There are big ideas about the future out there, about seizing the moment – now is the time for radical change. Two of many examples:
The Committee on Climate Change would like the much lower carbon emissions during lockdown as a stepping off point. And Wolfgang Munchau argues in The Spectator for a bout of creative destruction. Letting ‘failing’ industries and businesses go to the wall.
The aviation industry would be in the firing line on both counts. We’ve already seen Flybe go the wall. And Virgin withdrawing from Gatwick, while BA has stated that ‘there is no certainty as to when or if these [Gatwick] services can or will return’.
Nick Timothy in his new book, ‘Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism’ (reviewed in the London Review of Books by Colin Kidd), has a different take. Both Boris Johnson and Timothy ‘would claim to want to revamp the interest of the British economy in the interests of workers as well as bosses’. That is indeed very much the mandate on which the current government was elected. But creative destruction can’t take account of workers’ interests. So we’ve a clear and present conflict here.
The Thomas Cook collapse was a recent example. How many businesses, I wonder, would be allowed to go the wall? How much unemployment could the government countenance? Where would the new jobs, many if not most at the high-tech end of the spectrum, be located?
Munchau damns the EU for being ‘good at protecting existing interests’, and for ‘stifling innovation in the process’. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would hold back ‘an unparalleled opportunity for the artificial intelligence industry’. Again, we’ve a conflict – between the interests of the wider public and an open-field approach to AI.
We owe the term ‘creative destruction’ to the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It is in the very nature of enterprise and capitalism. New businesses opening up new territory. Old businesses go the wall, and workers lose their jobs.
But Munchau and his like treat creative destruction as a gospel. Likewise commentators in the Telegraph. Brexit is the great new opportunity to throw off fetters. New businesses will rise up and even as the world turns in on itself we will find major new markets which will transform our economy. The theory is excellent. The practical outcome is likely to be disastrous.
What I would like to see is a new dispensation at a European level. Retaining data privacy. But encouraging innovation – with new market opportunities open to all member states. For the UK radical approaches to innovation are far more likely to work out operating at a European level than worldwide. For Europe and the EU trading relationships are in place. On our own we’ll be one amongst a plethora of countries potentially pursuing radical business ideas, and it won’t be easy to stand out from the crowd.
Munchau fears that the EU will put constraints on, for example, an innovation fund he’d like to see set up. He may, or may not, be right. That indeed is the challenge for the EU. I don’t want to re-fight Brexit here. But I do want to see punctured some of the pie-in-the-sky hopes that some, including Munchau, have for a WTO (World Trade Organisation)-rules post-Brexit world.
Above all, his hope that UK industry unshackled from the EU and newly ‘energised’ will finally break out of the cycle of low productivity. This involves a multitude of presuppositions. If we do break out it certainly won’t be because we’ve waved a Brexit magic wand.
The assumption now is that with an economy in crisis we’re already halfway to a new radical dispensation. But this isn’t like World War Two. People will be expecting their old jobs back, and government won’t be wanting to have them as a drain on resources any longer than it can help it.
My gripe against Nick Timothy is another one, an old one. He’s a Brexit go-it-aloner. The enemy: ultra-liberals and international elites. (‘Citizens of nowhere’, the phrase with which he landed Theresa May, he now claims refers to that elite – not to Remainers. If that’s the case he didn’t tell Theresa.) Let the new Tory party identify with the working class, not assume that everyone’s aspiration is to rise out of it. It’s ordinary folk who should call the tune. I’ll go along with him on that. (With strong reservations about how opinion is manipulated.) Cameron conservatism assumed people would live with the elitism implicit in its attitudes. Brexit proved they won’t.
His book was written before the Covid crisis but let’s assume that he too sees big opportunities now post-crisis. They will bring a new statist, big-spending, austerity-a-dirty-words approach to the economy. Social conscience won’t be a dirty word. But social conservatism will be the dominant mood. A closed-world mentality at one level, Global Britain at another. How this will play out, who knows. The Conservative party has an old and dreadful habit of equating its own interest with that of the nation. But which interest? The market economy and the old Ayn Randian ideas, on the one hand, pitched against the big state of Joseph Chamberlain and his avatar, Nick Timothy, on the other.
Chamberlain was the great advocate of imperial preference. That idea is still there. A touch of the old divine right. But post-Brexit it will be a hot sweaty world in the engine room. We no longer rules the seas. And big ideas too easily run aground.
Big state will be important post-crisis. So too big ideas, big innovation. Building out from a world which may or may not be changed forever. But if we imagine we can do this alone, without Europe, we’re badly mistaken. Yes, we could become a fifty-first state. Some may prefer this. But going it alone should never be an option. We need that agreement with the EU by 31st December.
Munchau argues that ‘compared to the great lockdown, the effect of a WTO Brexit would be small’. True, but it assumes people at large will be prepared to accept that the economy doesn’t get back to its pre-virus levels. That they won’t mind us limping along for a while, in the vague hope of a new wider prosperity further down the line. It looks to me dangerously like using the virus as a cover for the economy under-performing.
We’re on dangerous ground here. But an economy and overseas trade operating on WTO rules looks to be what we will have unless a new wisdom prevails before the end of the year.
A great sadness will be that we miss the great opportunity of working with like-minded people across Europe to build a better post-Covid world. Anyone who imagines a sudden tiger-economy-style breakthrough is simply in cloud-cuckoo-land.