Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 15 February 2019

The Tory party lost its way from 2010, not 2016


“I have had it up to here with the Conservative party.” So writes a one time editor of the Spectator, Matthew d'Ancona. It is a good read: for example
“A chilling populism is now creeping into the language of mainstream Toryism: the language of treachery, snarling tribalism and impatience with anything that smacks of prudence, compromise or caution.”

He is talking about Brexit of course, and he is entirely right. What he misses, in my view, was that this problem did not begin with the EU referendum, but six years earlier, with the Tory ‘modernisers’, Cameron and Osborne.

I think d’Ancona gets to the heart of the problem when he writes
“By tradition, the strongest claim the Tories have had to office is a belief that ideology should be subordinated to reality. Even Margaret Thatcher – the most explicitly ideological of Conservative prime ministers – was ousted to stop the poll tax and to salvage Britain’s relations with Europe.”

Thatcher began neoliberal hegemony in the UK and a lot of the policies she introduced were popular, at least at the time. Her revolution was introduced with some caution, and when her caution ran out she was deposed. That caution, at the level of senior ministers or the party, had gone by 2010. The clearest indication of that is austerity.

Sound public finances, which d’Ancona says he supports, should never apply in the middle of a recession. We have known that since Keynes. As a result, in every post WWII economic downturn the government has focused on recovery and not the rising deficit. The single exception before 2010 was under Margaret Thatcher in her infamous budget of 1981. But that austerity was very different from 2010 for three reasons, in ascending order of importance.
  1. The deficit was not targeted for its own sake, but in a failing attempt to hit a money supply target.

  2. The deficit was mainly reduced by raising taxes rather than by cutting spending, which is more demand friendly. 2010 austerity preferred spending cuts to tax rises.

  3. The austerity experiment was short lived and quickly reversed.
I do not want to minimise the damage done by the 1980/2 recession. My point is just that Thatcher and her ministers saw that monetarism was not working and they ditched it. Not soon enough but it was reversed. To use d’Ancona’s words, ideology was subordinated to reality.

The contrast with the austerity that began in 2010 is clear. As I never tire of saying, almost every first year economic undergraduate around the world is taught that in a recession you stimulate demand. Nowhere do the textbooks talk about worrying about the resulting deficit at the same time, because that implies austerity rather than stimulus. Unlike Thatcher, in 2010 there was no runaway inflation. The debt funding crisis that Coalition politicians were so fond of telling us about was a figment of a few City economists’ imaginations.

By 2012 it was obvious that austerity was a huge mistake. The recovery was nowhere in sight, and a key reason for this were large cuts public sector investment. It is no good complaining about the Eurozone crisis when you are cutting spending while interest rates have fallen by as much as the MPC dare. That is a schoolboy error. An imminent funding crisis implies rising interest rates on UK government debt, but by 2012 those rates were falling. The majority of academic economists who predicted that austerity would damage the recovery had been proved right. But did Cameron and Osborne change their policy, as Thatcher had done, and switch to fiscal stimulus? Of course we know they did not. Reality did not get a look in.

In economic terms austerity was the most damaging aspect of reality denial by the 2010 Tory based government. I calculated that austerity cost the average household £10,000, but the true figure may be much more if we allow for the damage austerity did to the supply side of the economy. It is certain that cuts to social care and the NHS cost lives: it is just a question of how many thousands of lives we are talking about. Austerity represented political deceit at its worst. Voters accepted nonsense pushed by the government about its credit card, and this allowed Tories to achieve an ideological goal of a smaller state which was otherwise unpopular.

If that was not bad enough, austerity also helped sow the seeds of Brexit. When people in communities that had been left behind voted for Brexit they said things couldn’t get any worse, and they said that in part because of austerity. But this was not the only grand deceit of this Tory led administration. They established a target for immigration that they had no intention of meeting because they knew the damage meeting that target would do. But their rhetoric that immigrants were responsible for the ills caused by austerity was a major reason that Cameron lost his referendum. A Prime Minister who had falsely told the nation why it was essential to reduce immigration had no answer to those who pointed out it could not be completely controlled because of Freedom of Movement.

