Before discussing future economic policies, it is important to recall when we last had a successful economy, and to understand how we arrived at our present chaotic mess. Data to support most of the points made can be found in Stagnation Nation, the excellent interim report published July 2022 by the Resolution Foundation.
The Labour Government that took power in 1997 is the only post war UK Government to achieve faster economic growth than the average of the developed economies. It achieved this while also sharing the benefits, with major reductions in poverty (especially child poverty) and big improvements in public services including access to education and the performance of the NHS.
The progress was interrupted by the financial crisis of 2007-8, but it was the years of unnecessary austerity that followed that did the most damage.
George Osborne argued that the deep cuts aimed at reducing the debt to GDP ratio were ‘repairing the roof while the sun shines.’ It turned out that nothing much was repaired during those years. Austerity in practice meant that problems were simply deferred, resulting in a mountain of costs for a future government:- neglected maintenance of schools and hospitals, failure to train enough doctors and nurses, local authorities starved of cash resulting in fewer and poorer quality services, collapse in the value of benefits resulting in increased poverty, and a mounting pressure for public sector wage increases after a decade of relative decline. The main effect of the policy was to slow economic growth- with the tragically ironic consequence that the pain and suffering that was inflicted did not even succeed in reducing the debt burden. Net public debt to GDP actually increased under the coalition government.
A key point is that the subsequent economic shocks of BREXIT, the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, and the calamitous policies of Liz Truss hit an already enfeebled economy suffering stagnant growth and rising poverty, with public services under visible distress.
In the current economic crisis, a partial reversal of the most damaging aspects of the extreme version of BREXIT is one of the few areas of economic policy where the UK can take back control ( I think I might have heard that phrase before somewhere).
We have little control over the war or it’s economic consequences. The period of economic lunacy under Truss was brief but resulted in an expensive loss of control over our economic policies. The measures that had to be brought in to try to restore market confidence are significantly harsher and more expensive than they need have been, reflected in higher borrowing costs than other major economies and a weak exchange rate. Replacing irresponsible tax cuts with Austerity 2 may calm the markets, but will do nothing to increase economic growth and will further exacerbate the already critical state of our public sector.
It is bizarre that both major political parties ignore the one economic strategy that offers the fairly certain prospect of boosting economic growth and improving the public finances, at minimal cost ( or possibly negative cost if we are able to save on the army of public employees doing jobs only necessary because of our divorce from the EU). I refer of course to improving our trading relationship with the EU. The strongest single conclusion from the literature on economic growth is that more open trade policies boost the growth rate.
It is beyond dispute that leaving the EU has made trade in both goods and services more expensive and more difficult, resulting in a precipitous 9% decline in trade openness from 2019 to 2021, far steeper than the 2% decline in France (Resolution Foundation, op cit). Cutting ourselves off from the EU has made trade more difficult in all markets, not just the EU, because we are no longer covered by the many EU trade deals with third countries.
The second strongest conclusion from the growth literature concerns the importance of investment in human capital through education, training and research. Here also we have severely damaged our prospects by cutting ourselves off from collaboration in research through the EU Horizon programme and making ourselves a more difficult and less attractive place to live, research, work and invest.
It might not be politically realistic to argue for re-joining the EU and overturning the referendum result. However, the case for far closer trading arrangements is overwhelming, and how far we can and should go deserves to be at the centre of our political discourse.