Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Heathrow, Hinkley Point, HS2. Three big and expensive infrastructure decisions faced Theresa May when she took office, and I suspect she could see a case against each of them. But the Brexit vote had created a new context. Britain had to show that it was open for business. Being open for business meant being able to move goods around quickly. It also means honouring deals – including sub-optimal deals – with overseas investors.
So the new Prime Minister decided to give three green lights. And you can see her point. I never wanted to expand Heathrow. I thought there were many better alternatives, not least Boris’s plan for a new airport on the other side of London. But those options are no longer current, and a new runway at Heathrow is plainly preferable to no new runway at all.
Similarly, I never much cared for the Hinkley Point boondoggle. I had economic as well as security concerns about it. But, again, Britain could hardly renege on a major contract with China at precisely the moment when it was seeking to reassure overseas investors.
As for HS2… actually, I’m still against HS2, which strikes me as an inexcusable waste of taxpayers’ money. But my point is that, in those early post-referendum days, the Government seemed to be thinking seriously about how to ensure that Britain emerged from the EU as an engaged global economy. Brexit, on its own, won’t add a farthing to our national wealth. What it will do is to remove constraints, allowing us to make different choices. Those choices will determine our prosperity. We might become a global entrepôt off the EU’s coast, a Hong Kong to their China. Or we might become a Bolivarian Republic under Comandante Corbyn. Or we might end anywhere between the two. It is up to us.
So what decisions are we making? Are we cutting taxes, streamlining rules on mergers and acquisitions, slashing regulations? Nope. We’re raising taxes, making takeovers harder and faffing about with gender quotas, caps on executive pay and schemes for workers in boardrooms.
What changed? When did we lose the global vocation that infused the Cabinet, Leavers and Remainers alike, two years ago? Part of the answer has to do with the election result. Hung Parliaments are profligate, pork-barrelling places. With no overall majority, every piece of legislation has to be haggled over, every majority purchased. Each payoff leads to a dozen new demands. If you can afford a billion pounds for Ulster, what about tuition fees? If tuition fees, what about Our Wonderful NHS? If the NHS, what about Our Magnificent Armed Forces? And so on.
In such a climate, it seems downright indelicate to recall that the Government is still spending more than it raises, shelling out more in interest on its debt than on the entire schools budget.
Facing a clamour for handouts, the new minority government got its climbdowns in early. Every 2017 Tory manifesto commitment that would have reduced spending – ending winter fuel payments and the pensions triple lock, for example – was dropped. Every measure that would increase it – HS2, defence, mental health, foreign aid – was retained.
Now you might argue that public spending is popular – which it is, in isolation, divorced from its consequences. You might argue that it is better to have a centrist government than a Corbyn-led one. You might argue that blowing away a bit more of our kids’ cash now is preferable to subjecting them to Ingsoc. But that isn’t the choice we face. As Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary, argues, Centre-Right parties don’t get re-elected unless they deliver high growth and low taxes.
Obviously if you ask people whether they want an extra £20 billion for the NHS, they will say yes. You’d get much the same reception whether you offered £20 million or £20 trillion. Yet a stubborn fact remains: arbitrary budget increases handed out for capricious reasons – in this case as a “seventieth birthday present” – are rarely effective. You might increase the NHS budget because you were modernising particular aspects of provision, and these reforms carried a price-tag. Alternatively, you might allow the budget to drift up as the economy grows, which is effectively what has been happening over the past 70 years. But if you suddenly and randomly firehose money at any organisation, much of it will sluice away uselessly.
There’s a deal of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith observed. Britain has enjoyed a generation of strong growth, interrupted only by the credit crunch a decade ago. That growth will cushion us against a degree of government meddling, a measure of fiscal incontinence, even an industrial strategy. The figures remain positive: manufacturing, exports, the stock exchange and employment are all rising.
Yet these figures can lull ministers into thinking that prosperity is our natural condition. It isn’t. It exists because, relative to other countries, we have been good at protecting property rights, encouraging enterprise and limiting the power of the state.
Plenty of Tories, including many who voted Remain, understand that a post-EU Britain must, before anything, be competitive. Oliver Letwin is working on a list of regulations that can be scrapped immediately after Brexit. Matt Hancock has facilitated an almost unbelievable expansion of the tech sector. Sajid Javid wants an immigration system that allows us to recruit global talent. Michael Gove is working on replacing the calamitous Common Agricultural Policy. Yet, overall, the direction of travel is towards a bigger and more intrusive state.
Yesterday, the EU Withdrawal Bill received Royal Assent. The fact of our departure is no longer in doubt, only the terms. In March, we shall stride out of the EU. Are we then going to mope about on its doorstep, copying the corporatism and dirigisme that we have just left behind us? Is that really all we are fit for?