Those in the bear pit of British politics would do well to emulate the late South African president, writes Alf Young
ON THURSDAY evening I drove into STV’s studios, on the south bank of the Clyde, to take part in a Scotland Tonight discussion about George Osborne’s latest autumn statement. On the way news broke on my car radio that Nelson Mandela, as South Africa’s current president Jacob Zuma put it, had finally “departed” this world.
When I reached Pacific Quay, it came as no surprise to hear the planned discussion had been scrapped. I anticipated driving straight home again, no longer required. Instead I was asked to join a hastily-convened group, reflecting on the life and legacy of the remarkable 95-year-old, already dubbed by his successor-but-one our “greatest son”.
Inevitably our on-screen reflections mirrored countless other tributes, already ringing out around the world. At their core is an enduring wonder. That the man they call Madiba, his clan name, could emerge from 27 brutally harsh years of incarceration and still consciously eschew the politics of rancour and retribution.
South Africa’s first president to be democratically elected by all its people found it in his heart to embrace a politics of reconciliation that extended to black, white and Coloured alike. And did that with such evident conviction and impish good humour. If Mandela could behave that way, after a decades-long bloody liberation struggle that had cost him so dear, why does it remain such a luminously singular political achievement?
Even in well-entrenched democracies like ours, so much of our politics remain instinctively adversarial. Debating chambers become bear pits. Question time, whether at Westminster or Holyrood, is more and more about emerging triumphant from a verbal clash with your political opponent than better shaping actions that will really change people’s lives for the better.
Verbal venom is everywhere, polluting not just exchanges between party leaders but poisoning the well of wider public discourse, especially online. No blood is actually spilt. But since rancour and retribution trump reconciliation most of the time, the capacity of political action to address and resolve some of the great issues of our times is, in my view, fatally compromised.
Take that Autumn Statement that suddenly became the third most important thing that happened on Thursday, after Mandela’s death and the gales lashing much of Britain. Was it the moment the coalition’s austerity programme finally paid off and growth took hold again? Was it the day the Chancellor finally skewered his shadow, Ed Balls, and left him sinking, red-faced, beneath that surging GDP tide?
Wrong questions, I suspect. George Osborne had nothing new to say on Thursday. The modest array of giveaways had all been strategically leaked in advance. As had the prospect of anyone under forty having to work longer before they can qualify for a state pension. What was new was the publication of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
And when you read the OBR’s analysis, unvarnished by any political spin, the story that emerges certainly doesn’t merit awarding game-set-and-match on the UK economy to anyone. The OBR’s narrative, I should add, is essentially a set of economic forecasts. And, as we’ve learned in recent years, economic forecasting can be a very fallible art indeed. At the time of the March budget, the OBR was forecasting growth of just 0.6 per cent this year. Now it expects 1.4 per cent. Who can say, with any degree of certainty, what the emerging outcome for 2013 might be when the OBR next reports, next March?
Nor is what growth there has been down to the much-vaunted rebalancing of the UK economy, promised by the Westminster coalition when it was formed. Its objective, remember, was to reduce dependency on soaring debt-fuelled household consumption, linked to a housing bubble – core factors in creating the great crash – and replace them with more business investment and higher UK exports.
The second sentence of the OBR’s latest outlook makes it absolutely clear that hasn’t happened. “Private consumption and housing investment have surprised on the upside,” it notes, “while business investment and net trade have continued to disappoint.” Nor does the OBR expect the current pace of recovery to be sustained into 2014.
While growth this year is largely down to households dipping into their low-yielding savings to spend more, after years of restraint, “productivity and real earnings growth have remained weak,” it notes. Apart from the troubling memories of past excesses that emerging pattern stirs up, a sustainable recovery surely requires stronger foundations.
“Ultimately,” suggests the OBR, “productivity-driven growth in real earnings is necessary to sustain the recovery and raise living standards.” As Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies put it yesterday: “All that has happened, according to the OBR, is that the growth they were expecting anyway has come along a bit sooner than expected. As a result there is no improvement in underlying borrowing numbers.”
Hence the additional spending cuts of £3bn spread over three years, announced by Mr Osborne. According to the OBR, current plans will reduce the government’s own consumption of goods and services from 23.2 per cent of nominal GDP at its peak in 2009 to just 16.1 per cent by the end of this forecasting period (2018/19). If that’s what happens that will not only be the steepest sustained fall since the data was first collated – government consumption will reach its lowest level since 1948.
Shrinking the state indeed. And, with the chancellor using some “questionable” numbers to back up his claim that households are already seeing their disposable incomes rising, the IFS is warning that, despite some signs of economic recovery, households will still be “substantially” worse-off when the 2015 general election is looming than they were when the coalition came to power in 2010.
As even some right-wing commentators are indicating, the much-vaunted recovery in the UK economy being trailed on Thursday has rather less substance to it than the Chancellor would have us believe. “It’s built on sand,” suggested one.
Part of the problem is that, having given the OBR independent control of economic and fiscal forecasts, one of its twice-yearly forecasts coincides with a politically-inspired Autumn Statement from the incumbent chancellor, a statement which has lost most of the meaning and purpose it ever had. The other coincides with the annual March budget, where the chancellor lays out tax changes.
If the Autumn Statement was scrapped, the OBR’s end-of-year forecast could form the basis for a major annual Commons debate on economic strategy. One in which all sides could have their considered say and the public could properly judge their competing prescriptions. That would surely be an improvement on the kind of Punch and Judy circus we currently have to endure. Such a reform might begin to demonstrate that, with Nelson Mandela no longer among us, there is a better, more constructive way to do politics in our rancorous, tribal world.