“Stop the boats” is no platform on which to try and rebuild the UK’s battered economy

Understandably, there had been a degree of anticipation – and even vague hope – surrounding Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s all-important economic speech, which he delivered to the country first thing this morning.

No-one can be in any doubt that the UK economy is on its last legs, and we’re just a hair’s breadth away from recession tipping into economic depression. The country’s borrowing stands at an unprecedented and incredibly dangerous 99% of GDP, inflation is at a 40-year high and the government has suffered a week of damning business headlines.

Whilst the pressure on most people’s household income – especially the huge spikes in food and fuel prices – comes from wider global issues, the real concern is that the UK remains one of the few countries whose economy is still smaller than it was before the pandemic.

There are plenty of reasons for this – we’re particularly reliant on gas which has risen steeply, our dependence on service industries, especially retail, hospitality and tourism, made us over-dependent on casual overseas labour, and the country’s long-term divestment of heavy manufacturing and home production has left us very vulnerable to fluctuations in global markets.

Getting out of this mess isn’t going to easy, cheap or without a considerable degree of economic and individual pain – probably stretching over several generations. But like any problem, if you ignore it and leave it, it only gets worse, and the governments of the past 50 years have been particularly erudite at focusing on blue sky initiatives at the expense of getting to grips with core difficulties. (At one level, HS2 just seemed far more interesting and exciting than trying to find meaningful fixes to our hospitals, education system and social services). Unfortunately, its those dull, complex institutions that are the foundation stones of a healthy – and thereby wealthy – society. Pumping increasing billions into a getting commuters from Birmingham to London 15 minutes quicker may have looked like a bold, inspirational initiate, but who thought to ask ‘what does it really contribute to the common good?’

Unfortunately, if anyone thought the common good might be driving the present Chancellor’s thinking, the theme of his speech – Our Priorities, Your Priorities – left none in doubt that this government is still riven by prejudice, dangerously muddled thinking and, at times, quite disturbing motives.

Immediately behind the Chancellor were listed the five Our Priorities/Your Priorities – the first three, halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt are indisputable and universal virtues; priority four – cut waiting times – we’d all support but it sat there like far more like a random, blatant sop to public popularity than any meaningful policy commitment. But it was the fifth and last priority that sounded the real warning bells – ‘Stop the boats’. Frankly, as I listened to all else that the Chancellor said, I just found myself staring aghast at those three brief words – the whole disconnect between government and people, reality and prejudice, encapsulated in just 12 letters!

At a level of even the most basic economics, the issue of people entering the country on a few random boats has a minimal impact on our economy. If anything at all, it’s more positive than derogatory. It certainly wouldn’t feature on any sensible economist’s list of things that needed sorting if the UK economy is to recover. In fact, many economists actually believe that history has demonstrated that encouraging immigration can be a significant contributor to economic growth. But given that the UK is now making a virtue and a public policy of being hostile other nationalities, and in particular to those in desperate need, one still has to ask the question, what on earth was this nasty little edit doing in the presentation? Even more strangely, it wasn’t even mentioned by Mr Hunt, despite being one of the five advertised pillars of his speech. Rather it hung there like an Orwellian assumption – except this wasn’t just their fifth priority, it was allegedly ‘our’ fifth priority too.

What made Mr Hunt’s unspoken edict so particularly unfortunate was that this keynote speech was delivered on Holocaust Memorial Day, when we’re all reminded of the dreadful consequences of complicity in dangerous rhetoric, inaction and prejudice against the stranger in our midst.

It’s hard to understand where the fixation that the public has a fixation with immigrant boats comes from. Perhaps there’s some unseen demographic study that’s revealed an overwhelming public prejudice on this issue, but that’s really not being reflected on the ground. Of course people don’t want their communities to be over-run by social problems, but I’d argue – based on the evidence I’ve seen – that the dominant response of communities to newcomers is to be welcoming and supportive.

In times past governments have always drifted towards preconceived mantras in pursuit of public support and popularity – ‘more nurses’, ‘more firemen’, ‘more soldiers’, ‘more policemen on the beat’.

But ‘stop the boats’ really does mark a new low.

On the matter of mantras – Mr Hunt fell on the four “E”s, at which point you could be forgiven for thinking his was an episode of The Apprentice rather than a keynote speech from a Chancellor charged with saving the country’s economy. The four “E”s in this case are ‘Enterprise’, ‘Education’, ‘Employment’ and ‘everywhere’. Yet again, the first three are statements of the utterly obvious, but there was general bemusement at ‘everywhere’. It promised something unexpected, but actually it just meant everywhere, as in we going to do the first three things all over the place. (Which actually made this sound more like an episode of CBeebies than The Apprentice!)

Unfortunately though it’s government we’re hearing, and it’s those we’ve entrusted to sort out the incredibly difficult and dangerous economic mess that we’re in, part of circumstance, but mostly of our own making. After this banal and largely vacuous speech, and the many other embarrassing events to hit Mr Sunak’s government in recent weeks, the public is actually unlikely to see this current administration as anything other than a collection of idiots and oligarchs.

Desperate as the present UK economic situation is, the solutions are pretty straightforward, and pretty achievable. But the gap between government thinking and reality was no more clearly illustrated than Mr Hunt’s insistance on the merits of the HS2 rail project. In the early hours of this morning The Sun newspaper broke a story that rising inflation and costs mean that the HS2 project may never reach central London at all, but rather may now terminate some five miles to the west at Old Oak Common. This would leave commuters with a hike on the underground that would more than negate the reduced journey time the project promised. With the Leeds leg of the project already scrapped, the rest of it in disarray and the public increasingly against it, you wouldn’t have expected the Chancellor to focus on this disastrous infrastructure project, but there he was still insisting it’s a runner, and that it will reach London, whatever the mounting problems. The disconnect with the public mood was a case study in why this government can’t seem to get to grips with economic planning, and the urgent need for regeneration.

In times as difficult as those were navigating, people need positivity and the sense that in a storm there’s someone sound at the tiller. It’s vital to any economic regeneration that public support drives the project, but this doesn’t derive from endless platitudes and trite promises. In fact the wise will tell you that what you do doesn’t always have to be right (and usually can be fixed), but what you say absolutely has to be.

Sadly, platforming on ‘stop the boats’ isn’t the best of starts in the face of a very brief window of opportunity to action an economic recovery.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian