Are the British the new French?

05 May 2009

by Simon Tilford

The British tend to deride France as a hopelessly statist, anti-entrepreneurial country full of bolshie workers intent on extracting disproportionate rewards for their labour and a state too weak to resist them. This characterisation is not wholly inaccurate. But the implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption is that the UK is everything that France is not. This is not the case.

In some respects, Britain now looks worse than France. For all its faults, France produces good public services and decent social outcomes, such as relatively low levels of poverty and high overall skills levels. Britain, by contrast, now combines a very big state, patchy public services, generally poor social outcomes and increasing barriers to wealth creation. This is a poisonous mixture. The situation can be rescued, but not without breaking some eggs.

The figures are arresting. Britain has gone from having one of the smallest states in the EU to one of the largest. In 2000, public spending accounted for 37% of GDP in the UK, just three percentage points above the US and a full 15 percentage points below France. By 2010 the OECD estimates that state spending will account for 49% of GDP in Britain, against 53% in France (52% in famously high-spending Sweden). Britain has already overtaken Germany and the Netherlands (44% and 46% respectively).

This unprecedented expansion of the British state would be less of problem if the UK now had Scandinavian (or even French) levels of public services or first-rate physical infrastructure. But improvements in British public services over the last ten years have been nowhere near big enough to justify the increase in expenditure. Most of the money has gone on increased employment and wages, rather than improvements in services. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the stranglehold that the unions have on the public sector, productivity has stagnated.

It is also notable that Britain’s welfare-state is not comparable to that of Germany or the Netherlands, let alone France or Sweden. Unlike in these countries, many of the ordinary Britons currently losing their jobs will receive only derisory sums in unemployment benefits because these are means-tested. And only a forensic scientist could spot significant improvements in the country’s physical infrastructure. Britain’s roads remain as congested as ever and its railways expensive and unreliable.

Of course, the tax burden in the UK is still lower than in France. In 2008, taxes accounted for 49% of GDP in France compared to just 42% in Britain. But the gap between tax and expenditure in Britain is completely unsustainable, given the parlous state of the country’s public finances. How it is closed will to a large extent determine Britain’s economic prospects. If the gap is bridged by cutting expenditure, the UK stands a chance of returning to a relatively strong growth path. But if it is closed primarily through increased taxes, Britain will have a bleak future. The tax burden will be among the highest in the OECD, but public services (and the country’s social outcomes) will be nowhere near good enough to justify the tax take. In short, Britain will have Scandinavian levels of taxation and American levels of public services and social welfare.

The Labour party is poorly placed to sort out this mess because of its close links to the public sector unions. Under Labour the public sector has become a privileged class that is impervious to change and reform. By way of illustration, public sector wages are currently rising by close to 4% a year at a time of economic crisis. And this despite the fact that public workers are on average better paid than their private sector counterparts and enjoy generous pension entitlements. What about the country’s physical infrastructure? On the government’s forecasts, public investment will halve over the next 4 years. In fact, the only significant cuts the government intends to make are to investment.

The Tories stand a better chance of taking on entrenched public sector vested interests, but it will be a battle. Moreover, they will need to avoid the mistakes of the 1980s when they reduced spending by cutting services and investment rather than by increasing public sector efficiency. If they do this again, UK taxes will remain very high relative to what those taxes deliver in terms of services.

Britain still has strengths, of course. It is straightforward to set up a business in the UK and the labour market remains flexible. But overall Britain looks increasingly like one of the sick men of Europe, and certainly as sick as France. The French state is an efficient provider of services and quasi-state institutions construct and manage first-rate physical infrastructure. France, unlike Britain, has bitten the bullet on public pensions, increasing the retirement age to 65. The French have no qualms about allowing private companies to provide healthcare. Even the Tories do not appear to have the stomach for dismantling the NHS’s near monopoly on the provision of public healthcare.

The British need to get over the idea that they took all the difficult decisions in the 1980s and that Britain is an example for others to follow. It has a huge state, yet has poor social outcomes. Much of its growth in recent years has been down to a turbo-charged financial services industry and an unsustainable expansion of the public sector. Both trends have now run their course and the public sector has become a dead weight on the economy. Britain needs to concentrate on improving the climate for wealth creation. This will require much better public sector productivity and high levels of investment in human capital and physical infrastructure.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.