Douglas Carswell: only the free market has the answers

Merryn Somerset Webb talks to Ukip MP Douglas Carswell about Greece, Europe, and how only the free market can fix our economic problems – centrally planned solutions always end in disaster.

• If you missed any of Merryn’s past interviews, you can see them all here.

Merryn: Hi, I’m Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek magazine. I have with me today Douglas Carswell, Britain’s only Ukip MP. We are sitting down at a very exciting time – it looks like we may be getting to a crucial point in the development in the European Union. Greece has just voted against the deal they’ve been offered by the rest of Europe; against austerity and, perhaps, for democracy. Douglas, I know you have strong views on this, where do you think this is taking us?

Douglas: I think the Greeks have voted the right way. There are no easy options for them but I think they’ve done the sensible thing or, rather, they’ve done the least worst thing. It was a choice between, in effect, paying back a debt that cannot be paid back, or doing the alternative, which is to default on the debt, decouple from the euro, devalue and allow that reshuffling of the economic pack that Greece desperately needs to do.

Merryn: Do you think this necessarily means decoupling from the euro? It’s possible to default, which, at this point, is inevitable really, it’s possible to default and stay inside the euro?

Douglas: They have to default simply because at the moment, contrary to what pundits in this country actually say, Greece actually has a primary budget surplus. Greece’s primary budget surplus is actually healthier today than the British one. The problem is, of course, they’ve got to pay all that interest back. Imagine if an individual got themselves into such a hideous position with debt that they couldn’t possibly pay back their debts, civilised societies have always allowed, when a person gets into such debt and they can’t pay it back, they’ve always allowed them to start over, to start again.

I would actually say that one of the great advances in the creation of civilised societies is precisely that, debt forgiveness. If someone gets into such a hideous position, instead of them becoming, in effect, a slave of their creditors, it becomes the creditor’s problem. If that’s good for people, it’s got to be good for countries. Ultimately, it’s the fault of the people who lend Greece the money, I’m afraid.

Merryn: That’s a key point, isn’t it? You could say that these loans were outrageous in the first place and, particularly the way they’ve been restructured over the last few years, in that the lenders knew full well and still know full well there’s no way on earth that Greece could ever conceivably repay these loans. Does it make the loans fraudulent in the first place?

The Greek bailouts did something really quite sinister – they transferred the debt losses of private banking institutions onto the balance sheet of public authorities in Europe. That sort of behaviour is disgusting. It gives capitalism a bad name

Douglas: If I was a German taxpayer, I would be absolutely livid because the bailouts that they’ve had have not only increased the size of the Greek debt, the bailouts actually did something really quite sinister – they transferred the debt losses of private banking institutions onto the balance sheet of public authorities in Europe. I’m pretty pro the free market but that sort of behaviour is pretty disgusting. It gives capitalism a bad name. In fact, it makes the slightly more loony lefty conspiracy theorists actually sound pretty spot on.

The transfer of that debt liability from the private sector to the public has not only saved foolish bankers from the consequences of their own investment stupidity, it’s actually left the German taxpayer with huge liabilities. I think the German taxpayer has a right to be pretty cross – not just with the Greek government, but cross with the behaviour of their own government that has allowed that transfer of debt liability to take place under the guise of supposedly European solidarity, it’s actually been a form of theft.

Merryn: One of the ways you could see what’s happening in Europe at the moment is to say that, while we might disapprove of the way the Greek government approaches what they’re trying to do, it nonetheless represents a resurgence of democracy and a reminder that while the European Union might have attempted to be a great political project that brings everybody together, everyone’s cultures remain what they are. Each state still has a sovereign democracy inside it and when they clash, which they currently are, it’s very difficult to get out of inside this kind of structure.

Douglas: I was going to say, I think this is a wake-up call for those who believe in organising the affairs of Europeans by grand design, by project EU. I think it’s more than a wake-up call. Surely it’s game over. They created a monetary union in the belief that eventually people would get used to the idea of abiding by these collective rules. What we see in Greece is that, actually, what about the people? The political elites in Athens who were voted out of office might have gone along with this but they didn’t bring the people with them.

