A depressing catalogue

The depressing UK election campaign (albeit far less depressing than some others around the world) sent me back to a book whose subtitle is ‘Half a century of British economic decline’. It’s Russell Jones’s excellent and sobering The Tyranny of Nostalgia. I read it in proof and, as I remembered, it offers a more or less ringside view of economic policymaking (mainly macro) in the UK during the past half century. It takes a couple of chapters to get into its stride, but does so when it gets past an initial chapter about the nature of economics and one about the years before Jones started his career as a professional economist. As he sums up the story, “It is a depressing catalogue of misapprehensions, missteps, underachievement, wasted opportunities, crises and humiliations.”

The themes that jump out – and in my view remain key problems today – are consistent under-investment and what Jones describes as the ‘capriciousness’ of policy, or churn. And above all, nostalgia for past glories, which “infected programmes with wishful thinking. … Britain lost an empire and time and again it failed to find an enduringly workable economic policy framework.” The post-colonial angst is one reason the book describes the UK’s ever-fraught relationship with the rest of Europe as a ‘running sore’.

There’s scant sign in the current campaign of overt political recognition of the fact that most of Britain is a poor country by the standard of those we like to consider our peers, paying the price for at least five decades of failure to invest in the future. Also depressing is the absence of a meaningful area of consensus about long term economic startegy across parties (or within them) about economic policy, suggesting that the British disease of policy churn will persist. We’ll see after 5th July if things will get better….

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