Cameron did not just make a mistake in allowing a referendum in the first place. Through his ruinous policy of austerity and his demonisation of immigrants he ensured that referendum would be lost. d’Ancona is right that Europe brings out the worst in the Tory party. It shows how Tories can elevate ideology and party above the interests of the country. But that did not start in 2016, but with the destruction it has sown since 2010.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

The economic cost of the Brexit decision that Leaver voters do not get to see


Those promoting Brexit are fond of saying that it’s not about economics. Gary Younge in the Guardian tells us that there is nothing wrong with poorer people voting to be worse off, and of course he is right if that is what they knowingly do. But polling evidence suggests that only a small proportion of Leavers think the economy will be worse because of Brexit. Here are the results from three consecutive ORB polls (via here) where the respondents are only Leave voters.

As a result of leaving the EU, the UK’s economy will be
Date of poll
Better
Same
Worse
May 2018
42%
41%
16%
Nov 2018
39%
43%
18%
Jan 2019
26%
47%
27%

In May of last year, only 16% of Leave voters thought the economy would be worse off after Brexit, and incredibly 42% thought it would be better. As the table shows this view has only begun to shift in the last few months, and as John Curtice points out this has coincided for the first time with more Leavers than Remainers changing their minds about Brexit.

This tells us two important things. First, the Project Fear mantra worked. The Leave campaign, with the essential help of the Brexit press, managed to convince people that all this talk that the economy would be worse off after Brexit was false. Second, when the small percentage who think Brexit will damage the economy increases, support for Leave falls. Correlation does not prove causation, but this evidence suggests we should be sceptical about claims that Brexit is all about values and not about the economy.

So why are some Leave voters only now realising that Brexit will have a negative impact on the economy, and three quarters still think otherwise? After all, everyone was made worse off as inflation increased following the collapse in sterling immediately after the vote. According to one study, by the third quarter of 2017 the average consumer was worse off by £400 as a direct result of paying higher prices for imported goods following that depreciation.

The problem of course is that those price rises didn’t have a ‘made by Brexit’ tag attached to them. If you read the Financial Times of course you understood the connection, but if you read a Brexit newspaper and watched the 10 o’clock news those connections will not have been made, or if they were they would be muddled by Brexiters claiming the depreciation would be great for exports. It wasn’t great for exports, for straightforward reasons. I suspect some Leavers are only now changing their mind about Project Fear because they are seeing on the news iconic UK companies either cancelling investment projects or threatening to leave because of Brexit.

The problem is that there is no mirror image of the UK economy that didn’t vote for Brexit that voters can easily look at and see how much they are currently worse off. People cannot easily see that they are already paying a price for Brexit because firms and markets are anticipating what will happen after we leave. But it is possible to do the next best thing, and try to create a synthetic UK economy that didn’t vote for Brexit by looking at how other similar economies are doing. We know the UK has moved from around the top to around the bottom of the international growth league, but what does that actually mean for individual households?

That is the exercise that John Springfield at the Centre for European Reform is regularly doing, and he calculates that GDP was 2.3% lower in September 2018 as a result of the Brexit vote. That roughly translates into the average household losing almost £2000 worth of resources (mainly lower private consumption, but also lost public spending and investment). This number is broadly consistent with estimates the Governor of the Bank of England gave in May, using a different method.

To get a handle on how much public resources we are currently losing as a result of Brexit, Springfield calculates that GDP loss would amount to taxes being lower by £17 billion a year. Given the way this government runs its fiscal policy, that means we could have had tens of thousands more police officers and nurses if Brexit had not happened. This isn’t a forecast, but an estimate of what Brexit has already cost us.

Why has Brexit slowed the economy by enough to lose the average household resources worth almost £2,000 before we have even left? The answer is down to anticipation and uncertainty over what Brexit will mean. The foreign exchange markets had to anticipate the impact Brexit would have on future UK trade, and that was a major reason why there was an immediate collapse in sterling after the vote. Uncertainty about which kind of Brexit the UK would choose has mainly affected investment. In the chart below the Bank of England show how business investment has flatlined since the referendum, when the evidence from previous recoveries suggest it should have shown strong growth.



In addition the number of foreign direct investment projects coming to the UK, which was on a rising trend until 2015, has been falling since the 2015 election when it became clear there would be a referendum.

Will investment bounce back once Brexit uncertainty has been resolved? Certainly not if we leave with no deal, because industry's worst fears will have been realised. Even if we leave on the terms of the current Withdrawal Agreement there are two reasons to think the investment bounce back will be small. First uncertainty does not disappear. Will the government manage to agree a new trade relationship before the transition period runs out, or will we go over another No Deal cliff edge? Second, the decline in investment involves some anticipation as well as uncertainty, with a lot of service sector investment diverted towards investment in the remaining EU economies. All the time investment in the UK remains depressed this eats away at our ability to produce, at our productivity and therefore future living standards. As austerity showed, prolonged periods where the economy is depressed will have permanent negative effects.

