There was more than just a tiny whiff of irrelevance in the face of economic changes that emitted last week from elements of our UK political class.
Recent claims from some on the UK’s political right that British workers are amongst the idlest will bemuse many people at work. The common comment has rather been that the UK has a “long-hours culture”, with people regularly working longer hours than almost anywhere else in Europe. The danger of course with this kind of debate is to deflect attention away from more pressing problems, for example insufficient stimulus to job creation and to demand in what is really a depression in the UK. There is a danger that the old political shibboleths of state intervention versus free enterprise will obscure what might really be done.
Idleness is not something that today’s bosses would recognise, but rather a very pressured workforce, prone to illness from stress and depression, having had real-term cuts to living standards, and being asked to work even longer hours to keep their jobs and to keep businesses afloat. It is not the most motivating message to hear from some of our politicians that workers are idle, particularly from a section of the community that has recently been through an expenses scandal, where there is widespread suspicion of elitist cronyism and who are currently in the middle of their two-month summer holidays.
What our hard-working staff across UK business and the public sector need is evidence that politicians, both on the left and the right, have a handle on the crisis and are driving forward a positive lead in moving things forward, rather than the current policy vacuum that exists. Hence it is interesting that business leaders have been calling on the political class to invest in infrastructure, particularly how antiquated much of it is, in order to help the UK be more competitive, or to build more houses for our expanding skilled population. Rather than an old-style, Thatcherite, laissez faire capitalism, these very capitalists want us to take more responsibility for our heritage, rather than abandon it to “market forces” as in the 1980’s.
What is missing is rather a coherent interpretation of economic changes that are affecting all of us, which are rooted in the rise of China and other “emerging” economies as against the “mature” economies” of the last 100 years, and the need to reform the structure of international trade and finance as illustrated by an massive imbalance between debtor and creditor nations, between surplus countries and deficit ones. “Austerity” is simply a re-run of the failed policies of the “balanced budget” Treasury orthodoxy of the 1930’s, which was discredited by the Great Depression and swept away by the Second World War, and by Bretton Woods and other wartime and post-war international agreements.
Thus one suspects the little band of ideological Thatcherites and “supply side” reformers have missed the point and that they, as are some on the other side, are trying to fight the political battles of the past and not noticed, or don’t want to notice, that the world has moved on, that we need action from our politicians that addresses needs across our society and in our ability to thrive in a modern advanced world that is reorganising itself, and not just for the benefit of the few.
Anyway, watch this argument carefully. A whole new political dispensation will arise out of these sterile aruments of the past, and there’s a whole lot of people saying that now is time for real change.