growth politics

Who will deliver us from this growth obsession?

Britain has another Prime Minister this week, Liz Truss, selected on behalf of the nation by the Conservative Party’s 172,447 paying members. In her acceptance speech she promised that “we will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver”, as if her new job was with Uber Eats. Confusing as this was, it rather reminded me of Boris Johnson. He recently promised “a relentless focus on delivery“, and at the last election he famously joined a milk round to prove his dedication to the delivery cause.

It was less clear what Truss was planning to deliver, but perhaps it was economic growth. Earlier in the week she caused ripples for an interview in which she proudly admitted that her tax cut plan would benefit the richest most. “What I’m about is about growing the economy and growing the economy benefits everybody,” she said.

She went on to say how economic debate “for the last 20 years has been dominated by discussions about distribution”, when it would have been better to focus on growth.

This is a slightly strange idea. Just a couple of months ago Boris Johnson was telling us very clearly that “the answer is economic growth.” To his credit, he generally qualified the kind of growth he meant, saying he wanted it to be green growth, and recognising that “not all growth is created equal”. Unfortunately you can’t believe anything Boris Johnson says and that’s why he’s not Prime Minister any more. But it’s hard to make the case that he didn’t prioritise economic growth. Quite the opposite. Here’s the opening line of the queen’s speech to parliament in May of this year: “My government’s priority is to grow and strengthen the economy.”

Before him was of course Teresa May – perhaps she was soft on growth and that’s who Truss was referring to. Well, no. She said that her mission was to “drive economic growth up and down the country”, which makes it sound like a bus. Or maybe a delivery van, as she also said she was “on a path to deliver prosperity and growth for the benefit of all our people, now and for generations to come.”

So like Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, Teresa May was deeply committed to both growth and to delivery.

Must have been David Cameron then, who let growth slide in his all consuming obsession with distribution. But then it was Cameron who said that “a relentless focus on growth is what you will get from this government.” It was also him who proudly insisted that “this is a government that delivers… That’s our ambition: a government that delivers.”

Like his friend Johnson, often spotted lugging a crate of produce around for the press cameras, Cameron takes his delivery literally. The last time I spotted him in the news, it was because he was driving a lorry full of supplies to Poland, delivering for Ukrainian refugees.

I think it’s hard to make the case that the last three Conservative prime ministers haven’t taken economic growth seriously. So presumably Truss means Gordon Brown. I mean, he was Labour. You’d expect him to take a different line. He probably hates delivery and scorns economic growth.

Except that in 2010, Gordon Brown said that “going for growth is the government’s number one priority”. He also made it very clear that “what we need is real delivery“. Just like Johnson and Cameron, here was a man who understood that we wanted our delivery to be real, and not just metaphorical.

So what are we to conclude? That a succession of Prime Ministers have been blind to the promise of economic growth and that Liz Truss is offering a bold new vision? Or that maybe economic growth can’t magically solve all our problems, and that Liz Truss is only doubling down on this blind faith in GDP?

4 comments

  1. Interesting and bleakly comic commentary. I think a future beckons for you as a Guardian political sketch writer Jeremy!

  2. In answer to your question, Jeremy, I have included here three short extracts from Green Party Policy:
    Continually increasing resource extraction, industrial throughput and waste production is entirely incompatible with ecological sustainability. Green economic policy must therefore promote the emergence of an economic system which recognises the limits of, and is compatible with, both the natural systems of the planet and the aspirations of the whole of humanity.
    Although it is the most usually quoted indicator, gross national product (GNP) is a poor indicator of true progress and does not adequately measure people’s sense of well-being.
    The Green Party would therefore replace the conventional indicators with those that measure progress towards sustainability, equity and devolution.

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