Imagine if someone came to every Leavers door demanding nearly £2,000 for their household’s current contribution to Brexit. The evidence suggests that Brexit would quite quickly become about the economics. One of the reasons Brexit can happen is that its economic costs are not immediately visible. It is experienced but not isolated as a Brexit effect. It can be estimated to a reasonable degree of accuracy by experts, but the Brexit press keeps going on about the pre-referendum Treasury forecast and the broadcast media prefers a quiet life to routinely quoting these expert assessments. Brexit is not about the economy only because Leave voters are being kept in the dark about the impact Brexit is already having.


Friday, 8 February 2019

The Media and the Public



If you take note of the growing evidence that the partisan media can influence public opinion rather than simply reflect it, then this new book by Mike Berry (full title ‘The Media, The Public and the Great Financial Crisis’) is a must read. At its heart is content analysis (what the media said) and audience studies of two key periods: the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and Austerity.

There is a wealth of fascinating material here, which I couldn’t possibly summarise with any adequacy in a single post. Instead I want to focus on the two final chapters. The first helps explains why large sections of the public were so receptive to the 'Labour profligacy caused the crisis' myth. The second involves discussions with journalists.

I have written in the past (and also in my own book) about why the suggestion that Labour profligacy caused the deficit is simply untrue. The deficit was unremarkable in 2007, and exploded because of the GFC. I have focused on how this untruth was repeated endlessly by Coalition politicians and the right wing press, and how it was not challenged by the broadcast media or the Labour party.

What Chapter 6 of Mike’s book shows is why this idea of Labour profligacy caught on so easily. Between the early 2000s and 2010 the right wing press (in Mike’s sample the Telegraph, Mail and Sun) began to publish more and more stories about public sector waste. Now defenders of the press might argue that there was more waste because of a Labour government, but the number of stories in these papers increased over the period by 600%. A much more plausible explanation was that these papers were trying to undermine what the Labour government was doing, particularly as it was popular.

In this way readers of these papers were primed for the idea that Labour was being profligate. As a result, something that was clearly false could be sold as true. The idea that the media is ‘only reflecting the views of their readers’ is so obviously false in this case, because any journalist worth their salt could look up deficit figures, see that the recession caused the deficit to rise, and inform their readers. In reality these papers promoted the lies, and the non-partisan media did not bother to correct them.

I found the chapter where prominent journalists were interviewed fascinating. Again I will focus on austerity. One of those interviewed was Kevin Maguire, political editor of the Mirror. He talks about how the real reasons for the deficit were presented in the Mirror, but
“You very rarely saw full appreciation of it on TV or heard it on radio and you felt you were running uphill with heavy boots whenever you made the argument”

So why did the broadcast media start obsessing with the need to reduce the deficit? What is clear from Mike’s interviews with Robert Peston and Evan Davis is that the broadcasters really believed a large deficit was a problem of the utmost importance that needed to be tackled. The book contains extracts from his interview with Evan which I abbreviate here.
Evan: “Simon Wren-Lewis comes with a very strong Keynesian view, which is I think incidentally perfectly sensible …. But that’s quite different from saying that we should just blithely come and just say don’t worry about the deficit”
Interviewer: “Do you think you fairly represented all of these opinions, because he thinks you focused far too much on …
Evan: “Yes, but … people who hold a strong and rigid position on an issue find it very difficult not to see that we’re biased against them on anything, and Simon Wren-Lewis is in that …

Mike then writes
“However as the analysis in Chap. 2 demonstrated during the sample period in 2009 when the deficit became a major political issue there were no sources - outside of Labour - who were given space to put the Keynesian view in comparison to a range of sources who put the case for a faster pace of fiscal consolidation.”

A journalist might say gotcha. So it wasn't the imagination of a 'rigid' Keynesian: the BBC really did promote austerity. You can see why I also treat BBC claims that they told everyone that more than 90% of economists thought Brexit would be harmful with a large pinch of salt.

