My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham; I will take his biblical injunctions to heart. I hope that he will take to heart my observation that there is no free market economist who believes in anything called “trickle-down economics”; that is a fantasy of his imagination.
My noble friend Lord Lamont reminded me that I should perhaps begin with a declaration of interest: as a former Treasury Minister I am a registered bean counter and member of the Treasury orthodoxy, which may be why I voted for Rishi Sunak in the leadership election. However, I passionately want the Prime Minister and Chancellor to succeed, not just because I believe in their central objective; I also wanted Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to succeed, because I want our country to succeed. I am therefore rather upset by the relish that some have shown for the brief adverse market reaction to the Budget. After all, it was brief, which suggests that it was as much about misunderstanding as about the substance. Sterling is back to the level against the euro that it was before the announcement. The dollar has been equally strong against both the pound and the euro—and many other currencies—which has nothing to do with the Budget statement.
Surely we can all agree that the Government’s priority is right. Growth is crucial. Growth, not redistribution, is the only sustainable way to increase living standards and finance improved services. If I may, I will use my four minutes to make a few reflections based on the experience of the 1980s.
First, the impact of the deregulatory measures that we introduced then was in fact greater than we anticipated. Britain moved from being the slowest-growing major economy in Europe to the fastest. But this improvement was slower in emerging than we hoped, and reflected the cumulative effect of a whole range of often small changes. It is therefore very unlikely that the benefits of changes that this Government rightly propose will be felt before the next election. But that is no reason for giving up. The electorate is collectively far more intelligent than many cynics assume. They re-elected the Thatcher Government twice before much of the benefits of their reforms had materialised, because they gave the Government credit for tackling what were manifestly important issues.
Secondly, in the 1980s we tackled many, although not all, of the big regulatory problems, such as scrapping exchange controls, ending the vestiges of a prices and incomes policy which gave the Government control of every single price, wage and dividend in the country, and privatising large swathes of nationalised industries. But that does not mean there is nothing left to do. We could not then tackle the issues covered by the EU’s laws and regulations. Now, thanks to Brexit, we can, so this Government are right to turn their attention to these.
Thirdly, one area we did not tackle, which was at least partly within the scope of domestic law, was planning. There, in my experience, speeding up decision-making, so you know whether you can or cannot do something, is as important as liberalising it, and may be less contentious.
Fourthly, we tend to forget one significant feature that the UK had in the 1980s, which was the development of North Sea oil, which simultaneously strengthened the balance of payments and generated huge tax revenues. The Government are absolutely right to license more North Sea acreage, but the only energy sources which can come on stream speedily are onshore gas and onshore wind. We must face up to the anti-growth coalition, which agitated against shale gas with arguments which, frankly, make anti-vaxxers look positively scientific. More than a million wells have been fracked in the United States without a single building falling down as a result of the micro-seismic events which follow, and without anyone being poisoned by contaminated aquifers, and gas produced domestically emits far less CO2 than importing LNG. If anyone needs to apologise for our present shortage of secure, affordable energy, it is those who objected to nuclear because it would not come on stream until 2021, to quote Nick Clegg, and who supported frankly scaremongering arguments to stop us exploiting such shale reserves as we have.