Richard North, 06/01/2017  

Taking a brave step into the dark is Changing Europe which republishes this blogpost which, amongst other things, criticises the group and its leaders.

This is a welcome response, where they have come to me to ask permission to use a critical post. And is certainly marks a refreshing difference from the plagiarism of the Adam Smith Institute which decided that I am so controversial that my work must be stolen and passed off as coming from different authors.

The subject of this current piece, though, represents a serious threat to Brexit, as diverse contributors claiming that they are – or allowing themselves to be called – experts when they are not. And under this guise, they pour a torrent of misinformation into the system, confusing the issues and blocking progress towards an understanding of where we need to be, and how to get there.

I don't think it is at all an exaggeration to say that, after more than six months of the post-referendum period, the nation is less clear and less certain of the issues than we were on referendum day – at which point we were already remarkably ill-informed.

This dire situation stems, in my view, from the failure of what I call the failure of the "information nexus", comprising government, the political system, the media and the think-tank movement. All of the components, I would suggest, are responsible for the ignorance overload which is blighting the debate.

But within that is the question of expertise. Those who claim it, or imply by virtue of their positions that they are experts, have a special responsibility to police themselves, to avoid giving a misleading impression to non-experts (i.e., the politicians and general public). It is my assertion that many so-called experts are failing to do this – adequately or at all.

The effects of poor policing can be either direct, in perpetrating falsehoods, or indirect, allowing falsehoods or misunderstandings to prevail without correction, with the "experts" endorsing them by default.

However, the essential and core error of all those engaged in the Brexit debate, who claim any degree of expertise, is to allow the inference that such expertise is generalised and can cover "Brexit" as a subject.

Thus, we get economists, lawyers (two especially prominent groups in the debate) claiming to give expert commentary, without making known to their audiences that their expertise is circumscribed and limited to their specific specialist areas.

Brexit, on the other hand, covers elements of European and EU history, domestic law, specific EU law and then EU treaty law, treaty law in general and aspects of other treaties such as the EEA Agreement and the GATT/WTO agreements. It encompasses politics, both here and on the Continent, trade politics, locally and globally, and a whole host of other issues, with varying requirements as to the degree of knowledge, depending on which aspect of Brexit is being discussed.

In short, while it is eminently possible to be expert in aspects of many subjects which impinge on Brexit, I would defy anyone to claim to be so well acquainted with all aspects of Brexit that they can truly be considered experts in the subject as a whole. And since so many subjects are inter-related – such as politics, economics and law – even deep understanding in one area is not necessarily sufficient to enable sectoral experts to grasp the bigger picture.

Entirely by coincidence, a classic but nevertheless important example of this dynamic emerged yesterday from media reports based on work by the University of Cambridge Centre for Business Research (CBR), a body that makes it very clear that it is in the business of providing expert advice, relying, in its own words, on the "expertise in Cambridge University departments".

The work itself embraces the rather anodyne title of: "The Macro-Economic Impact of Brexit: Using the CBR Macro-Economic Model of the UK Economy (UKMOD)". It explores the now notorious Treasury Report of April last year, on the impact of leaving the EU, and in a fairly measured analysis tells us:
Analysis by HM Treasury of the potential impact of various outcomes for trade outside the EU is examined and found wanting. Instead the actual experience of UK export performance is examined for a long period including both pre- and post- accession years. This suggests a more limited impact of EU membership. While we include a scenario based on Treasury assumptions, a more realistic, although in our view still pessimistic, scenario assumes half of the trade loss of the Treasury.
Nothing of this is at all lurid, although we shall come back to some of the assertions shortly, but what is particularly notable is the difference in tenor between the report and the press release sent to the media.

In this, the anodyne phrasing. which has the Treasury analysis "found wanting", has been translated into the research team finding the work "very flawed and very partisan" and "not objective". We need, the researchers say: "some more objective economic work on this, the whole debate has been coloured by a lot of hyperbolic discussion".

This, it has to be said, is not media hyperbole, but the text supplied by the University to the media, using words such as "partisan" and "flawed", which do not appear in the original report. The press release has, in effect, been "sexed up".

Predictably, with this on offer from the venerable institution of Cambridge University, the media make a meal of it. The Telegraph, always game for a lurid headline, offers: "Project Fear Brexit predictions were 'flawed and partisan', new study says".

This is picked up by Breitbart, which has: "Government's Pro-EU Research 'Flawed and Partisan', Brexit to Cut Immigration and Boost Wages", criticised at the time by Professor David Blake of the Cass Business School, City University London. He "blasted the civil servants responsible for 'extraordinary abuse' of economic modelling, dismissing the documents themselves as 'dodgy dossiers' worthy of Tony Blair".

On the Cambridge report, the Express also pitches in, its headline going for: "At last academics provide a balanced view of Brexit" noting that the hitherto "one-sided approach explains why, as Michael Gove put it, the British people 'have had enough of experts'".

