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Brexit: we need to stop the lying

2019-07-05 07:02:42

Robert Tombs, is an emeritus (i.e., retired) professor of French history at the University of Cambridge. His specialism is nineteenth-century France, particularly the Paris Commune. His work, focused on the political culture of the working classes, led him to revise a number of myths associated with the history of the Commune.

Why the Spectator thinks that this should qualify him to write detailed expositions on the UK's trade relations with the EU and the rest of the world, or act as an attack dog on Sir Ivan Rogers, it does not explain.

In strict terms of Tombs's academic qualifications and experience, he is no better equipped for the task set by the Spectator than your average garage mechanic. Certainly, he has no credentials which would support any claim to expertise on his current topic where he grandly reaches down to tell us, "What Sir Ivan Rogers gets wrong about Brexit", and asserts that, "No deal is still the best option for the UK".

Then, this is the game the legacy media plays. Trading on prestige rather than knowledge, for its comment the Spectator goes to the founding co-editor of an obscure propaganda website styled Briefings for Brexit - a site which, incidentally, only gets a tiny fraction of the traffic levels that this blog enjoys.

But readers who might expect Tombs to make up for his lack of expertise with quality of argument, and that he might draw in support unimpeachable primary sources, will be disappointed. This is not how the game is played. Rather, styles are polemical rather than reasoned, while third party sources are used to conceal the thinness of arguments and confer unwarranted legitimacy on unsustainable claims. And, in many instances, no sources are offered.

For instance, according to this retired historian, Britain has been "one of the most successful European countries economically since the 1980s", to which he then adds: "but our trading relations with the EU have been shifting".

Taking the first bit first, this claim is somewhat tendentious. Tombs doesn't define parameters for success, but if we take the [relatively] uncontentious measure of GDP, we see that throughout the period the UK has been topped by France and occasionally Italy, and always by Germany. Britain may have been "one of the most successful" European countries economically, but it has never been the most successful.

Nevertheless, you can see the line that Tombs wants to take, as he goes on to make his case in the following terms:
When we first entered the Common Market in the 1970s, much of our foreign trade was indeed diverted towards Europe. But the opposite has been happening since the beginning of this century.

A constantly diminishing proportion of our exports and investments go to the slowly growing EU, and we trade less within the EU than any other large member country. The single market has had limited success in increasing trade, especially for Britain, given our large export of services, where the single market is poorly developed. Our resulting trade deficit with the EU shows that the system works badly for us.

But our trade with the non-EU, mostly on WTO terms, has been rising three times faster. Our largest single economic partner is the US, with which we have a surplus without any general preferential "deal". Many of the "add-on" agreements between the EU and some other countries, which at present affect us, are on technical and procedural matters, and the most important have already been replicated for Brexit - for example between the UK and US.

Our dynamically changing trading pattern underlies the vote for Brexit, and points to our global commercial future. On present trends (even without Brexit) our trade with the EU is heading back to the proportion it was before we joined.
Notice how easily the lie is tucked in here – the claim that trade with the non-EU is "mostly on WTO terms", which it is not – and demonstrably so. In a space of only a few words, though, Tombs demolishes his own argument, asserting that many of the most important "add-on" agreements between the EU and some other countries " have already been replicated for Brexit". They haven't, and the scale of these deals is such that he can hardly justify the "mostly on WTO terms" meme.

Overall, though, there is a rather interesting selection bias at play, as Tombs relies on the respective proportions of trade for his argument, rather than data on volumes and/or value. This creates distortions which, undoubtedly, are intended to mislead – especially the impression created by the claim that "our trade with the EU is heading back to the proportion it was before we joined".

In respect of this argument, there are several points to be made, supported by WTO data. Firstly, the EU Member States are largely mature markets which have limited potential for growth. Secondly, in the rest of the world there are more developing countries. Thirdly, world trade volume is growing, fuelled especially by the developing economies in Asia – in more recent times especially but not exclusively China.

Considering that a fundamental part of EU (and UK) trade policy is to encourage and support developing countries in their attempts to expand their export markets, it would not only be unsurprising if the UK's proportion of trade with the rest of the world did not increase faster than its proportion with EU Members.

