‘When the world does re-open, there will be some big surprises,’ is how I ended my last post. Will we, in this country, be surprised? Or will it be more of the same?
We have deserted city centres. We’re keeping our distance. At the same time we’re coming together. The post-Brexit agenda has been sidelined. Will it, I wonder, resume in the same way? The same desire to separate from countries close at hand and do deals with distant countries in a world which will be even more cautious, looking closer to home, than in recent times?
Go global, with all the risks that involves? Talk up trade with China, and India. Anywhere that isn’t close at hand. Give way to US demands even if they run counter to popular sentiment. Talk down our neighbours. Build barriers, where we least need them.
What is new is the proposed big spend on infrastructure, as outlined in Rishi Sunak’s first budget this month.
It’s probably a fond hope but it just might be that the new focus on community would encourage the government to rein in the current obsession with infrastructure for its own sake in favour of a more considered approach. Who would have imagined a few months ago the Tories switching so abruptly to a big state agenda? Philip Hammond, where are you now?
Manchester and Leeds are big beneficiaries. Liverpool and Hull miss out. Likewise the peripheral towns and villages which haven’t the glamour of the big cities. The focus needs to be more on the detail, less on the big gestures which catch headlines. By that I mean (re)establishing a strong industrial base. Guaranteeing good local communications. A focus on effective local government, and investment focused around local funds going into local enterprises. Tempering capitalism with common sense. See my comments on Preston below.
Corbin is now claiming the Tories have stolen Labour’s clothes. Labour talked about a people’s quantitative easing. As a strategy that was scorned. The government’s focus on debt is more or less the same thing, and yet the Tory press are silent. (Labour and the Conservatives have of course different ideas on where investment should go, and I’m not attempting to review Labour’s plans here. And they are indeed already history.)
What the Tories haven’t stolen of course is Labour’s social agenda. The NHS may be getting more spending, but there’s no sign of any sympathy for, let alone action on, reversing the appalling impact of austerity on the less privileged in society.
As for how the right-wing justify their volte-face there’s an amusing quote from Jesse Norman, author of an excellent biography of Edmund Burke, linking big sending and Brexit. Tories love to call on Burke to justify their actions. It’s akin to American Supreme Court justices with their strict interpretations of the constitution. Trying to apply 18th century notions to the present day is fraught with dangers. All it does is make Norman look foolish.
‘It’s a Burkean understanding that the nation is a moral idea: a group of people bound together by a moral affinity. It’s that legitimating sense of self that underwrites a nation’s capacity to tax.’ (The Economist, 21st March)
The one thing we don’t have is ‘a group of people bound together by a moral affinity’. Not that I’ve noticed.
There’s talk of renationalising the railways, with franchisees find themselves running out of cash as people work from home and radically cut down on travel.
Also part of the big state are attacks on the BBC and the judiciary, for supposed over-reach. Borrowing this time from the European far right. And at the behest of Dom Cummings.
Reducing immigration: another big state intervention. It assumes that UK-born care workers and workers in the hospitality sector will emerge from the woodwork, just because the government wills it. We’ve also had nonsense arguments about robots. Germany has x3 more robots than we have, South Korea x10. Immigration it seems is to blame. Businesses are deferring investment in robots because immigrants are an easier and cheaper option. This is an argument of convenience, without any semblance of truth as far as I’m aware. But it sounds plausible.
Also within Priti Patel’s remit, a bigger prison population is also part of a bigger state. Money which would better go on community work and rehabilitation is wasted on building new prisons.
Preston, the Preston experiment, highlights the government’s obsessions, and illustrates how opposed they are to genuine communitarian politics.
Preston has over the last few years encouraged ‘anchor institutions’ (councils, hospitals, colleges and the like) with big budgets to use local suppliers. To spend locally. That might seem to fit well with a post-virus localist mentality. But likely to be welcomed by the government? No way.
Johnson on Preston: ‘I am sure they are an estimable bunch but Preston Council are not the locomotives of the economy. We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector that can pay for superb local services.’
Put simply, all Tory talk of big infrastructure spend will be as nothing unless local people, local councils, local businesses are empowered. Preston is not operating a socialist state. But it is seeking to ensure that local investment and expansion doesn’t come from handouts but from local engagement, and self-belief at a local level.
Markets for the government are the ultimate arbiter. Creative destruction the watchword. I’m not arguing against creative destruction per se. Businesses rise and businesses fall. But it pays no heed to community. And what we do not want is a disempowered and disaffected community.
One great lesson of politics, maybe the great lesson, disregarded by politicians, and the current crowd are a worse-case scenario, is that you rarely get what you want. Big spending is high risk, and high risk rarely delivers. Remember, amongst others, two previous chancellors, Reggie Maudling and Anthony Barber, and their ‘rushes for growth’.
However great the crisis we have to be thinking beyond. The big issues won’t go away. But it may be the crisis will lead to a better understanding. So may a new Labour leadership better equipped to challenge the government. We shall see.