The idea that the Government investing in R&D – in technology to reduce carbon or in new pharma – will cure the ills of divided Britain is nonsense. There are only three areas in the UK which contribute to Government more than they receive – London, the South East and the East – and to bring the others up to speed by Government-assisted innovation is pie in the sky. There is simply not the human capital in areas outside of London to start and sustain new industries – that human capital needs to be brought there to create any lasting new local jobs.
There are serious issues for the Government to address – not by intervening but by assisting in terms of legislative laissez-faire, innovative regulation and opening up new markets. One is the lack of affordable housing – one of the key drivers behind 18-24 year olds voting Labour. Another is the ineffectiveness of most universities in contributing to local economic expansion – universities like Cambridge are the exception. Another is the progressives’ cookie jar of DFID which needs a root and branch audit back to Claire Short as well as a complete revamp in how and to whom contracts are awarded.
Yes, Boris Johnson owes the Red Wall. They did lend their votes to the Tories. He should start by delivering those voters Brexit and then tidy up their towns by paint brush and plant – by installing police stations and thousands of defibrillators – so they see immediate local progress which, albeit small step, they’ve not seen in decades. Taxing the internet retail giants to offset high street business rates would help revive malls and town centres, and create local jobs as well as taking that morgue feeling away from forgotten towns. An anti corruption unit to specifically target local councils would do something to restore faith in local government in areas desperate for illumination such as Torbay, Sandwell, Newcastle and Portsmouth.
Any economic plan that downplays Britain’s two greatest economic strengths – the City and business by adventure abroad – is doomed to fail. The numbers piling through foreign exchange desks alone make the numbers in pharma look minuscule. Britain could be the great safe harbour for foreign flight capital, as well as flight human capital – the skills which the British economy needs are currently residing abroad in turbulent Hong Kong and other lands where British passports would be snapped up if offered to the right people (as they should have been in 1997).
It would be a damn shame if the majority earned by the Conservatives should now be frittered away on a series of interventionist gambles up North and in other unproductive areas based on SPAD policy wonk ideas. Britain is not London – Government is not some marketing job or running a bespoke concierge service. The British Government is better off cracking down on universities which have lost their way and no longer create employees for UK Plc; on opening up the BBC to the market and watching as media companies proliferate in a production renaissance once the BBC stops crowding that space. Economic crime legislation to prevent anarchic unions striking willy-nilly would immediately help productivity and put the worst trade union agitators in the dock.
If the Government wants to address these regional and generational disparities it would do best by attracting foreign investment to areas outside the profitable three by offering incentives to investors and insisting on associated local infrastructure, training and transport improvements. Less Keynes, more Friedman. Improving rural returns by addressing rural needs. And investment in outing anti-capitalist Marxist cadres.