Osborne shouts bingo - but let's first keep up with Paraguay

The UK cannot achieve a sustainable recovery until it can pay its way in the world, and despite a 25% depreciation of the currency over the last 5 years it still fails lamentably to do so.

Osborne’s reckless boast that he has been proved right over the economy will come back to haunt him. None of his claims stand up to examination.

“Those in favour of Plan B” (i.e. stimulating the economy to produce growth), he asserts, “have lost the argument”. That will be news to employees whose real earnings at current rates will have shrunk by £6,660 during the 2010-15 parliament. It will also come as a surprise to the UK’s biggest companies still sitting on corporate cash stockpiles of £700bn because they doubt the level of demand justifies new investment in plant or services.   The stock exchange and finance markets may be frothing, but the real economy isn’t.

Nor is it likely to be any time soon. In the last 5 years UK investment has fallen by a quarter in real terms, which is devastating in terms of future growth potential. It now stands at just 14% of GDP, against a global average of 24%. Indeed in terms of the global investment-to-GDP league Britain now stands 159th, behind El Salvador, Guatemala and Mali. A recovery based on low wages, poor productivity and weak investment must be expected to stutter and slip back by 2015.

Nor does the historical evidence indicate that Osborne’s counter-intuitive plan, known by the oxymoron of ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, has ever worked.  It has been tried three times before – the so-called ‘Geddes axe’ cuts in 1921-2, the May businessmen committee cuts in 1931, and the Howe budget in 1981. The first enforced expenditure cuts very similar in real terms to today and led to a decade of anaemic growth.   The second was only saved from a similar fate by Britain being forced off the gold standard. The third led to growth only because interest rates were eased, bank lending loosened and a reviving US helped to reflate the world economy. None of those conditions remain now to be applied, so there is no reason to believe the Osborne ‘recovery’ will defy historical precedent.

Osborne’s second claim is that “Britain is poorer because of a huge failure of economic policy in the past decade” (i.e. it was all Labour’s fault). In other words, falling incomes today are due, not to his own policies of austerity, but to Labour’s over-spending which caused the recession. But Labour didn’t over-spend, and didn’t cause the recession – the bankers’ crash did that. The budget deficit in 2007 just before the crash was only 2.9%, below the OECD average, and only rose to 11.6% in 2010 because of the enormous bank bailouts. Even by the time of the election in 2010 the UK national debt had only risen to 77% of GDP which compared with 75% for Germany, 84% for France, and 93% for the US. Labour spending was not out of line with other lead countries.

Equally it is disingenuous for Osborne to claim that today’s diminishing incomes – the longest fall in wages since the 1870s and on average 9% down in real terms since pre-crash levels – owes nothing to his austerity programme and all to the recession. Of course the latter has had a major impact, but to pretend that £81bn of expenditure cuts and £18bn (and counting) of benefit cuts have not significantly exacerbated the downward pressure on incomes is absurd.

Third, “nor are we seeing”, the Chancellor has claimed, “a return to unsustainable levels of indebtedness and household borrowing”. Well, actually, we are. Frighteningly, household lending is just 0.3% below its 2008 peak, while lending to firms is now 22% lower and if account is taken of inflation it’s fallen by a stunning 32%. There is no other way of describing this except as unsustainable. At the same time it’s clear that another major housing bubble is well under way, driven by Osborne’s own Help to Buy scheme, with estate agents the fastest growing sector in the workforce. Debt-to-income ratios, previously falling, have now turned up again. Plainly the recovery, such as it is, is propelled by borrowing.  And an economy dependent on consumer debt together with low wages, weak investment and poor productivity is likely once again to slip back after an initial short burst of expansion.

Osborne’s last assertion was that “growth had been too concentrated in one corner of the country – and HS2 will transform the UK’s economic geography”. The former statement is certainly true, with any recovery heavily concentrated in London and the south-east. But HS2, even if it goes ahead with a price-tag heading north of £50bn, will not remotely produce the degree of economic rebalancing required. The country’s finance sector is still too large and dominant, while manufacturing is shrivelled well below its potential.

The UK cannot achieve a sustainable recovery until it can pay its way in the world, and despite a 25% depreciation of the currency over the last 5 years it still fails lamentably to do so. The UK has only had a surplus in traded goods six times in the last 55 years, and last year the deficit on traded goods was £106bn, equal to 7% of GDP. HS2 won’t conceivably solve a problem of these proportions – only a fundamental revival of the UK’s capabilities for high-tech manufacturing will achieve that.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne speaks during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Image: Getty
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt