We aren’t living in a post-reality world

by David Hannay | 28.11.2016

The furore that has broken out over the recent economic forecasts by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility and the Institute for Fiscal Studies says a lot about the triumph of emotion and ideology over reason and the responsible calculation of risk on the part of those who can hardly wait for Britain to leave the EU. The argument that such forecasts are never validated by the outturn is true but trivial. Of course they are never accurate to the last decimal point; but they do, in most instances, correctly predict the direction of travel and the scale of the probable gain or loss. In any event what is suggested should take their place? Are we to go back to a world without economic forecasts, with policy-makers flying blind? Or are we to fix the forecasts to fit the desired outcomes, the standard operating procedure of dictators and authoritarian regimes down the ages?           

Another inconvenient set of truths are the foreign and trade policy positions taken by the president-elect of the United States while he was on the campaign trail. Those positions were, almost without exception, inimical to the policies currently being pursued by the British and by other European governments – on NATO, on freer trade, on climate change, on Iran, on nuclear proliferation, on torture, on Russian assertiveness in Ukraine and Syria. And yet the foreign secretary accuses those who express concerns about those issues – among them the Chancellor of Germany and the Secretary-General of NATO – of being whingers. He says we should be looking on the election of Donald Trump as a golden opportunity (although he has singularly failed to explain in any detail why we should do so). What reward did Boris Johnson get for this shameless manifestation of sucking up? To be told that he should appoint Nigel Farage as ambassador in Washington; truly the response of a mediaeval monarch to his court jester. Of course Trump may not follow through on every one of those campaign promises, but the best way to ensure that is to engage in a robust but friendly dialogue; lying down like a doormat is simply inviting him to walk over us.

And how about that other inconvenient truth, that, in the impending Brexit negotiations the other member states and the EU ‘s institutions will protect their own interests and not ours? That surely points to the need to identify areas where our interests and theirs overlap and can be reconciled in a new external relationship between Britain and the EU; because it is only by establishing such shared interests that the negotiations can hope to be brought to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Is the government doing that? If it is, it is concealing the matter remarkably well, not just from Parliament but from our future negotiating partners around Europe whose positions are hardening in the absence of anything more positive than snide remarks about the export of prosecco and BMWs.

A sharp-eyed commentator has observed that the referendum campaign in the UK and the presidential campaign in the US showed that we are now living in a “post truth” world. Maybe so, although that takes no account of the likely reaction of those who were lied to in the campaigns when they find out the true value of the promises made to them – presumably more anger, more protest votes and more demands for policies which would undermine our democratic structures. But in any event we are not living in a “post reality” world. So it might make more sense to pay a bit more attention to those inconvenient truths.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon