Economy: The Growth Plan 2022

House of Lords Speech: 10 October 2022

My Lords, the twin problems to which the mini-Budget was addressed were near-zero growth and a relentless rise in prices. I doubt whether it will do very much for the first—certainly not in time to offset the second. In the short run, what we face is not a growth crisis but an inflationary crisis and that, of course, also means a currency crisis.

What was the growth strategy? I think it was based on Reaganomics—the idea that unfunded tax cuts, by incentivising the wealthy to work hard and invest more, would pay for themselves. That was a sort of Laffer curve idea, which was very popular in the 1980s. The British Treasury never bought it; it always thought that tax cuts to encourage the wealthy would need to be complemented by welfare cuts to incentivise the poor to “get on their bikes”, in the famous phrase.

Well, that is the basis of growth orthodoxy but it is very insecure. There is no evidence that tax cuts for the rich speed up the real rate of economic growth. What they do encourage is speculation in financial assets and real estate. Also, there is no correlation between the rate of growth and the size of the public sector. So the growth strategy is very insecurely based. As the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, pointed out earlier, public investment, not public ownership, has been the main growth engine since the war.

Apart from its intellectual incoherence, the Chancellor’s mini-Budget sets out to tackle the wrong problem. The problem, as Keynes wrote in 1939, is not how to get growth but

“how to pay for the war”.

We have blundered inadvertently into a war situation, and that creates war problems. A war economy is inherently inflationary: too much consumer demand, too little supply. This is our situation. Excess demand is easy enough to explain. For over a year, from 2020 to 2021, the Government paid a large chunk of the workforce to not work. Pent-up demand exploded before supply could catch up.

That is one part of it but, in addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced big supply shortages, reflected in the near doubling of wholesale energy prices. They would have trebled had it not been for the energy price cap. How long can the Government go on capping prices without raising taxes? Is the Minister expecting energy supply in Europe to increase over the next few years? Is he expecting Saudi Arabia to increase rather than reduce supply? The important point in these questions is that, when debt costs are rising, the Government should be reducing and not increasing their borrowing.

Today, we are significantly less able to run a war economy than we were in 1940. We make fewer things, grow less food and are more dependent on foreign supplies. Extensive deindustrialisation since the 1980s has made our standard of living dependent on the City of London’s ability to finance our twin deficits—budget and current account—which are rising towards 10% of GDP. The City attracts capital into London to engage in financial investment. The energy crisis has blown a hole in the current account. Banks have indicated that a 10% current account deficit will be very difficult for the City to finance. The second factor depressing sterling is, of course, the very high rate of inflation.

We need a credible currency to maintain our standard of living and there is nothing in the strategy of the mini-Budget that guarantees that. What we need is a co-ordinated policy that can communicate a clear path forward.