for our future prosperity and our society. But action on demand from the Chancellor has been entirely rhetorical today. Frenetic activity on the supply side looks like fiddling while Rome burns.

Chancellor George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement in the House of Commons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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