"Factual errors" and "slipshod research" - the Britannia Unchained Tories must try harder

Proper policy recommendations require hard graft, which is distinctly lacking in this book.

The authors of Britannia Unchained – five Conservative MPs including Elizabeth Truss and Dominic Raab – argue that Britons are “idlers . . . obsessed with the idea of the gentleman amateur”. Sadly, so far the reaction to the book has proved their point. They’ve had headlines in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph and the Guardian has marked them out as the young Tories to watch. Job done. Yet they’ve done it without doing any serious research, let alone thinking about what that research might mean. They have joined the political version of celebrity culture – the same culture that they argue, to some extent compellingly, makes Britons believe they can get on without doing any hard work.

You don’t need to plough through the book and itemise the factual errors or slipshod research to see just how lazy they’ve been. The first statistics in the book, on page two, point out: “The dependency culture has grown dramatically. By February 2012, 5.7 million people were claiming some kind of benefits. At over 13 per cent of the working population, this is one of the highest proportions in the OECD.”

What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? No footnote (in a book that contains several hundred, most to newspaper articles). What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort.

Most of the book follows this pattern: a randomly strung-together mixture of anecdote, assertion and rehashed articles from a wide variety of sources, ranging from the Mail to the Economist to that old staple, “A research study found . . .”

Hard graft

All this is a pity, because I found myself warming to much of the tone and content of the book. The authors’ basic message is one of hard-headed optimism; that is, the UK, despite our current problems, has plenty of inherent strengths and our destiny is under our control. They want us to learn from other countries but do not fall into the trap of arguing that we’d be fine if we just copied – insert one of the following according to ideological preference – China, Sweden, Germany, Singapore or the US.

Nor do they succumb to the easy pessimism that is currently prevalent among commentators (and, sadly, too many economists) that we are doomed to no or slow growth or that our children will be worse off than we are.

As a consequence, many of the broad implications of their arguments, at both macro and micro levels, are entirely sensible. Our children need to understand that they are unlikely to make it as pop singers or footballers but that if they study and work hard they have an excellent chance of succeeding. At a national level, policymakers need to be more ambitious, take more chances, encourage innovation and risk failure. Unfortunately, as a result of the sloppiness of both the research and the writing, the authors fail to translate this into concrete policy recommendations.

To take one example, it is a clear implication of many of the arguments they make – that we should be open to new ideas; promote competition and innovation; reduce unnecessary red tape, especially in the labour market – that the UK should be more open to immigration, especially skilled immigration. This would not be a panacea but it would certainly help. Now the government they support is moving in precisely the opposite direction, in a manner likely to do considerable economic damage – and yet immigration policy is not even mentioned. They are courageous enough to insult the work ethic of the British labour force, apparently, but not brave enough to confront the shibboleths of their party. That is a pity.

Doing evidence-based policy analysis and turning it into credible policy recommendations is neither quick nor easy. You need to be prepared to trawl through the data, work out what it means, translate that into something that policymakers can understand and help them think through the potential policy implications. On the basis of Britannia Unchained, we still lack politicians who are prepared to get down to this sort of “hard graft”.

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

Read Simon Heffer’s review of “Britannia Unchained” in this week's New Statesman, on sale today

Lady Diana Cooper as Britannia at the Empire Ball in 1924. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”