Previously, I reviewed Jesse Norman’s Compassionate Economics, so I was very glad to find him in Parliament amongst this intake. Jesse’s maiden speech was superb, calling as it didfor a new economic orthodoxy, following his remarks on his constituency and local priorities:
However, we are not sent to this House only to represent our constituents; we are also sent here to play a role in the wider governance of this country. The new Government have made a superb early start in opening up sources of data about spending across the public sector. But what matters is not merely what we think about, but how we think about it. Our task is to remedy not just a colossal failure of governance over the past 13 years, but a colossal failure of thought. Politicians are generally nervous about talking about abstract ideas. In the words of the late great Ernie Bevin-here I will not attempt an accent-“Open up that there Pandora’s Box, and who knows what Trojan ‘orses won’t jump out of it.” But of course to dismiss ideas is itself to be ruled by an idea. Ideas are always in charge. So it is important-nay, vital-to choose the right ones.
Now, the idea of revolution is never dear to a conservative, but even Edmund Burke would agree that we need a revolution in how we think about economics in Government. Over the past two decades the British Government have become steeped in a 1970s textbook caricature-a view in which markets are always efficient, prices reflect perfect information, and institutions are nowhere to be found. One would be tempted to call such a view neo-liberal, were we not in a time of coalition government.
Worse than that, the deep assumption remains that human beings are purely economic, rather than social, animals. This dismal gospel regards the human world as static, not dynamic-as a world of fixed social engineering, not one of creation, discovery and competition. In policy terms, this textbook economics takes power away from local people. It encourages centralisation and top-down meddling. It pushes us towards an inefficient, inhumane and factory-style view of public services. It is absurdly risk averse. In its apparent inevitability, it stifles public debate about other, more thoughtful approaches. Above all, it actively undermines the ideas of public service, public vocation and public duty-ideas which, I know, lie close to the heart of every Member of this House.
Now is the moment to re-examine these assumptions. Politics is not a subset of economics, and economics is not a subset of the financial sector. GDP growth is important-goodness knows that is true now-but so are flexibility, resilience and, above all, entrepreneurship in our economy. We need a new economics in our Government, not the desiccated economic atomism of the old textbooks, and we need to see people for what they really are, as bundles of human capability, creative, dynamic and fizzing with imagination and potential.
If we do this, and only if we do this, we can revive our economy on a huge billow of human energy, one that is barely conceivable within our current conventional economic models, and we can help to restore the trust and the mutual respect that our society so badly requires. It was that great-and rather conservative-economist, John Maynard Keynes, who once warned politicians not to be the slaves of some defunct economist. So let us all cry freedom and move on.