Playing with fire

If this isn’t a mess, it will certainly do until the mess gets here. An unnecessary, self-inflicted catastrophe on a truly astonishing scale. How did we allow things to get this far?

My initial thoughts when the results were announced was that I live in a country made up mostly of racists and half-wits but after some time to reflect I realise of course it isn’t as simple as that. Though the truth is hardly a lesser cause for despair.

From the start, I knew this was a terrible subject to put to a referendum. There is little benefit in asking a huge number of people to vote about something when a majority of them will have no chance of making an informed decision. But that is exactly what we did.

It is inconceivable that the result we saw would have happened if the voters had been making informed decisions. While the EU is far from perfect, the benefits of membership clearly outweigh any benefit we might get from leaving, but they are clear only if you understand the true consequences of what you are voting for.

In January 2010,when David Cameron was campaigning to be Prime Minister, he said that net immigration would be capped to limit it to tens of thousands. Otherwise, he told us, public services would be overwhelmed. This was when David started the fire. The fact that immigrants were actually boosting both the economy and public services was surely known to David, so why did he campaign on this point?

David is one of the world’s foremost pioneers in the creating and spreading of what I named the “Phantom Problem“. That is, you tell people there is a problem (knowing that most won’t check), scare them about it and then tell them how you are going to solve it.

David knew that immigration was a prime candidate for a phantom problem and he knew that he would be able to sound tougher about it than the incumbent Labour Party on whose watch immigration had increased.

After becoming PM, David could probably have forgotten about the small fire that he had started and it would surely have burnt itself out but it had served him well so far, so he continued to throw more sticks on it. This from a Cameron speech in 2011…

…for too long, immigration has been too high.

Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2 million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad.

That’s the largest influx of people Britain as ever had…

…and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country.

Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare – though those have been serious…

…but social pressures too.

Because real communities aren’t just collections of public service users living in the same space.

Real communities are bound by common experiences…

…forged by friendship and conversation…

…knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub.

And these bonds can take time.

So real integration takes time.

That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods…

…perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there…

…on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate…

…that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

This has been the experience for many people in our country – and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.

Of course, all the while, immigrants were continuing to play a major part in propping up the economy that had been severely weakened, initially by the financial crisis and subsequently by David’s policy of austerity. David found that by stoking the fire he was able to successfully divert attention away from the true reason that the economy was performing so badly.

But then along came UKIP.

David’s plan had been to start a small fire and then show a lot of bravado about how he was taking tough decisions to tackle it. UKIP turned up to the fire David had started with a can of petrol. Unable to douse the flames, David decided to kick the problem into the long grass by announcing an in/out referendum on the EU. He positioned it by saying that the EU was broken in its current form but he would negotiate a much better deal for us to vote on. All David really cared about was winning the 2015 general election and with this he had bought himself a clear ride to victory.

When David returned to the fire after the election the problem he had single-handledly created was not in a good way and so off he went to Europe in search of some fire engines. Shortly afterwards he came back sporting a miniature water pistol, a moist handkerchief and a can-do attitude. Worse still, while he had been focusing on the 2015 election, UKIP, the right-wing press and his most ambitious Tory colleagues had spent their time loading their planes with napalm. 

David’s sudden switch, a few months ago, to fighting the fire rather than fanning it was far too little, far too late. Having spent five years telling the electorate that immigration was too high and that immigrants were benefit tourists who were the reason for a stretched NHS, he had made a fire bigger than he could put out.

In hindsight you might wonder how he could have been so arrogant to assume he would be able to control the fire but you must appreciate that phantom problems had been the entire backbone of David’s political success. Labour spending caused the global financial crisis (phantom problem) therefore we need austerity. People on benefits are lazy scroungers (phantom problem) therefore we need to cut benefits. Phantom problems had worked so well for David, he could never have conceived that one of them could ultimately lead to his downfall.

And all the time that David talked up those phantom problems, he told us not to listen to the voices of the economists who were trying to tell the public what was really going on. 

