David Cameron at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference on 10 November. Photo: Getty
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Leader: David Cameron has no answers to the global crisis he describes

While highlighting dangers abroad, Cameron ignores those at home, including the long decline in living standards, the lack of investment and an overheated London property market.

Even before the damage from the last economic crisis has been repaired, the danger is growing of another. After briefly showing signs of recovery in 2013, the eurozone has slumped back into stagnation. Meanwhile, Japan has entered recession again, growth in China is slowing down and geopolitical threats proliferate.

David Cameron’s warning that “red lights are flashing on the dashboard of the global economy” was justified, even if his motives were primarily political. It is in the interests of the Conservatives for voters’ attention to be concentrated on this issue, rather than immigration, on which Ukip leads, and on the NHS, on which Labour does. By alerting the electorate that the storm has not passed, Mr Cameron aims to persuade them not to take a chance on the opposition at the general election. The hope is that a vote for Labour will appear too risky and that a vote for Ukip will appear too frivolous.

But if the Prime Minister’s jeremiad was politically astute it was also disingenuous. Having blamed the 2008 crisis on Labour’s profligacy, rather than global forces, he cannot now reasonably cite the same conditions as an alibi for the coming UK slowdown. While highlighting the dangers abroad, he ignores those at home, including the long decline in living standards, the lack of public and private investment and an overheated London property market.

Mr Cameron is correct to note the harm inflicted on Britain by the parlous state of the eurozone, our largest trading partner, but refuses to add that this results not from an absence of austerity (the policy he promotes for growth) but from a dangerous excess. As Mehdi Hasan writes on page 33, Europhiles should question their faith in an EU that has done so much to choke off demand in member states and so little to support it.

In these circumstances, voters in the UK and elsewhere are easily susceptible to populists and demagogues who seek to demonise immigrants. Politicians have spent a decade complaining that we do not talk about the issue. The truth is that many voters hear about little else. By too often reinforcing the myths about immigration, rather than challenging them, the two main parties jointly ensure that Ukip is the main beneficiary. No voter who heard Labour’s panicky pledge to ban migrants from claiming out-of-work benefits for two years after their arrival and to limit tax credits for those in employment would be reminded that migrants contribute considerably more in taxes than they receive in welfare payments. An OECD report last year, for instance, found that they make a net contribution to the UK of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn, because they are younger and more economically active than the population in general.

The truth, which almost no politician will dare utter, is that Britain will need more, rather than fewer, immigrants in the future to meet the challenge of an ageing population. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that should the UK maintain net migration of roughly 140,000 a year (significantly higher than the government’s target of “tens of thousands”), debt will rise to 99 per cent of GDP by 2062-2063. But should it cut net migration to zero, debt will reach 174 per cent.

The Conservatives never miss an opportunity to boast of their “long-term economic plan” and their commitment to balanced growth. But the gap between rhetoric and reality has seldom been greater. Fixated on their ideological commitment to achieve a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament, the Tories offer none of the innovative thinking required to remake the British economy for this new insecure era. After Mr Cameron’s cynical promise of £7bn of tax cuts, even their devotion to fiscal restraint is now questionable.

Rather than managing decline, both Britain and the eurozone need an ambitious programme for growth. In the absence of economic leadership, the world is likely to remain at best trapped in what Keynes called “the long, dragging conditions of semi-slump” and at worst caught in the rapids of another global crisis. 

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle