The days of the big state are back. Plans announced by Rishi Sunak last week mean public spending as a share of the economy is on course to reach levels not seen since the Thatcherite revolution was about to begin in the late 1970s. The Iron Lady’s disciples are having kittens at the prospect.
It’s worth saying that the economy has changed substantially over the past four decades, with manufacturing accounting for a much smaller share of national output and the service sector growing in importance. Since the 1980s, the UK has run a large and persistent trade deficit in goods, only partly offset by a surplus in services.
Manufacturing’s relative decline has meant the economy has produced fewer greenhouse gases but this doesn’t give the whole picture, because Britain has outsourced its carbon emissions to other parts of the world. Factories and coalmines have closed in the UK but have opened in China.
The bigger British cities have been able to reinvent themselves as centres for the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, but towns on the edges of conurbations have not been so fortunate. There has been a shift in the nation’s economic geography that has allowed some places to prosper while leaving others a long way behind.
The notion of levelling up is not new. Governments have been aware of regional imbalances for decades and have tried a variety of methods to regenerate communities where the staple industry – be it coal, shipbuilding, cotton or steel – has been in decline. In the first decade of the 21st century, Labour governments recycled tax revenues from a booming City into regional aid, but when the financial crash arrived the money taps were turned off by David Cameron and George Osborne.
That has left the current generation of Conservatives with a problem. Deep unhappiness in parts of Britain that felt forgotten contributed to the vote for Brexit and to the loss of Labour’s “red wall”, but now those who backed Boris Johnson – first in the 2016 referendum and again in the 2019 general election – expect the government to deliver.
Doing so requires Johnson and his ministers to repudiate much of what happened in the 2010s. Last week’s budget, which announced real-terms increases in funding for every Whitehall department, was an example of that.
Sunak said extra money for education would allow per pupil spending to return to 2010 levels by 2024, coming close to saying Osborne’s cuts were not a great idea. Likewise, the spending on early years provision tacitly admitted that getting rid of Labour’s Sure Start programme was a mistake.
But as Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, pointed out, the increase in education spending between now and 2024 will be 2% a year on average, against 4% a year for health. Over the 15 years from 2010 to 2024 the comparison is even more stark: education spending up by 3% when adjusted for inflation, and health spending up by more than 40%.
“For the chancellor to have felt it appropriate to draw attention to the fact that per pupil spending in schools will have returned to 2010 levels by 2024 is perhaps a statement of a remarkable lack of priority afforded to the education system since 2010,” Johnson said. “A decade and a half with no growth in spending despite, albeit insipid, economic growth is unprecedented. Spending per student in further education and sixth-form colleges will remain well below 2010 levels. This is not a set of priorities which looks consistent with a long-term growth strategy. Or indeed levelling up.”
In truth, the Conservatives under Boris Johnson have become something of a hybrid: a big-state party in favour of active industrial strategy with a low-tax, market-driven party tacked on. It is a messy compromise, and one that makes life a lot easier for those less conflicted about their support for a more interventionist economic approach.
A pamphlet due to be published this week by the campaign group Rebuild Britain, calling for measures to build up the manufacturing sector, illustrates the point. Unsurprisingly for a body that emerged from the Trade Unionists Against the EU group, it sees Brexit as an opportunity rather than a threat, but its argument that a more successful economy requires a stronger industrial base would be supported not just by leavers but many remainers as well.
Policy recommendations include a more competitive pound, a buy-British procurement strategy, higher investment in skills and technical training, an increase in state aid with a strong regional bias, and an expansion of public ownership starting with steel.
It would be easier for ministers to dismiss all this as a return to the “bad old days of the 70s” if much of the Rebuild Britain agenda were not already part of the current policy mix. The fall in the value of sterling since 2016 has made UK exports cheaper; the chancellor has admitted the UK lags behind other countries when it comes to skills; the prime minister announced in the summer new state-aid laws to replace EU rules on taxpayer-funded bailouts and business support; and the railways are back under state control.
Sunak is clearly uneasy with all this and wants a different direction of travel. But the tax cuts in the budget were modest in comparison to the spending increases and the tax rises announced earlier this year. The impact of the chancellor’s pet project – freeports – will be minuscule in comparison to an enhanced role for the state prompted by demography, climate change, the pandemic and past policy failures.
Rebuild Britain is not the first pressure group to sense the way the wind is blowing. It is unlikely to be the last.