My former tutorial partner is now Prime Minister. Here’s my advice to her

15th September, 2022

We all pass certain milestones in our lives that cause us to stop and reflect. The death of a parent; a child finishing school; one’s former tutorial partner becoming the prime minister. Your humble Undercover Economist is having to deal with all three in the space of a few months.

I don’t remember much about Liz Truss from studying mathematical logic alongside her at Oxford. I was too busy wrestling with Peano’s axioms; I suspect she felt the same. And I doubt she trembled to read the recent revelation in The Economist that, while the Conservative grassroots venerate her, the Liberal Democrats are targeting “the Tim Harford voter”. Truly, the narrative arc of my life story has taken a disturbing twist.

But what on earth does the Tim Harford voter actually want? After a few weeks of chewing it over, I’ve realised that if anyone is in a position to speculate, it must be me. Perhaps the best I can come up with is that the Tim Harford voter is worried that the very foundations of British policymaking seem to be shallow and prone to crack. The bad policies are just the clumsy fondant icing; it’s the cake itself that is rotting away.

Consider Brexit. It’s a foolish policy, to be sure, but much more than that. It was enabled by a vaguely worded referendum that was introduced by a prime minister who crossed his fingers and forbade preparation for the outcome. It was sold to the British people on false pretences. A member of parliament, Jo Cox, was murdered during the campaign. Three of the prime ministers leading the project — Cameron, May and Truss — voted against it, and the other, Johnson, was notoriously ambivalent. Ever since the vote, the process has been mired in vitriol, contempt and denial. One does not have to be a diehard Remainer to look at the entire decision-making process and fear that the British polity is not really up to the grown-up job of running a country.

What does the Tim Harford voter want when they look at this? First, a trivial-seeming thing: calm. We live in an age of outrage, sometimes justified and sometimes manufactured. But nobody ever thought more clearly because they were angry. Nor is outrage the only way to succeed at the political game. Proven winners from Blair to Merkel to Obama have thrived while trying to set a constructive tone.

Truss has been trying to provoke outrage, but judging from her infamous rant about how cheese imports are a disgrace, she is not very good at it. Perhaps she will decide that calm problem-solving suits her better.

Secondly, British institutions need buttressing rather than undermining. The Leave campaign scorned the UK Statistics Authority. Boris Johnson’s administration — if that is not an oxymoron — was at pains to define itself against parliament, the civil service and the Supreme Court. Truss has taken aim at the Bank of England, the Treasury and the untrammelled power of, um, the Financial Times. Meanwhile, the NHS is never criticised, but it is being allowed to fall apart under the strain of the pandemic.

The UK has had a Conservative prime minister for 12 years, so it is easy to see why Truss wants to suggest that the rot starts not in Downing Street but Threadneedle Street or Whitehall. Perhaps she can still blame Brussels? The voters may swallow this story, although I wonder. But the country would be in a much better place if institutions from the Bank of England to the Office for National Statistics were treated as essential parts of the policymaking state, rather than as seething pits of incompetence and treachery.

A third demand from the Tim Harford faction is that facts should matter more than “vibes”. The UK has not — yet — succumbed to the delusional paranoia so widespread in the US, but all too many policy arguments take place in a fact-free environment.

Take the cost of living crisis. Truss’s team has attacked the Bank of England for not being tough enough on inflation. But as a matter of simple arithmetic, when wholesale gas prices rise tenfold, average price rises cannot plausibly be kept at two per cent. (My colleague Martin Sandbu observes that if energy prices triple, all other prices would have to fall by an average of about 20 per cent to keep overall prices stable. Good luck with that.)

It is surprising how often political arguments in the UK, whether over taxes, crime, immigration or the pandemic, take place without any reference to whether the numbers are small or large, rising or falling. It might seem dull and grey to request policymaking with a sense of direction and proportion. So be it. Dull and grey it is.

I don’t envy Truss her new job. But I hope she doesn’t forget the Peano arithmetic we studied together. For too long, British political discourse has been based on intuition, inconsistency and hand-waving bluster. Peano arithmetic is the opposite: an attempt to set logical thought on the most solid of foundations. Politics is a different game, of course, but solid foundations would still be useful. Sometimes the plodding basics matter more than anything.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 9 September 2022.

The paperback of The Data Detective was published on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

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