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13 September 2012

“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.

By Jonathan Portes

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 . . .”

[See also: Britannia Unchained: the free-market book that defines Boris Johnson’s cabinet]
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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.

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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

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