Let’s remember that Greece received huge amounts of subsidy in the 80s and the 90s, according to the Jean Monnet/Jacques Delors project, which used a form of bung and bribery. According to that, the Greeks should have been the most grateful of euro citizens and we see, by a massive majority, actually, they reject this idea. I suspect, though, that the idea of monetary union, for all the reasons that the sceptics said, is unworkable. In order to have a monetary union, the cycles of output within different economies need to be relatively converged.

Think of interest rates and monetary policy as a gear lever. If you were driving cars around a racetrack at different speeds, you would need to adjust the gear accordingly. You need a different monetary policy, a different gear in Greece compared to Germany, compared to France, compared to Italy. By having a standardised set of interest rates across Europe, you’re not just creating a Greek situation. Look at Italy: Italy’s actually got some fantastic, first class, medium-sized businesses with absolute world-class brands, but there’s been no increase in GDP because they’ve got a totally inappropriate monetary policy.

Merryn: They’ve got effectively the wrong exchange rate as well. Germany has an exchange rate that is very low, for what it would be, were it standing alone, currency-wise.

Douglas: Exports are doing pretty well.

Merryn: Absolutely. There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why there are Daimler buses all over the streets in Athens, right?

Douglas: Yes. It’s an unsustainable model because if you have a fixed exchange rate, an ERM II, which basically makes German exports more competitive to Europe but bought on IOUs, then work it out. It’s not sustainable. Things that can’t last don’t. I don’t think it’s particularly good, ultimately, for Germany either. When the whole idea of a single currency was first mooted, it was seen as being modern, it was seen as being the way forward. People were opposed to it, people like myself who argued against it.

I was working in fund management at the time the euro was introduced, and I was encouraged to keep my views to myself. I wonder, actually, if we’ve got this entirely the wrong way around. Maybe, given the way that world is going, the future lies in not creating a single currency in lots of different countries, but having multiple currencies in every currency. I suspect the future actually lies in currency competition.

Merryn: Different currencies in each country or different currencies between countries? Do you mean having different currencies inside each country?

Let’s not have grand monetary plans. Let’s just let technology and the free market shape the monetary world of the future. What we see in Europe is a consequence of trying to do money by design, by fiat

Douglas: Online? I just came here by underground and I was standing in Westminster tube station and there were people, not just buying tickets but, actually, getting ready to get on buses using digital payment without even having to change the original currency. It’s so seamless now. Why do we have this idea that… 40 years ago, if we had been having this conversation, everyone would have agreed you have to have a national airline and that national airline should have preferential treatment and state favours.

Maybe in 40 years’ time, we’ll look back and say, “Wasn’t it odd that we thought you had to use a particular currency?” I’m not suggesting we don’t maintain our own currency; of course we should. We need to keep the pound, but fundamentally, in a free society, if people in London want to conduct business and sign contracts in multiple currencies, why shouldn’t they? I introduced a bill in Parliament actually, to suggest that legal tender, which is the currency in which debts to government should be paid, we should accept a multiplicity of currencies now.

Merryn: Wouldn’t that be an admin nightmare in the exchange rates moving around the place constantly? How do you keep your pricing going in a shop if people are using several different currencies to pay?

Douglas: People do it all the time. People go into shops all the time and pay using a card from a bank account that may be denoted in all sorts of currencies so, actually, digital solves the admin problem. The real thing is, let’s not have grand monetary plans. Let’s just let technology and the free market shape the monetary world of the future. What we see in Europe is a consequence of trying to do money by design, by fiat. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Merryn: I’m guessing that central banks wouldn’t be that keen on this idea?

Douglas: Generally, officials who are in charge of things like to keep in control of those things. Look what happened in Zimbabwe. No one said the US dollar is going to be the currency. It’s just that official policy was so disastrous it ended up being the dollar and, to some extent, the South African rand.

Merryn: Then, of course, we have several countries knocking around Europe who use the euro even though it’s not their official currency: Montenegro, etc.

Currency competition is one of those things that’s just going to happen and it doesn’t really depend on what central banks think. It’s just going to happen

Douglas: Absolutely. I suspect in ten years’ time, if you were on holiday in Greece, people will probably take euros, but they’ll probably take a multiplicity of currencies too. Maybe that’s the way forward for Greece, not so much to leave the eurozone but just to do, what I think they ought to do, which is to accept that one size does not fit all. There are implications for our own country in this, of course. If we were to have a period, and we haven’t for a long time, but if we were to have a period of high inflation in this country, if there were too many British pounds chasing too few goods in the UK.

