Queen’s Speech Debate
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard | Monday, May 21, 2012

My Lords, Sigmund Freud identified a defence mechanism that he called denial, in which a person faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept insists that it is not true, despite overwhelming evidence. A good example of denial is the Chancellor's belief that austerity is a growth policy, despite the fact that the British economy is shrinking. Somewhat better than a state of denial is one that psychologists call cognitive dissonance, a condition of holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time.
People in such a condition have a strong need to reduce the importance of one of the dissonant elements. This is more hopeful. If the Chancellor has moved from denial to cognitive dissonance, he may soon move from cognitive dissonance to the honest realisation that his policies have completely failed to revive the British economy.
 
He may also recognise that they are failing to solve the debt problem. Since the collateral for a country's sovereign debt is the Government's potential tax revenue, any policy which produces recession and unemployment automatically increases the deficit and thus adds to the debt. The national debt is projected to rise from 71% of GDP in 2010 to 84% in 2012 according to the IMF, and the deficit elimination programme stretches ever further into the future. That is the fruit of austerity. Earlier in the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, denied that austerity could be responsible for stagnation because most of the cuts are still to come. That is to miss the point. The real impact of austerity so far lies not in the actual money cuts but in the failure to uprate public spending in line with public sector salaries, which inevitably leads to job losses.
 
The Government still claim that the main blockage to British recovery is the eurozone financial crisis. We are being buffeted by the euro crisis, but the eurozone crisis is the inevitable result of the very policies championed by the British Chancellor at home. The only reason that austerity has not so far produced a financial crisis in this country is that behind our fiscal policy stands a central bank licensed to print money. This has been the main factor keeping the cost of British government borrowing so low. However, there is a limit to how much the central bank can do to maintain confidence if the debt continues to grow while the economy continues to shrink.
 
Beyond the cloisters of Whitehall, there has been a welcome change of mood music. More and more people-captains of industry no less, and not just Keynesian heretics like me-are saying that austerity is not enough. EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso talks of the need to relaunch growth in Europe. He and the new French President have endorsed a proposal to add €10 billion to the capital of the European Investment Bank. Growth is back on the agenda in Europe, but is it back on the agenda in this country despite the opening remark in the Queen's Speech?
 
What would a growth policy need to be? Conventional wisdom has it that the only way to get growth is to cut taxes and red tape and get the unemployed on their bikes. I am all in favour of good supply side policies, but what the Government fail to grasp is that we have a massive problem of insufficient demand. The actual output of the economy is well below its potential output. Recovery from a slump is not just a matter of making better use of existing resources; it is about bringing into use potential resources which stand idle for lack of demand. This was the great lesson taught by Lord Keynes, a lesson which seems to have been entirely forgotten by the first-class brains in the Treasury.
 
If we see the problem in this way, the question of government borrowing assumes a different aspect. At present, the Government are borrowing billions of pounds a year to keep people idle. Would it not be far better to use that borrowed money to put them to work building homes, repairing creaking infrastructure and promoting the low-carbon energy economy we all want? After all, if the Government have to borrow vast sums of money-and they have to because they allowed the economy to shrink so much-why not at least borrow to create assets rather than borrow to destroy them? The longer you allow workers and plants to stay idle, the more potential output you are destroying day by day, week by week, until, in the end, the potential output of the economy will shrink to the level of its actual output. I have a question for the Minister. Does he really believe that if the public sector sheds 50% of its jobs, those dismissed workers will straight away find employment in the private sector? If not, the austerity policy is simply adding to the dole queues. That is the charge that he must face and refute if he can.
 
Even in Whitehall, things are stirring. The Queen's Speech promises a Bill to set up a green investment bank to invest in the low-carbon economy. I congratulate the Business Secretary Vince Cable on his persistence in pressing the case for the green bank against Treasury objections. However, I wish Ministers would think along bolder lines. The bank's capitalisation is too small-only £3 billion-and it will not be allowed to borrow until April 2015, subject to public sector net debt falling as a percentage of GDP, a prospect that currently looks extremely unlikely.
 
A practical man would ask what such a bank would invest in, and why, if there are so many investment opportunities around, they are going begging. There are two answers to the second question. First, there are large-scale projects in which the private sector will never invest on its own because the private rate of return is too distant, too modest and too uncertain. That means that, however great the social benefits, the investments will not be made except by the Government or with a government guarantee or subsidy. Most of a country's transport infrastructure falls into this category. Secondly, there is an additional motive for an active investment policy when business confidence is shattered, as it now is. The corporate sector is sitting on almost £800 billion of cash-more than 50% of GDP. This is because when confidence in the future is low, almost all investment seems riskier for both lenders and borrowers.
 
Finally, what would a green investment bank invest in? It would obviously invest in carbon-reduction activities. Incidentally, the mandate of the European Investment Bank is wider than this because it includes among its objects the promotion of growth and employment potential. Whatever the bank's scope, it is crucial that it gets a clear mandate, so that the private sector can plan its investment against a stable policy environment.
 
Many of us will have pet schemes to bring to the table. For example, there is the proposal of the Institute of Civil Engineers to establish regional water-transfer networks via new and existing canal systems. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has argued for preventive spending on social housing. Will not the Chancellor understand that we need preventive spending rather than spending prevention? The sooner that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor start investing in Britain, the better. If they continue in the spirit of denial, they will be swept from the seats of power, as Governments have been all over Europe-and they will deserve to be.