Theresa May’s New Year Message: the Blind Leading the Blind

In these uncertain times, as we move closer to the yawning abyss that is Brexit, one can only wait with bated breath for a good dose of platitudinous bromide from the politicians who are about to push us off it to lift the spirits.   Maybe idiot-at-large Boris Johnson’s Christmas invitation to get behind ‘global Britain’ didn’t do it for you.  Luckily there is Theresa May, her harsh visage only marginally softened by a glittering Christmas tree, had the following reassuring message to our troubled nation:

‘We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today.  We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. These ambitions unite us, so that we are no longer the 52% who voted leave and the 48% who voted remain, but one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind – the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country.’

I feel better already.  Or I would, had these hollow and profoundly vacuous promises not come from a prime minister whose own civil servants have accused her of lacking in the moral courage to admit to the complexity of the task that lies ahead of her.

And Cruella’s cowardice and political dishonesty aren’t the only reasons why this listener does not feel like singing Kumbaya along with her.  There’s also the question of vision.  So far there is no evidence whatsoever that May’s government of the clueless, the shameless, the duplicitous and the useless have any idea how to extract ‘the right deal’ from the horrendous political and logistical spaghetti junction that the nation is now stepping into.

As for the future that she expects us to unite behind, it’s worth comparing it with the Institute for Public Policy Research’s excellent report:  Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s.  

Among other things the report predicts that:

  • Technological, economic and demographic change will supercharge inequalities, with middle and low income households struggling through a low-growth living standards decade, even as the rich pull away
  • A combination of low growth, political choices and demographic change will shrink the state and put the UK on course for a structural deficit by 2030.
  • The 65+ population will surge from 11.6 million today to 15.4 million by 2030. By contrast, the working age population (16-64) will increase by only 3%. There will be a surge in the ‘oldest old’, with the over 85s population nearly doubling by 2030
  • By 2030 the economy is forecast to be up to £55 billion smaller than it would have been without Brexit. In a ‘pessimistic’ scenario, where trade costs increase significantly, households are expected to be £1,700 worse off per year by 2030.
  • Without significant reform, longstanding weaknesses in the UK’s economic model will remain: poor productivity performance, weak real wage growth compounded by surging Brexit-related consumer inflation, sluggish public and private investment rates, yawning trade decits, heavily indebted households, regional disparities, extensive financialisation and rent-seeking. In the process, morbid symptoms will multiply: negative yields, interest rates near the lower bound, underinvestment and stagnant living standards.
  • Government spending as a share of GDP is projected to fall to its lowest postwar level (around 36%) by 2019/20. This trajectory will continue into the first half of the 2020s unless fiscal policy changes significantly post-Brexit. At the same time, spending will be more focused on pensions and health.  Even with lower expenditure, the public finances will be acutely vulnerable to shock. Brexit is expected to significantly worsen the state of the public finances.
  • Demographic change will drive increasing demand at the same time as public expenditure tightens. The NHS and social care will face an acute funding challenge. The education system will grapple with equipping people for the digital age. Childcare is likely to remain patchy and inadequate.
  • The UK economic model is unlikely to deliver broadly shared prosperity. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in western Europe are in the UK, but we also have the richest region.

How will the UK’s aging population fund the NHS or social care, without younger migrant workers coming to the country to pay taxes?   How can May’s government protect the population against the consequences of further shocks in the global economy?  What will it do to prevent or mitigate the ‘morbid symptoms’ identified in the report?  How will it prevent the rich from ‘pulling away’?  What will it do to address the fact that median incomes in the UK have stagnated or declined for more than a decade?  How will  this government and its successors respond to the technological revolution that will result in more and more jobs being done by machines?

There is not the slightest indication that May and her ministers are even asking these questions.  But I urge anyone interested in the future of the country – and the future in general – to read this report and consider them.   As in all futurist documents, the IPPR’s conclusions are only predictions, but the picture they paint is of a backward, reactionary country in dire need of democratic renewal, economic modernisation and social justice to cope with the new challenges posed by technological transformation and ecological crisis.

Nor is it simply a litany of worst possible futures.   The report asks its readers to become ‘architects of the future’ and calls for ‘ a new “common sense” that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few.’

To achieve this, the report argues, ‘ will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.’

Now if Theresa May had delivered a ringing message like that, I might have sat up and taken notice.  Of course she didn’t,  and she never will, because politicians like her can’t even think in these terms.

But we can, and if we are going to avoid some of the worst-case futures outlined in this report and built a better one, we really ought to start looking for politicians who are prepared to consider them.