In the old days, under that scenario, rich people would have protected their wealth by buying assets or moving their money overseas. In the age of the internet, all sorts of people would be able to transfer their currency from one currency-denominated account to another. I suspect that, actually, currency competition is one of those things that’s just going to happen and it doesn’t really depend on what central banks think. It’s just going to happen.

Merryn: Interesting. In the shorter term I think you’re expecting Grexit, aren’t you? You’re expecting Greece to leave?

Douglas: Yes.

Merryn: Are you then concerned that, A, there might be a period of social unrest or, B, that then Italy and Spain will quickly follow? I know you think that that’s the right result but, of course, it comes with immediate consequences.

Douglas: Imagine a scenario where Greece defaults on the debts, which I think we all agree mathematically has to happen, but stayed in the euro. I think that would probably be an even more catastrophic scenario for the euro because if you were Portuguese or Spanish or Italian and you saw this country that had the advantages, so-called, of being in the single currency but didn’t have to pay its debts then, “What about you?” you would start to say. I suspect that, for that reason, leaving the euro is going to be foisted upon Greece and when that happens-

Merryn: Take a step back there. How can the European Union force Greece out of the euro? There’s no legal basis for that, is there? The legalities here are fascinating. You can’t make someone leave if there’s no exit route.

I don’t think it will stop at Greece. I think the really interesting question is: can France remain in the euro? I’m not convinced that France can remain in a monetary union with Germany and Austria.

Douglas: When they created this monetary monster, they didn’t think these things through. But, fundamentally, look at it this way: unless the ECB continues to extend cash to Greek banks, people in Greece are going to have to transact business, and IOUs are going to start to be used. Quite how it unwinds: who knows? But I think it will unwind. I don’t think it will stop at Greece. I think the really interesting question is can France remain in the euro? Look at the debt to GDP ratios in France. I suspect that it’s a slightly longer-term issue but I’m not convinced that France can remain in a monetary union with Germany and Austria.

Merryn: It’s interesting how much more conciliatory France is being towards Greece than Germany.

Douglas: Yes. For a generation or more, France has gone along with these ideas of European integration and monetary union in the belief that it can somehow establish and retain political control in excess of its economic muscle. I’m not sure that’s going to last.

Merryn: I’m beginning to be concerned that all of this results in proper social unrest. The break-up of a monetary union like this, let’s say it does happen, like you, I think the odds of a Greek exit are now very high and obviously there’s already severe social pain in Greece and, if the monetary union does fracture all over as a result, it could get quite nasty.

If Greece was to default and if Greece was to leave the euro, it would be right for the British government to begin to offer significant help – monetary assistance

Douglas: It could be really horrible and this is why I don’t think anyone should be celebrating and I think Euro-sceptics, like me, should be very careful not to celebrate. This is about the least worst option and Greece has taken the least worst option. It could be rather like Russia after Russia defaulted in the late 90s or after Argentina defaulted in the early 00s, which would be awful, painful but no serious social breakdown. It could be worse than that because all modern economies require specialisation in exchange to survive and to prosper, fuel, vegetables, medical products.

We need free trade and I’m not sure a society that was unable to specialise in exchange and conduct free trade would be a particularly nice place after not just months but within a matter of days. I think we do need to prepare for that. Having said that, if I was in charge of British policy towards these things – and I’m not, but if I was – if Greece was to default and if Greece was to leave the euro, that’s when I think it would be right for the British government to begin to offer significant help, if necessary.

Merryn: Humanitarian assistance, do you mean by significant help?

Douglas: Monetary assistance. Imagine a situation in which Greece created a new drachma, it devalued by 40% or 50%, perhaps you might see Anglosphere countries coming together and saying, “We will hold a certain percentage of our foreign exchange reserves in this new currency”. That might be one way to do it. Another way might be doing it through the vehicle of the IMF although I think maybe one or two European board members of the IMF should perhaps be replaced.

Merryn: I think maybe we don’t have the confidence in the IMF to help us out with this one anymore.

