What is this thing called growth? You will all have your own understanding of the term as you have experienced it yourself. You grew as a child and then it stopped, at least measured in height. Then bits of you grew, usually your girth and the hair on your head, but ultimately you will probably shrink a bit. You perhaps planted a tree and some plants in your garden and watched them grow. Then perhaps you had children and watched fascinated as they grew. One thing you will certainly have noticed is that growth always ceases at some pre-determined point, but another is that, in the case of children and your plants, resources of food and energy are needed to sustain growth. Up to a point, we think of growth as a good thing.
This is the way our recent Prime Ministers wish us to understand growth – that it is a good thing – when they apply the term to an economy. It must be a perpetual growth machine, with the obvious implication that it will require more energy and material to sustain it. Indeed, one of the many ways of measuring growth is from the cost it requires. And now they have used this concept to define their enemy as the 'anti-growth brigade'. You will, I think, recognise this as the classic method of the fascist, rising to power by identifying a popular enemy, the technique of Hitler, Trump, and Farage.
As we have watched the last four unhappy choices of the Conservatives as Prime Minister, we have become accustomed to hearing them invoke the idea that growth is their aim and thus can be regarded as a measure of their success. Labour could also fall into this trap. All the journalists who interview them seem to accept this, and never ask them what they mean by the term. If pressed they may say GDP: gross domestic product. I've never heard a journalist ask them what they mean by that, perhaps afraid to appear ignorant. It sounds important, some measurement of the value of what the nation produces in terms of goods, perhaps? The gross bit suggests it is assessed after taking off the amount of resource that went into making them.
Have you wondered how on earth they find this single number, which seems to fluctuate by small percentages every month? If you try to find out from the website of the Office of National Statistics, you will confirm your suspicion that it is a complicated business, one that certainly keeps many statisticians very busy, and one that must have a very wide margin of uncertainty, probably larger than the small percentage changes that the politicians obsess about.
It turns out that GDP has three components that consider expenditure, earnings and the value of goods and services provided. All are estimated from data on a sample of the different sectors of activity, surveying tens of thousands of organisations. Only one component is reported monthly, the output of goods and services, but a combination of the three contributes to the quarterly report to give an overall picture of economic activity.
I've never heard anyone ask the Prime Minister which component of GDP he or she wishes to see grow nor how long we shall have to wait for a significant increase given her policies. And this is where I begin to get suspicious. Is Ms Truss aiming at an increase in input, more money into the NHS or social care (yes, these are important components of GDP), or is it output, like more patients seen by GPs and treated in A&E? Is she thinking of exports versus imports?
The trouble is that, concealed in that simple little number is a huge variety of completely different activities, some obviously necessary and worthwhile, some unnecessary, and some plain harmful. It seems that GDP is a largely value-free measure and that its growth or shrinkage tells little or nothing about the health of a nation's society.
Nevertheless, the absolute figure gives an idea of how the UK compares with other countries, and as you would expect we are in the premier division though, like Liverpool FC, lower than we have been. But if you look at our historical GDP, you will see that we have been on an exponential curve in the company of the USA, most of the European Union, and a few members of the old empire. This growth curve bears a striking relationship to that of an epidemic and implies the need for energy and resources to continue. It cannot increase for ever.
The importance of growth is in international comparisons, for understanding where there is scope for improvement in the quality of life. There are many such places. A casual visitor from the first half of the 20th century (me, for example) might conclude that most of the needs for a decent life in the UK have been met for most of us, but that a redistribution of resources among us is what is needed. This casual observer also might conclude that the cause of the changing climate that threatens us all has been the use of fossil fuel and the agricultural practices that enriched and over-fed us. This leads to the conclusion that redistribution, not further growth, is what is required in UK. Join the anti-growth brigade!
A fact of all life is that growth ceases. A time arrives when decisions must be made on what to do with the mass that has accumulated. Since Friedrich Hayek wrote his thesis, The Road to Serfdom
, in 1944, the world has recovered from one crisis and has now descended into another. For most of this period, the Western World has relied upon politics accepting of the theories of Maynard Keynes and the observations of William Beveridge; we in Britain, nursed by the Welfare State, have become complacent. Over this period, an alternative view of economic theory, urging the smallest possible State and the lowest possible taxation has festered under the right wing of politics. This theory came back to hit us in 1979 with the election of Hayek's disciple, Thatcher, and we discovered in 2008 that it results in transfer of wealth progressively from the poorer to the richest, pushing up prices of everything.
The irony is that Hayek's theories were based on the assumption that socialism led inevitably to dictatorship, as so-called National Socialism did with Hitler, but their application through Thatcher's own disciples, our sad quartet of recent Prime Ministers, is leading in the same direction, with centralisation of power on a few very wealthy politicians, a tendency to characterise their opponents as enemies of the people, remoaners, and anti-growthers, and a blind belief in their rightness. As they stand before their flags, even when appearing in their homes on Zoom, I see fascism ahead. I would remind them of Hayek's statement in the introduction to a summary of his book:
The first need is to free ourselves of that worst form of contemporary obscurantism which tries to persuade us that what we have done in the recent past is either wise or unavoidable. We shall not grow wiser until we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.
He was speaking about Hitler but it applies clearly to the outcome of his own ideas.
It is time to call these empty people out. They are wrecking a proud and effective nation and have produced a new underclass of impoverished young who cannot afford accommodation and of elderly who can't afford their food. They tilt at windmills (or at least dislike them on land) and do not see Beveridge's giants on the path to reconstruction – want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness. It is difficult to see how reducing taxation on those such as themselves, the millionaire class, and rolling back regulations and commitments to address climate change will address these problems.
Rather than empty talk about growth and worship of expenditure, why not produce a plan to address the crisis of climate, immigration, and increasing inequity and political division, using the scientific, engineering, pharmaceutical, and artistic skills of our nations? There are opportunities in renewable and nuclear energy, agriculture, healthcare, education, manufacturing and tourism, and there will be an increasing number of people seeking refuge among us with skills and energy that we can use. Covid-19 has taught us that we are resilient and can adapt. It also showed that people do care about their neighbours, the elderly and the disadvantaged.
Politicians must stop obscurantist talk about growth in GDP and concentrate their energies on those aspects of policy that are necessary, in pre-school education, decent housing, and social and medical care; and in industrial innovation and production aimed at ameliorating climate change and its effects; and at defending us against any future biological and human enemies. They and we must learn how to accept and employ those who seek refuge with us rather than demonising and locking them up. It will require sacrifice by most of us, but we have accepted this before and I think the population would now understand and approve in this time of crisis.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own