Ryan Bourne: Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda needs more scrutiny. But the centre-right has become intellectually lazy.

22 Jul

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Two recent news events encapsulate the crisis of economics in UK conservatism.

First was the Government’s appointment of Richard Hughes, an associate of the left-leaning Resolution Foundation, to replace Robert Chote as Chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Second was Boris Johnson’s Telegraph interview to celebrate one year as Prime Minister.

In it, he talked up his Government’s “transformative agenda.” The paper’s write-up of announcements led on policy changes to legal aid rules for those who have had their UK citizenship revoked.

I have little reason to doubt Hughes’ competence for the OBR role, or the wisdom of the legal aid changes. But it’s telling both that no economist from conservative institutions was (or arguably could be) considered for the OBR position and that there was no economic message thought important enough to eclipse legal aid changes in this soft ball interview.

Johnson’s government is packed with the best rebel campaigning team for a generation. But, in economic terms, beyond mantras about confidence and “leveling up” the country, they feel like rebels without a thought-through cause.

This, though, is a symptom of a deeper conservative malaise – an absence of an animating economic agenda arising from a failure to diagnose what, precisely, is economically wrong with Britain.

The centre-right suffers in power from a longer-term intellectual laziness only masked temporarily by the perceived necessity of deficit reduction. With little apparent interest in economic reasoning, top-bill economists themselves spurn the conservative movement, its politicians don’t remain focused on the battles needed for economic success, and, ultimately, this majority Conservative government risks wasting an opportunity for meaningful change.

At the top of politics this lack of diagnosis manifests itself in lazy clichés. Johnson says, for example, it would be “a mistake” to “go back to austerity.”

But what, precisely, does he think was wrong with the 2010-2018 deficit reduction agenda? Did spending cuts worsen services below acceptable standards?

Does he think the package was a macroeconomic mistake, and that restraining public sector salaries and welfare was responsible for the paltry annual 0.3 per cent productivity growth rate of the 2010s?

Was the composition of cuts wrong? Who knows… The Tories don’t have a clear economic story.

We are likewise now told the pandemic shows the importance of “leveling up” the country. But, well: why? Our economic fortunes are undoubtedly distributed unequally geographically. Yet has anyone ever heard Johnson outline clearly why this is such a problem?

Or why more infrastructure investment, NHS spending, and a Government-led research agency will transform fortunes where New Labour’s regeneration efforts failed? Or why, if transformation is needed, the Government is so keen to incentivise a consumer-led revival of the March 2020 economy today?

To be clear, I don’t expect Johnson himself to have all the answers. He is dealing with a pandemic. Being in office is the worst possible time to start developing an economic critique of the country.

My point is that the lack of an economic story is an upstream problem of too little diagnosis work on the right generally. The current institutions in the conservative firmament are failing to provide any big-picture evidence-based narrative, while too few conservatives work with or in non-conservative institutions that are respected, as Sam Bowman and Stian Westlake lamented last year.

Back in the mid-1970s, Sir John Hoskyns and others undertook detailed analyses of the UK’s economic problems, drawing on the insights of Hayek, Friedman, and others, while trying to nail down their common causes.

Their work settled on Keynesian mismanagement and the trade unions as the primary problems – the battles that must be won. Hoskyns’ analysis only became the “Stepping Stones” report – a political communications manifesto to help achieve the economic change – after the hard yards were done.

Who today is doing a Hoskyns-style analysis for Johnson? There are some reasonable ideas floating around in the think tanks.

But far from providing clear diagnoses of problems that can undergird policy change and concentrate minds, that pipeline has broken down across the UK conservative coalition. To the extent relationships exist, it’s often wonks flying kites for politicians’ ill-thought-through ideas, rather than feeding them in.

A few weeks ago, I lamented this phenomenon on Twitter, dubbing it (rather crudely) the “dumbification” of the UK centre-right. What I meant by that was the lack of willingness to engage on an intellectual level in diagnosing, formulating, and making the case for meaningful policy change.

The symptoms of that lethargy are all around us. There are the obvious, lazy appeals to opinion polling as the basis for policy, downplaying the importance of the efficacy of ideas for things that seem popular, or appear to be in the short-term interests of the Conservative Party.

We see it in tedious internecine “ideological” battles too – with banal calls for the Conservatives to “move on” from their supposed “free market fundamentalism” mistaken for an economic vision itself.

To the extent agendas are presented, they are clichés of platforms, offering little real-world application beyond signalling their tribe membership. Think “Singapore-on-Thames” right through to claiming “more people should be encouraged to live and work near where they grew up.”

Most often, however, conservatives spurn economics entirely. It has proven much less taxing for many thinkers to wade into debating face masks and gender than the tougher task of economic analysis.

Again, though my own sympathies are obvious, this problem isn’t unique to one tribe. Karaoke Thatcherism is as inane a vision as the belief that calling yourself One Nation and doing a bit of an industrial policy in the North will generate a patriotic, prosperous civil society with the social bonds of the 1950s. We are substituting buzzwords and labels for thought leadership.

Now why conservatives have given up on rigorous economic thinking is unclear. Some of it no doubt revolves around personal incentives. Modern media technologies allow intellectuals to reach the masses directly, and rewards culture warriors and those willing to argue with “their own side.”

Combine that with the centrality of polling and recent victories, and conservatives see their own role as mobilising the masses, giving them what they want. They have given up on Thatcher’s dictum that what matters is policies whose results are popular, not those which themselves are popular.

Some is due to the hollowing out of centre-right voices from “neutral” institutions, whether universities, the media, or notionally conservative think-tanks (John O’Sullivan’s law is correct: all organisations not explicitly right-wing become left-wing over time).

But the result is this: the UK centre-right has no analysis-backed economic diagnosis for the country that helps provide needed focus for its politicians or buy-in from economists.

Worse, the movement outside of Johnson’s government shows little sign of the institutional rebuild needed to undergird the “transformative agenda” he desires.