"We need to have more equality of income and wealth, we need to have a sense of fairness," Vince Cable told me. "It's about giving people on low incomes the opportunity to learn and acquire new skills, which is why despite all the controversial changes into the funding of higher education a lot has gone into getting young people into higher education and also apprentices, training, to improve job security."
That's what Secretary of State of Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, told me when I went to talk to him for Radio 4's World Tonight. I wanted to discuss economic growth, where it might be found and what the government was doing to promote it. What I discovered was a minister who, I think, is serious, committed and doing what he can to promote growth for everyone. But I couldn't help wondering how far Cable's commitment is given any substantial support from his colleagues in other departments.
Green is great. Knowledge is great. Innovation is great.
Outside the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, these slogans proclaim a provocative and potentially exciting economic agenda - or at least it would be if the government were aligned around it. The British economy is jam-packed full of individuals and businesses which are brilliant and world class and have the capacity to fuel growth. That it doesn't do so is, in part, because so much love, attention and financial support has been lavished on the City and on financial services. The last five years have clearly shown that a systemic economic rebalancing is required - a challenge the coalition seems to find hard to grasp. They want growth but not where the opportunity lies: that's an ideological blindspot they'd do well to correct. But the government also has to recognize that it won't get growth unless it develops coherent, consistent strategies for turning its poster slogans into economic strategy. One reason economic growth is stalled is because there's surprising confusion around every one of the motherhood statements.
Green is great - or is it?
While the Prime Minister said he wanted the greenest government ever, his Chancellor regarded green initiatives as a 'burden on business'. Changing course as far as feed-in tariffs for solar energy were concerned gave the entire green investment community a fright, with the result that few are prepared to back initiatives that depend on fickle government policy. Investors seek stability and the fact that the government can't sing from the same hymn sheet on green energy has impeded growth. The fault doesn't lie with the businesses. Companies like Wessex Water have, through its spin off Geneco, pioneered world class green technologies. Start ups like PaveGen and Breathing Buildings have led the way in identifying sources of energy no one previously considered. Britain could lead the world in this arena - but only if the government stands behind it. Mixed messages are worse than silence.
Knowledge is great - if you can get it.
Blue collar jobs are disappearing and those that remain - like the zero hours contract workers at Amazon - will soon be replaced by robotics and mechanization. Even aspects of medicine will be supplanted by telemedicine, software and robotics. Which leaves only high end, highly skilled knowledge work. For an economy to depend on those requires great education in the first place together with a coherent system for ongoing adult education and retraining. One reason the U.S. does better in this regard is because Americans educate and re-educate themselves throughout their lives. Here in the U.K., education is pretty much something everyone wants to get over with as fast as possible. And if you want to retrain or improve your skills in mid-life, good luck; there's little available that's flexible, affordable and coherent.
Innovation is great - and could be profitable if it got support.
British innovation in design, in the creative arts, in engineering and manufacturing is world class. But regular assaults on subsidies for the arts make this rich vein of the economy yet another area where government incoherence strangles growth. Why doesn't this government see that this is an area of immense economic wealth which will always create jobs, is hard to automate and mechanize and in which Britain already has global brand appeal? Is it because it looks fun that the government feels it isn't serious?
The British economy is full of talent but it needs better funding for innovation and a more serious commitment from this government to support industries that are not financial services. Britain is famous for being great at inventing and poor at commercializing. This is nowhere more obvious than in the government's economic policies which remain ideological, old-fashioned and desperately lacking in the innovation to which it pays lipservice.
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