wWinston Churchill once described Clement Attlee as a humble man with much to say about being humble – and up to a point he was right. Attlee was in many ways the epitome of bourgeois respectability: he was privately educated, had a house in the suburbs of London and liked nothing better to occupy his spare time by cracking the Times crossword or catching up with cricket scores.
Yet in 1945, the British public chose the humble man over the wartime hero, and Attlee showed over the next six years that a politician need not be charismatic to be effective. A humble man turned out to be one of the few UK prime ministers of the 20th century who actually changed Britain.
Sure it was a different time, before 24/7 news, vetted by Twitter, and political obsession with controlling the news agenda on a daily basis. Attlee’s interview by TV was found – then in a relatively new way as far as politicians were concerned – like a test. He did not crave limelight.
Today it would be hard for Atlee to hide his light under a bushel. Politicians are expected to burst with new initiatives, while also being someone with whom the average voter would prefer to have a drink in a pub. Modesty doesn’t cut it, because modesty means boring, and there are few greater sins for the modern politician. There was no doubt that Attlee would be forced to modify his image and the extensive media training was still in place today.
Actually, though, there is a great need for boring politicians. Good government does not mean a constant stream of policy announcements that are never followed through. The problems of the UK – and indeed the wider developed world – are deep-rooted and structural.
To take one example, the Bank of England’s latest monetary policy report included a special chapter on how recent shocks – Brexit, Covid-19 and the jump in energy prices – affected the economy’s potential supply.
Potential supply is exactly the kind of topic designed to make eyes glaze over, but it matters because as far as the Bank of England is concerned, it acts like a speed limit on growth. In the 10 years prior to the global financial crisis in 2007, potential supply grew at an annual rate of 2.7%, meaning the economy could grow at that rate and still meet the government’s 2% inflation target. In the decade 2010–19, potential supply grew more slowly – 1.7% per year. It is expected to grow by just under 1% in the three years from 2023 to 2025.
These are very worrying developments. One reason for the recent slowdown is that the labor supply has grown more slowly, primarily due to an aging population but also as a result of people leaving work as a result of the pandemic. Some EU workers also returned home during the lockdown and never returned.
There could be a slight recovery in the labor supply as the effects of the pandemic subside. A more important issue is that productivity growth – the other component of potential supply – fell during the financial crisis and never recovered. In the decade 1997–2007, productivity growth averaged 2% per year; In the subsequent decade it averaged 0.5%.
If there was an easy or quick way to reverse the slump in productivity or boost potential supply, politicians might have been expected to find it by now. The solution involves much more than keeping inflation down, helpful though it is. This means investment in skills and training, tax incentives for investment, more spending on infrastructure, better management skills, a pension system that encourages people to work longer, a bigger push on innovation and much more.
The UK has rarely been good at solving the supply side of the economy. Rather, there is a tendency to think that the answer is a quick fix designed to boost demand. The current pressure on Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt from MPs on the right of the Conservative Party to cut taxes in next month’s budget is a classic example of this.
The fact that the past three years have experienced a series of shocks – the pandemic in 2020, supply-chain bottlenecks in 2021, war in 2022 – clearly hasn’t helped foster long-term thinking, but it’s no Not a real excuse. As Tim Harford recently wrote in the Financial Times: “For such respectable politics, we have developed a shocking inability to think ahead of the next few weeks.”
Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are both criticized for being boring, but is that really how we want to judge them? The test should not be whether they do well when grilled by Piers Morgan, but whether their ideas succeed and whether those ideas can be translated into practical policies. Good management is considered an under-rated skill in the UK, a country that has favored the talented amateur over the professional—with predictably poor results. Interestingly, this was one of Attlee’s gifts.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition also have a similar problem. In an era of instant gratification, both are trying to present themselves as likeable and solid professionals. As Attlee showed, it is possible for a politician to be successful as well as humble, but only if he has decent ideas. So far, neither Sunak nor Starmer have convinced voters that they have the idea of getting married with sanctioned competence.
Yet there are no short cuts when it comes to boosting productivity or tackling Britain’s chronically weak investment. What is needed is solid analysis, an action plan and a lot of persistence. It may sound boring, but boring can be good.