Politics struggles with long-term decisions. As leaders, ministers and their opposites look to the next election, or the next reshuffle, the long term seems a lifetime away.
This dreadful coronavirus crisis, with life and death decisions, widespread shutdowns, and a growing death toll, puts the here and now into sharp focus. Few politicians can predict beyond next week, let alone next year.
Just as in the 1930s when economic gloom and ominous signs of war were approaching, our country needed ideas from those who could see over the hill, beyond the crisis, to map a route out of despair. Crucial to restoring the UK economy to health is to rejuvenate manufacturing – too much of which has been sacrificed on the altar of an over-valued pound.
Today’s contribution by John Mills may offer the seeds that, if sown, will guide tomorrow’s journey; a path to the UK becoming more productive, more prosperous and a fairer country, as well as overcoming our over-reliance on the South East, while most other regions slowly decline. It is sad that the North, which a century ago enjoyed higher living standards than the South, has declined so much.
The John Mills Institute for Prosperity maps a few crucial steps that can underpin our recovery; that can make UK PLC a more substantial producer of goods to sell abroad; steps that offer not just a hand-out to our struggling regions, but a hand-up and a path to greater self-sufficiency.
This pamphlet does not shy away from the inevitable pressures the UK faces. As John Mills lays out, there is no way of avoiding the new challenges of climate change adaptation; healthcare spending; social care with an ageing population and the need to invest more in tertiary education and training. These pressures alone may cost an additional 8% of UK GDP every year for the foreseeable future.
Underpinning this analysis is a compassion for those who do not have the sustainable, secure work that the post-war generation took for granted. An analysis that does not shy away from the need to upskill, so every person contributes more, in return for fairer rewards and an end to excess at the top.
John Mills suggests Covid-19, the inevitable economic recession and, very possibly, a long slow recovery, will lead to government financial intervention on an unprecedented scale. He doesn’t need to say it – but the rule book, economic orthodoxy, has been thrown out of the window. The UK needs a few, big, and radical decisions to address the failings of UK productivity, sluggish growth for generations, and the collapse of many UK manufacturing sectors.
As a champion of devolution, I welcome the observation that tackling regional inequality actually requires what I have termed a ‘muscular economic nationalism’ to enable businesses to thrive.
His proposal for a devaluation of the pound; for a step change in investment in training; and for a quantum leap in investment in our productive capacity – with lending to industry underwritten by government – is convincingly argued. These are the steps that could grow our manufacturing base by 50% and end the long slow decline of UK PLC and gradual sale of many of our economic assets to the highest (foreign) bidder.
In this pamphlet, the John Mills Institute puts hard economics behind a belief in the capacity of the UK to rebuild itself. As UK aerospace manufacturers are shedding jobs and the blast furnaces of South Wales risk being extinguished, John Mills’ vision of saving and rebuilding our industrial base, is one that is timely and urgent.
We must do what is necessary to survive this dreadful pandemic. But, what kind of Britain we rebuild, and the new economic settlement, will not shape itself. It requires leadership to forge.
The challenge is laid out in every page. I hope it is heard and acted upon.
Rt Hon Caroline Flint
Member of Parliament for Don Valley 1997-2019