Friday, 1 May 2020

The problem isn't just Gordon Brown

There’s nothing wrong with the idea that the Welsh Government should seek expert advice on how to find a path forward after the pandemic. Indeed, given the lack of expertise in the government, recognising that fact and seeking some from elsewhere is generally a positive, particularly when the UK as a whole is being run by people who think we’ve all ‘had enough of experts’. And if the best advice is to be found outside Wales, then so be it. The question, though, is how those ‘experts’ are chosen and what their ‘expertise’ is.
A lot of attention has focussed inevitably (and justifiably) on the inclusion of former UK PM Gordon Brown in the group. What ‘expertise’ he brings to bear is far from being immediately obvious, to put it mildly, especially given that his main concern seems to be not about how Wales or even the UK gets through the crisis but on how to keep the UK united. Giving primacy to an essentially political objective at a time when the main issues are economic looks like missing the point. Having been both PM and Chancellor certainly confers a degree of experience on an individual, but the relevance of that experience depends on a judgement about two things: the first is the extent to which current circumstances mirror anything that he dealt with before (spoiler: they don’t – the banking crisis was wholly different and treating the two as though they are similar is a category error which condemns us to failure before we even start), and the second is the extent to which his performance in either or both of those roles can be considered successful (and I don’t think I even need to comment on that).
It isn’t just Brown, though – one of the other names suggested concerns me every bit as much. As Richard Murphy has pointed out, Paul Johnson of the IFS is wedded to neoliberalism and the idea that government finances are like those of households, and that increased government expenditure necessarily leads to increased taxation. Whilst I can accept that within the narrow confines of the devolution settlement there is a degree of truth in the analogy – a subsidiary government which depends on being given a grant from a central exchequer does not have the same freedom of action as a sovereign government, which is part of the point of independence – that does not give me confidence that a different future will be seriously considered. If we set out to imagine that the future can only ever be the same as the past, subject to the imaginary constraints and restrictions of microeconomists like the IFS, we won’t exactly be over-taxing our collective imaginations.
One Conservative AM said that “The last thing that people in Wales need during this time of unprecedented crisis is another dose of Gordon Brown”; I think that’s more likely to be merely the last but one thing we need. The very last thing we need is another dose of Conservative neoliberal ideology, but I fear that is what ‘Welsh’ Labour are offering us. Johnson and the IFS, like Brown, are part of the problem, not the solution.

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