As the people of Scotland approach the time to decide the future status of our country, it is inevitable that British/English nationalists/Unionists will once again resort to scaremongering. All sorts of dire predictions of an independent Scotland’s economic performance will be made with absolute certainty. The emphasis will be on big numbers, on short and medium and long term forecasts, all trotted out with statistical certainty. Their emphasis will NOT be on Scotland’s intrinsic, tangible and intangible assets: they will work hard to deny the positives such assets can deliver for the people of an advanced, Western democracy like Scotland – given the normal agency of a nation-state!
A compliant media will aggregate and amplify negative predictions about Scotland. They will do so without acknowledging the irony based on what they know only too well, namely the casual dismissal by senior Unionist politicians and allied commentators of economic predictions and forecasts when it suits them. Let’s review some examples, starting with last Thursday, 21 July.
Denialism has become too easy on UK news programmes
The occasion was an interview on Channel 4 News with Jacob Rees-Mogg. In setting out Liz Truss’ credentials to be Prime Minister, he referred to her achievements in negotiating trade deals for the UK, now as an independent nation-state ‘freed’ from the EU. He gave the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as an exemplar. The C4 interviewer noted the tiny impact this FTA will have on the UK economy: Rees-Mogg casually brushed this aside saying (in terms) ‘you shouldn’t believe such forecasts’. The interviewer then noted this was the official assessment by his own government. The broadcast interview ended at this point: there was no further challenge. Rees-Mogg was allowed to get away with it!
‘Forecasting is as accurate as necromancy’!
On 5 July 2022, HuffPost UK commented upon a BBC Newsnight interview with this same senior Tory under the headline: ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Bizarre Attempt To Write Off Negative Brexit Forecasts Backfires’. He was being asked about statistics published by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) on how the UK is faring economically post-Brexit. The BBC interviewer put a number of the OBR’s negative findings to the minister. This is Huff Posts’ report of the exchange that followed:
‘As Rees-Mogg tried to cut in, Wark quickly pointed out that the OBR is the government’s official forecasters. “[But] it’s always been wrong,” Rees-Mogg insisted. Adding: “The OBR has never got a forecast right, so taking it as holy [grail] is a mistake.” (My emphasis)
The BBC interviewer then asked: “So does Boris Johnson not believe in it? Is it only you that doesn’t believe in it?” Rees Mogg replied:“Well, you’ll have to answer the prime minister, but they are forecasters. Forecasting is as accurate as necromancy.” – “It doesn’t actually get things right.”
(Necromancy – the act of conjuring the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events.)
Dismissal by assertion of partiality – influenced by an agenda
HuffPost UK (on 22 June 2022) reported Rees-Mogg’s dismissal of a report on Brexit by the Resolution Foundation. It had concluded that quitting the EU has harmed Britain’s economy. The Tory minister characterised it as “the regurgitation of Project Fear”.
Rees-Mogg added: “The head of the Resolution Foundation is the former chief of staff to Ed Miliband, who was one of the main cheerleaders for staying in the European Union, so it is the usual suspects.” He argued that the success of the Covid vaccine rollout and free trade deals struck between the UK and other countries proved that Brexit was successful. When asked whether he would produce his own data to back up his claims, the minister said: “I’m not going to make those sorts of assessments because lots were made before the referendum and they were all bilge.”
HuffPost adds: ‘Rees-Mogg’s bizarre response comes after he confirmed that the government has no plans to assess if Brexit is a success or not. Asked by HuffPost UK how voters are supposed to assess whether Brexit has been worth it, Rees-Mogg said: “I’ve always thought it’s all about democracy. Can you change your government, can you make decisions about how you are governed?” He added: “That is the big and overwhelming advantage of Brexit, and then you come to the debate as to whether democracy also makes you more prosperous and I think it does and there’s a great deal of evidence for that.”
Democracy, voting, changing government is ‘the big and overwhelming advantage of Brexit’! Who knew that? Democracy, voting in Scotland, changing government in Westminster? Where is the big advantage here to Scotland whilst in the present union with England?
When forecasters forget ‘the meteor strike’ and a ‘plague of locusts’!
On 24 August 2020, the New European reported an interview with former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith (IDS) on talkRADIO:
‘Staunch Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) has said he does not ‘see the point’ in Brexit forecasts on the day a government report warned the UK faced food, fuel and power shortages if a no-deal Brexit and second coronavirus wave coincided.’
‘… he appeared to mock the report saying analysts had forgotten to add ‘the meteor strike’ and a ‘plague of locusts’ to their predictions.
‘Honestly, if I had a penny, I’d have been a wealthy man every time civil servants working in the Cabinet Office or in the Treasury who desperately hate the idea of Brexit don’t produce some ghastly, multiple, terribly accident that’s going to happen to us,’ the former Tory leader told host Julia Hartley-Brewer.
‘You know, the answer is we’re leaving, we’re sovereign and so it’s up to the European Union, as much as us, if they want an arrangement. You’ve got to get on with it and we’re going come what may on January 1. Speaking about the research, he added: ‘Honestly, I don’t see the point in people producing doomsday scenarios.’
