"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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leave will leap on the immigration rise, but Brexit would not make much difference

Non-EU migration is still well above the immigration cap, which the government is still far from reaching. 

On announcing the quarterly migration figures today, the Office for National Statistics was clear: neither the change in immigration levels, nor in emigration levels, nor in the net figure is statistically significant. That will not stop them being mined for political significance.

The ONS reports a 20,000 rise in net long-term international migration to 333,000. This is fuelled by a reduction in emigration: immigration itself is actually down very slightly (by 2,000) on the year ending in 2014, but emigration has fallen further – by 22,000.

So here is the (limited) short-term significance of that. The Leave campaign has already decided to pivot to immigration for the final month of the referendum campaign. Arguments about the NHS, about sovereignty, and about the bloated bureaucracy in Brussels have all had some utility with different constituencies. But none has as much purchase, especially amongst persuadable Labour voters in the north, as immigration. So the Leave campaign will keep talking about immigration and borders for a month, and hope that a renewed refugee crisis will for enough people turn a latent fear into a present threat.

These statistics make adopting that theme a little bit easier. While it has long been accepted by everyone except David Cameron and Theresa May that the government’s desired net immigration cap of 100,000 per year is unattainable, watch out for Brexiters using these figures as proof that it is the EU that denies the government the ability to meet it.

But there are plenty of available avenues for the Remain campaign to push back against such arguments. Firstly, they will point out that this is a net figure. Sure, freedom of movement means the British government does not have a say over EU nationals arriving here, but it is not Jean-Claude Juncker’s fault if people who live in the UK decide they quite like it here.

Moreover, the only statistically significant change the ONS identify is a 42 per cent rise in migrants coming to the UK “looking for work” – hardly signalling the benefit tourism of caricature. And though that cohort did not come with jobs, the majority (58 per cent) of the 308,000 migrants who came to Britain to work in 2015 had a definite job to go to.

The Remain campaign may also point out that the 241,000 short-term migrants to the UK in the year ending June 2014 were far outstripped by the 420,000 Brits working abroad. Brexit, and any end to freedom of movement that it entailed, could jeopardise many of those jobs for Brits.

There is another story that the Remain campaign should make use of. Yes, the immigration cap is a joke. But it has not (just) been made into a joke by the EU. Net migration from non-EU countries is at 188,000, a very slight fall from the previous year but still higher than immigration from EU countries. That alone is far above the government’s immigration cap. If the government cannot bring down non-EU migration, then the Leave argument that a post-EU Britain would be a low-immigration panacea is hardly credible. Don’t expect that to stop them making it though. 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.