Liz Truss’ agenda is meaningless without a wider framework for the non-economic values that will enable Britain to flourish, says former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall
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As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech to the Conservative Party conference, her motivating mantra is “growth, growth, growth”. She also accused anyone who disagreed with her agenda of being “anti-growth” – lumping into that category all members of the Opposition, labour unions, so called “Brexit deniers”, environmental activists, think tank members, as well as supporters of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, and Mark Drakeford in Wales.
This is a very strange political strategy. Successful politicians generally try to build coalitions and attract more voters to their side, rather than pushing them further away. But the more fundamental problem is that it rejects the idea that there is more to life than pure ‘growth’. Not everything worthwhile can be reduced to pure economics.
I am not against economic growth. I understand that the UK cannot finance the ever growing demands on its public services, including the NHS, without growing its economy. I understand that excessive taxation or regulation can stifle businesses and deter investment. I understand that there is a limit to how much you can tax people, without it becoming a disincentive to work. As a former diplomat, I also understand that a strong economy at home, helps make us stronger, more secure, and more influential internationally.
But growth is meaningless without wider context.
Growth needs to be sustainable. Growth cannot come at the expense of destroying our environment, on which the survival of our species, indeed the very life of our planet depends. The Government’s decision to subsidise current energy use, without any accompanying measures to encourage energy saving or develop more sustainable energy sources, is both short-sighted and irresponsible.
Growth needs to be compassionate. This means supporting and treating with dignity those in less advantageous circumstances, including those who struggle to find decent work due to illness, disability or other barriers, rather than deriding them as grifters. It means acting with fiscal responsibility now, to avoid saddling future generations with our debt. It means treating the animals with whom we share our planet humanely, not shredding the welfare standards which protect them from abuse to produce food more cheaply. It also means not turning our backs on the desperate migrants risking their lives to reach our shores, who could contribute so much to our community, if given the chance.
Growth also needs to be rooted in community. This means winning public support for controversial new initiatives, not driving through fracking or new industrial or building projects over the objections of local residents. It means sustaining public services at a level which allows a community as a whole to thrive, not just those who can afford to pay for services.
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It also means not insulting anyone who disagrees with it as being anti-growth.
Finally, growth does need to be regulated, for the benefit of both producers and consumers. Businesses want to know they are competing on a level playing field. They do not mind adapting their business models to meet certain standards, provided their competitors are doing the same. They also want certainty. They want to know that, if they commit to making investments based on one set of rules, these are not then changed putting them at a disadvantage again.
This is why, contrary to Government received wisdom, British businesses are not actually clamouring for swathes of EU so-called ‘red tape’ to be jettisoned – because they know that the more the UK diverges from the EU, the harder it will be for them to continue trading in the EU.
Meanwhile, consumers want to be able to trust in the quality of the products they buy. They also want to know that the methods of production do not involve abuse, pollution or corruption.
The Government’s approach is one which seems to recognise the price of everything, but the value of nothing. And I, for one, do not want to live in a soulless state where the pound in your purse is paramount, where those who succeed live in gated communities, send their children to private school, and are treated in private hospitals. I do not want to live in a society where the rich have ever more, while those less fortunate become ever more dependent on private charity, as the Government cuts public services to the bone.
In short, I do not want the shallow, narrow version of growth this Government is selling.