Bloomberg’s Brexit Blunder

bloomberg brexit blunder

A salutary lesson in the dangers of allowing argument to dictate the assessment of evidence

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A recent piece in Bloomberg repeated tired claims about the supposed underperformance of the British economy due to Brexit.  The story focused on the OBR’s projections of what growth would have been had Britain not left the EU, and the Treasury Report’s estimates from 2018.  Most egregiously, the piece treats these predictions as fact, rather than as hypotheticals.

We’ve dealt with these kinds of projections before – in brief, they involve substantial assumptions about the benefits of trade deals not backed up my much hard evidence, or (alternatively) ‘doppelganger’ analyses of comparator countries.  Supporters of Brexit can expect these kinds of claims to persist.  By nature, they are inherently unfalsifiable, and support the preconceptions of those who espouse them.  This kind of economics may be dismal, but it is not the dismal science.

Instead, what the data show across the board, from business spending to the supply of labour, is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Britain was particularly hard-hit by Coronavirus in the initial stages of the pandemic, with comparatively high case numbers and a long lockdown period.  The depth of the recession reflects that damage, rather than any hypothetical Brexit impact.

More positively, the Financial Times has assessed the prospects for more efficient regulation.  While pointing to areas where few gains may be made such as in chemical regulation, the paper suggests that Britain can take advantage of its lead in tech to promote a more light-touch regime around AI and personal data.  Though gains will take time to materialise, in the long run they may allow Britain to pull ahead and expand its reach, compared to Europe’s more restrictive approach.

On the issue of support for EU membership versus staying out, it’s worth addressing Bloomberg’s use of a poll by Comres.  Bloomberg claims that the polls shows that ‘a majority of the British population would now vote to re-join the EU, including one in ten who voted to leave in the 2016 referendum.’

This surprising claim turns out to be based on a misreading of Comres’ admittedly opaque report publicising their findings.  The ‘majority’ turns out to be of those with an expressed voting intention – in other words, it leaves out people who say that they don’t know.  Moreover, while 10% of Leave voters did indeed state that that they would vote to Join, a similar number of Remain voters stated that they would vote to Stay Out.

Finally, the Bloomberg piece neglects to mention a later, December poll by Comres, which showed Join and Stay Out neck-and-neck.  Indeed, the long-term poll data compiled by Politico suggest that the public is split on the question, with fluctuating levels of ‘don’t know’, albeit usually with a majority for Stay Out.  This kind of cherry-picking and misreading the data is almost embarrassing to point out – but sadly all too typical.

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