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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > December 2017 > DOING LESS WITH MORE


Britain had lost the knack of turning smart new ideas into prosperity, even before it had to reckon with Brexit

The attention of officials in Brexit Britain is focused, laser-like, on productivity. Away from the world of policy and economics, the term washes over most people as business-speak. For those responsible for policy, however, productivity is not just an important question: it is the question. The Chancellor’s Budget red book—and his scope for spending more on the pressing demands he’s juggling— is framed by estimates about where productivity is heading. That’s because virtually all his numbers are affected by the forecasts of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) for growth, which in turn depends on its assumptions about productivity.

The news is not good: as of October, the OBR is assuming that productivity will grow more slowly over the next five years than it had expected, more in line with the 0.2 per cent since the financial crisis, than the pre-crisis average of 2.1 per cent. Up until this autumn, the OBR had spent years assuming that tomorrow we would somehow bounce back towards faster growth. But tomorrow has not come, and the OBR has finally given up predicting it. The big dent in the forecasts for tax revenues that this implies ahead of November’s Budget perhaps explains why it hesitated for so long. Similar pessimism has overcome the Bank of England, with its view that the economy is closer to its (lower) productive potential than it previously thought—the reason why it concluded that interest rates had to rise at the start of November.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Adam Posen, Diane Coyle and Nicolas Véron examine the state of Britain’s economy with Brexit looming and suggest that with a large part of the City looking to move and with productivity remaining low the outlook is firmly negative. Posen suggests that the only thing capable of disciplining the Brexit economy is the reality that things are going to be worse. Coyle suggest that although Brexit will hamper Britain’s productivity, the problem is long-term. Véron argues that more than a tenth of the City’s business will disappear due to Brexit—a significant slice that will be difficult to cover off. Elsewhere in the issue: Steve Bloomfield uncovers what is going on at Dfid, the struggling government department that recently lost its Secretary of State. Nick Cohen looks at the rise of the Strong Man is Eastern Europe as Viktor Orbán clamps down on society and Lizzie Porter reports from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region plagued by war and political instability.