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18 August 2022

What Liz Truss doesn’t get about “graft”

Low productivity is nothing to do with British workers being lazy.

By Jonn Elledge

In 2012, Liz Truss and four of her Conservative colleagues published Britannia Unchained, a sort of manifesto which, among its various Thatcher-on-steroids policy prescriptions, contained the following, now-infamous quotation: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.” Rishi Sunak reminded her of this during one of the early debates of the Tory leadership contest; Truss replied shiftily that that particular bit was the work of Dominic Raab, who was, as it happened, backing Sunak. And given that this information fits with everything we know about the politics, personality and political skill of Dominic Raab, I, at least, thought no more about it.

Until now, that is. Because the Guardian has reported a leaked recording of Liz Truss saying, basically, the exact same thing again: “It’s partly a mindset and attitude thing… There’s a fundamental issue of British working culture. Essentially, if we’re going to be a richer country and a more prosperous country, that needs to change. But I don’t think people are that keen to change that.” 

What, one might ask, is the solution? “More graft,” comes the PM-in-waiting’s reply. So, there you go. 

The audio dates from when Truss was chief secretary to the Treasury, between 2017 and 2019, meaning that at least it’s not, so far as we know, something she’s said on the campaign trail. But it does raise three questions.

First, does our next prime minister really believe that the economic measure of productivity – essentially, value generated per hour worked – is simply a matter of how much effort people make? It isn’t: she’s confused a colloquial meaning with a technical one. In fact, all sorts of factors drive economic productivity: government investment in infrastructure and education; employer investment in equipment and training; taxes; trade barriers; and matters of networks and geography that are hard to pin down, let alone address. 

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At any rate, the reason the south of England has greater productivity than the north is not because southerners “graft” more, just as bankers don’t work hundreds of times harder than their cleaners. You’d think Truss might have figured this out from the fact that the Chinese, whose work ethic she’s keen to praise, are only a third as productive as the British.

The second question is how exactly a woman with such a weak grasp of the basics of economics could possibly improve Britain’s spluttering economy. Experts have suggested all sorts of possible explanations for the vast chasm between Britain’s most productive regions and its least: the agglomeration effects that come from London’s sheer size; its superior infrastructure, and the contrasting under-investment in the north; our national obsession with that most unproductive of assets, housing. You will notice that “some people just need to work harder” is not on this list. Yet the woman who suggested this is about to become prime minister. 

The final question is how Truss hopes to stay in charge with this attitude. This nonsense might go down well with the Tory membership, but does proud Yorkshirewoman Liz Truss really think she can insult the entire electorate into voting for her? They won’t like what she’s said in the Red Wall.

[See also: Can Liz Truss save the economy with tax cuts?]

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