Building a National Consensus for Growth
Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce
In recent months, I have been struck by policymakers’ unanimity of purpose when it comes to economic growth. Parties of the left and right, across both Britain and the EU, are all seized of the need to boost both business investment and exports – though at times they disagree, of course, about how this can best be done. Growth fever is not confined just to the politicians, however; it has also set in with both civil servants and the wider economic elite.
I do not for one second doubt this pro-growth logic. Indeed, as a representative of British business, it is my job to actively encourage it, ensuring that companies of all sizes and types have stronger prospects to improve their bottom lines and expand wherever possible.
Yet there is a fly in the ointment, or if you prefer, a bitter taste in the growth elixir that the policy elites in Whitehall, Brussels and countless other national capitals are so eager to imbibe.
Put simply, the policy elite hasn’t got round to convincing the public that growth is a good thing. As I travel around the UK, the gap between the policymakers’ and businesses’ views, on the one hand, and the general public, on the other, is simply enormous.
Britons, overwhelmingly, are creatures of the status quo. The desire to protect what we have, no matter how modest, runs deeper than any desire to take risks, to innovate, or to dream – except amongst a small minority of entrepreneurial or intellectual spirits. And it’s this very attitude – combined with a very powerful and ingrained ‘culture of no’ – that represents the biggest single threat to our national growth prospects in the months and years ahead.
You can see it in some of the newspapers, where opposition to the novel or the risky runs deep in letters pages and comment pieces, from the most august and high-brow national daily to the most shrill red-top.
You see it in debates over hugely important growth projects, such as the simplification of the planning system or the construction of an ambitious new high-speed rail network. The immediate and hysterical reaction from both individuals and some pressure groups when a government says it wants to make the planning process easier and less costly for growing businesses, is to warn shrilly of the concreting over of the countryside and uncontrolled development. When it comes to high-speed rail, the vocal and influential minority of opponents doesn’t even want to hear the arguments in favour – such as the fact that capacity constraints on the existing network will mean ever-higher fares and worse overcrowding in the years to come as space is rationed. The general public, unfortunately, is being won over by these naysayers as well, casting all the pro-growth logic aside.
You even see scepticism about the need for growth on local councils in already-prosperous areas, and even, in private, amongst some MPs fearful of their constituents’ reactions were they to support a new housing development, a job-creating business park, or new public transport lines. The ‘culture of no’ is so pervasive that it could become a fundamental impediment to growth at the time when we need it most.
When in Spain recently, I happened across an essay written by the eminent economist and sociologist José Luis Sampedro on economic development in Great Britain. Though published in 1947, it could have been written yesterday, referring, as it does, to ‘ese tan opuesto ánimo de un pueblo’. Roughly translated, and in context, this refers to a strong, vital, “anti” feeling amongst the British people – something as much in evidence today as it was over sixty years ago.
So before we despair, can anything be done?
I am under no doubt that it is the role of the business community as a whole to make sure that the arguments in favour of growth are made strongly and loudly – not just to policy elites, but to the British and European public as a whole. We must go back to basics here to ramp up popular support: growth means jobs, higher wages, individual and family prosperity, and the opportunity to get on and move up in an increasingly competitive world. Unless European economies grow, there will come a time when the welfare state is rolled back, our infrastructure decays, and businesses stop investing.
Somehow, the popular imagination has been captured by those who think economic growth is not necessary – and by those who would portray economic growth solely as corporate profits, identikit housing estates, or something diametrically opposed to the interests of the public at large. Now is the time to explode that myth, and the BCC and Chambers of Commerce around the globe must and will be at the forefront of the charge.