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26 February 2019

We need a political party that is tough on the causes of Brexit. The Independent Group isn’t

Unless we have politicians who understand the need for radical change, the snake oil sellers who sold us Brexit will happily carry on plying their wares.  

By Simon Wren-Lewis

I fully share the anguish of so many people over the madness of Brexit. All the evidence points to not leaving the EU, and the reasons given for leaving are generally vague or false. The vote on which this crazy policy is based was deeply flawed. As an economist I can clearly see the damage Brexit is doing, and will do.

While I could see the rationale for Labour’s triangulation strategy over Brexit before and immediately after the 2017 election, it stopped making sense in electoral terms as public opinion began to move during 2018. This is not to mention that its policy often appeared unicorn-lite or, more realistically, close to a policy of Brexit in name only, which only gives away control. Should the new party that will surely follow the formation of the Independent Group, continues to promote a “people’s vote”, it will likely be quite attractive to people like me.

But I’m in the more uncommon position of having been in the similar place twice before in the last decade. The reason is very simple. I have been all my life a macroeconomist, and for the last 20-odd years an academic. That gave me a perspective on 2010 austerity and the 2015 election that was largely absent from the popular debate. As a result, I can see that Brexit was not an isolated event, the result of one bad decision by Cameron, but part of a pattern suggesting deep problems with how UK politics works.

Understandably, most people are against austerity because of the impact it has had on those in need who depend on the NHS, local authority care and the welfare state. They are also now beginning to see its impact on schools, on our justice system and on much more. But that still leaves open the idea that somehow austerity was necessary for the good of the economy as a whole. As Conservative politicians never tire of saying, they came into office in 2010 with the country on the edge of a crisis created by the previous Labour government. As an academic macroeconomist, I know that is completely false.

Pretty much every first year undergraduate textbook tells students why in a recession you need an expansionary monetary and/or fiscal policy and you should ignore the deficit. When interest rates run out of road, as they had in the UK by 2009, then fiscal expansion is vital. One of my own specialist fields is fiscal policy, so I also know that state of the art models also suggest exactly the same thing as the textbooks. The insights of Keynes that have been accepted by most academics ever since remain valid today. It is this received wisdom that the UK followed in 2009 before the Coalition government came into power.

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Just as many feel that Brexit makes no sense, I felt that austerity, which started in 2010, went against all our knowledge and evidence. The one doubt I had was that an irrational financial market might suddenly stop buying UK government debt, but this was dispelled when I realised the Bank of England’s unconventional monetary policy of buying government debt to keep interest rates low (Quantitative Easing) would quickly kill any panic. That analysis begins my book based on the blog I started as a result of austerity.

Just as both main political parties now support some sort of Brexit, so both at the time supported austerity. The argument was over how much, how quickly. Neither the Coalition nor the opposition argued for the right policy, which was to delay fiscal consolidation until the recovery was underway and the Bank started raising interest rates. Experts on trade or the EU Brexit negotiations are infrequently heard in the media, but they were almost never seen over austerity.

My point in making these parallels is that evidence-based policy making on major issues didn’t end with Brexit, but six years earlier with austerity. In both cases these are policies that create great harm to all, and acute harm to many. I calculate austerity cost the average household £10,000; the New Economics Foundation, using similar methods get an even larger figure. No government since the war, including those of Thatcher, has embarked on prolonged austerity during an economic recovery, so it is no surprise we had the weakest recovery for centuries.

Brexit is therefore not the exception in a period of otherwise normal government. If you ask why Brexit happened, it was not that David Cameron made one mistake in an otherwise capable period as prime minister. There is evidence that austerity encouraged the growth of Ukip and by implication the Brexit vote. I remember often hearing people in areas that are described as “left behind” dismissing the economic impact of Brexit by saying things could not possibly get worse than they are now. But austerity was not Brexit’s main cause.

To see what the cause was, we need to look at the second period in which I felt similar to how I today feel about Brexit: the run up to the 2015 general election. Political commentators had deduced from polling that the economy was the Conservatives’ strong point, indeed perhaps their only strong point going into that election. To a macroeconomist, that made no sense. Not only had we had the worst recovery for centuries, but real wages had suffered their worst fall since records began. The government extolled record employment growth, but given the slow recovery they were in reality just celebrating the flatlining of UK productivity that was a key factor behind falling real wages.

Economists like David Blanchflower, John Van Reenen and I set out just how bad UK economic performance had been over the previous five years, but once again expertise was ignored. As far as the media were concerned, reducing the deficit had become the most important priority for the economy, and that was how they judged politicians. You will not find that in any textbook either, but the media had either sold or been sold a narrative and they didn’t want to know any different.

That narrative said that the Coalition had brought down the deficit that the previous government had allowed to grow out of control. In reality the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s caused by a Global Financial Crisis had pushed up the deficit, but the media had pushed, or accepted, the idea that the Coalition was clearing up the mess that a profligate Labour government had left. I had written a paper on fiscal policy under the Labour government and there was no way they were profligate, but because Labour didn’t challenge the accusation the media accepted something as true that was obviously false.

The fact that people thought the Conservatives were strong on the economy only confirmed the media’s narrative. In reality, the causality was the other way. There is a growing literature identifying the power the media has to influence elections and shape popular narratives. The 2015 election was a precursor for Brexit in three important ways. First, and most obviously, the media helped elect a Conservative government that was committed to an EU referendum. Second it showed that politicians could tell huge lies and get away with it. Finally it showed the power the media had to influence a popular vote. 

Brexit would not have been possible without the UK media. A large part of the press pushed anti-EU propaganda, and the broadcast media balanced the view of the overwhelming majority of experts against the lies of a few. Viewers desperately wanted information, and the broadcast media gave them politicians rather than experts, and balance rather than facts. Fear of immigration was important in deciding how many people voted, and it was the right-wing press that had since the beginning of the century pushed countless negative stories about immigrants. Although austerity may have played a role, it was the media that played the major part in giving us Bexit.

Although the Independent Group (IG) may have a more attractive policy on Brexit, and they will talk the talk on a broken politics, the group is composed of politicians who either believe their government did the right thing over austerity, or who urged accepting Osborne’s policy while in opposition. Deficit obsession is damaging to the economy, but it also shuts the gate to so much else that needs to be done. It means the IG will be unable to undertake the far reaching and radical industrial policy that is needed to tackle the huge regional inequalities within the UK, and help those left behind that voted for Brexit. It means no Green New Deal. Although so far policy lite, they have pledged to keep our current “free media,” which will mean they would do nothing to mend much of our dysfunctional press that acts as a propaganda vehicle for their owners, or a broadcast media that balances truth with lies and is largely expert free.

Brexit was not an aberration in an otherwise well-functioning UK democracy, any more than Trump was in the US. They are symptoms of a deeper malaise. I cannot put it better than Anthony Barnett when he says if all you want to do is stop Brexit and Trump and go back to what you regard as normal, you miss that what was normal led to Brexit and Trump. Unless we have politicians in power who understand the need for radical change, the snake oil sellers who sold us Brexit and US voters Trump will happily carry on plying their wares.  

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