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LIVERPOOL, England — On the long picket line outside the gates of Liverpool’s Peel Port, rain-soaked dock workers warm themselves with cups of tea as they listen to 1980s pop.
Dozens of buses, cars and trucks honk in solidarity as they pass.
Dockers’ strikes are not new to Liverpool, nor is depravation. But this latest walk-out at Britain’s fourth-largest port is part of something much bigger, a great wave of public and private sector strikes taking place across the U.K. Railways, postal services, law courts and garbage collections are among the many public services grinding to a halt.
The immediate cause of the discontent, as elsewhere, is the rising cost of living. Inflation in the United Kingdom breached the 10 percent mark this year, with wages failing to keep pace.
But the U.K.’s economic woes long predate the current crisis. For more than a decade, Britain has been beset by weak economic growth, anaemic productivity, and stagnant private and public sector investment. Since 2016, its political leadership has been in a state of Brexit-induced flux.
Half a century after U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger looked at the U.K.’s 1970s economic malaise and declared that “Britain is a tragedy,” the United Kingdom is heading to be the sick man of Europe once again.
Here in Liverpool, the “scars run very deep,” said Paul Turking, a dock worker in his late 30s. British voters, he added, have “been misled” by politicians’ promises to “level up” the country by investing heavily in regional economies. Conservatives “will promise you the world and then pull the carpet out from under your feet,” he complained.
“There’s no middle class no more,” said John Delij, a Peel Port veteran of 15 years. He sees the cost-of-living crisis and economic stagnation whittling away the middle rung of the economic ladder.
“How many billionaires do we have?” Delij asked, wondering how Britain could be the sixth-largest economy in the world with a record number of billionaires when food bank use is 35 percent above its pre-pandemic level. “The workers put money back into the economy,” he said.
What would they do if they were in charge? “Invest in affordable housing,” said Turking. “Housing and jobs.”
The British economy has been struck by particular turbulence over recent weeks. The cost of government borrowing soared in the wake of former PM Liz Truss’ disastrous mini-budget on September 23, with the U.K.’s central bank forced to step in and steady the bond markets.
But while the swift installation of Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, as prime minister seems to have restored a modicum of calm, the economic backdrop remains bleak. Spending and welfare cuts are coming. Taxes are certain to rise. And the underlying problems cut deep.
U.K. productivity growth since the financial crisis has trailed that of comparator nations such as the U.S., France and Germany. As such, people’s median incomes also lag behind neighboring countries over the same period. Only Russia is forecast to have worse economic growth among the G20 nations in 2023.
In 1976, the U.K. — facing stagflation, a global energy crisis, a current account deficit and labor unrest — had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. It feels far-fetched, but today some are warning it could happen again.
The U.K. is spluttering its way through an illness brought about in part through a series of self-inflicted wounds that have undermined the basic pillars of any economy: confidence and stability.
The political and economic malaise is such that it has prompted unwanted comparisons with countries whose misfortunes Britain once watched amusedly from afar.
“The existential risk to the U.K. … is not that we’re suddenly going to go off an economic cliff, or that the country’s going to descend into civil war or whatever,” said Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London. “It’s that we will become like Italy.”
Portes, of course, does not mean a country blessed with good weather and fine food — but an economy hobbled by persistently low growth, caught in a dysfunctional political loop that lurches between “corrupt and incompetent right-wing populists” and “well-intentioned technocrats who can’t actually seem to turn the ship around.”
“That’s not the future that we want in the U.K,” he said.
Reviving the U.K.’s flatlining economy will not happen overnight. As Italy’s experience demonstrates, it’s one thing to diagnose an illness — another to cure it.
Experts speak of an unbalanced model heavily reliant upon Britain’s services sector and beset with low productivity, a result of years of underinvestment and a flexible labor market which delivers low unemployment but often insecure and low-paid work.
“We’re not investing in skills; businesses aren’t investing,” said Xiaowei Xu, senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. “It’s not that surprising that we’re not getting productivity growth.”
But any attempt to address the country’s ailments will require its economic stewards to understand their underlying causes — and those stretch back at least to the first truly global crisis of the 21st century.
Crash and burn
The 2008 financial crisis hammered economies around the world, and the U.K. was no exception. Its economy shrunk by more than 6 percent between the first quarter of 2008 and the second quarter of 2009. Five years passed before it returned to its pre-recession size.
For Britain, the crisis in fact began in September 2007, a year before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when wobbles in the U.S. subprime mortgage market sparked a run on the British bank Northern Rock.
The U.K. discovered it was particularly vulnerable to such a shock. Over the second half of the 20th century, its manufacturing base had largely eroded as its services sector expanded, with financial and professional services and real estate among the key drivers. As the Bank of England put it: “The interconnectedness of global finance meant that the U.K. financial system had become dangerously exposed to the fall-out from the U.S. sub-prime mortgage market.”
