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Manufacturing Lies

Factories of elite opinion like the Economist will fail if they produce shoddy goods

Columns

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]opulism is supposed to have been responsible for much fake news and bigotry since the twin shocks of 2016: the British vote on its European Union membership and Trump’s win in the American presidential election. Protests against Brexiteers’ allegedly systematic mendacity have come, for example, from the Economist, a magazine which has long projected a tone of authority as well of some smugness about its liberal internationalism. The Economist has also been notably loud in its warnings of the economic retardation and immiseration that, in its view, must follow Brexit. 

This will be a testing year for it, as well as other Remainer organs such as the Financial Times, leading think-tanks such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and our premier department of state, Her Majesty’s Treasury. They all peddled Project Fear. If this year the UK does not suffer an egregious recession that sets it apart from a growing world economy, they will have been wrong. Moreover, they will have been wrong in a way that is perhaps even worse than purveying fake news. Their claim to expertise, to special insight into the planet’s economic and political future, will be shown up as rackety and bogus. 

Given the context, one might expect senior editors at the Economist to check and re-check the factual accuracy of every statement. But in its pre-Christmas edition it carried a leader on “Boris Johnson’s northern strategy” which said that the left-behind parts of the North are “its towns” since many of them “have still not recovered from the deindustrialisation under the Conservative governments of the 1980s”. The notion that Britain suffered deindustrialisation under Mrs Thatcher may be so widespread and persistent in left-liberal circles that it has become a commonplace of their media output. However, it is untrue. 

Britain has undoubtedly in recent decades seen a sharp fall in the proportion of national output derived from manufacturing. But manufacturing production did not fall under either the Thatcher government of the 1980s or the Major government of the 1990s. The period of particularly intense deindustrialisation was the New Labour government of 1997 to 2010. It was Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who presided over the large-scale shift in regional prosperity, from north to south, that is now deemed to be a major policy problem.

The early years of the Thatcher administration were marked by a deep recession, and an accompanying fall in manufacturing output from peak to trough of more than 17 per cent. But from 1981 to 1989 manufacturing grew steadily, and in the final year of Thatcher’s premiership (1990) its output was 10.4 per cent up on her first (1979). Moreover, the big setback in output in 1980 coincided with a leap in output per person employed, so that the resulting record gain in productivity helped the competitiveness of British companies in the years that followed. In the 1990s British manufacturing was no longer regarded as a laggard in the international league tables. In the 17 years of Conservative government to 1997 manufacturing output rose by 16 per cent or, roughly speaking, by 1 per cent a year. In that sense there was no deindustrialisation. 

The Blair premiership ran from May 1997 to June 2007, a decade celebrated by the left of centre as “nice years” of non-inflationary, consistently expansionary growth. The pound’s exchange rate had climbed sharply in the year before New Labour came to power. Partly because of the high exchange rate, low-technology British manufacturing (in the Midlands and the North) struggled in world markets, while the dynamic London-based service industries (in London, and particularly in the Square Mile and its environs) surged forward. Manufacturing output did rise under Blair, but by a mere 3½ per cent or at an annual rate of little more than ¼ per cent.

Gordon Brown’s three years as prime minister were then calamitous. Despite the pound’s collapse in value in his first 18 months, and despite Brown’s boasts as chancellor of the exchequer to have conquered boom and bust, manufacturing output dropped in the worst phase of the Great Recession by 12 per cent. An upturn was recorded in the final quarters of Brown’s administration, but it was not enough to take production to where it had been in 1997. In the 13 years of New Labour manufacturing output fell overall by 7 per cent or, roughly speaking, by ½ per cent a year. 

In other words, British deindustrialisation was a New Labour phenomenon. To attribute it to Thatcherite conservatism may agree with a well-known cliché, but the cliché is lazy and untrustworthy. The remark about deindustrialisation in the Economist’s leader — a leader that had the presumption to advise Boris Johnson on how to deal with the North of England — was incorrect. Does it matter? Yes, it does. 

The UK’s left-liberal media establishment — just as much as populism (whatever that is) — indulges in fake news and bigotry. For all their faults, publications such as the Economist remain important, as both factories of elite opinion and emblems of Britain’s remaining “soft power”. Like the more obvious factories that once dotted the North of England, they will lose market share, decline and fail if they produce shoddy, unreliable goods.

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