Michael Heseltine kept his cards close to his chest while composing his report on regional growth. The reason has become clear with its publication today. The report is challenging, in the sort of way that civil servants passionately dislike. It calls for an upheaval of their London power base, decentralisation of decision making, and the involvement of businessmen who have not spent entire careers learning the nuanced rationale for perpetual inaction. As such it is dangerous. It also requires proper time to digest and translate into workable policy. Therefore, these are just snap impressions.
To begin with, one passage of the report strikes me as particularly important and worthy of repetition. Regarding the economic climate, Lord Heseltine writes:
If there is an upside to the worst economic crisis of modern times it is the emergence of an audience for deep seated and radical proposals.
They distrust talk of isolated initiatives or quick wins. An ever more competitive world will only become more competitive not less. The structures and attitudes of yesterday did not work that well then and certainly will not cope with the new world order.
This is absolutely correct. The way in which we organise capital is fundamentally flawed. The Left and the Right agree on this much. Too many resources are misdirected both by the state, with its interest in wealth transfers which destroy incentive and ignore need, and business, with its obsession with useless financial products which consume wealth without producing it. The public at large is tired of the jiggery-pokery of government finance. They understand that the way we live now is unsustainable, and they are crying out for a radical whose vision extends beyond managed decline. Lord Heseltine captures the mood of the country perfectly.
Secondly, Lord Heseltine should be commended on his vision of what Britain's well-being entails. He is right to say that Britain is part of a "relentless economic war" which ought to be waged in the best interests of this country using whatever means are available to us. This is the old Tory value of pragmatism finally being resurrected. Too frequently an abstract principle has been placed before the net economic benefit of the nation as a whole. This is particularly true in mergers and acquisitions policy. Whatever the classroom benefits of globalisation and free markets, the first job of a government is to care for its own. That job gets harder every time we sell a company of national importance to foreign company which wants the brand without the workers that come attached.
Finally, Lord Heseltine is right about uncertainty over aviation and energy policy damaging Britain's reputation abroad. While the Coalition arrangements encourage the Government to defer decisions in both areas until after the next election, to do so damages our prospects of inward investment. The temptation is to think that the storm over both policies is overblown, and that businesses do not turn away from investing in Britain because they are worried about landing slots at Heathrow. However, that is a view rooted in a services economy. An growing industrial base requires enormous investments in plants and presses, so power and a stable export route are essential. The decision should not be delayed any longer.
Lord Heseltine is one of a dwindling number of survivors from a generation which did, rather than looked for excuses not to do. His report is a serious challenge to our industrial policy and I hope it is greeted by affirming actions, not merely affirming words.