If you want to understand political developments since the GFC you have to understand the media, and that means collecting and analysing hard data in the way that Mike and others media studies academics do. What Mike does so successfully in this book is show how stories in the press were reflected in people’s attitudes and how this can have a profound influence on the political climate and therefore what politicians do.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

There will never be a better time than immediately after Brexit to form a new political party


As the vote of no confidence by 80% of Labour MPs after the referendum result showed, Corbyn is at his most vulnerable over Brexit. The 2017 election result may have wiped memories of this painful period, but to say that it shows the vote of no confidence didn’t matter goes too far. Unfortunately Labour still lost in 2017, as their powerlessness over Brexit shows. How do we know that the perception that Labour MPs were deeply unhappy with their leader did not cost Labour in 2017 the crucial votes that prevented them forming a government?

Voters seem currently as divided on Brexit as they are by party, and most Labour voters and members want to stay part of the EU. There will therefore be no better time for centrist Labour MPs who are pro Remain to break away and form a new party. When Brexit happens there will be a lot of bitterly disappointed people around questioning where to go from here. That a few Labour MPs have been talking about the possibility of forming a new party is an open secret.

Unfortunately Corbyn has done virtually nothing for members and voters that closely identify with Remain. Hopes have been kept alive by Keir Starmer and occasionally John McDonnell, but neither attended Corbyn’s recent talks with the Prime Minister. The overriding impression given by the leadership and its supporters is that they do not want to antagonise Labour Leavers, and Remainers have nowhere else to go besides Labour. It is never a good idea to give the impression to those closest to you that you take them for granted.

If the objective of this new party is to remake UK politics it is almost certain to fail. But that is not what is important. The key issue is how much damage it can do to the two major parties. One of the lessons of the last two years is that the Conservative vote is pretty solid. Brexit is in a way their Falklands: an issue where they can ramp up the nationalism to maximum and their voters will forget the incompetence and damage to this country their government is inflicting on them. The minority of Conservatives who can see through this will be scared by stories (often false) of what a radical Corbyn government will do.

The new party therefore seems to be mostly a threat to Labour. This is true in part because our future trade relationship with Europe will play a major part in politics from now until the next election. (Those who think that Leaving the EU in March or whenever will stop politicians talking about Brexit will be very disappointed.) If the new party pledges to fight for staying in both the Customs Union and Single Market after we leave the EU, that will tempt Remain voters, because Labour only speak of a close relationship with the Single Market. There is a world of difference between being close and being in: ask any trading firm why. Staying in the Single Market requires Freedom of Movement, and this would allow the new party to attack Labour on immigration, where its recent actions have also made them vulnerable from the perspective of liberal Labour voters.

The problem a new party has is the MPs that are likely to be part of it will find it hard to major on radicalism. Will they really champion immigration, or instead fall back on anti-immigration rhetoric? If they match Labour’s economic radicalism with a kind of nostalgia for how things were before 2016, they will find to their cost that this nostalgia is not widely shared. All of these things mean that the party will fail to capture most Labour supporters. However when it comes to winning the next election Labour do not have supporters to spare. To lose some to a new party could mean another five years for this disastrous Conservative government,

What we can be sure of is that the media, pretty well all of the media, will big the new party up as much as they can. The reason they will do this is that a new party is a threat to Labour rather than the Conservatives. A consequence of the media blitz will inevitably be that some votes, mainly Labour votes, will follow. So whatever line the new party takes, if they are pro-Remain they are quite likely to be a threat to Labour come the next election. 

In economics we talk about ‘barriers to entry’ that prevent new firms entering a market. Some of these are intrinsic, like set up costs for a new firm. But existing firms in the market can also influence whether new firms enter or not. Corbyn’s Brexit strategy so far seems designed to create a ready market of customers who are dissatisfied with Labour’s policy on Brexit. In other words Corbyn is currently creating the conditions in which a new party could enter, and survive for long enough to cost Labour the next election. 



Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Interest Rate Lower Bound Trap and the ideas that keep us there


Japan’s short term interest rate set by its central bank has been near zero since the mid-1990s. The UK’s equivalent short interest rate has been near zero since 2009, and the Eurozone’s since 2014. This in turn reflects core inflation being well below its target rate in Japan and the Eurozone over the same period. [1] This is not how it is meant to be. And because the short term interest rate in the US is above zero, it is not getting the attention from a US-centric macroeconomic community that it should.

We all know about interest rates hitting the lower bound after the GFC. But macroeconomic theory is quite clear. Governments can always, just always spend their way out of such a trap. The reasoning is simple. If the government cutting taxes and spending more on public services was not at some point inflationary, then why are we not having both? There must be a point at which demand exceeds supply by enough to make inflation meet its target.

