Performative Improvisation or Rishi Sunak’s approach to ‘Turning on a Sixpence’

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

I have no difficulty with improvisation, but this must also be focused on enhancing mental health and well-being and confronting some of the key challenges that face the UK.

We live in interesting times in which a new approach to government is being developed in the UK. One could argue that the government’s response to Covid-19 has been based on proactive and reactive improvisation.

Opposition parties have been calling for the government to publish a plan – a big strategy. The challenge is that planning during a period of great uncertainty is impossible. What is required is agility based on improvisation but combined with the adoption and projection of confident leadership.

Today, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, laid out an emergency plan to save jobs, and ultimately to ensure that taxes continue to flow to support public services and to pay for Covid-19 related government expenditure. This is a £30bn plan to try to ensure that the economy pivots away from high unemployment with associated social, welfare and mental health implications for individuals and families. There are three points to consider here.

First, this is partly a strategy based on financial nudges. The job retention bonus is a reward to employers willing to take the risks associated with bringing furloughed workers back into full employment. The key here is not perhaps about supply but encouraging demand, and ensuring companies continue to employ; consumers need to be encouraged to consume.

Second, the VAT cuts are part of a demand side approach to persuade people to consume. Nevertheless, we should perhaps be concerned that this is a policy that is partly based on trying to encourage us to eat more processed takeaway food. The process of governance should be one based on joined up thinking. Thus, approaches to encourage consumption should also consider well-being and long-term health issues related to particular types of consumer behaviour.

Third, the focus on 30,000 new traineeships for young people must be targeted at sectors that will make a long-term difference to both individual well-being and the longer-term future of the UK. This should be and must be about quality jobs for the new climate friendly economy that will come to dominate discussions as climate change replaces Covid-19 as the primary risk facing this planet.

My overall concern with this emergency plan is that this must be placed within the wider context of a longer-term direction of travel. I have no difficulty with improvisation, but this must also be focused on enhancing mental health and well-being and confronting some of the key challenges that face the UK. Covid-19 is perhaps a distraction to the primary challenges that revolve around climate change, inclusive prosperity, and sustainability.

The key questions to ask of this emergency plan are not about unemployment and employment but about inclusive prosperity and the contributions, if any, that this strategy makes towards climate change. In my view, some of the impacts that we have all experienced related to Covid-19 are nothing compared to the impacts that will come with climate change. Covid-19 required rapid improvisation but tackling climate change requires long-term strategic planning.

It is possible to improvise some solutions that will contribute to addressing climate change, but a longer-term approach is required. Thus, the key challenge for the UK government is to be able to ‘turn on a sixpence’ to ameliorate some of the economic and social impacts of Covid-19 as part of an integrated and co-ordinated strategy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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