Logic, facts and evidence were lost in the Brexit debate because the voices of the people trying to responsibly inform the public were drowned out by those who were not. The political environment that David created since coming to power has been mislead the public, tell them to listen to the right-wing press and tell them to ignore experts and that was the political environment in which the EU referendum took place.

In such a scenario, how can we possibly expect the public to make an informed decision?

So what happens next? I don’t think anyone knows, there doesn’t seem to be any plan whatsoever. Scotland will surely push for independence again and well they should. After the EU referendum result I feel nothing but guilt that I asked them to stay last time. Even if they do go, the rest of us have a very uncertain time ahead and all we really know is that we will be worse off than we would have been otherwise.

Economics aside, we have sent a very sad message out about our country. A message that the UK is not an inclusive country, a message that we have reverted back to the that horrible attitude of many on the right, that there is something inherently special and superior about British people and “British values”, whatever those are.

The 51.9% are not all stupid racists. The vast majority are good people who have been misled because David created a political environment in which logic, facts and common sense are no longer relevant. When you watch the interviews with people on the news who voted leave and hear the reasons they did it, it is easy to tell yourself that they are either racist or stupid. In most cases they will be neither. These are good people who have more often than not been victims of Cameron’s austerity experiment and who have been let down badly by our politicians and our media.

And while this whole sorry episode in our history should finish when David threw himself on the fire he created the metaphor breaks down heavily there. David is a multimillionaire who will never experience one drop of the pain that he has created for the country he professes to love.

But, David, I do have a message for you because from all of this mess you have created there is something you can still learn:

Divisive rhetoric, no matter how much it helps the short-term ambitions of an individual, can have a truly devastating effect on society. George Osborne should have told you this earlier – after all, he has a degree in history. And despite your vast wealth, like Tony before you, your terrible legacy will haunt you forever. Whenever and wherever you pop up you will be forced to defend the indefensible, we won’t buy it and you will be remembered solely for creating this calamity.

That, David is your legacy.

And now it is time for you to go off and enjoy it. You pudding-faced, society-dividing, poverty-fuelling, hate-mongering piece of toss.

Here endeth the lesson.





Crazy Brexiters

It seems that in yesterday’s post, I failed to mention the main argument of the brexiters for why we should ignore the overwhelming economic evidence and vote Leave instead.

It seems to go like this (please correct me if I am wrong):

There are examples in history of an economist, or more than one economist, being wrong on something. Therefore we should ignore all economists now when they say that leaving the EU would be bad for the UK economy.

I’m not altogether sure this works as an economic argument, or indeed an argument of any kind. I think also, I have been quite generous to the brexiters with that summary. They aren’t actually asking you to ignore economists on the economic argument, they are actually asking you to look closely at the view of economists and then go out and vote for precisely the opposite of what they say.

Are economists alway right? Of course not and they often disagree with one another. Economic consensus on the scale that we see on brexit is actually fairly rare. This is in part because of the lack of any cohesive economic argument for brexit – there basically isn’t one, but also it’s a much simpler task we are asking economists to model here than we often give them. We aren’t asking economists to give an exact number on the size of the economy in five or 10 years time, just asking how it would be if we stayed in the EU relative to leaving. The majority of the variables and unknowns that you would need to get to a precise number cancel out when you are only comparing one aspect, (even if it is in this case a big one).

Of course, the argument from the brexiters against economists doesn’t stop there. Today Michael Gove, helpfully informed the public, that the economists’ motives are actually akin to those of Nazi sympathisers. 

I’ll tell you something – they really aren’t at all. I’m pretty sure the IMF, the OECD, NIESR, the LSE, the Bank of England etc are not heavily staffed by that kind of person and given how stupid a thing it was to say, we should perhaps leave it there.

Even if we do though, we are still looking at an economic argument with economists on one side and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the other. Like I say, the economic community’s economic forecasts aren’t always right, but I doubt they are less accurate than those of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.


