There’s a new group that quite rightly is putting economic growth at the centre of Welsh democracy
Within the last few weeks I’ve become aware of a recently formed campaign organisation called Britain Remade.
At first I was suspicious of it. In Wales, wherever you stand on the unionist v nationalist debate, the inclusion of the word “Britain” in the name of a campaigning body often signifies an association with the far right.
There have, it seems, been countless racist and fascist groups that have sought to attract followers by appealing to their base instincts, and especially to the idea that Britain is somehow superior to other states and races. These days it’s true that “England” is coming into its own for the same discreditable reasons, but there have been too many British National Parties and Britain Firsts to dilute such a first impression.
I became aware of Britain Remade when I received a press release about a poll it had commissioned on the issue of the Welsh Government’s policy of having a presumption against the building of new roads. I immediately wondered whether Andrew RT Davies had had a hand in the poll, which showed a clear majority opposed to the new roads “ban”. I’ve read so many press releases and tweets from the Welsh Tory Senedd group leader about the scrapping of the M4 relief road that any mention of the issue immediately brought him to mind.
It was, nevertheless, heartening to see that the poll figures were the result of a bona fide survey run by polling professionals rather than merely a straw poll of anyone who fancied participating.
I then looked at the website of Britain Remade to see whether my suspicions about the group’s political leanings were correct. I looked at the individuals involved and noted that some of them had been Tory special advisers for Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. That didn’t endear them to me. But my response became more positive when I looked at the organisation’s messaging. It’s about the need for economic growth, with practical suggestions about how to achieve it.
I actually found this refreshing. These days there are so many single issue campaigns competing for attention that it’s easy for the issue with the greatest potency of all to get lost in the crowd.
If there is one thing that Wales needs, it’s surely economic growth. Barely a week goes by without some new piece of research being published that lays bare the serious shortcomings of the Welsh economy. It may be about the shockingly high levels of child poverty, the increasing prevalence of zero hours contracts or the proportion of people falling into debt because their income is too small. Academic studies about the evidence of multi-deprivation evident in the south Wales Valleys have become virtually a cottage industry in their own right.
Yet such reports are almost invariably at their strongest when they diagnose the problems and at their weakest when they posit any solutions. Depending on the ideological bent of the author, the blame for Wales’ relative poverty can be placed on unconstrained capitalism, misguided socialism, the inevitable drawbacks of unionism or the naivety of nationalism. Too often the research ignores or skates over the issue that could help make large numbers of lives better: the attainment of economic growth.
It’s not difficult to work out why that’s so. In recent decades it’s become fashionable in many quarters to deride the concept of growth as something damaging to humans or the environment. At its worst it’s portrayed as the reason why campaigners wanting to save the Amazonian rainforest get murdered or why we are facing a climate crisis.
Yet if we are really committed to improving the plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who are currently sinking in poverty, we should confront the reality that growth is the most effective means of doing so.
Wales could not be said to be overburdened with multimillionaires ripe to be squeezed dry of their fortunes. Increasing income tax for the relatively wealthy would not raise anywhere near the funds required to crack poverty. There needs to be a general strengthening of spending power – and that can only come through growing the economy. That’s not the end of the story, of course. A nation’s economy can grow even though the benefits of growth are grabbed by a tiny minority, leaving the bulk of the population no better off. But the starting point has to be growth.
In Wales, however, our political class tends to emphasise the need for change that is not focused on growth, but on factors that could, if interpreted narrowly, militate against it.
Britain Remade appears to be a campaigning organisation that is prepared to move away from the previous political affiliations of its founders, who insist that they are going out of their way to engage across the political spectrum.
My one reservation is that they won’t touch the Brexit issue, despite the fact that there is a consensus of sensible economists who believe that rejoining the European single market would boost the UK economy.
Nevertheless, it’s to Britain Remade’s credit that they are not opaque about their funding, as so many propaganda outfits posing as think tanks are (I don’t place them in that category).
They tell me they have three main sources of revenue, the first of which is the Quadrature Climate Foundation, a charity offshoot of a sustainable investment company which acknowledges we are in a climate emergency and states: “We are focused on helping get global emissions of greenhouse gases onto a rapidly declining pathway. We support work on the main sources of the problem, and are happy funding a wide range of ideas and ways of working that can trigger positive change.”
The second source of funding is the European Climate Foundation, which describes itself as “a major philanthropic initiative working to help tackle the climate crisis by fostering the development of a net-zero emission society at the national, European, and global level”, adding: “The ECF supports over 700 partner organisations to carry out activities that drive urgent and ambitious policy in support of the objectives of the Paris Agreement, contribute to the public debate on climate action, and help deliver a socially responsible transition to a net-zero economy and sustainable society in Europe and around the world.”
The third source of funding is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, founded in 1904 by a businessman and philanthropist from York, whose guiding mission was to tackle impoverishment. Its website states: “For us, ending poverty in the UK is a moral cause: to ensure dignity and respect for everyone, and to address exclusion and powerlessness.”
None of these funding organisations has a whiff of right wing opportunism about them, which leads me to the position that I believe Britain Remade to be a bona fide and sincere campaign group that has no ulterior motive and is straightforward about what it is trying to achieve.
It’s currently mounting a campaign against the Welsh Government’s quasi new road building ban and in favour of a third road bridge to Anglesey, claiming that such initiatives would trigger growth.
As if to prove that it’s serious about being a cross-party group, Britain Remade has enlisted support for its roads campaign from both Ynys Mon MP Virginia Crosbie and former Welsh Labour Economy and Transport Minister Ken Skates.
Mr Skates, the MS for Clwyd South, said: “The need for the UK and every other nation to be Net Zero by 2050 is beyond contention. We must do it while also solving the problems of a terribly unequal economy, sluggish growth and low productivity.
“If we are willing to be radical, we can lead the race to Net Zero in road construction, while also turbocharging the economy and levelling up the UK. Denmark is spending €22bn on new roads, China is predicted to be spending $8 trillion. We should be equally ambitious in investing in infrastructure to address inequality, but with a determination to lead the world in low carbon innovation that reduces embedded carbon.
“Effectively banning road improvements won’t lead to lower emissions, regardless of how virtuous such a declaration appears. In fact, it will worsen emissions in many of the most deprived communities we serve, further poison children who face many other disadvantages and widen the gaps in life expectancy and employment opportunities. We cannot walk away from the problems of environmental injustice and social injustice. We must instead seek to lead in providing solutions to both.”
Growth, says Britain Remade, is about creating the conditions that lead to well-paid jobs that put money in the pockets of ordinary people that they can spend in their local communities, making them more prosperous.
There will, of course, be disagreements about the means to achieve such positive outcomes. But the ambition articulated by this new campaign group seems to me to pose a long overdue challenge to the Welsh Government. In the early years of devolution, it had a target that the economic value of Wales per head would be 90% that of the whole UK. When it became clear that the target was regarded as unachievable, it was downgraded to an aspiration and then ditched altogether.
The Welsh Government likes setting targets to be achieved in decades, when none of the present ministers will be around to be held accountable. I conclude by stating that there’s surely a good case now for setting economic growth targets.
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