Sunday, 31 July 2011

As the economy stumbles its time for some REAL blue skies thinking from Downing Street

The sun is shining, the politicians have skipped town for the summer recess and the silly season is upon us, which must be why the latest wheeze from Steve Hilton, the Prime Ministers ‘blue skies’ advisor has received so much media coverage.

Steve Hilton is what you might call the ‘holy fool’ of the Cameron government, a trendy type given to wearing t-shirts to the office and, allegedly, going barefoot through the corridors of power. Anyway his big plan for kick starting our moribund economy is, drum roll if you please; scrapping maternity leave.

The thinking, such as it is, behind the plan is that businesses are put off hiring female workers because they might one day want to have time off the have a family. I’m sure this is true too; well it is if the businesses in question are trading in a 1970’s time warp. Its all very well your wanting to be CEO of ICI, but how are you going to have your hubby’s tea on the table when he gets home if you get the job, really my dear you haven’t thought this through at all.

Not thinking things through, it seems, is an experience with which Steve Hilton is all too familiar himself. As a government insider told the Financial Times this week ‘some of his ideas are great but a lot of time is spent at an official level trying to deconstruct his maddest ideas.’

Mr Hilton mad, surely not? Wanting the government to invest in technology to blow away the clouds and make the UK a sunnier and happier place is sanity incarnate. The road to madness surely lies in supporting the barmy ‘Big Society’ project, oh hang on a minute, turns out Steve Hilton does support it and really has got the t-shirt to prove it; maybe he is barking mad after all.

There is no doubt that the UK economy needs something to lift it out of the doldrums. This week the Office for National Statistics published figures showing that growth had slumped to just 0.2%, even taking into account the effects of the Japanese earthquake, the Royal Wedding and a wet summer things look pretty bad.

At least they do to everyone but the two men who matter most, David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne. The Prime Minister is reportedly worried by the poor performance of the economy; the Chancellor though seems able to see sunshine and flowers where the rest of us see only trouble and strife.

On Tuesday he told the press that ‘the positive news is that the British economy is continuing to grow.’ Well up to a point Chancellor, in roughly the same way that someone who has only gone down twice can claim to be still swimming rather than drowning.

The opposition has poured criticism over the government’s raising of VAT to 20% and the breakneck speed with which it is cutting public spending.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said that the Chancellor’s ‘rash decision to hike up VAT in January and to cut further and faster than any other major nation has caused confidence to fall and the economy to flatline since the autumn.’

Brendan Barber of the Trades Union Council said ‘A target of eliminating the deficit in just four years always looked as if it came from what others might call ‘right wing nutters’ than sensible economics.’ Making along the way a thinly veiled reference to Business Secretary Vince Cable’s accurate, if not exactly diplomatic, assessment of the Tea Party and their contribution to the debate over America’s own debt problems.

He went on to add that the UK economy needs a ‘Plan B based on growth and investment’ if we are to avoid another catastrophic recession.

None of this criticism seems to have reached the ivory tower inhabited by the Chancellor who believes despite all evidence to the contrary that ‘our economy is stable because the government has taken the difficult decision to get to grips with Britain’s debts.’

Could it be that Steve Hilton isn’t the most deluded man in Downing Street after all? The austerity sold to the British public as the only option to avoid the fate of Greece and Ireland turns out to be holding back the growth without which we cannot hope to clear our debts. Who’d have thought it eh? Not the Oxford educated man in charge of the country’s economy it seems.

The problems faced by the UK economy are real and require a radical solution; some real blue skies thinking if you like. They require us to address the long avoided question of which matters most, economic growth or the health of our society?

If it’s the former, fine cut away; but don’t call out for help if you fall ill, lose your job or become a victim of crime because there will be nobody there to help. If it’s the latter then we will all have to accept, in the short term at least, having fewer gadgets but a much stronger society.

John Maynard Keynes famously said that when the facts changed he changed his mind. The facts of the economic picture have changed, if inflexible ideology beats common sense and the ability to strike a compromise next week causing the world’s largest economy to sneeze the rest of us might just catch pneumonia.

A Downing Street advisor with the ability to think clearly, about blue skies or anything else, would be advising David Cameron to show some real leadership and order his Chancellor to follow Keynes’s example and change his mind about how to deal with the economy before it is too late.

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