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My Lords, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. If we take as our evidence his Budget speech of last Wednesday, this is a nostrum of democratic politics of which George Osborne seems to be in denial. Indeed, he seems to have forgotten it completely.
The Conservative Government have had almost five full years in which to observe the developments within the modern British economy and to take the necessary steps to correct its most dysfunctional aspects. Instead of addressing the most prominent problems, the Conservatives have been fanatically pursuing an atavistic political and economic agenda which they have inherited from a previous Conservative Administration: that of Margaret Thatcher, which lasted from 1979 to 1990. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher sold council houses without any replacements. They privatised many previously publicly owned industries. They sought to defeat the power of working people that was vested in the trade unions and they oversaw a prolonged period of industrial decline.
That Government also unleashed the financial sector by deregulating its activities with consequences that eventually came to a head in 2007 in a major financial crisis. During Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister, the Conservatives sought to effect a major redistribution of income and wealth in favour of the already prosperous classes. Perhaps the most extreme example of Conservative measures of redistribution occurred in 1988, when the top rate of tax was reduced from 60% to 40%.
The present Government have had the same intentions as their forebear, but they have had less room for manoeuvre and have been weakly restrained by the coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Most of the leading publicly owned industries and utilities had already been privatised, so this Government have had to apply their privatisation policies elsewhere. They have applied them to agencies that have been responsible for some basic social provisions.
On the national level, privatisation has extended to the Prison Service, the police force, labour exchanges and education. A major privatisation of our National Health Service is now well under way. At local level, the budgets of councils have been slashed and they have been compelled to hand many of their functions to private enterprises. We have seen the emergence and rapid growth of a new class of unregulated private monopolies, which have assumed the role of the public service providers. Some of them have been notoriously inefficient and exploitative. They include such giant enterprises as Atos, Capita, Serco, G4S and the notorious A4e, which, notwithstanding disturbing allegations of malpractice, continues to gather contracts from the Government.
The ideological justification for employing such agencies to provide public services has been the supposed superior efficiency of private enterprise when compared with that of the public bodies that they have replaced. Even a cursory examination of their activities will show that their operational efficiency has often been dire. However, the concept of efficiency that has been espoused by the Government encompasses the cost savings available from reducing the number of employees and their rates of pay. Contracts of employment that would not have been tolerated when the unions were a force to be reckoned with are now commonplace. Rates of pay in many occupations have been falling drastically at a time when remuneration of high earners has been rapidly increasing.
The Government appear to be satisfied with such an outcome on the grounds that a cheap labour force coupled with high rates of profit and of salaried remuneration are factors that will render the UK attractive to inward investment from abroad. Inward financial investment mediated by the City of London has become a vital factor in averting what would otherwise have become a major balance-of-payments crisis.
The process of the deindustrialisation of Britain, which accelerated dramatically in the era of Margaret Thatcher, has proceeded apace. In 1979, manufacturing in the United Kingdom contributed 25% of GDP, and it contributed largely to our export earnings. In 2010, manufacturing accounted for only 12% of the country’s national output. Its decline has been greater than in any comparable western economy.
The inward financial investment, which has averted a balance of payments crisis, has added nothing to our manufacturing capacity. It has found its way into purely financial assets and into residential and commercial property. Much of it has been devoted to the acquisition of company ownership via hostile takeover bids. Water companies, power companies, airports and banks have been among the many enterprises that have fallen into the hands of foreign investors.
The high-tech industries that continue to emerge in Britain have been particularly prone to hostile takeovers. Their vulnerability can be attributed to a number of associated factors and circumstances that serve the interests of our financial community and their political allies within the Conservative Party. Foremost among those are the rules of corporate governance that facilitate mergers and acquisitions to an extent unparalleled anywhere else among western economies. Britain’s financiers profit hugely from mediating the sale of British companies to foreign buyers. In seeking the finance for expansion, our small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK cannot rely on the commercial banks, which are the main source of industrial finance in other countries. Instead, they must rely upon either retained profits or stock market flotations. Because shares in such companies inevitably entail voting rights, a stock market flotation renders a company prone to the sorts of takeovers that have been bedevilling our manufacturing enterprises.
The inwards foreign investment that has delivered our nation’s assets into the hands of foreign owners has also sustained the high value of the pound. For many years, our overvalued currency has made it difficult for our manufacturers to export their products, which has exacerbated our current account deficit. The Government have done nothing to amend this circumstance, which is now severe. They have done little to restrain the depredations of our overgrown financial sector. They have failed to compel our banks to provide funds to British manufacturing enterprises.
It is extraordinary that in such circumstances George Osborne has been able to declare in his Budget speech that,
“Britain is back paying its way in the world today”.—[Hansard, Commons, 18/3/15; col. 770.]
He has talked of reductions of deficits as if they were reductions of indebtedness, which is increasing in all our national accounts. The Government’s finances have a heavy reliance on the inflated taxes from the financial sector, and their revenues collapsed when the financial sector collapsed. The Chancellor has done much to encourage the revival of the financial sector. He has done nothing to aid the recovery of other sectors of our economy or our society. The Government have been serving the interests of a very narrow sector of our society, and the British electorate will not be fooled for much longer.