Natalie Bennett: The Queen’s Speech was devoid of ideas on both the economy and environment

The emptiness of the government’s “programme”, a grab bag of philosophically incoherent and half-baked ideas, has been widely noted.

COP26

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward

Across the political spectrum of the UK’s newspapers, from the Sunday Times (We’re facing huge challenges, so where are the radical ideas?”) to the Observer (The economy is collapsing. Yet I can’t recall a government so devoid of a plan) previews of the Queen’s Speech focused on the need for action to tackle our climate and nature crisis, the desperate poverty and inequality in our communities, yet without expectation of anything more than culture war gestures and “levelling up” fictions.

The newspapers’ expectations have been met. The emptiness of the government’s “programme”, a grab bag of philosophically incoherent and half-baked ideas, has been widely noted.

The reliance on old, failed ideas is evident from the start. The initial words of the speech set out its fundamental philosophical failing, before you even get to the lack of practical social justice, environmental or positive human rights measure: “My government’s priority is to grow… the economy.”  

Now first, there is a question about the government’s ability to deliver this goal in its own terms. Boris Johnson’s typically boosterish introduction to the Queen’s Speech briefing document says, correctly, “last year we were the fastest growing society in the G7”. Which is true, so far as it goes – that the economy crashed in size due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and is almost back to where it was before the disease struck. If you throw a bucket of water on concrete, a lot of it will bounce back up.

For some in our society, up to two years of not going on overseas holidays, not dining out or dating their wardrobe beyond leisure wear, has left money burning a hole in their pockets. Meanwhile others – often the “essential workers” being applauded on doorsteps – have struggled, scraped and scrimped to survive with lowered incomes, rising rents, and, now, exploding energy bills.

But there are fewer people now in a well-off situation, with inflation roaring in an economy heavily dependent on household consumption, as marked by the IMF’s latest predictions for the UK economy, of a growth rate of 1.2% in 2023 – the lowest in the G7. This after the “torpor” of the 2010s, when growth effectively stalled, getting nowhere back to the pre-crisis trend of 2.5%, with wages, adjusted for inflation, still below where they were before the financial crash as Covid-19 struck.

Can the government deliver the “growth”, it has set as its first priority? It is clearly highly unlikely – as confirmed by this morning’s figures. Promising growth is just another line of government wishful thinking.

But more than that, what kind of target is this “growth”? It is what governments have been aiming for over decades – an increase in the Gross Domestic Production (GDP). That’s an extremely incomplete, limited measure. It doesn’t consider the desperate levels of mental and physical ill-health, the long, miserable pre-Covid commuting life or the insecurity of the gig economy, or the nature-depleted, pesticide-laced, plastic-choked state of our natural world.

More, it is only a total. It takes no account of the distribution of the goods and services counted or if the growth goes to a few, and the physical frame of the lives of the many stall, or go backwards. As Labour peer Prem Sikka highlighted in response to the Queen’s Speech, workers’ share of GDP in 1976 was 65.1%, by 2019, 48.7%. – there’s no measure of that in that GDP figure.

Ministers and the opposition alike have decade after decade gone on the Six O’Clock News to crow or slam the latest quarterly GDP figures, and media commentators have judged the government’s “achievements” on the basis of that one (often later revised) figure. Is it any wonder that the public – seeing the total detachment from the reality of their lives in the crowing – have become more and more disillusioned with our politics?

But there’s an even bigger problem, which has its foundation in the economics doctrine of the age. It assumes that natural resources are infinite, or replaceable – that we can treat the planet as a mine and a dumping ground indefinitely, and increasingly. But the planet is not infinite – the economy not something separate from “the environment”, but entirely dependent on it. And as economist Kate Raworth has helped to make crystal clear, we’re at or beyond its limits.

It’s time, as the newspapers are calling for, new ideas – for the Green political approach which understands that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. There are enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life, and nature and climate to be protected, if we share them out fairly. A healthy, secure life for all, on a healthy planet. That’s where a Green speech would start.

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