In his 1995 book, The State We’re In, which looks at the legislative choices of the UK’s main political parties, political journalist and author Will Hutton makes some eerie predictions about the world we find ourselves in as of 2020. The foreshadowing of the dominance of recruitment as a business model over the training of new talent and the rise of Chinese and other far eastern economic models to name a few. However one point he touched on felt more like a blow to all I knew about this democracy we call Britain; we do not have a constitution. We have no bill of rights protecting our citizens or our resources.
Now I knew that we weren’t quite on a level with our Anglo-Saxon friends across the pond, spouting numbered amendments and right of this and right of that, but I thought there was some concrete paperwork to stop any amoral pillaging that might occur – by landed gentry in the past or by big business now. The majority of Sovereign states do. Instead we have a fluid – and at times hypocritical – lawbook that can in-turn be interpreted depending on the skill of the lawyer. This leads to a system where often precedents are set by landmark legal cases or just when and where they’re needed, cases that shouldn’t necessarily be ‘the norm’ but required enough of a legal shakeup that the changes stick. This seems like a fairly liberal, free flowing way to do governance, but in practice it leads to a one-sided system where the state often comes before the individual. In today’s world of globalisation and Big Business, this has been extrapolated to ‘Growth’ comes before the individual.
But what is growth? In terms of the economy, it is the ever expanding ball of imaginary digital currency that needs to keep on growing lest we realise the sham and it collapses in on itself. But that’s just my humble opinion. The more widely accepted definition is that economic growth is “the increase in the amount of goods and services produced per head of the population over a period of time”, measured by the change in gross domestic product or GDP. At a time when public services are down to the bones and Britain’s industrial and manufacturing sectors are barely groaning along, never mind ‘great’, how can our economy be “healthy” and “growing”. If we go by it’s own definition, our economy should be classed as “sick and in need of urgent self-isolation”, which ironically is one thing we as a country have decided on, much to the Hutton of 1995’s bemusement.
Today’s businesses operate by the same laws the population do and this is fair when a business represents someone’s livelihood, as it does in the case of middle-sized businesses and local shops. Shops similar to the German Mittelstand, the name given to the independent and medium-sized businesses which operate under a web of protecting laws providing a safety net in times of economic drought. However when the threat of a company being shut down or plants closing looks like it will have more of an impact on its employees than the company itself, they should be held to different laws than the individual. The laws in place today allow large global companies that have not played the market well to ask for bailouts, paid for, among others, by the taxed independent business owners who are expected to just go under in times of economic stress or find their own way out of the quagmire.
The recent effects of COVID-19 on this country have shown just how committed the Tory government has been to the British Mittelstand. Which is to say, not at all. Accused of “throwing independent businesses under the bus” the government consistently refused to give useful advice, or any inclination of a plan that business owners could follow to minimise risks and damages while telling potential customers to “steer well clear”, causing many businesses to slump to the point of bankruptcy. Meanwhile the government are throwing stimulus packages at larger businesses, businesses that with some tactful auditing and reshuffling of cash flow could probably survive this mess. But that’s not what they do and that’s not how they got there. Scruples where it counts and bailouts when that fails seems to be the name of the game for many, including Richard Branson who has asked for £7.5 billion cash injection to save the airline industry. The taxpayers would be footing this bill of course, and while we all would love to see some foreign shores again some time soon, I’m sure we’d also rather be giving our money to those that need it locally first.
So where’s the piece of paper we as the citizens can point to like our American cousins when ailing businesses come begging, one that reads “The rights of the living come first over dying businesses”? We should use this COVID scare as a chance to see what our governments really prioritise, and if it’s not something we can agree on, maybe it’s time for a change in the rules. Maybe it’s time that we come together and draw up a bill that sets up an adequate network of interdependent funds so that in time of need, our health service, food outlets and other essential services can keep running at full pace. Maybe it’s time we set up a national economic system that is set up to offer long term loans to businesses, so that the banks themselves have a vested interest in the health of a sector beyond reclaiming the buildings it occupies. Maybe it’s time we put more reliance into creating skilled workers and have sectors investing in these education programs instead of relying on a whole new business of poaching employees from elsewhere.
These may all sound like a Keynesian fever dream of Jeremy Corbyn in the run up to the last election, but they have all been done by other countries. Some in Europe, some in Asia.The truth is we were at the forefront of industry and business when it took off so we didn’t need a proper system, we just needed growth. Now that others have had time to catch up, maybe it’s time we stopped to look around at how they developed. We need to accept that we’re not so Great anymore and maybe just be Grateful.