The crisis was a “big shock to the U.K.’s broad economic model,” said John Springford, from the Centre for European Reform. Productivity took an immediate hit as exports of financial services plunged. It never fully recovered.
“Productivity before the crash was basically, ‘Can we create lots and lots of debt and generate lots and lots of income on the back of this? Can we invent collateralized debt obligations and trade them in vast volumes?’” said James Meadway, director of the Progressive Economy Forum and a former adviser to Labour’s left-wing former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell.
A post-crash clampdown on City practises had an obvious impact.
“This is a major part of the British economy, so if it’s suddenly not performing the way it used to — for good reasons — things overall are going to look a bit shaky,” Meadway added.
The shock did not contain itself to the economy. In a pattern that would be repeated, and accentuated, in the coming years, it sent shuddering waves through the country’s political system, too.
The 2010 election was fought on how to best repair Britain’s broken economy. In 2009, the U.K. had the second-highest budget deficit in the G7, trailing only the U.S., according to the U.K. government’s own fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).
The Conservative manifesto declared “our economy is overwhelmed by debt,” and promised to close the U.K.’s mounting budget deficit in five years with sharp public sector cuts. The incumbent Labour government responded by pledging to halve the deficit by 2014 with “deeper and tougher” cuts in public spending than the significant reductions overseen by former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The election returned a hung parliament, with the Conservatives entering into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The age of austerity was ushered in.
Defenders of then-Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity program insist it saved Britain from the sort of market-led calamity witnessed this fall, and put the U.K. economy in a condition to weather subsequent global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the war in Ukraine.
“That hard work made policies like furlough and the energy price cap possible,” said Rupert Harrison, one of Osborne’s closest Treasury advisers.
Pointing to the brutal market response to Truss’ freewheeling economic plans, Harrison praised the “wisdom” of the coalition in prioritizing tackling the U.K.’s debt-GDP ratio. “You never know when you will be vulnerable to a loss of credibility,” he noted.
But Osborne’s detractors argue austerity — which saw deep cuts to community services such as libraries and adult social care; courts and prisons services; road maintenance; the police and so much more — also stripped away much of the U.K.’s social fabric, causing lasting and profound economic damage. A recent study claimed austerity was responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess deaths.
Under Osborne’s plan, three-quarters of the fiscal consolidation was to be delivered by spending cuts. With the exception of the National Health Service, schools and aid spending, all government budgets were slashed; public sector pay was frozen; taxes (mainly VAT) rose.
But while the government came close to delivering its fiscal tightening target for 2014-15, “the persistent underperformance of productivity and real GDP over that period meant the deficit remained higher than initially expected,” the OBR said. By his own measure, Osborne had failed, and was forced to push back his deficit-elimination target further. Austerity would have to continue into the second half of the 2010s.
Many economists contend that the fiscal belt-tightening sucked demand out of the economy and worsened Britain’s productivity crisis by stifling investment. “That certainly did hit U.K. growth and did some permanent damage,” said King’s College London’s Portes.
“If that investment isn’t there, other people start to find it less attractive to open businesses,” former Labour aide Meadway added. “If your railways aren’t actually very good … it does add up to a problem for businesses.”
A 2015 study found U.K. productivity, as measured by GDP per hour worked, was now lower than in the rest of the G7 by a whopping 18 percentage points.
“Frankly, nobody knows the whole answer,” Osborne said of Britain’s productivity conundrum in May 2015. “But what I do know is that I’d much rather have the productivity challenge than the challenge of mass unemployment.”
Rising employment was indeed a signature achievement of the coalition years. Unemployment dropped below 6 percent across the U.K. by the end of the parliament in 2015, with just Germany and Austria achieving a lower rate of joblessness among the then-28 EU states. Real-term wages, however, took nearly a decade to recover to pre-crisis levels.
Economists like Meadway contend that the rise in employment came with a price, courtesy of Britain’s famously flexible labor market. He points to a Sports Direct warehouse in the East Midlands, where a 2015 Guardian investigation revealed the predominantly immigrant workforce was paid illegally low wages, while the working conditions were such that the facility was nicknamed “the gulag.”
The warehouse, it emerged, was built on a former coal mine, and for Meadway the symbolism neatly charts the U.K.’s move away from traditional heavy industry toward more precarious service sector employment. “It’s not a secure job anymore,” he said. “Once you have a very flexible labor market, the pressure on employers to pay more and the capacity for workers to bargain for more is very much reduced.”