I’ve often heard an objection that fiscal stimulus is not appropriate because these countries no longer have an output gap. But the output gap is difficult to measure. If these countries really did have a zero output gap, then why is inflation below target? Inflation, not the output gap, is the ultimate constraint on whether fiscal stimulus is needed. [2] If inflation is stuck below target and your measure of the output gap says that gap is zero, you should ignore the output gap measure and enact a fiscal stimulus.

So why has this not happened in Japan, or the UK, or the Eurozone? The answer has to be that for some reason governments in those countries have not done what they should have done, and therefore wasted a lot of resources that could have gone to their citizens. It takes quite a lot to convince governments not to spend when they should and to tax when they need not. So what is this force that stops these governments spending their way out of the interest rate lower bound trap?

There are three candidates I can think of.

The first is what I call the consensus assignment. The idea that monetary policy, and only monetary policy, can be used to stabilise the economy to hit the inflation target. It was the macroeconomic policy consensus until the GFC. It left governments unused to dealing with stabilisation themselves, because they had contracted out the problem to the central bank.

But this cannot explain it all. After all, all three countries/zones have used fiscal policy to expand the economy after the GFC, and Japan on many occasions. So something else must be inhibiting these countries from using fiscal policies by enough.

The second candidate is something that came with the consensus, and that is ‘deficit bias’. When interest rates controlled the level of inflation (and, contrary to MMT thinking, they were pretty effective at doing this job) many governments tended to allow government debt to gradually rise, for reasons that are hardly complicated. Rules were created and then institutions set up to prevent this happening. It may be that too many governments have internalised the idea that deficit bias is bad and therefore it is good to run down debt.

Of course that idea only makes sense when the consensus assignment is operating, and it does not apply when interest rates are stuck at their lower bound. When rates are stuck at around zero we need to reverse the assignment and use fiscal policy to stabilise the economy until rates are well clear of their floor. But perhaps some governments fail to see that and still think it is good for them to be reducing debt. 

To be honest I think this might apply to officials working for governments (including central bank governors), but not to politicians themselves. Officials who had learnt their economics when the consensus assignment was dominant and never read the footnotes (if they were there) about the interest rate lower bound. But that still matters, because officials play a big part in advising politicians. In particular, officials helped design a currency union which has no contingency for situations where monetary policy is ineffective.

The third and final reason is a phobia about government debt. Now there are good economic reasons why building up a large stock of government debt relative to GDP may have unfortunate side effects, but they all operate when the interest rate on government debt exceeds the growth rate (r > g for short). High government debt can crowd out private investment by raising interest rates, but inadequate demand is much more effective at suppressing investment and rates cannot be crowding out investment when they are at their floor! In short, the economic reasons for worrying about government debt fall aside at the lower bound. [3]

Now perhaps public officials and some others are influenced by the economic case against high debt to GDP and fail to see that it does not apply when interest rates are at their lower bound. But I think there are two more important reason for deficit phobia. The first comes from watching countries get into serious difficulties, and often resorting to the IMF, because they could no longer finance their debts. But this concern does not apply to a currency issuer whose debts are in their own currency, as Japan, the Eurozone and UK all are. However I suspect officials can be a little economical with the truth about this when it suits them (see the UK 2010 Coalition negotiations for example).

The second reason for debt phobia is ideological. Debt phobia is a means of keeping a lid on the size of the state. We see this in its most blatant form in the US from the Republican Party, but I think it is powerful everywhere. This is particularly the case under neoliberalism, where a key goal is reduce many activities of the state so taxes can be cut for the already well off.

The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. Two major economies and one economic block are wasting resources that could have gone to their citizens because of some all all of these factors. And perhaps even more importantly, they and other countries like the US are wide open to a negative demand shock creating a recession without effective [4] tools being ready to combat it.


[1] The UK is complicated by two large currency depreciations, but once you take out their effect everything here applies equally to the UK.

[2] With a Phillips curve, the only reason inflation can remain below its target besides deficient demand is if people and firms think the real target is below the official target. But if that is the problem, then policy makers should increase demand and inflation to show this is not true.

[3] Some may worry that high deficits will be difficult to wind down once we are off the lower bound. But a good fiscal stimulus is temporary, so this should not be a problem.

