Tory ministers have told British business to stop whinging and work harder. These remarks are more significant than generally thought.I suspect they are the bewildered howls of frustration of men who realize that their god has failed them.
What I mean is that, for at least 40 years the central tenet of Conservative economic thinking has been that if only government could "get out of the way", entrepreneurial spirits would be unleashed and the economy would grow.
This belief has not always been wrong. But it is now. Record-low interest rates, a quiescent labour force and the (prospect of) a public spending squeeze has not boosted the private sector. British businesses' get up and go has got up and gone. Quite why this is so is a long story, but it involves:
- the dearth of investment opportunities, due to a lack of monetizable innovations and the migration of low-wage industry to Asia.
- the fact that geography is against the UK. It shackles us to the euro area, and men rarely swim strongly when they are tied to a drowning man.Today's figures show that export volumes grew just 0.3% in the last 12 months, quashing hopes that we can export our way out of austerity.
- the absence of credit growth.
These factors don't just mean that Osborne's hopes of expansionary fiscal contraction are misplaced. They bring into question a decades-old Tory ideology of faith in business and smaller government.
The question is: where does this leave Tory economic thinking? The right's answer is to double up, and demand more cuts in taxes and spending - apparently ignorant of balanced budget multipliers. Ministers' answer seems to be just exhortations to business to do better, accompanied, I suspect, by the hope that something will turn up.
But what if it doesn't? I suspect we'll then see a crisis of Conservatism of the sort that afflicted Labour for years after the collapse of social democracy in the 1970s.