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Amol Rajan: Hague can crack a whip all he likes ... it may not work

FreeView from the editors at i

If there are two words modern politicians are generally forbidden from using in tandem, it is "work" and "harder". William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Eric Pickles, his Cabinet colleague with responsibility for 'Communities', were at it earlier this week. And the bucket of opprobrium poured over both their heads made very clear the reservations of headline writers and the voters for whom they allegedly speak about what this command entailed.

To his credit, Hague was at it again yesterday, authoring a newspaper piece along the same lines. Again he was lambasted, on blogs, talk radio and news channels.

There are five problems with his argument. First, it is true; second, it reveals voters to be hypocrites; third, it reveals voters to be generally lazy; fourth, that not enough jobs are being created in any case; and fifth, even if Hague's prescription were followed, it will do a fat lot of good for Britain's international position. Let's take them in turn.

Over five and a half million people are "clients" of Britain's welfare state. In a population of barely 12 times that, this is undesirable. Our economy is emerging from a so-called "Nice" period: non-inflationary constant expansion. Now those conditions have disappeared, or exposed as a mirage, and our economy is saddled with public and private debt, making investment harder to come by. Clearly we must work to generate economic growth.

Second, voters everywhere constantly lambast politicians for their dishonesty. Level with us, they say. Then when a politician tells them what they really think, but which voters don't want to hear, the politician is told to shut up. Hypocrisy. Third, Britain's productivity is tumbling down international tables, and whenever unpopular but necessary reforms, such as raising the retirement age to 70, are mooted, howls of protest soon follow.

Fourth, alas for Hague and Pickles, their friend in No 11 Downing Street is pursuing an economic policy that has failed to produce anywhere near sufficient jobs and growth. Many who want to work harder have no chance to do so.

Finally, I wrote a few weeks ago about the fact that, in a global age, the jobs that the poor used to do in this country, especially in industry, have been outsourced to cheaper labour: either manpower in the developing world, or machinery everywhere. This is the long-term, irreversible trend that makes Hague's intervention this week essentially futile. The irony is that in his job as Foreign Secretary he watches the evidence of this futility accumulate every day.