Douglas: It’s often been said that Europe creates these problems for itself by imposing isms and the Anglosphere then comes to the rescue. Perhaps this might happen. Perhaps you might see the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, India having to sit around a table and say, “OK, let’s give some ballast to a new Greek currency and let’s help Greece out”. The point is it would be worth us spending, it pains me to say this, but it would be worth us spending billions of pounds to fix the problem but the bailouts up until now have made the problem worse so we should only be putting our money on the table to help Greece if that involves some sort of devaluation.

Merryn: We want to help Greece for humanitarian reasons but we also want to help Greece for geopolitical reasons, right? It’s a very strategic position Greece is in.

The Greeks are our allies and we helped Greece in its struggle for independence 200 years ago and it’s absolutely right that we should want to help Greece.

Douglas: The Greeks are our allies and we helped Greece in its struggle for independence 200 years ago and it’s absolutely right that we should want to help Greece. I’ve argued against us supporting bailouts because I believe bailouts make things worse but, if Greece is going to be independent in monetary terms, it’s absolutely right and proper that, alongside the United States and others, we do what we can. Greece is part of the West and we need to do what we can to support a Nato ally.

Merryn: Speaking of the West, let’s bring this back to the UK. George Osborne seems to be moving in quite a few directions that I think you would approve of, for example, with welfare reform.

Douglas: Let’s wait and see what he says tomorrow. Greece, I think, is the first Western country to discover that you can’t live forever beyond your means and no amount of votes and legislature or a referendum can change the laws of mathematics. Greece is not going to be the last country to discover that. We need to live within our means and we need to live within our tax base. Over the past generation of successive British governments, I think I’m right in saying over the past 36 years we’ve only had a budget surplus in six of them. It’s terrifying.

Merryn: It doesn’t happen often.

Douglas: We’ve doubled the national debt in six or seven years.

Merryn: We’ve found that we can collect in taxes at about 36%-37% of GDP and we pretty much always spend more of it.

Douglas: We use inflation, tax and borrowing to make up the difference, and you can’t do that indefinitely. There are all sorts of states and powers in history that tried to but you can’t. You need to live within your means.

Merryn: What are the three or four major things that you would do to help us live within our means? I know you think there are various government departments we could happily live without, for example.

Douglas: We simply just don’t need as many civil servants as we have. I’m not talking about scrapping whole departments but do we need a Department for Culture, Media and Sport? I would say some of its functions could be moved to the Home Office and the rest could be wound up. Do we need a Department for International Aid? Even if you believe we should be spending the amount of aid that we are spending, and I don’t, I think it would be wiser if that department were, actually, part of the Foreign Office because I do think our aid budget should be synced to the Foreign Office.

We could make do with far fewer civil servants. I think another thing we need to do in order to live within our means is look seriously at certain areas of welfare spending. I’m not talking about pensions, I’m not talking about certain benefits that are paid to people who spent all their lives contributing into the system, although, perhaps we might at some point make it clear that, if some future government was to want to start means-testing, now might be the time to let people in their 40s and their 50s know that.

Merryn: Exactly.

Douglas: I wouldn’t support doing that now. I think there are some areas where the Housing Benefit bill… there was this great talk about the benefit cap and everyone said what a wonderful thing it is but £26,000 a year, very few people have actually been affected by it. I’m afraid I think we need to get serious about reducing the Housing Benefit bill. The Housing Benefit bill, once you start to distort the pricing mechanism, you create unintended consequences and you actually use state subsidy to push up rents and you create this vicious circle of spiralling rents, which, actually, doesn’t increase the number of rental properties available. I think that’s a serious problem.

Merryn: Our problem in the UK, housing is a huge part of all our problems because we’ve put in place policies, which have pushed up house prices in general which has given us more people who need to be tenants and then our housing system has pushed up rents and that whole thing just cycles on and on and on in a horribly dysfunctional way.

In-work benefits were brought in by Gordon Brown for good reasons. Unfortunately, if you pay people to do low-paid work, you get more people in low-paid work. Big business likes this because it’s a state subsidy for them to pay ridiculously low wages.

