IT’S BEEN ONE OF THE MANTRAS of economic policy since I was a kid: the government shouldn’t try to “pick winners” but leave the fate of industries and firms to the market. Anyone who has unthinkingly accepted the free market dogma that has dominated economics for the last 35 years might think this is one of the founding laws of the discipline, rather than a Thatcherite political slogan dreamt up in the 1970s. You even hear left-wingers reciting it, especially when they’re trying to show how “serious” they are.
Writing in the Guardian last Friday, Martin Kettle (hardly the most left-wing hack on that paper) has challenged this dogma using the example of Team GB’s remarkable success at the Rio Olympics. Almost everyone accepts this was largely down to the investment of public money, mainly but not exclusively from the national lottery. This money wasn’t spent on just anyone, nor was it left to the market. Public money was invested in the athletes that experts thought had a good chance of winning. We tried to pick winners, and in many cases, it seems we picked right.
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BREXIT CAMPAIGNERS have a long charge sheet against the EU. In fact, it sometimes seems like there’s nothing wrong in Britain today that can’t be solved by leaving the union. Whether they’re talking about NHS cuts, overcrowded schools, the decline of manufacturing industry, the shortage of housing, Islamist terrorists, rural poverty, urban poverty, unemployment, low wages, unions being too weak or unions being too strong, it’s usually “Brussels” that’s to blame. The other day, I even saw someone blaming the EU for underperforming kettles and hairdryers (not a problem I even realised we had).
If even a fraction of this were true, it would be very odd indeed that 27 other countries are still EU members and many others are clamouring to join. Maybe Brexiteers really do think that all foreigners are stupid, or maybe these things only affect Britain, leaving all other 27 member states mysteriously untouched.
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Sandbrook draws some political conclusions as wonky as one of Doctor Who’s early sets. If Britain’s cultural success vindicates Thatcherite individualism, why did most of the figures he celebrates emerge in precisely the kind of “collectivist” society that Thatcher despised?
My review of Dominic Sandbrook’s The Great British Dream Factory has been published in the Winter 2016 issue of Public Service Magazine.
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