Books and Arts;
Britain's third-world economy
Relegation for Albion
Going South: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014. By Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson.
The journalistic team of Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson proved to be more perceptive than most of their peers in skewering Britain's debt-fuelled boom. Their two previous books, “Fantasy Island” (2007) and “The Gods That Failed” (2008), analysed why it happened and who was to blame. So they will have a ready audience for their latest tale of woe, which forecasts the imminent loss of Britain's developed-economy status.
Or is that what they claim? The authors do not really suggest that Britain's GDP per head will plummet to the levels of sub- Saharan Africa, or that the country will lose the title of “advanced” economy bestowed on it by the International Monetary Fund. Instead, Britain's third-world status is signified by a bunch of qualitative factors: “public and commercial services work badly, the average person is becoming poorer rather than richer, the economy has been pulled horribly out of shape and government in the widest sense is hopelessly dysfunctional, with different branches of the state frequently at loggerheads with one another.”
This broad definition allows the pair to be grumpy old men and indulge in some fierce complaining about various aspects of modern British society. At times, it seems as if almost everything is a sign of Britain's decline, including the decision to revoke the Syrian ambassador's invitation to last year's royal wedding. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is the subject of a rant, as are the growing powers of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Inward investment by China is not a sign of confidence in Britain, but instead dismissed as a token of national humiliation: “What was good enough for the Congo was good for the United Kingdom.”
Despite the authors' occasional exaggerations, this is a much more entertaining book than many about economics. And it is hard to disagree with their underlying analysis: “For almost a century, the UK has deluded herself, first into believing that the days of global dominance will return, then into thinking that the symptoms of decline can be relatively easily tackled.” The country has pinned its hopes on a series of fixes—trade preference for other countries in the empire, joining the European Economic Community, North Sea oil, financial deregulation and housing bubbles—that have offered temporary boosts. The current government's growth plan, involving tax incentives for business and cuts in red tape, sounds all too much like some of the failed programmes of the past.
The recent crisis has shown the dangers of relying on the financial sector, which has gobbled up the cream of Britain's university graduates and led to huge inequalities of income and wealth. And despite the City's overseas earnings, Britain has suffered a persistent balance of payments deficit, a sign that the country is not paying its way.
For the moment, Britain is a relatively safe haven, with rich Europeans buying up boltholes in London. But the authors are right that serious problems remain—even if the title of this book somewhat overstates the case.