I found this week’s Bagehot column in the Economist interesting. It complains that Westminster is brain-dead, but that elsewhere there are signs of innovative thinking. This helps to raise the question of how to address the imbalance of Britain’s (and especially England’s) imbalance towards London. But it betrays some rather stale thinking.
The article itself is lightweight. It shows enthusiasm after a visit to the University of Warwick, and witnessing its projects promoting industrial innovation, and in particular the efforts of Kumar Bhattacharyya to push back against the idea that Britain’s future lies in financial services and not manufacturing. It contains no hard analysis. This is less disappointing for a political column that it was for an article a few months ago about what to do about the developed world’s “left behind places”. Towns and rural areas left behind by changes to the industrial economy. In spite of the promise of its headline, this article had very little to say about solutions. It instead seemed to encourage the further expansion of already thriving urban centres, on the grounds that this would clearly be good for productivity. This was another symptom of the the stale, conventional thinking that dominates the Economist’s journalism.
But the issue is an important one. The gap between London and England’s southeast, and other regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is problem for everybody. It is an obvious problem for the struggling regions, from Cornwall to Tyneside. It is also a problem in the prosperous regions, where the cost of housing is exacerbating social divisions. If economic prosperity could be distributed more evenly geographically, then it would be easier to distribute it more evenly between the classes and generations. Scotland, incidentally, is something of an exception, and a revealing one.
This has been obvious for a long time, but efforts by governments to do something about it have at best been only partially successful. Two things have been tried: money, and relocation of government agencies. There have been various initiatives to pump money into the poorer regions, a number of which are under the banner of EU aid. These clearly help, but the beneficiaries too often seem to be large corporations headquartered elsewhere, who simply manage to funnel the money back again. So many English regional towns are dominated by national and international brands at the expense of more local ones. The relocation of government agencies manage to disrupt local labour markets (the jobs tend to be quite well paid and put local businesses under pressure), but a bigger problem is that they fall victim to government efficiency drives which shrink them.
Where the Bagehot article is clearly right is that there needs to be more going on locally in these regions that central largesse. Centres like the Warwick Manufacturing Group clearly help. At the centre of thriving modern economies is brainpower. Universities and research are clearly part of this – as experience in other countries shows. But two points need to be made: political structures are vital, and we need to think about tomorrow’s economy rather than today’s or yesterday’s.
The lack of interest in political structures was a big disappointment in the Economist’s analysis. Political structures clearly affect the way economics is distributed geographically. Countries that are both quite large and politically centralised, like Britain and France, have more uneven economic geography than those that don’t – like Germany and Scandinavia. I think this is for two reasons. One comes from network theory, which I have advanced before. Humans can manage only a couple of hundred connections with other humans efficiently, so at the heart of any organisation, however large, there is a small network of people within it, and people that the organisation does business with. Large organisations simplify management to reflect this, which means concentrating power geographically. When government power concentrates, corporate power tends to concentrate with it, as government has such an important effect of modern business. Superficially this looks efficient – the trap that the Economist falls into, because the concentrated power centres are efficient in themselves – but that is at the cost of hollowing out elsewhere. Scandinavia may not have a centre that compares with London or Paris, but you can hardly say it is not prosperous.
The second, and overlapping, reason that centralisation of government is bad for outlying regions is the sheer dead weight of government decision making. In England most decisions involving significant money find their way back to the Treasury in London. Decisions get stuck in queues, and when they come to be taken, risk aversion prevails unless huge political capital is expended. Human progress generally demands risk-taking. The fairly obvious idea that rail links between northern British towns should be drastically improved is bogged down in Westminster politics. If the north of England was an independent country it would already be finished.
So it is not surprising to see that developed countries with devolved political structures usually have better distributed wealth than ones that don’t. Switzerland, a small country with highly devolved politics reeks comfort and prosperity almost wherever you go. As I have already alluded, it is no accident that Scotland, with its advanced level of political devolution, is the one British region that has been able to push back against the gravitational pull of the southeast. It doesn’t always work. Political devolution allows regional governments to choose incompetence; Welsh devolution has an unconvincing track record. And what of distribution of wealth within regions?
The idea that political devolution needs to be part of any solution is very gradually taking hold in Britain. Most politicians play lip service to it. But there is long way to go to change the political culture. But we also need to think about how the economy is to develop. This is the biggest gap in the Bagehot article. It bangs on about manufacturing. Manufacturing still dominates the way most economists and policy makers think about economics. But we need to move on. Manufacturing is going the way of agriculture. There is only so much stuff we can consume, just as there is only so much food we can eat – and in both cases you can argue that we consume too much already. Consuming more stuff is not what will make our lives better (though it will for an important minority of us). The more productive manufacturing becomes, the less important it will be to the economy as a whole – the paradox outlined by the economist William Baumol.
Before I develop that argument further I must qualify it. Manufacturing is still important. It is changing radically in ways that mean that we should produce more locally, and rely less on global trade. This is partly technological, and partly because the economics of importing from less developed countries changes as they, and especially China, develop. There is plenty of scope for innovation and Britain needs to keep up it. Manufacturing innovation based in Warwick, Sheffield and other places needs to be kept going. But it won’t be enough.
What we need to think about is services. The health economy will grow in relative terms, and not just because of demographics – prolonging life and reducing pain is what people want to spend money on when they get more of it. Public services such from social work to law enforcement also need to grow – or get radically better at solving problems rather than pushing them around the system. And there is care for the elderly. We shouldn’t just be sponsoring research into manufacturing into the regions, but into all these other things and more.
And it will not be lost on my readers that this means more government and not less, which has been the prevailing wisdom of most of the last 40 years. But it needs to devolved and better at its job.