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George Osborne unveils his White Paper (Picture by: Matt Cardy / PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Noble lies have been part of political activity since the time of Plato. In the debate ahead of the European Union referendum, it may have been inevitable that the pro-EU Cameron government would issue statements claiming that leaving the EU would make people worse-off. It may even have been inevitable that such statements would include high numbers for the alleged cost of Brexit. After all, the higher the numbers, the more likely it is that under-informed and undecided voters will become frightened, and that Project Fear will work by terrifying people so that they opt to stay in. Perhaps no surprise should have greeted the publication of alarmist numbers in the Treasury White Paper on The long-term economic impact of EU membership and the alternatives. At the related press conference on April 18, Osborne quoted from the command paper to claim that, on purportedly plausible assumptions, Brexit would cost the average British household £4,300 a year by 2030.

But what is surprising — and was not inevitable — is that Osborne and the Treasury should have done the job so ineptly. Plato may have been right that governments must sometimes be mendacious, to maintain unity in wartime, to increase alertness ahead of possible terrorism or whatever. But lies need to have some nobility, with enough slickness in presentation and credibility in substance, if they are to mould the public debate. The White Paper was soon trashed in quality Conservative-inclined publications, exactly those organs of opinion that a Tory Chancellor ought to be able to influence. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, described himself as a Europhile, but said that Osborne’s dishonesty was “simply breathtaking” and was such that he might vote “out”. Allister Heath in the Daily Telegraph was even more damning. He recalled the deception and trickery that took Britain into the Iraq War, and said that the Treasury’s “dodgy dossier” was “beneath contempt”.

The sheer badness of the document raises questions about the role of the civil service in the government of modern Britain, specifically about the ability of a permanent and supposedly non-partisan civil service to produce trustworthy documents in a politically-charged environment. Britain does not have an explicit written constitution, but it certainly has a number of implicit constitutional understandings.

In the past one of these was that command papers (presented to Parliament by Her Majesty’s command, don’t forget) met certain standards of factual objectivity and reliability. Quite simply, this command paper is not up to those standards. Arrangements need to be put in place to ensure that they are restored. The paper does not have a consecutive and easy-to-follow argument that connects the facts of the real world, and the Treasury’s interpretation of those facts, with Osborne’s £4,300 figure. Much of the material is so impenetrable that many readers might think the Treasury is deliberately trying to put them off. Nevertheless, the White Paper does have a logical argument running through all the padding and obfuscation.

An obvious truth is that since the Industrial Revolution living standards have improved as regions have become more interconnected within nations, and as nations have become more interconnected with each other through global trade and capital flows. Living standards depend on how much each person produces or “output per head”, also known as “productivity”. By implication, productivity is related to “openness”, the degree to which regions and nations are interconnected with each other. Further, a fair conjecture is that trade agreements between nations increase openness. Such agreements include the World Trade Organisation and also, more fundamentally in the Treasury’s view, the European Union.

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November 19th, 2016
9:11 AM
Economists mis-use the term "dummy variable". Clearly the standards of calculus teaching in economics departments is very low.

Peter Lloyd
June 5th, 2016
10:06 PM
And the evidence that the Treasury is deeply unhappy with what has happened over this document is seen in the FT of 1st June, page 3, where Chris Giles is their outlet for the attempt to exculpate themselves from blame. "Thou doth protest too much"

Andrew Craig-Bennett
June 4th, 2016
8:06 PM
Umm. I would have been convinced if you had correlated with the world economy and brought into your arguments factors such as the China effects on the rest of the world economy, which I know you are perfectly familiar with, Tim. As it is, your dossier looks a bit dodgy itself..,

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