[4] Quantitative Easing is not a reliable tool. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

If parliament continues like this it makes May’s deal inevitable


So yesterday most of the Conservative party found unity, by once again believing in a unicorn. The unicorn that the EU would allow the UK to unilaterally end the backstop. Of course a backstop that one side can end without that side being in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods is not a backstop at all. Alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland did not exist when the UK was negotiating with the EU and they still do not exist. If you wanted an illustration of how stupid this country looks to those overseas here it is. If you want to see how implicated the right wing press is in this stupidity look at the headlines today: Mail - “Theresa’s Triumph”, Express - “She’s Done It”.

Why did the Prime Minister and her party indulge in this fantasy? Because it runs down the clock. May wants to run down the clock because she thinks, with good reason, that in the end parliament will vote for her deal. The ERG wants to run down the clock because it wants No Deal. What we saw yesterday was the willingness of the Prime Minister to look completely stupid over the next week or so banging her head against an EU brick wall just to avoid compromising on her red lines.

What was new and much more worrying about last night is that we learnt there was a new block in parliament. This block will vote to stop parliament doing anything to try and find an alternative to May’s deal. We already knew that the ERG and May’s block would do that, but they were short of a majority. They got a majority last night thanks to 14Labour MPs. If this continues, it will prevent parliament coming up with any alternative to May’s deal that can command a majority. That just leaves May’s deal and No Deal left as we approach 29th March.

But surely, you may be asking, how can May’s deal win when it was so decisively rejected last time? The ERG will continue to vote against it, because they want No Deal. But will Labour MPs and Tory rebels still vote against it if that inevitably means No Deal? I doubt it. Anyone voting against May’s Deal when it is the only alternative to No Deal would get blamed for the chaos of No Deal. Instead Labour will choose abstention, allowing May’s block to beat the ERG block and May’s deal to pass.

If this happens, no one comes out of this well. The ERG really do hate an all UK backstop. May will have her negotiating credibility torn to pieces before she has to do a trade deal with the EU, in a situation where the UK is once again fighting against the clock (the end of transition). Labour will have not voted against the deal they committed to voting against. But the institution that would lose most with this outcome is parliament itself. It had an opportunity to take control from a bankrupt government and it failed. While it is tempting to blame the 14 Labour MPs, the real problem is that the majority of Conservative MPs are prepared to seriously damage the economy, make the UK an international laughing stock and risk the chaos of No Deal just to preserve the unity of their deeply flawed party.  

Monday, 28 January 2019

Why the UK cannot see that Brexit is utterly, utterly stupid


If you talk to almost anyone overseas, except those at the right wing extreme (like Trump) or part of a tiny minority of the left, their reaction to Brexit is similar to the former Prime Minister of Finland. What the UK is doing is utterly, utterly stupid. An act of self harm with no point, no upside. Now sometimes outside opinion is based on incomplete or biased information and should be discounted, but on Brexit it is spot on. So why are so many people in the UK unable to see what outsiders can see quite clearly.

The days when Leavers were talking about the sunlit uplands are over. Liam Fox has not even managed to replicate the scores of trade deals the UK will lose when we leave the EU. As to independence, Leavers just cannot name any laws that the EU imposed on the UK they do not like. Since the referendum even public attitudes to immigration have become much more favourable.

Instead there has emerged one justification for reducing real wages, for allowing our economy to lose over 2% of its GDP, to allow firms to make plans and enact plans to leave the UK: the 2016 referendum. People voted for it so it has to be done. It is described as the will of the people. Yet few bother to note that almost half the people voted the other way, with those that would be most affected not even having a vote, and that this victory was won by illegal means. All that is brushed aside.

But what is really remarkable is the way what this vote was for has gradually mutated over time. Just before the vote, the Leave campaign talked of many ways of leaving, with Norway (which is in the EEA) as one option. They did this for a simple reason: every time Leavers came up with a feasible way of leaving other Leavers did not like it. Yet within little more than a year Leavers were declaring that the vote was obviously to leave both the Customs Union and Single Market. During the referendum campaign the Leave side talked about the great deal they would get from the EU, but within two years many of the same people were seriously pretending that voters really wanted No Deal. A vote for the ‘easiest’ deal in history has become a vote for no deal at all, apparently.

In much the same way, as Alex Andreou notes, what was once described as Project Fear transforms in time into ‘the people knew they were voting for that’. Claims there will be no short term hit to living standards made before the referendum has now become people knew there would be a short term cost. (Remember Rees-Mogg told us that short term means 50 years.)