However, just to cite proportions without reference to volume is highly misleading. From the UK Parliamentary website we do see that the proportion of exports to the EU since 1999 has declined from 54.6 to 44.5 percent in 2017. In value terms, though, exports have more than doubled, from £133.3 to £274 billion. Imports have grown from £145.2 to £341.0 billion in the same period, indicating a greater reliance on EU sourcing.

Illustrating how easy it is to play games with the figures, when we turn to the rest of the world, we see the proportion of exports growing from 45.4 to 55.5 percent, while imports grow only from 44.0 to 46.9 percent. On the face of it, this looks good except that RoW imports comprise a higher proportion of the raw materials which add value to the economy and drive domestic GDP.

As this chart indicates, global trade has been rising for two centuries, but has taken off almost exponentially since 1950 – before the Treaty of Rome. With or without the EU, the direction of travel had already been established.

Thus, it becomes clear from this that simplistic games with limited datasets are largely meaningless. We need both markets – EU and non-EU. Both are expanding, neither function in isolation and neither can quickly or easily replace the other.

From here on, there is another illustration to be taken – how easy it is to make baseless, or essentially meaningless, assertions and then how much more complex and time-consuming it is to rebut them.

Such bias always falls in favour of the polemicist, as we see when Tombs tackles what he identifies as the clinching element of Sir Ivan's argument – the Irish border. Says Tombs,
He entirely accepts the EU's argument that this is an insoluble problem for the foreseeable future, making the backstop protocol inevitable. But only last week, a report was published by the Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) suggesting a combined system, including familiar administrative procedures (such as prior customs declarations, targeted checks away from the border and exemptions), and existing technology.
Now we see the AAC report doing exactly what it was set up to do. The likes of Tombs see this as an intractable problem, yet lack the capability to neutralise it – primarily because it is indeed intractable. But neutralised it must be, so they wheel in Singham with his spurious AAC report, to give political cover to a rebuttal that simply doesn't hold water.

His report was never meant to be read, as such, and Tombs wouldn't even know where to start evaluating it. But then he doesn't need to. He can rely on the carefully garnered "prestige" of his so-called "commission" and the gullibility (and the base intentions) of select committee MPs. It has been firmly placed on the agenda, to be deployed whenever the backstop is raised.

When you look at Tombs's piece in the round, therefore, it is nothing more than a box of devious tricks. The attempt to deceive cannot be anything other than deliberate and, even in normal polite society, this is still called lying.

Elsewhere, Tombs refers to Sir Ivan raising "the spectre of tariffs and non-tariff barriers", adding – with complete lack of self-awareness – that "predictions are meaningless without figures". But they are also meaningless with false figures.

The average tariff that would be imposed on our exports if we were treated as a third country, says Tombs, is three-four percent. He then claims, without citing a source, that "non–tariff barriers have been calculated as around the same amount".

On this basis, he argues that since the referendum, sterling has depreciated by over ten percent, still leaving our products competitive. Yet, we have seen sourced estimates from organisations such as the the OECD which put the equivalents at 20 percent or higher. A significant effect is sometimes, therefore, to trigger a contraction of trade.

As to whether this curious low estimate from Tombs can be considered an "honest mistake", one can rely on the unlikely source of the libel trial of David Irving on holocaust denial. That issue was raised in respect of Irving's books, by the defence barrister Richard Rampton, using the example of a dishonest waiter routinely overcharging customers.

If the billing mistakes were truly random (i.e., honest), over term the errors would be expected to balance out, favouring neither the waiter nor his customers. If the errors always favoured the waiter, dishonesty could be safely assumed.

In the case of Tombs, multiple suspect or unsupported assertions always have the effect of supporting his favoured no-deal case. Had data been quoted accurately or presented honestly, the balance would inevitably fall the other way. In that context, it is safe and reasonable to assert that Tombs is deliberately intending to deceive – he is lying to us.

Where we have a debate where one side routinely uses lies to bolster their case – relying on the presumption that they are acting in good faith and telling the truth – we can never resolve the issues. Sir Ivan had it that such people are "delusional". But I think we seriously have to confront the issue that we are dealing with something far more serious. To progress, we need to stop the lying.