World is watching our success, says HAMISH MCRAE


World is watching our success, says HAMISH MCRAE: Parallels with 1950s as nation awaits Coronation of King Charles

Frozen in time: A waxwork of King Charles at Tussauds

Frozen in time: A waxwork of King Charles at Tussauds

It’s party time. This regular bank holiday, of course, but also the big weekend of the Coronation to come, something that has not happened since 1953. This is a week when the country will be on parade to the world.

There is the economic impact, and that is a useful boost in tough times. But much more important is the human impact, what it says to us about ourselves – our hopes and our fears.

There is a parallel with the 1950s. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth marked the end of post-war austerity. The Conservative government that had come in in 1951 was trying to dismantle the remaining wartime controls, but rationing was still then in force, with coupons needed for meat, sugar, butter and eggs.

Yet in 1957 the consumer boom that followed enabled Harold Macmillan to declare: ‘Most of our people have never had it so good’.

Over the past 15 years, people in Britain have experienced a period of austerity that, though nothing like those grim post-war years, leaves average wages officially no higher than they were in 2008.

While the official measure of living standards probably understates the benefits that have come from the smartphone revolution, these have not been easy times.

Can we now again look forward to ‘never had it so good’ years? The immediate reaction of most people would be say no. But then in 1953, as some of us who were children then will remember, things looked pretty glum too.

Our cities were still devastated from the bombing and anyone who could afford a new car had to go on a waiting list because of the need to export as many as possible to help pay for war debts.

The Coronation was dazzling on the surface, but behind it was a grey, troubled Britain – worried about the housing shortage, worried about high taxation, worried about the National Debt.

There will continue to be headwinds through the 2020s, just as there were in the 1950s, but with one huge proviso there are solid reasons to expect that they will be better than the past 15 years.

I’ll come to the proviso in a moment. Those solid reasons start with one feature that will be very evident this coming weekend: people around the world are interested in what is happening here, as global viewing figures will show.

The funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth attracted a huge number of viewers. But that was a sad event that looked backwards. The number of viewers may be lower on Saturday, but they will be big by any standards, and this is something that will look forwards.

The challenge now will be to turn that global interest into economic activities that bring benefits to the country, so that the 2020s become, like the 1950s, a period of solid progress. That challenge requires a focus on doing better where the UK has a clear competitive advantage. We must reinforce success. That leads to a long list. The UK is the largest net exporter of financial services in the world, with a surplus of £63.7 billion in 2021, just ahead of the US with £62.5 billion. No-one else is near: number three is Singapore, £19.4 billion, followed by Switzerland on £18.6 billion.

One of the puzzling things is that this success story is not more acclaimed outside the City. But there are so many other areas of outstanding quality, including pharmaceuticals, education, the creative arts, high-tech manufacturing, design and, yes, media, that need to be better supported.

That does not mean listening to every commercial pressure group. But it does mean that the authorities should make sure, at the very least, that they do no harm. That leads to the huge proviso that we don’t have silly errors in policy. We have seen governments from both sides over the past 25 years make unforced errors that have damaged the economy.

There are two issues right now that this newspaper has focused on: the damage to the tourist and luxury goods industries from ending the VAT exemption on foreigners’ purchases, and the way UK pension funds have been encouraged, almost forced, to disinvest in British industry.

Both are ridiculous. We don’t charge VAT on exports, and I suspect if you ask most pension savers whether they want more of their money invested in Britain they would say yes.

One final thought. The fastest-growing economies in the world are outside Europe. They will increasingly be our markets during the 2020s and beyond. This coming weekend they will be looking in at us. We need to look out to them as drivers of our prosperity in the future.



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