Douglas: One thing I’m commissioning some serious research on, as Ukip, and I don’t have the answers now but I want to have some empirical analysis of the issue is the impact of in-work benefits. In-work benefits were brought in by Gordon Brown for good reasons. There were people on very low incomes who needed support. Unfortunately, if you pay people to do low-paid work, you get more people in low-paid work. I suspect a big corporate interest, big business quite likes this because it’s a state subsidy for them to pay ridiculously low wages. Look at the argument that we’re having at the moment as to whether or not you should pay the living wage. I would love it if everyone was one the living wage but I suspect one of the reasons why it’s necessary to insist upon paying the living wage is precisely because the in-work benefit system incentivises employers to not pay people properly.

Merryn: Because people end up with the same income regardless. The employer will pay them a living wage but, nonetheless, the benefits system will still top them up to a reasonable level.

Douglas: I just wonder if big business and big corporate interests have created a whole raft of jobs that only exist because the big corporate interest knows that the taxpayer’s going to top things up.

Merryn: We also wonder if it isn’t the case that the tax credits system also incentivises people to work part time because if you work, depending on whether you’re in a couple or whether you’re single, it’s 12 or 16 hours and if you worked that number of hours then you click in to the whole tax credits system, which incentivises people to work part-time, which obviously has a roll-on effect to productivity.

Douglas: Yes, indeed. I was listening to a discussion about the productivity puzzle recently and they were talking about airports. Now, I’m all in favour of air travel, it’s a wonderful thing but I don’t think productivity is necessarily much higher within ten miles of Heathrow compared to 100 miles away from Heathrow. We’re not going to solve the productivity puzzle by building more airports, although important that may be. I suspect you can’t really understand the productivity puzzle without doing some serious empirical research on the impact of in-work benefits.

Unfortunately, none of the established parties have done this. Obviously, the Labour party doesn’t want to do it because it doesn’t want to undermine the great legacy of Gordon Brown. I say that with a straight face. The Conservative party hasn’t done the thinking on this basically because it’s never been able to create a compelling post-Thatcher agenda to anything. This is where I think Ukip could come in with a proper analysis of the impact of in-work benefits. I come from a constituency where benefits are enormously important to people and I don’t want to see people make decisions that are going to have big impacts on people without thinking through the consequences. We’ve got to make sure that we make decisions in order to make it possible for people to get the most out of life.

Merryn: You want to incentivise them to look for well-paid full-time work not badly paid part-time work, right?

I suspect that the in-work benefits system means that the UK economy is now less well positioned to create wealth in the 21st century.

Douglas: Yes. In a growing economy, the norm would be that you have incentives to automate. I was reading a paper on 19th century American history and one of the reasons why America mechanised was because, at times, there were shortages of labour. The market’s very clever. When it’s got a shortage of people with skills it responds by putting capital and invention into finding neat solutions to these problems. I suspect that, actually, the in-work benefits system means that the UK economy is now less well positioned to create wealth in the 21st century.

Merryn: We haven’t been incentivised to, as you say, automate and find more efficient ways of doing things because we’re having cheap labour paid for by the state.

Douglas: You say these things far more articulately than me. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make.

Merryn: Interesting. Are there any other big policy areas in the UK that you think you have a slightly different take on financially?

Douglas: Energy. The Tweedledee Tweedledum parties are signed up to this idea of renewable targets.

Merryn: Although, actually, the Conservatives are rowing back on that little, right? There’s a lot of talk about ending subsidies earlier than before.

Douglas: I don’t think we need a rowing boat. We need a turbo-charged. It’s a fundamental problem to wealth creation in this country. Looking at the United States, energy costs are so much lower there and capital and technology have come together wonderfully to create extraordinary solutions to the energy problems they face so much so that, actually, the United States is reindustrialising. I heard that aluminium smelters and fertiliser factories are reopening in the United States.

Merryn: Thanks to cheap energy.

Douglas: I’m not sure that the laws of physics are different in Lancashire but last week we heard that the local council rejected the one scheme that we have. Know-how is hyper mobile. How can it possibly be that we’re so far behind Pennsylvania?

Merryn: Of course, it’s been rejected in Scotland as well, hasn’t it? It’s certainly put on hold.

I think that we need to look at energy policy. I’m coming to the view that we should love the technology, love new technology but always be against the subsidy.

Douglas: I think that we need to look at energy policy. I’m coming to the view that we should love the technology, love new technology but always be against the subsidy. I would extend that principle right across energy.

Merryn: If the new technology is good enough, it will find its own way. It doesn’t require the subsidy?