Throughout the period, the Bank of England — the U.K.’s central bank — kept interest rates low and pursued a policy of quantitative easing. “That tends to distort what happens in the economy,” argued Meadway. QE, he said, is a “good [way of] getting money into the hands of people who already have quite a lot” and “doesn’t do much for people who depend on wage income.”
Meanwhile — whether necessary or not — the U.K.’s austerity policies undoubtedly worsened a decades-long trend of underinvestment in skills and research and development (Britain lags only Italy in the G7 on R&D spending). At British schools, there was a 9 percent real terms fall in per-pupil spending between 2009 and 2019, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Xu. “As countries get richer, usually you start spending more on education,” Xu noted.
Two senior ministers in the coalition government — David Gauke, who served in the Treasury throughout Osborne’s tenure, and ex-Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable — have both accepted that the government might have focused more on higher taxation and less on cuts to public spending. But both also insisted the U.K had ultimately been correct to prioritize putting its public finances on a sounder footing.
It was February 2018 before Britain finally achieved Osborne’s goal of eliminating the deficit on its day-to-day budget.
Austerity was coming to an end, at last. But Osborne had already left the Treasury, 18 months earlier — swept away along with Cameron in the wake of a seismic national uprising.
David Cameron had won the 2015 election outright, despite — or perhaps because of — the stringent spending cuts his coalition government had overseen, more of which had been pledged in his 2015 manifesto. Also promised, of course, was a public vote on Britain’s EU membership.
The reasons for the leave vote that followed were many and complex — but few doubt that years of underinvestment in poorer parts of the U.K. were among them.
Regardless, the 2016 EU referendum triggered a period of political acrimony and turbulence not seen in Westminster for generations. With no pre-agreed model of what Brexit should actually entail, the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU became the subject of heated and protracted debate. After years of wrangling, Britain finally left the bloc at the end of January 2020, severing ties in a more profound way than many had envisaged.
While the twin crises of COVID and Ukraine have muddled the picture, most economists agree Brexit has already had a significant impact on the U.K. economy. The size of Britain’s trade flows relative to GDP has fallen further than other G7 countries, business investment growth trails the likes of Japan, South Korea and Italy, and the OBR has stuck by its March 2020 prediction that Brexit would reduce productivity and U.K. GDP by 4 percent.
Perhaps more significantly, Brexit has ushered in a period of political instability. As prime ministers come and go (the U.K. is now on its fifth since 2016), economic programs get neglected, or overturned. Overseas investors look on with trepidation.
“The evidence that the referendum outcome, and the kind of uncertainty and change in policy that it created, have led to low investment and low growth in the U.K. is fairly compelling,” said professor Stephen Millard, deputy director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
Beyond the instability, the broader impact of the vote to leave remains contentious.
Portes argued — as many Remain supporters also do — that much harm was done by the decision to leave the EU’s single market. “It’s the facts, not the uncertainty that in my view is responsible for most of the damage,” he said.
Brexit supporters dismiss such claims.
“It’s difficult statistically to find much significant effect of Brexit on anything,” said professor Patrick Minford, founder member of Economists for Brexit. “There’s so much else going on, so much volatility.”
Minford, an economist favored by ex-PM Truss, acknowledged that “Brexit is disruptive in the short run, so it’s perfectly possible that you would get some short-run disruption.” But he added: “It was a long-term policy decision.”
Plenty of economists can rattle off possible solutions, although actually delivering them has thus far evaded Britain’s political class. “It’s increasing investment, having more of a focus on the long-term, it’s having economic strategies that you set out and actually commit to over time,” says the IFS’ Xu. “As far as possible, it’s creating more certainty over economic policy.”
But in seeking to bring stability after the brief but chaotic Truss era, new U.K. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has signaled a fresh period of austerity is on the way to plug the latest hole in the nation’s finances. Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove told Times Radio that while, ideally, you wouldn’t want to reduce long-term capital investments, he was sure some spending on big projects “will be cut.”
This could be bad news for many of the U.K.’s long-awaited infrastructure schemes such as the HS2 high-speed rail line, which has been in the works for almost 15 years and already faces a familiar mix of local resistance, vested interests, and a sclerotic planning system.
“We have a real problem in the sense that the only way to really durably raise productivity growth for this country is for investments to pick up,” said Springford, from the Centre for European Reform. “And the headwinds to that are quite significant.”
For dock workers at Liverpool’s Peel Port, the prospect of a fresh round of austerity amid a cost-of-living crisis is too much to bear. “Workers all over this country need to stand up for themselves and join a union,” insisted Delij.
For him, it’s all about priorities — and the arguments still echo back to the great crash of 15 years ago. “They bailed the bankers out in 2007,” he said, “and can’t bail hungry people out now.”