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Leader comment: Economical — with the truth

14 October 2022

WHEN the Bishop of Durham accused the Government of subscribing to “trickle-down economics” during the Lords debate on the economy on Monday, he was upbraided by Lord Lilley. Lord Lilley was Social Security Minister in John Major’s government, and once entertained the Conservative Party Conference with a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche of all who would lose their benefits: “And I haven’t even mentioned all those sponging socialists, I’ve got them on my list. . .” No free-market economist ever used the term “trickle down”, he said on Monday. It is, indeed, a misleading image. Nothing trickles out of the pockets of the wealthy — which was rather the Bishop of Durham’s point in relating the Dives and Lazarus story. It has to be given voluntarily or taken through taxation.

The Bishops in the Lords are acutely aware of the accusation that their interest is merely in redistributing other people’s wealth, but they are not unobservant. The argument that lightly taxed high-earners will bolster the economy by spending more has been shown to be good news for those who provide luxury items, unaccountably omitted from Christ’s own list in the Beatitudes. Yes, a healthier economy can support its poorest members better — but not if they have already been beggared by energy costs, rising prices, unpayable mortgages, and the slashing of public services.

In the face of criticism, from right-wing commentators as well as from left-wing, all we get is relentless positivity from the Prime Minister and her Chancellor. Growth will happen. All will benefit. Confidence will return. It is a trait that we have lamented before: the tendency to say something demonstrably nonsensical and go on saying it in the knowledge that your supporters will back you regardless and your denigrators can be ignored — regardless. Thus Liz Truss on energy generation at her party conference last week: “We are opening more gas fields in the North Sea and delivering more renewables and nuclear energy. That is how we will protect the great British environment, deliver on our commitment to net zero, and tackle climate change.” No, it isn’t. The UK is already behind the pace in its legally binding emissions-reduction programme, and burning North Sea gas will set it back further. The good disagreement that Archbishop Welby promotes so diligently requires, as a bare minimum, that people at least be honest about their position.

Instead of truth about the country’s economic situation, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have chosen to promote what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said last week was “politically motivated wishful thinking”. The markets are not impressed, and the Chancellor cannot depend on the costly intervention of the Bank of England for much longer. It is not just bishops who doubt the wisdom and efficacy of the Government’s economic strategy.

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