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The International Writers Magazine: UK Politics

Watch Your Words
•Tom Kilcourse
I have no special interests in semantics, but when the definition of a word becomes sufficiently loose to affect decision making and cause general confusion it is time to clarify its meaning. The word I have in mind is ‘economy’.

Jeremy Corbyn

Remember Bill Clinton’s much quoted remark ‘It’s the economy’ stupid’? Everyone knew what he meant, or thought they did. The problem with the word ‘economy’ is that it often means quite different things to different people, and is used by them in a variety of contexts. They are not always talking about the same thing.

Although the economy embraces the terms trade, business and finance, none of these define it and may indeed conflict with each other and with the economy generally. Yet many people use any one of those terms as if it were a near synonym for economy. So, free trade makes economic sense, as does business growth and financial investment. Any Government that is ‘business friendly’ or promotes trade meets with automatic approval. Attempts to restrict trade, to ‘interfere’ with business, or to control financial markets is considered economically stupid or misinformed.

Underlying this point of view is the unspoken assumption that economic considerations must prevail over all others. When a particular economic activity creates social tensions or dislocation those effects are considered by many to be the price of progress. What is good for the economy, or any of the three elements I have mentioned, must be good for society, nation, or mankind at large. So powerfully is this view held by some people that they would have the role of elected government relegated to defence and a few other matters. They believe that government should stand aside and allow business people freedom to trade and grow as they wish. Why? It’s the economy, stupid.

A less radical and perhaps more insidious view, is that government accountability, and the sole measure of its competence, lies in its management of the economy. Nothing else matters. At the time of writing the Labour Party is in the throes of a campaign to choose a new leader. The Party is busy beating its breast over the public’s supposed view that it lost the last election because people didn’t ‘trust it with the economy’. The four candidates are presently being weighed against each other by the media according to their supposed economic nous. One candidate, Jeremy Corbyn has become a figure of fun in some quarters because his left-wing views are thought disastrous for a modern economy. Yet, as I write, Corbyn leads the field, being favoured by a majority of rank and file Party members. It is worth asking why that might be.

I suggest that those ordinary citizens do not share the view that the loosely defined economy is the only important consideration, even if they think it paramount. They may be deaf to cries that Corbyn’s leadership would condemn the Party to decades of powerless opposition to a Conservative, economic savvy government, because they don’t trust the Conservatives with society. Conservative supporters rub their hands at the thought of Corbyn winning, believing that his victory would ensure a Tory victory in 2020. Their view may be justified, but, on the other hand, by 2020 economic competence may be seen as less important than an ability to rebuild a fragmented and damaged society.

It should be remembered that the term ‘economy’ has been extracted from a broader concept, that of political-economy. Political-economy is not based exclusively on growing wealth, but includes concerns for social cohesion and well-being. Just as it would be foolish to focus on social well-being to the exclusion of economic considerations, so would be the reverse, and we are in danger of doing just that. This is why it is conceivable that by 2020 Jeremy Corbyn’s day would have come, with ‘political’ having superseded ‘economy’ in importance to the electorate.

There are signs already that this process is underway in Europe. The European Union resembles globalisation in microcosm, with actions taken to enhance the economy leading to severe social disruption. For example, French agricultural workers have lost out on a large scale to the expansion of agriculture in Germany, an industrial country. The unification of Germany led to that country having access to a great deal of land in the east at very low prices. That greatly enhanced Germany’s capacity as an agricultural producer. German agricultural competitiveness benefited too from an influx of Polish labour crossing the border and working for very low wages. Germany does not have a minimum wage.

In purely economic terms, this all makes sense, but we must remember that having winners implies that someone loses. When the losers greatly outnumber the winners, or are concentrated in a society that is being damaged, we can expect the first part of the phrase, political-economy, to take precedence in those societies. Small agriculturalists in France will not be placated by news that the loss of their livelihood and the destruction of their communities is a price worth paying for a more efficient economy elsewhere in the EU. Their dissatisfaction provides opportunities, of a political rather than an economic kind. Step forward Marine Le Pen.

If we continue to divorce economics intellectually from its social and political dimensions we could drift into the destruction of the EU, and possibly of the globalised economy. We hear much these days of the ‘aspiring people’, with the implication that everyone aspires to economic success. Not everybody shares that aspiration, strange though it may seem to some. Many wish for security, stability and social cohesion. In sufficient numbers they could provide a handy platform for those whose aspiration is to political power.

© Tom Kilcourse August 2015

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