Douglas: Absolutely. I suspect in 20 or 30 years, Merryn, every house in this country, every window in this country, every car in this country will come with solar panelling fitted and it will be fitted in such a way that you won’t even notice it. I suspect many homes around the country will have a battery under the stairs that is so hyper-efficient, in fact the technology is already there, that they’ll recharge on gorgeous days like this, that it will power your fridge and your washing machine at night. I suspect that will become the norm, but I don’t think you need subsidies to do that. I suspect that wind turbines are never going to become sustainable without subsidies and it doesn’t really hurt me at all to say it but I imagine that the countryside will be relatively wind-turbine free in 30 years, just as our inner cities are becoming tower-block free because we’ve realised, actually, it was a public policy mistake.

Merryn: That relies on the idea that someone’s going to pay to take the things down. I don’t know who that’s going to be.

Douglas: If both the established parties are wedded to this idea of ministers being able, in their wisdom, to decide what the correct energy mix is, and that’s basically the conceit of the political class, they believe that they can choose the correct energy mix. I think the scope for my party to come up with a very pro-technology, very free market alternative that will give us cheap energy and be credible.

Merryn: You talk about “my party” but there is only one of you at the moment.

Douglas: I said my party, I did mean that in a possessive way. I’m one of 55,000 members.

Merryn: Of course, but are enough people listening? You have interesting ideas on welfare, interesting ideas on the way currencies should work, interesting ideas on monetary policy, on energy, etc. Are people still listening?

The way to find complex answers is through constant innovation and change. If you put mandarins in charge of things, they wreck a country – as the Ming Chinese discovered, and as Europe is discovering

Douglas: I think so. Absolutely. There was, I think, during the election, a remarkable achievement from my party in producing a manifesto and a manifesto that was not just easily the best manifesto that Ukip’s produced, I actually think it easily trumps what the Tweedledee and Tweedledum parties produced. It was thoughtful, it was coherent, it was free market and it was sensible. Our policies on European immigration, which are very important, were chapters in a fairly extensive publication. We need to build on that. Ukip is clearly the third party. We got four million votes. The Labour party got 9.5 million. We are behind the Labour party in a lot of seats. We came second in 120 seats. I think we are very well placed to displaced the Labour party.

Merryn: Let me ask you one more question on this. We talked earlier about the resurgence of democracy in Europe. There’s a problem with democracy, isn’t there, which is that so many of the problems that we have as a society, particularly as a Western society, so demography, education, etc, are quite long-term problems, but our governments change every four years. Do you think there’s an argument for, given the stage of development that we’re at and the demographic stage we’re at, for extending the term of a government out to, say, eight or nine years or so?

Douglas: Absolutely not. Your question, with respect, rests on a conceit, which is that solutions to our challenges are best engineered by design, by blueprint. If it was the case that the best way to fix the challenges we face was by blueprint then, yes, it would make sense to give the planners time to develop their grand schemes but, actually, no. I’ve been reading an early copy of Matt Ridley’s amazing book, The Evolution of Everything, and it argues, actually, on the contrary. Complex systems are best created, I was going to say engineered but created, evolved, by trial and error. That suggests to me that you shouldn’t give big space and time to grand planners. If you want to create sophisticated public policy solutions to energy, to welfare, to trade, actually, the answer is to allow the grand planners less scope and to allow innovation and trial and error. That’s how to evolve the right public policy solutions.

Merryn: Cut their terms down to a year?

Douglas: It’s interesting you say this. The Chartists argued for a whole range of things and the one area that they haven’t yet got is annual parliaments. I don’t think they will ever get annual parliaments, but I think direct democracy means that, actually, you will no longer have a system where the voter contracts out to a priesthood of politicians to run things for, in those days it was seven years, it’s now five years. It will be a constant conversation between governed and governing and it will be a two-way conversation.

If you were to argue, as some people do, you go along to the Poobah’s favourite think tank, the Institute for Government, and they’ll say we need long-term plans, we need independent bodies like the MPC – the Monetary Policy Committee – to devise solutions to energy. Nonsense. Absolute nonsense. The way to find complex answers is through constant innovation and change. If you put mandarins in charge of things, they wreck a country as the Ming Chinese discovered and as Europe is discovering under the rule of the Brussels mandarinate.

Merryn: Douglas, thank you very much.