More good news today for the economic big picture: the UK overtook France in the global economic league table to become the fifth biggest economy in the world, and by 2030 we could overtake Germany.
The contrast with France is particularly powerful. Hollande has put into practice ideas shared by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Before France nosedived, the Labour leader made no secret of his fellow-feeling with the French President – the warm words and photo opportunities have become rather more rare in recent years, but the flawed economic policies remain.
The CEBR’s analysis offers a strong headline argument for George Osborne – not only is this proof that his plan is working, but France provides a vivid demonstration of what the left’s much-lauded “alternative” really means in practice.
But I’m not sure big picture stats and headline arguments are necessarily enough. When people vote, do they do so on the basis of the nation’s overall performance or their personal and family experience?
Both matter, of course. People can’t muster enthusiasm for “managed decline” or a politician who fails to represent the ambition that the UK will get better as a whole. The rot of such pessimism was killed off by Margaret Thatcher and you would struggle nowadays to find a politician who would claim Britain’s destiny is an inevitable sunset. Proof that he is restoring the nation’s place in the world is therefore a useful string to Osborne’s bow.
But of the two economic arguments – national and personal – the personal is obviously more compelling. Voters want to see the nation improve, but they rightly also want that improvement to touch their own lives. Ultimately, you can’t eat GDP figures, and international league tables won’t clothe your children.
People were willing to do their bit in a national enterprise to reduce the deficit and restore fiscal health – indeed, in 2010 they were willing to go further than the politicians, a missed opportunity by the Conservative leadership. But the flip-side of any arduous but worthwhile enterprise is an eventual pay-off – to adapt an Osborne phrase, voters want to share the proceeds of austerity.
It is on this micro level, this human level, that the economic battle of the next few months will be fought. Being able to bash Balls about the head with the big picture is better than not being able to, but he will only be felled by the myriad blows delivered by improving the lives and prospects of Britain’s 26 million households.
This is, of course, also a summary of the difference between left and right understandings of the economy. Only a collectivist would rely on the overall, average performance of the nation to prove he was doing good – it is no coincidence that modern Britain’s national-statistic-reciter-in-chief was Gordon Brown, who remained convinced that he was “saving the world” even as voters rejected his disastrous economic record. A conservative recognises that the nation is not a beast of averages or totals, but a collection of humanity, each experiencing joy, misery or a combination of the two.
Burke identified the fabric of the nation as the “little platoons”. Thatcher, in the full context of her much-misrepresented quote, put it at greater length:
“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
Despite all the lies told about those comments over the years, they remain factually true rather than something up for debate. If you doubt its truth, watch the economic battle in the run-up to the election – both sides will not phrase their arguments to convince a unitary creature called society, rather they will seek to persuade that living tapestry of men and women as individuals. Even while Labour may denounce Thatcher’s line, electoral reality still forces them to work to its logic.
In fact, for that reason we should consider the coming months not one economic battle but tens of millions of individual battles – big facts and figures about the whole may set the context, but only the personal, the local, the visible experience of recovery rather than the rhetoric of spreadsheets and charts, will win out.