Almost every single forecast on Brexit has proven wrong – apparently
Mr Duncan-Smith like Rees-Mogg has a habit of dismissing official reports when it suits. This was picked up by Yahoo News on 30 January 2018:
‘The Whitehall paper, leaked to BuzzFeed, says Britain will be in a worse position economically after Brexit no matter what deal is struck with Brussels.’ BuzzFeed reported that the leaked document was titled ‘EU Exit Analysis – Cross Whitehall Briefing’ and was compiled by the Department for Exiting the EU. But Mr Duncan Smith said the paper should be taken “with a pinch of salt”, claiming that almost every single forecast on Brexit has proven wrong.
Depressingly narrow forecasters – unwilling to engage in the bigger issue
The online free-market ‘platform’ Comment Central published an article in January 2018 by right wing Tory MP John Redwood entitled ‘Brexit was a vote for a free Britain’. In this Redwood writes:
‘The endless and repetitious debate about the consequences of Brexit put out before and after the vote by Remain campaigners is depressingly narrow as well as wrong. They concentrate all the time on alleged short term economic losses. They have been comprehensively wrong with their gloomy short term forecasts for the aftermath of the vote, and are busy revising the timelines for the same old false forecasts. They are unwilling to engage in the much bigger issue of how we can now restore our democracy and reinstitute our freedoms.’
‘Fortunately we do not have to choose between economic loss and freedoms gained, as Brexit can secure economic gain with the right domestic policies.’
Redwood’s article made wider observations which are worth repeating, albeit for those that enjoy irony. On the UK’s EU membership: The country was signed up to a system which meant laws could be created and taxation raised and spent without the UK public and their directly elected representatives having the final say or even an effective voice. The proponents claimed that the European Parliament met some of the democratic deficit, but in truth a single country block of MEPs was never strong enough to assert the UK public will when this was at variance with the EU wishes.’ I don’t need to spell out which words and phrases in this lengthy quote should be swapped for others to good effect!
Why should we believe?
Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, published an online article on 28 November 2018 entitled: ‘Boris Johnson rejects Brexit projections’.
It stated: ‘Former British Foreign Secretary and “hard Brexit” advocate Boris Johnson appeared to reject both the (UK) government and Bank of England’s reports, labelling the financial experts as part of “the British economic establishment”.’
The article quoted a tweet from Johnson at the time: “They can’t forecast six months out — why should we believe them over 15 years?“
Economic experts are nearly always wrong!
And its not just Tory politicians who dismiss the relevance of economic forecasts when it suits. From the Daily Express (24 June 2020) there is this headline: ’Andrew Neil rejects economic experts as ‘nearly always wrong’ after shock UK prediction’
We’re told: ‘Andrew Neil took a dig at economic experts after analysts warned the British pound now resembles a volatile currency of a developing country since the Brexit referendum vote in 2016 .…’
‘But veteran political broadcaster Andrew Neil has hit back at these bleak warnings. Reacting to the forecasts on Twitter, he replied: “Don’t worry. They’re nearly always wrong!“
Jun 24, 2020
Questioning neutrality of Civil Servants
Rejection of official forecasts by UK ministers also happens in a regional setting. From 14 Feb 2018, we learn that: ‘The Northern Powerhouse minister has rubbished a report which said the North East is drifting towards a post-Brexit economic slump.’
‘Jake Berry MP said he didn’t have faith in figures compiled by civil servants which show the region taking a major hit following the UK’s departure from the EU. Asked if exporters in the region would have the rug pulled out from under them by Brexit, Mr Berry said he “very much doubts it”. He added: “These are very longterm projections and economists usually turn out to be wrong.”
The same article reports that ‘Steve Baker MP, a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the EU, was forced to apologise after making comments calling into question the independence of civil servants involved in forecasting the impact of Brexit.’ It also noted that: ‘Jacob Rees Mogg MP, who has become the public face of Brexit-supporting Tory back- benchers, accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures”.
Outrageous claims by Berry, Baker and Rees-Mogg? Perhaps, but these Tory Ministers felt entitled to make them in public. We in Scotland should remember this from November 2014: ‘HM Treasury team wins special Civil Service Award – The Treasury’s Scotland Analysis Programme Team won the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Award in this year’s Civil Service Awards.
Mario Pisani, one of the award winners, is quoted in this article: “In the Treasury, everyone hates you. We don’t get thanks for anything. This is one occasion where we’ve worked with the rest of Whitehall. … We all had something in common, we’re trying to save the Union here, and it came so close. We just kept it by the skin of our teeth. I actually cried when the result came in. After 10 years in the civil service, my proudest moment is tonight and receiving this award.”
He adds: “As civil servants you don’t get involved in politics. For the first time in my life, suddenly we’re part of a political campaign. We were doing everything from the analysis, to the advertising, to the communications. I just felt a massive sense of being part of the operation. This being recognised [at the Civil Service Awards], makes me feel just incredibly proud.”
We need to learn all we can from 2014. We need to appreciate how our opponents are willing to conduct their politics, not necessarily to imitate them – although one might well use caricature to call out hypocrisy – but certainly how to counter better than before!