Students of late-20th century political history, or anyone seeking a flavour of the prevailing politico-business philosophy of the 1960s and 1970s, could do a lot worse than examine Lord Heseltine’s report “No Stone Unturned In Pursuit Of Growth” which was released on Tuesday as a putative blueprint for stimulating economic growth. For, in its 89 recommendations for the future, is presented in microcosm a picture of the government-by-intervention corporatist state of those decades, for which its practitioners could, despite its manifest flaws, conceive no alternative.
Heseltine is an unabashed apologist and enthusiast for Big Government: his vision for stimulating economic growth is one of national industrial policy, largely governmental top-down oversight, regional quango-consensus investment, and local council-level enterprise partnerships and spending grants. Adam Smith’s invisible hand, it seems, must be subsumed within multiple layers of statist-corporatist glove.
Yet there are things to applaud. Heseltine is spot on in stressing that there needs to be more devolution of decision-making and spending control to regional and local levels. He is right to suggest that the UK has allowed a fixation with London and South-East centric growth to develop, and that we don’t recognise enough the differences between disparate locations and regions that give them their individual strengths and potentials. He correctly pinpoints the stultifying bureaucracy around the links between business, work experience and schools, which helps to keep the world of education remote from appreciating what it needs to equip students for the world of work as it is, and not how educationists assume it to be. And he hits the nail squarely on the head in identifying infrastructure, particularly the lack of adequate airport capacity, in facilitating economic growth.
But in then recommending, for instance, greater Cabinet focus on “national priorities”, he impliedly eschews solutions based on economic liberalisation and deregulation: like regional pay to mitigate any crowding-out effect on local job opportunity uptake of nationally-set pay rates, especially in the public sector: like encouraging more free schools and academies, with the freedom to adjust their curricula to make them attractive to students who will be seeking employment in the area: and like, above all, unblocking the planning process in which so many developments can get bogged down.
He wants to see what he terms “growth funds” allocated through new Local Enterprise Partnerships. Shades of the much-unloved and defunct Regional Development Agencies, one might say. But given that the funds will come from people and businesses via the tax system in the first place – after all, the Government has no money of its own, and relies principally on what it can extract from the populace by taxing it – it seems difficult to see why government and the local quangocracy would be better judges of investment potential than savers, investors and businesses themselves. Not much of Gladstone’s enjoinder to let money “fructify in the pockets of the people” there. The ideas for, in effect, requiring firms to join local quasi-licensing chambers of commerce, or instructing pension funds how to allocate their investment monies, seem to belong to a prior era of semi-covert control and redistribution: a suspicion lent credence by Heseltine’s relatively uncritical acceptance of high-tax and high-spend fiscal policy.
The suggestions that the fact that, of the 100 top investment funds in the City, only 25% have a UK CEO, is a failing to be addressed, together with his proposed public interest test for foreign inward investment, are worrying. An economy aiming for growth surely needs to attract the most able, regardless of nationality, and the likelihood of inward investment being subject to uncertain and capricious assessment and approval criteria – who decides? and on what basis? – looks more likely to deter foreign investment than invite it. And apart from the economic factors, don’t such restrictions infringe two of the four freedoms on which is predicated the EU’s single market? Given Heseltine’s long-held fanaticism for the euro and the EU, to propose measures infringing one of the latter’s few manifestations of economic liberalism seems strangely inconsistent and odd, to say the least.
Heseltine’s preferred activist Government/Business Partnership model does not have a stellar history of achievement: it’s the model which gave the UK the waste of taxpayer money of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the disaster that was British Leyland, and vanity projects like Concorde, where the ephemeral supposed advantage of national prestige was allowed to trump hard-headed economic considerations. The journalist and writer Janan Ganesh recently stated that Heseltine’s was very much a Gaullist vision. This resonates: Heseltine’s vision is more akin to France’s state-dirigisme of les grands prôjets: yet it’s in France where the state’s share of GDP has reached an unsustainably high 56%, unemployment is at levels not seen for nearly two decades, and competitiveness is falling.
To stimulate growth for the future, Britain needs, not a replay of the national industrial policy and state-interventionism of the past, but a supply-side revolution. Remember, 90% of the UK’s businesses comprise firms with fewer than 20 employees, and account for most net new job creation. We need a smaller state, lower, simpler and flatter taxes, less-onerous workplace regulation, a freer and more responsive education system, and a reform of planning law.