1 November 2018

Why are the experts who were wrong about the euro so sure they are right on Brexit?

By Richard Packer

Recently at the Tory party conference I happened by chance to be sitting next to a leading economist at one of those dinners that are common at party conferences.

I was a delegate at the Conference being a member of the party. My neighbour at dinner was there thanks to the respect he and the organisation at which he works command.

When it emerged that those sitting next to him at dinner had voted Leave, the economist showed every sign of being amazed. He clearly thought this peculiar even though I (the right neighbour), explained that I had a long history of involvement in EU affairs, including having been a junior member of the UK team negotiating Britain’s accession to the EEC in the 1970s, a diplomatic member of the staff of the UK Representation to the EU 1973-76, and a middle-ranking, senior and eventually top official who had frequently negotiated in Brussels until 2000.

So far, so unsurprising. The referendum has no doubt meant that many people have discovered unexpected views in others.

Discussing Brexit with my dinner-table neighbour, I cited the example of the Financial Times and their fervent support of UK membership of the euro as evidence that economists are not always right about everything.

My thought was that more or less everyone, including a large majority of economists, now accept that if the UK had joined the euro it would have been catastrophic, especially for the UK. The implication was that the views of the FT and similar institutions on Brexit might be similarly fallible.

The economist’s strong response was that the FT’s views on the euro had “nothing to do with it”, that is with the question of Leave or Remain.

I disagree. When people hold forth with confidence on major issues we are entitled to examine how their previous recommendations look with the benefit of hindsight. In this case, the FT’s position on the euro now looks to have been foolish. My claim was that this was a relevant factor in reflecting on whether their views on Leave/Remain carried weight.

However, it was what my interlocuter said next that interested me most: “No serious economist ever thought UK membership of the euro would be a good idea.”

I was intrigued. The FT is the serious Remain newspaper. Its senior commentators and journalists have been with it for a long time. Many of them were there when UK membership of the euro was a live issue and when the FT took their positive stance.

The support by various organisations of UK membership of the euro was so pronounced that the whole subject has been studied in detail by Peter Oborne and Frances Weaver in a Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet, Guilty Men. Their conclusion was that the FT owed us all an apology for their failure to admit error on the subject, though no apology has yet been forthcoming.

While the FT might have thought their views on the euro had economics as their main base, my dining partner disagreed. Or, at any rate, if the FT’s views were essentially economic, they were weakened by the fact that they were not held by “serious” economists.

In which case presumably, the rest of us are just as entitled to economic views on the matter. The alternative conclusion is that supposedly expert views on the euro at the FT and elsewhere were essentially political. And that the same is the case when it comes to their views on Brexit. Here, I think, we come a lot closer to the truth.

Sir Richard Packer was a Permanent Secretary and is the author of several papers for the Centre for Policy Studies.