Look familiar?

I did say yesterday that I thought the whole referendum was a massive waste of time and while it is, it won’t for one second stop me taking the time out of my day to go to the polling station and voting to stay in. I did like Ben Goldacre’s conclusion on the same subject:

Just vote remain. It’s boring, there’s nothing awesome about it, but sometimes you have to take a break from useful productive work to stop idiots breaking things.


Should I stay or should I go?

In recent weeks I’ve had quite a few people asking me my opinion about the upcoming EU referendum.

My opinion is quite simple – it is a massive waste of time and money. As I wrote when the referendum was first announced, the advent of a referendum would simply result in politicians and the media spamming the public with misinformation, making informed decisions impossible.

And that has of course happened, exactly as I said it would. Not that I want to take much credit for that prediction – we have been here before recently with referenda:

  • Changing the voting system to AV (2011)
  • Scottish independence (2014)

Politicians didn’t exactly come out of those looking like their mission was to responsibly inform the public.

But, I guess, “massive waste of time”, wasn’t exactly the answer that the people asking me were looking for. After all, like it or not, the vote is going ahead, so I’m sure they were asking my opinion on voting in or out.

It’s a fairly clear case for me – I will vote to stay in the EU.




What, you want more? Dammit.

It’s a complicated decision, so I shan’t try to cover every possible aspect of EU membership, but I will try to cover a few that seem to be getting the most airtime and seem to be most important to people.

So let’s start with the economy. Would the UK be better off or worse off if we left the EU? You wouldn’t think so by listening to politicians and the media but this one is actually fairly clear cut. Leaving the EU would make the UK significantly worse off compared with staying in the EU and that is in the short-term, the medium-term and the long-term.

If you want to read about the analysis then have a look here:

As Chris Giles wrote in the FT, there is a huge consensus among economists that leaving the EU would be significantly worse for the UK economy than staying in and if you don’t fancy following the maths in all of those papers, you probably don’t need to anyway. We know that trade makes us all richer. Making trade harder makes us all relatively poorer. Leaving the single market makes trade harder. It shouldn’t surprise us that the maths check out, when the basic logic is so straight forward.

According to the Cameron and Osborne analysis the UK is in for a recession if we leave. That is certainly not certain, as you can see from the papers. What is certain is that we would be worse off when compared with staying, both in the short-term and the long-term.


Yes, the leave campaign can always find an ‘economist’ to tell people the opposite but this is right in the leagues of Sarah Palin finding a ‘scientist’ who says global warming is fiction, or the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

On this issue the evidence is overwhelming.

Ok, so let’s have a look at immigration, which I guess is the next most discussed topic. Does immigration make us poorer? Are we at breaking point? Again, the good news is that we don’t need to listen to politicians or tabloids because we have some good analysis on this.

What we know is that EU immigrants, on average, contribute more to the UK economy than their native born colleagues. We also know that, on average, they take out less in benefits that their native born colleagues. In short, immigration from the EU makes the UK better off and the numbers here are, again, not in dispute.

There are poor people in the UK and there are some significant factors that cause their poverty. As much as the leave folks would have you think it, immigration isn’t one of them.

Of course, there are also the nonsense stories that lots of people believe – 70% of our laws were made in the EU, we pay the EU £350m a week etc. I could spend five minutes linking to why those are nonsense but if you still believe them, then you are probably beyond help and you probably didn’t get this far into my blogpost.

The EU is far from perfect – the Common Agricultural Policy, for example, is a big pile of cow poo. It doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on the EU, make trading with our closest neighbours harder, lose the benefits of free movement and free trade etc.

Those who tell you that we will be economically better off outside the EU, or that the UK is at breaking point due to immigration fall into two categories:

  • People wilfully misleading you for their own reasons (politicians, tabloids)
  • People who have listened to politicians and tabloids

The people in the first camp are no better than climate change deniers or the flat Earth society.

Do yourself a favour and don’t be in the second camp.