Waiting for the younger minds

Keith Hudson

The reason why the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy of George Osborne, the British Chancellor, won’t work, but Scottish Independence might — repeat might — is that power is being given to Manchester and the other large northern cities by London politicians . . . and civil servants — or, rather, is being attempted to be — whereas the Scottish people, at long last since the duplicity of ambitious Scottish aristocrats in 1707 (the Act of Union),  are now taking it back for themselves.

George Osborne’s motives, for all I know, may be of the best and the result of  the relatvely copious time he has to read books and consider new ideas — unlike the Prime Minister, who is rushed off his feet doing vital Public Relations at home and abroad by his civil servants and has no time to think.  Or it may be the desperation of the Treasury — the most powerful of the civil service departments — which is the mainspring of the Northern Powerhouse policy.

I tend to think it’s the latter — that it’s the Treasury — with more bright people than most — who’ve realized that the civil sevice game is up.  Their pyramidal mode of decision-making is not up to the job or running a complex economy any longer.  Almost everything it tries to do has counter-intuitive consequences.  The Treasury persuaded the Conservative Party  more than five  years ago that, in the following term of office,  it would be possible to start reducing the huge nation debt left to them by George Brown.  Instead, it has swelled.

Which, of course, is the problem.  Over the last one hundred years or so, advanced governments — and everybody else, to be honest, including economists — think that governments are able to control their nagtional economies.  Goverrnments are beginning to realise now that they can’t, and maybe the British Treasury has caught on quicker than most.

Unlike America, where there are other powerful departments, such as the State Department or the Defense Department, the Treasury reigns omnipotently in this country — even over the Bank of England which is supposed to be independent (though to be fair to Mark Carney, the Governor, he’s genuinely trying to be independent, as much as one can judge.  At least he utters public warnings, albeit in coded language, that the world’s monetary system is on the edge of disaster — something that politicians are afraid to say or even hint at so far).

So, if government — the Treasury in our case — can’t control our economy, who, or which, can?  Is it business?  No, it isn’t business because, at the end of the day, business always has to concede power to the civilian authorities if they (businesses) want a law-abiding, peaceful, customer base.  Which they do.

What controls economies are innovations.  These, however innocently introduced — the world wide web, for example — can come out of nowhere (the neuronal recesses of Tim Berners-Lee’s frontal lobes in this case) and can have the most revolutionary consequences on the existing economy.  And once that starts to happen, the economy can have revolutionary consequences on the culture, particularly youth culture (that is before young people’s frontal lobes fill up) and this in turn on the larger social culture as the young people grow up. Goodness knows where the w.w.w. is going to end — and this is just one of a crop of major innovations in recent years (the discovery of the powerful development of one’s frontal lobes before the age of about 30 is one of them, or the discovery that there is a massive culling   of neurons in a child’s brain if it’s not stimulated enough in the earliest months and years is another).

So far, young people all over the world are so taken up with socialising on the web that they have little time for politics.  All they’re concerned about is that the world economy is changing in all sorts of ways and, somehow, they want to find a place in it so that they, too, will be able to buy or rent houses and raise families in the normal way — something that’s becoming increasingly doubtful for many in the advanced countries, including Britain.

It’s young people that Scottish Independence fundamentally rests on.  If enough of them stay in Scotland and revitalise the place then Scotland has a chance.  It’s been done before when young progressive Scottish Presbyterians revitalised the three Scottish theological training colleges (in St Andrews, Aberdeen and Glasgow) in the 1500s into what would become intellectually vigorous universities and established a fourth (in Edinburgh), while Oxford and Cambridge still slumbered as theological training colleges for the bishops and deans in the cities and rectors in the countryside (all with very highly paid livings, just as he dons’ were). So there’s hope for Scotland.

As for Manchester and the other cities of the north, I think it’s doubtful whether theylll do so as a result of Osborne’s initiative.  It was only a few years ago that they threw out ideas of self governments and mayors in their cities.  Now, because lots and lots of cash is being tentatively offered by the Treasury (whoops! I mean George Osborne, David Cameron and the Cabinet) they are only too eager to do as requested (nay demanded or they won’t get the cash).

One of the most ridiculous aspects of ideas-prone George Osborne is that he also supports the idea of an additional high-speed railway between London and the north!  This, if anything, will only stimulate the migration of talented young people and new enterprises in the north to set up in London and the south — something that has been going on since the Great Depression of the 1930s (indeed, of the very brightest young people, since the 1830s).  Thank goodness some bright sparks in the house of Lords have rejected HS2 so far.  There’s some hope that sanity will prevail and countless billions will not be wasted.

Furthermore, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy has been mainly pushed by a retired Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, Jim O’Neill.  He was the bright spark who thought-up the BRICS idea about ten years ago — that the economc future of the world would be powered by the growth of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.  Well . . .  the economies of all of these, except China, are floundering now — and China has a severe case of economic hiccups, too, just at the monent.  And it might not recover from it for a long time to come (their credit and bad debt overhang is far more than Europe’s was in 2008).  And which, if it doesn’t recover soon, will wreck any economic hopes of America, Japan, Europe or this country for a very long time to come also.

Well . . . Tim Berners-Lee’s idea of the w.w.w came to him at 34, just as his frontal lobes were filling up and there was a little bt of space.  Bright ideas for the world’s economy (and Scotland’s and Manchester’s, too) will have to await an equally young (better still, younger) mind — and perhaps not even an economist’s —  before an innovative idea of how to run things better can diffuse through the minds of governments and businesses.

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