Thursday, 1 November 2018

Brexit will expose Britain's zombie economy


One could very easily say that the Thatcher reforms led to a lost generation in some parts of England. Particularly South Yorkshire. If there is one serous reason to hate Margret Thatcher it is that she is responsible for a tranche of Alan Bennettesque literature and stage plays by left wing authors. This nonsense carried on well into the nineties as the post-industrial slums of the North became a backdrop to tales of desperation and woe as though it were somehow an aberration.

But that's not strictly fair. For a certain demographic, namely working class men, they were robbed of the purpose, position and privilege and some never recovered. Arguably this was responsible the chav era of welfare dependent feral men stealing cars and selling drugs. Joyriding was an actual thing of epidemic proportions. No out of town industrial estate was complete without a burnt out Vauxhall Astra. That was real "austerity".

It wasn't until the late nineties that the regions were back on their feet as the reinvented themselves as service economies, particularly call centres for insurance, banking, internet and generic customer services. The prevailing myth at the time was that customers responded better to operators with a regional accent. This helped to seed a number of service centres such as Leeds and Sheffield.

One facet of the era was a horrendously porous welfare system wonderfully satirised by the Carla Lane series "Bread". I have hipster friends who are obsessed with 80's style and music but I don't share their fond nostalgia because everything else about that era sucked donkey balls. It don't even think Romulan shoulderpads were especially stylish either and the less said about 80's hair the better.

Now I hate to go all "four Yorkshiremen" on you but I remember growing up in that era. The supposed working class masterpiece film (if you're Brendan O'Neill), Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was shot probably less than a mile from my home. Buttershaw Estate was widely regarded as a slum and yet still not the worst in Bradford. If memory serves, Ravenscliffe was the weapons grade shithole where bus drivers would think twice about going through after 8pm.

My point is that I have functioning idea of what real austerity looks like. I know that poverty still exists in pockets and I have a good idea of where to look for it but era defining mass austerity that we saw in that turbulent era has not existed for some time. I cannot relate to left wing wailing about austerity at all. Generally speaking, in a material sense, things are ok compared with how they were. Perhaps not as good as before the 2008 crash but all the same, policy adjustments have got the welfare underclass into some form of work and it is not doing them any harm.

And that's what worries me. Things are ok when really they shouldn't be. We should have seen a major economic contraction, we should have seen a retrenchment of investment, we should have seen massive layoffs and we should have seen a collapse of the property bubble. We haven't. We have defied capitalist gravity by borrowing to prop it all up and have made only marginal reforms to policy. Certainly there has been no radial shift in paradigm since Mrs T.

What we are presently calling brutal austerity is better described as accountancy and housekeeping. Cuts have been made in order to modernise and perhaps we have gone a little too far in some areas but the idea that the Tories have radically reduced the state is not one that withstands scrutiny.

I therefore get a sense that the whole shebang is a house of cards and if Brexit really is going to have a devastating effect on trade and commerce generally then it is because the fundamentals are standing on a foundation of sand. Previously I have argues that Brexit has shone a torch on the structural dysfunction in our politics. I am certain it will do the same with much else.

One of the first major casualties of Brexit will no doubt be the London property market which has long been a nest of money laundering, recycled debt and dodgy investment. Meanwhile, for all that we are told Jaguar Landrover is threatened by Brexit, it should be noted that this is a company running at a loss with sliding sales that cannot be pegged to Brexit. We also see that more than 200 shopping centres are in crisis - many of which should never have been built in the first place, failing to detect longer term shifts in retail habits.

For a long time the UK has had a zombie economy with increasing numbers of businesses generating just about enough cash to service its debt so the bank is not obliged to pull the plug on the loan but not enough to thrive. If interest rates go up even slightly we could see thousands of companies biting the dust.

Much of the talk in relation to Brexit has been the fragility of supply chains, many of which will be terminated without a comprehensive Brexit deal. Less is said of the overall fragility of UK business whose resilience is to be tested in the near future. I argue that this the result of a accumulation of interventionist measures preventing market corrections. If markets do not on occasion fail then they cannot self-correct, weeding out the inefficiency. 

Much is said of the crown jewels of our industrial renaissance, particularly Nissan in Sunderland which has had £450m in loans from the European Investment Bank, and £347m in grants and other public funding, from the UK and EU.

We then see sweetheart deals and further hidden subsidies then stimulus in the form of scrappage schemes, handouts to the well off for eco-vehicles and if you look hard enough there will be formal links in respect of the Motability scheme (which has more than 650,000 customers.which effectively channels welfare into car companies. Free market capitalism it is not. 

We pretty much bribe Nissan to stay in the UK even though they produce hideous rotboxes and as for the new expansion of Airbus at Filton, it was funded with a £340m "loan" from the UK government. Combined with the NHS industrial complex and our love affair with Boeing and BAE Systems, we are recycling a lot of money as a lifeline to the regions (supplemented with EU grants).

This wouldn't be so bad if it were at least keeping pace with the ticking timebomb of pensions and savings but it isn't. Sooner or later we have to pay the piper and with nothing on the horizon to tackle the emergent collapse of social mobility, we are looking at a full on implosion of regional economies and irrespective of Brexit we are still on course for a Bafta award winning film directed by Stephen Daldry about four unemployed ex Sunderland car workers who set up an interpretive dance company starring Robert Carlyle and the desiccated corpse of Judi Dench.

Britain never full recovered from the 2008 crash largely because the multiple corrections we should have seen were prevented from transpiring. We have a frightening debt to GDP ratio and again, irrespective of Brexit, I don't see that improving any time soon without structural reforms to spending that no government in the current paradigm would even consider. They know what they have to do but that haven't figured a way to do it without being voted out of office. Theresa May's cackhanded dementia tax cost her a majority.

For years we have seen wind turbine factories heavily subsidised at both ends, boondoggles like HS2 and big ticket EU funded "investment" largely serving a Keynsean stimulus agenda but primarily as propaganda devices for ideas free politicians who have no idea how to reboot British industry. It has also proved a handy weapon in Project Fear, which the EU was always counting on.

Troublingly, this time around there is no plan B in terms of warehousing the proles in call centres. With banks having largely automated their customer services, and with their own banking apps and websites putting these task in the hands of account holders. It may well be that the days of mass employment are over and that none of our current models are sustainable. Universal Basic Income seems superficially attractive to some but that leaves the question of what we finance it with and whether or not it would be gobbled up by the inevitable inflation it causes - particularly in housing.

Ultimately the remainers cannot promise us economic prosperity if we stay in the EU. All they can really promise is more of the same which is a slow inexorable decline, politically, economically and socially. They can offer more bribes and more subsidy but they cannot offer revitalisation nor can they give the regions purpose. They can only really hold the line until the house of cards collapses. 

It is perhaps the culmination of these economic indicators, for which politicians are ill equipped to address, that we see a retrenchment into protectionism and economic nationalism and perhaps this is all part of the global natural cycle of decadence, decline, authoritarianism, and wars (if only to prune the surplus population). Perhaps it is a Darwinian animal instinct that politics follows these patterns? Such questions are beyond this particular blogging primate.  

What I do know is that unless we can collectively admit to ourselves that this isn't working and that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can keep on in more or less the same way we have since the last war, then we almost certainly do have an appointment with economic calamity. Brexit may kill or cure, but it at least gives us a fighting chance. 

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