It’s the return of the long-term economic plan – but has Osborne read his history?

I don’t need to look where I’m going. It’s all in the plan. Peter Nicholls/PA

Faced with the suggestion that their election campaign has been too negative so far, the Conservatives are trying to shift attention back toward the issue of economic competence.

In his latest appearance on Radio 4’s Today Programme, George Osborne claimed the British public faces a stark choice between a “clear plan that is delivering for our country” or a “deeply unstable Miliband/SNP government committed to much more borrowing”. He argued that the country needs to “stick to the plan”.

Osborne has repeatedly sought to place this message at the heart of the Conservative electoral strategy. He has been mocked for sounding like a broken record with his catchphrase and questioned about what it actually means.

He remains convinced, though, that voters will react to a binary choice between Conservative-led competence and the supposed chaos of a Labour government.

The phrase implies a deliberate attempt to achieve certain economic ends through the co-ordination of means over a specified period of time. The long history of the catchphrase in part explains why it has been so enthusiastically adopted by the Conservative Party this time around – but it also shows that the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition.

Conservative MPs and candidates use the phrase “economic plan” to refer to many different things. When it was first wheeled out in January 2014, it was attached to pledges to reduce the deficit, cut income tax, create more jobs, cap welfare, reduce immigration and improve education.

By January 2015, commitments to growth, improvements in infrastructure, scientific innovation, health spending and devolution had been added to the mix.

The aims of the plan are similarly broad. According to the Conservative Party website, the objectives range from keeping mortgage rates low to helping the next generation “win the global race”.

This is not the first time a British political party has sought to push its long-term economic plan in an election campaign.

Of mice and men

The idea that a government could intervene in an economy to plan development can be traced back to a 1908 mathematical essay by the Italian economist Enrico Barone.

His ideas were popularised by various high-profile figures in the 1920s: from Oswald Mosley to G D H Cole and the ornithologist Max Nicholson (who helped to establish the think tank Political and Economic Planning). The reformist MP Harold Macmillan was another avid supporter. He believed that planning would allow central government to use statistical information to help industry use resources more efficiently.

The interest shown by such figures led to occasional references to planning during the 1931 and 1935 election campaigns. But definitions remained varied. Planning in interwar Britain could refer to anything from wholesale nationalisation to the transfer of regulatory powers to trade associations.

Debates over planning reached new heights during World War II, after the concept was successfully applied to manage the war effort. The production of guns and aircraft had been planned by government departments, raw materials had been controlled, and scarce resources diverted into priority areas. Many asked why such policies could not be applied during peacetime.

Labour’s 1945 manifesto seized upon this mood and declared that a future Labour government would “plan from the ground up”. The Tories fought on a free market platform arguing that the government needed to remove controls over industry. They suffered a landslide defeat and Winston Churchill was removed from Downing Street.

The Conservative Party would itself flirt with the language of planning in 1947 as it sought to regain the support of the British people. The Conservative Plan was touted as a way of maintaining state intervention while cutting red tape. The party argued this could be achieved by increasing communication between government and industry.

Unplanned departure

The Tory victory in the 1951 general election led to a marked shift away from the language of planning. The concept had become linked to post-war austerity and was not seen to be a vote-winner.

But a growing awareness that Britain was being outperformed by her European neighbours (a precursor to “the global race”), put planning back on the political agenda.

When Macmillan became prime minister in 1957, he responded to stagnant growth rates by launching the National Economic Development Council in 1962. The council – better known as Neddy – was designed to provide space for government and industry to discuss long-term economic strategy.

One more time, you’ve got a what? Peter Nicholls/PA

Macmillan’s actions led to a resurgence in the politics of planning. He was criticised by some for not going far enough and Labour responded by promising to deliver a national plan if elected in the 1964 general election. Harold Wilson famously linked this promise to a call for a greater focus on science in his white heat speech, in which he proposed top down measures to take better advantage of technological change – such as bringing in mechanisms to help businesses access scientific research.

The trend was to be short-lived though. A national plan was published in 1965 but it was overshadowed by Britain’s growing trade deficit and was not repeated. Planning gradually slipped out of British political discourse and had been all but forgotten by the time Margaret Thatcher’s premiership came to an end. That is, until now.

Back on message

If Osborne has done his history, he will know that the long-term economic plan is a slippery concept, even if it does have a long lineage in British politics.

Those who invoked the concept during the twentieth century were often vague on the specifics. The ends ranged from higher levels of employment to scientific innovation. And the means from state control to the collaboration with big business.

The one thing which united planning’s proponents was a belief that previous policies had failed – and a radical shift was needed.

Whether the Conservative Party’s language will help it to victory in 2015 remains to be seen. Osborne is not the only politician to realise the political potential of planning. Nor is he the only only one to be vague about its meaning. But history suggests that his success depends upon being believed.