The irony of this, though, is that this report is anything but "balanced" – and nor do the academics claim it to be in their full text. And, of the Treasury reports (there were two), they say:
Although the analysis in this report was inevitably coloured by the Government's stated opposition to leaving the EU, the two reports, together involving 280 pages of analysis, offered a comprehensive literature review and were based on best practice in that literature.
Effectively, what the academics are doing are trying out their own economic model and coming up with different results. Because they are more favourable to the Brexit cause, the Express finds them "balanced". Not to be outdone, the Mail decides that the report is a "hugely authoritative assessment of post-Brexit Britain from academics at the scrupulously impartial Centre for Business Research at Cambridge University".

But, if the core results of the Cambridge study are reliant on modelling, not all of their conclusions are based on these data. For instance, the academics look at the effect of the "WTO Option" and the Treasury estimate of a 43 percent loss of trade with the EU in the event of it being adopted, translating into a 24 percent loss in total trade. They (the Treasury) also estimate that no growth in trade with non-EU countries will offset these losses.

"Both of these conclusions appear implausible", say the Cambridge researchers, "especially since EU external tariffs average only three percent. Additional costs of customs documentation will add to this. Non-tariff barriers can be high but UK exporters will already be compliant with most EU regulation".

The narrative is then picked up by the director of the CBR, Simon Deakin, who isn't an author in the original report – although a self-professed remainer. By trade, he is a specialist in: "Empirical legal studies; labour law; law and finance; corporate governance; private law". He isn't an EU specialist, he isn't even a specialist in EU law. Nevertheless, in the press release, Deakin tells us:
If we were in the EEA we couldn't avoid rules on free movement of labour or capital. You either accept the four freedoms, the movement of goods, services, people and capital over borders, or you don't; you can't cherry pick. The UK could try for a Swiss style option where you try to have free movement but then modify it somewhat, but the Swiss have had to sign up to most aspects of free movement in order to get access to the single market.

To get around the rules of free movement of labour and capital it is highly likely the UK would have to be outside the EEA. We could still sign up to the customs union, Turkey isn't subject to the rules on free movement of labour, for example, nor is the EU required to accept free movement of persons from Turkey into the EU, but then we wouldn't have the freedom to do trade deals with third countries, which the UK has said it wants to have; that is why the International Trade Department was brought back.
In other words, we get the same tired, lame, derivative mantras – but this time from an "expert", except that he isn't. Deakin is a lawyer. He may be a good lawyer, and he is a department head in a prestigious university. But he is not by any means, or by any measure, an EU expert. His comments in the press release are entirely unqualified.

So too are the comments on the WTO option in the main report. The researchers dismiss the Treasury figure – which may be an under-estimate – on the wholly spurious ground that, since we are already compliance with EU regulation, non-tariff barriers won't kick in.

This is a mistake also made by David Davis, who believes that we can negotiate a deal inside two years because, "on the last day of our membership of the European Union we have identical product standards and service standards, and so on, to the European Union". We have, he mistakenly says, "perfect mutual recognition for most areas".

The issue, of course, is that unless we have a dynamic agreement with the EU, where relevant UK law is automatically updated, and unless we also have a mechanism for adopting ECJ-mediated augmentations to EU law – both of which are necessary to ensure regulatory convergence – the EU will not accept that UK exports conform to EU requirements, without additional verification.

Unless there are agreements in place to avoid them – which are not a feature of the WTO Option – than the inevitable outcome of this scenario is an increase in border checks. And yes, I am fully aware that, in time, alternative arrangements can be made for conformity assessment, but the immediate effect of the WTO option would be a severe slowdown in the throughput of goods at the borders.

Elsewhere, we have noted that, if just five percent of consignments were physically inspected, it would bring the ports to a halt. The UK, assuming third country status, would most certainly be exposed to that risk. For a period, trade with the EU could collapse.

Now the point here is that evaluation of this scenario is not a function of economic modelling. It requires an understanding of treaty law, of EU customs and single market law, and knowledge of how border inspection systems work. In this respect, the "authoritative assessment" from the "scrupulously impartial" CBR is actually a wholly unqualified guess.

Digging deep to ascertain why this should come about, I feel that the primary fault must be with the academics. Clearly, they are commenting outside their areas of specialism, and cannot claim expertise across the board. Yet they accept the mantle of experts in areas where they are not qualified to comment.

Further, it is quite clear that the press release was "sexed up" - as a deliberate act. We know that this has to happen to get stuff published. But the academics have a duty to the truth, and a responsibility to uphold academic standards. In this case – and not for the first time – we see academia fail.

But then we have the media. It is pretty clear from the coverage that not one of the journalists reporting on the story had actually read the original report. The media themselves are not applying any quality control over their input, and are too keen to accept the word of "experts" at face value. They are a cheap, convenient source of copy, so the media are not looking too hard at their credentials.

If academia is milking the system, therefore, the uncritical attitude of the media is allowing the cult of the expert to survive and prosper. In many respects, largely by responding only to lurid copy, it is making that cult a necessary part of academia's survival toolkit.

Given the outcomes, it is very clear that the "information nexus" – in which we should include academia alongside think-tanks – simply isn't functioning effectively. The system needs to sort itself out – before others decide to take action and before academia and the media lose even more credibility than they already have.

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