Meanwhile warnings from important UK businesses become an excuse to talk about WWII, yet again. What people from outside the UK can see that too many inside cannot is how the case for Leaving has become little more than xenophobia and nationalism. What people overseas can also see but we seem unable to is that there is a world of difference between a vote to Leave the EU in an unspecified way and a real, practical plan. Which means that the first referendum, particularly as it was narrowly won, needs to be followed by a second referendum over an actual, realistic way of leaving. In other words a People’s Vote. When Jonathan Freedland says “the notion that a 52% vote for a hypothetical, pain-free Brexit translates into an unbreakable mandate for an actually existing Brexit is shaky at best” he is wrong: the notion is simply wrong.

Some of the arguments against this are so dumb, yet are allowed to pass as serious. ‘Why not the best of three’: there is no reason for a third referendum. ‘The first referendum was an unconditional vote to leave’: of course it could never be. [1] Suppose we found out that everyone would lose half their income under any specific way of leaving - would you still argue that in 2016 voters voted for that? Or that a second referendum means that ‘politicians have failed the people’. Most politicians voted to Remain because they knew that any realistic way of leaving would be bad for people. They have been proved right and a majority of the electorate might well agree.

But by far the worst excuse not to hold a People’s Vote is that a second referendum would be undemocratic. Orwell must be turning in his grave when he hears politicians say in all seriousness that a second referendum would undermine faith in democracy. This is the language of dictators and fascists, but few seem to mind. Given the difference between the final deal and the promises of the Leave campaign the case for a second referendum is overwhelming, but you would not know that from the UK public debate. There is only one way to make sense of the ‘People’s Vote = undemocratic’ equation, or the ‘will of the people’, and that is that the first referendum effectively disenfranchised Remain voters. [2]

That is exactly what happened after the 2016 vote. Those wanting to Remain to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. If we are just talking about Leave voters, then of course most will be disappointed by a second vote. Is this why Labour MPs just worry about Leave voters in their constituencies, because Remain voters no longer matter? It is why we get endless Vox pops from Leave constituencies, and no mention from EU citizens who have lived here for years who are worried sick because the computer might say you have to leave.

How did Remain voters get effectively disenfranchised? Why is the lunacy of what this country is doing only apparent to foreigners? Answering this question is not hard for anyone who has read my book ‘The Lies We Were Told’. What we have that foreigners do not is a public discourse shaped by a handful of newspaper proprietors who just happen [3] to be intensely hostile to the EU. Partly through intimidation by that same press and their political allies, the BBC follows this discourse. This is where the ‘will of the people’ came from. It was this press that puts rebel Conservative MPs on their front pages, and that uses language like saboteurs and traitors. It is intimidating MPs in order to influence the democratic process, but of course few in the media call it that. 

As I discuss in my book, I have seen this before in a milder form at least twice in recent times. In the first the UK convinced itself that austerity was the only way forward, despite most academic economists saying otherwise. It was the media that promoted claims that governments were just like households, even though first years economics students are taught why this is not true. And then it was the media that pushed (or left unchallenged) the idea that austerity was the result of Labour profligacy: it was a straight lie but it played a critical part in the 2015 election.

If people have doubts about my argument that the media played a central role is misdirecting the public then (and many do), well Brexit should be a test case. And so far Brexit has gone exactly as these newspaper proprietors would have wished. Three coincidences is a row? The reason why those overseas can see that Brexit is utterly, utterly stupid while the UK stockpiles food and medicine, and the Prime Minister tries to blackmail MPs into supporting her deal, is because those overseas are not influenced by the UK media.

[1] As this one seems very popular, it is worth spelling out why it is rubbish. The 2016 referendum was not some kind of contract, where all those voting to leave committed to support any vote to leave for all time. It is highly likely that some people voted for a particular kind of Brexit and would prefer Remain to other types of Brexit, which is crucial given the narrow victory. (Which is also why claims that Remain cannot be on any second referendum ballot are also nonsense.) Some may have voted Leave to give more money to the NHS and to stop Turkish immigrants, in which case they may have changed their minds. It does not say "we should leave whatever the form of leave at whatever cost" on the ballot or the small print, because there is no small print.  

[2] There is a serious and quite compelling argument that referendums in a representative democracy are a bad idea, but this equation is about a referendum that has been necessitated by an ambiguous first referendum.

[3] Well maybe not ‘just happen’: see here