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Artillery Row

Should we love the British economy we have?

As another UK steel mill closes, Stephen Bush’s plea for a white collar love-in felt ill-timed

Stephen Bush recently bemoaned, in the august pages of the Financial Times, the tendency of the British ruling class to denigrate some of Britain’s most successful industries. According to Bush:

The UK’s lack of pride or interest in its video games industry is part and parcel of a tendency that Sunak often complains about: that the country is not just bad at maths, but proud of it. But it also reflects a problem that his own party is part of: a political class that for one reason or another seems to dislike almost everything the country does well.

Video games are too nerdy. Bankers take too many risks. Universities let in too many immigrants. Lawyers are too litigious. Musicians and actors are too liberal. In any case, far too many of these organisations are full of Remainers who will privately complain that Brexit has made their lives harder. What really connects these sectors is that they are all areas where the UK excels and can and should continue to do so if the country makes the right choices.

It’s a superficially appealing argument — until you spend 30 seconds reflecting on it. Our government doesn’t like lawyers and bankers? This would be news to a parliament that saw record increases in lawyers and bankers entering the chamber in 2010, in no small part thanks to David Cameron’s professionalising push. Indeed, the Tory selection machine, largely untouched by subsequent leaders, has seen one of the least hardline, most apolitically careerist generations of Conservative MPs that Britain has ever seen. This is very much not a group of people who are seeking to undermine white collar jobs, universities, or the arts — this is where most of them come from, and whence most of them will one day return.

Even more strangely, Bush suggests that this same sharp-elbowed herd of ex-lawyers, doctors, bankers and businessmen are misty eyed sentimentalists longing for the days of coal pits and smokestacks:

The coming election will be one in which both parties talk up the importance of growth but often accompanied by heavy caveats. It needs to be growth from the right people, from industries that aren’t too uncool, or too liberal, or too Remain-y, or too concentrated in the wrong places. But what the UK really needs is growth, full stop. Part of how it might get there is a political class which learns to like the things the country does well, rather than the things it feels it “ought” to do well, or wishing that the things it did well were older, more macho or involved more heavy machinery.

In a spectacular bit of comic timing, Bush’s plea was barely uttered before news broke that Port Talbot steel mill would be shutting down its blast furnaces. Britain’s political classes did not noticeably rush to prevent the loss of our modern, efficient and clean steel industry, and this at a time when most global steel is produced by one of NATO’s chief geopolitical rivals. This too was part of that economy we “actually have” and something that we did well. The 2,500 skilled jobs that will be lost are not in the gift of the government, who despite belatedly investing £500 million in steel, have no control over factories owned by the Chinese and Indians, who have taken our money and then gone ahead and cut jobs anyway.  

The issue is that there is no such thing as “growth, full stop”. If growth is only happening in a small part of the country, then other parts of the country become ever greater drains on the growth and resources of the prosperous parts. If everyone piles into a small part of the country for work, housing and services become unaffordably expensive. GDP growth is nice, but if per capita growth lags far behind it or stagnates, the country is actually getting poorer in real terms, even as the economy grows in size.

Bush has made a mistake common to centre left commentators — confusing elements of the right wing commentariat with the government. Occasional forays into rhetoric around migration, lefty lawyers or woke universities do not add up to a hostile policy agenda, and are arguably a smokescreen for a government utterly dedicated to propping up institutions like British universities, even when this flies in the face of public opinion. In fact, despite evidence that overseas students are increasingly concentrated in short, low fee-paying courses that they frequently drop out of, the government is still committed to a target of 600,000 overseas students a year — which if achieved would make the UK the single largest importer of overseas students in the world, and push already unprecedented migration rates to over 1 million a year. Far from attracting the cream of international talent to study here, the Financial Times’ own reporting suggests that standards are already being lowered by major British universities desperately trying to survive after reckless and unsustainable expansion. 

In fact, every sign is that many of the “industries” that Bush identifies as unloved are recipients of considerable state largesse and government attention. Meanwhile it is “macho” heavy industries that are persistently punched in the guts, from ever falling steel production to a construction industry perpetually stymied by planning restrictions and state underinvestment in infrastructure. Only last year, the government dropped mandatory housing targets, pivoting back to a failed policy of subsidising housing demand whilst restricting housing supply.  

Perhaps Bush, with his talk of Brexit and industry, is thinking of Britain’s dissident political forces rather than our invincibly white collar government? Certainly elements of UKIP and Reform UK fit the bill on the right, as do a number of Lexiteers, Blue Labourites and the SDP. They’re the ones (rightly) beating the drum over the security of our supply chains, lack of domestic manufacturing capacity and insufficient technical and vocational training. Concentrated in underdeveloped areas that are unlikely to attract or benefit from jobs in law, finance, or tech, their voting base has much to gain from a pivot to manufacturing and state investment. Meanwhile, a crucial part of the Tory voting base — older, wealthier, rural/suburban, and employed in some of the professions Stephen lists — is pulling the party in the opposite direction, being hostile to new housing, increased taxation, or — god forbid — any hint that they might have to pay more for their care in old age. 

The rhetoric he complains of is evidently aimed at the former voting group, but actual policy is determined by the latter group (who also, uncoincidentally, constitute a greater share of the membership). Culture war fights over small boats or woke students at least superficially unite these groups, but their interests are more or less opposed.

Only Keir Starmer can plausibly deliver real economic populism, as he could theoretically bring together younger, urban voters desperate for better housing and higher growth, with older voters in economically marginalised areas hostile to globalisation and the loss of industry. Not only is this a coherent political coalition, it could add up to actual policy realism. In the real world a pure “global Britain”, service economy focused approach (which is what we’ve been pursuing for over 20 years) cannot deliver energy security, or reverse widening inequality. In practice, this approach has meant high paying jobs only for a very few, and an unproductive, insecure Deliveroo economy for the masses. 

There’s no going back — nor should we wish to go back — to the Britain of coal mines and factory towns but producing more steel and cement, constructing nuclear power plants and building new council housing are all realistic and achievable aims for an incoming Labour government. It’s not enough to promote the dysfunctional economy we have, we must pursue the economy we could have — one that secures us against hostile rivals, and generates prosperity for all.

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