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Can Britain be honest with itself?

Rachel Reeves will need to confront failures that others have ignored

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves provided a frank analysis on where the country has gone wrong in her recent Mais Lecture. Photo: Leon Neal/ Getty

The New Yorker magazine has a reputation for cartoons that take a wry, often whimsical, look at life. A recent one showed a couple ushering visitors into their home with the words: “Sorry about the mess – we’re just in the middle of not caring anymore.”

It would have been an appropriate illustration for a long – very long – piece in its latest issue which attempts to sum up the current state of the UK. It avoids the hyperbolic attacks that have become regular fodder for the New York Times but does not paint a pretty picture. And it raises the uncomfortable truth that the Conservatives are desperate to ignore as the country heads into the general election: it is they who have been in charge for the last 14 years of decline. 

The author of the article, Sam Knight, a British writer, sums up those years since 2010 as “years of loss and waste” and he has no shortage of examples to justify that description, whether it be the stagnation in wages or the decline in public services. It is clear that he can still barely believe that the country should have exacerbated its problems by leaving the European Union, a position with which readers of this newspaper will empathise. 

And you, dear readers, will surely agree with Knight’s conclusion, that there is no hope for the country unless its people and, particularly its politicians, acknowledge what has gone wrong. 

This would not normally be seen as revolutionary speak but, in much of today’s Britain, it seems to be regarded as such. To criticise the austerity policies championed by George Osborne when he was Chancellor comes close to treason in the eyes of the right wing media, despite the fact that they demonstrably hit the poorest sections of society and more deprived areas of the country disproportionately hard. 

Equally, to concede the devastating damage inflicted by Brexit to the economy and beyond is impossible for most Conservative politicians and a significant, though shrinking, section of the electorate. Labour, too, has been so conscious of not wishing to alienate “Leave” voters that it has been muted in its hostility to Brexit. 

Yet, if facing up to what has gone wrong is the essential forerunner to beginning to put things right, there is reason for a glimmer of hope. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has received few plaudits for her Mais Lecture but, if it were being judged on content rather than delivery, it deserved a better reception. 

While predictable sections of the media would be opposed in principle to anything she had to say, thus not having any reason to plough through the thousands of words, for more open minds, there was plenty of meat. While it avoided spelling out what the UK’s first woman chancellor might do in office – and why would she do that ahead of publishing a manifesto – it did provide very clear analysis of what she felt had not worked in the past. 

An assurance that the next chancellor has learned from the mistakes of her predecessors, of which there have been plenty, is surely a reason for a degree of optimism that she might, just might, do better. 

Those mistakes, in her analysis, did not start with austerity. Despite the fact that she and her leader, Keir Starmer, are often portrayed as the latest incarnation of New Labour, she was highly critical of the Blair years. In particular, she cited the move to the “light touch” regulation of financial institutions which paved the way so effectively for the debacle of the 2008 financial crash. 

And although she does stress that she will seek an effective partnership between the private and public sectors, it is to be fervently hoped that she would never encourage a repeat of the Public Finance Initiative projects fostered by chancellor Gordon Brown, for which the country is still paying a vast interest bill. 

Quite rightly, though, Reeves ventured further back in time with her critical analyses, decrying the policies of the Thatcher government and its philosophy of letting market forces rip. The failure to invest in infrastructure, despite the riches being generated from North Sea Oil, was a massive missed opportunity. Unfortunately, Reeves will not have the luxury of such a bonanza to waste but she did indicate that she would not be opposed in principle to borrowing for capital investment. 

And she did acknowledge what is glaringly obvious to all but the totally Brexit-blinkered: leaving the EU has hit GDP by an estimated 4 per cent a year and continues to exert a terrible toll on British business. 

Last week, launching a report on how to improve UK trade, the president of the British Chambers of Commerce, Martha Lane Fox, said: “There is sometimes a reluctance among politicians to either recognise problems or suggest solutions, because of how they may be viewed by either side of the Brexit divide. This must stop.” The mantra “Don’t mention the War,” did not deliver extra business for Basil Fawlty’s hotel and it will not deliver for Britain’s struggling businesses. As the article in The New Yorker concluded, an honest assessment of what went wrong is an essential prerequisite for beginning to build a better future. On that basis, Rachel Reeves stands a chance of putting her time in Number 11 Downing Street to positive use.

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