Carthago delenda est. That’s ‘Carthage must be destroyed’, to those of you who didn’t lose three years to struggling through the Cambridge Latin Course. It is attributed to Cato the Censor, a second century BC Roman Senator. The Republic had long since subdued its rival by the time the Senate sent Cato to arbitrate – insert grumble about ‘second jobs’ here – in a conflict involving Carthage. But Cato noticed the city’s, and feared it would threaten Rome again.
So he tirelessly campaigned for the city’s total elimination, ending every speech he made with the notorious phrase, even when the subject matter was entirely separate. He eventually got his wish. There is something of the Senator’s efforts in Torydom’s newfound enthusiasm for “growth”.
Our dabble with Trussonomics has, if nothing else, meant that Britain’s ongoing stagnation can no longer be ignored. Sunak and Hunt make sure to genuflect to the big G; Starmer and Reeves poke at an open sore. This enthusiasm is even more obvious in backbenchers. A new group of MPs campaigning for supply-side reforms here, a wind-farm amendment there, an article defending Trussonomics in-between. Simon Clarke has never been so busy.
We are right to worry about our sclerotic growth rates. As the ever-excellent Sam Ashworth-Hayes has highlighted, from 1950 to 2007, the British economy grew at 2.8 per cent year. Between the financial crisis and the pandemic, it was just 1.3 per cent – and a miserly 0.6 per cent per person. This means wages are still below where they were in 2008. If this trend continues, we will be poorer than Poland by the time I’m 40.
Poland is a wonderful country and deserves better than being the arbitrary international marker by which we lament Britain’s relative economic decline. Then again, it is embarrassing for us to lag a country that was so recently behind the Iron Curtain. Truss was right, in a long-term sense, to tell me that the “number one problem in this country…is a lack of growth”. Without it, we continue on our trend to being a health service with a country attached, where economic policy just involves divvying up an ever-higher tax burden
Yet there is something Augustinian in the approach of many Tory MPs to the pursuit of prosperity: Lord, give us growth, but not yet. I am sure they are sincere. Outside of the postliberal mafia, few votes lie in the pursuit of deindustrialization, the Shire, and a return for diphtheria. The problem is that, whilst MPs call for growth, they remain unwilling to vote for the means to reach it. Railing against the Anti-Growth Coalition is cheaper than acting against it – especially if you are one of its members.
One suspects that when many MPs say “growth”, they mean “tax cuts”. Those are off the table on any significant scale. Truss and Kwarteng made a tactical mistake in slashing without spending cuts or supply-side reforms; the bond markets pronounced. Sunak and Hunt are likelier to impose VAT on private school fees as they are to repeat their predecessors’ errors, and with the state of public services in voters’ minds, we will not see big spending cuts any time soon.
That leaves two obvious ways to ‘dash for growth’: more immigration, or planning reform. The Office for Budget Responsibility suggested that higher-than-expected migrant numbers are the only thing keeping Britain out of a recession since numbers are running tens of thousands ahead of predictions. Immigration boosts growth: more potential workers means more people who can be hired to do more work. Hence why Truss was pushing to liberalise our visa regime to make it easier for overseas staff to fill shortages.
Unfortunately for our former Prime Minister, this was anathema to her Home Secretary. Suella Braverman was (and is) determined to get migrant numbers down. It was her attempt to share Truss’s proposals with concerned backbenchers that resulted in the farce of her six-day absence from the Home Office.
That Braverman is back, and Truss is not, shows she reflects a bigger chunk of MPs’ opinions than her former boss. Ministers may argue Brexit was about taking control of our migration system, not numbers. But, even if views are softening, voters have long wanted fewer immigrants. Truss would never have got a liberalisation of our immigration system past Tory MPs elected on a manifesto committing to that, and whose constituents stare agog at the unfolding Channel crisis.
Rightly so: years of cheap labour have merely encouraged under-investment in technology, alienated millions of voters, and allowed ministers to massage employment statistics. A lack of migrants is not responsible for worker shortages – the surging number of those on out-of-work benefits is. Getting the long-term sick back into work is no easy task, so we must turn to our other clunking supply-side fist: planning reform. Very few Tory MPs will publicly say they want more migrants, but few can shirk that they represent a party nominally committed to a property-owning democracy.
Planning reform was the only major supply-side reform proposed by Boris Johnson’s government. It was on life support after MPs first realised that making it easier for people to live where the jobs are might mean a few more houses built in the South-East – heaven forbid – and was killed off by the Chesham and Amersham defeat. Not content with simply leaving our appalling planning system as it is, some MPs now want it to be made actively worse by scrapping the measures introduced since 2010 which have quietly got us towards 300,000 new homes a year.
In this, they were only aping one Elizabeth Truss. In 2019, Truss was telling all and sundry that she wanted to build on the green belt. By 2022, she was pledging to ditch “Stalinist” housing targets and to strengthen local consent – the power, in layman’s terms, to protect industrial scrubland and supermarket car parks from ever providing homes for young families. Scourge of the Anti-Growth Coalition? More like Queen of the NIMBYs. Stanley Baldwin, where are you now?
Opposing planning reform is the ultimate anti-growth move. Not only because housing costs feed into everything else, or because the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act is one of those outcrops of post-war socialism that still poison our national life. No, it is because, in the absence of room for tax cuts or consent for more immigration, it is a stimulus to economic activity that does not involve giving the City heart palpitations. It is also essential if we ever want to convince anyone under the age of 40 to vote for us. Forcing the agenda off the table was the “ultimate political short-termism”, in the words of the Prime Minister’s new Political Secretary.
But to MPs who can back Truss’s pro-growth agenda one month and support scrapping house targets the next, this contradiction does not appear to register. They are indicative of a wider trend. Tory MPs like growth in the abstract, but they are unwilling to make the hard and unpopular political choices required to reach it. And so our party rushes headlong into irrelevance, with MPs congratulating themselves on preventing homes and flats from being built whilst being predicted to lose their seats by 30 points.
If MPs really want to deliver growth, they should confess their NIMBY sins, learn a thing or two from our Canadian cousins, and follow Cato’s example. I dropped Latin before GCSE, so I won’t try to translate my proposal. But if you want growth, there is surely no better slogan than that the Town and Country Planning Act must be destroyed.