Brexit: our plague of experts

Change Britain brings out a press release masquerading as a report, which is then followed by the IPPR bringing out a picture book also pretending to offer serious commentary on Brexit (among other things). The author tells us:

Given the likelihood of significant new barriers to trade, a managed depreciation of the currency is also likely. A more mercantilist, interventionist political economy will drive sectoral change, increase consumer costs, and hit living standards. Socially, migration is likely to decline and become more controlled. Politically, Brexit underscored the UK’s economic, social and cultural divisions and is likely to be the trigger for a decade of constitutional and political upheaval.

So, that is what we’re getting from the London-based think-tank cesspit. It is a long time since have we expected anything original or coherent, and certainly there is nothing that would indicate that there is an adult presence at the helm. The Brexit debate is degenerating before our very eyes.

Even the great dragon slayer, Jonathan Portes is part of the public-funded UK in a changing Europe setup, which seems capable only of lacklustre offerings. Latterly, he relies on plagiarist Sam Bowman to make the case against Gove.

Portes, with co-worker Anand Menon, had taken Gove to task before the referendum on the issue of trusting experts, the pair “categorically” stating that Gove was wrong in asserting that people in this country have had enough of experts.

For their evidence, the pair relied on an Ipsos Mori poll on trusted sources in the referendum campaign. This put “academics” only just behind “friends and family” and alongside “small business owners” when people were asked: “Who do you trust on issues relating to the referendum?”

However, Portes and Menon are making a basic mistake in eliding “academics” and “experts”. While the former may on occasions be the latter, we know from our experiences with Michael Dougan that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, ignorance is a frequent visitor to the halls of academe.

On this issue, my view is that they’ve all got it wrong. There are very few of us who do not trust experts in their own fields. I was, quite literally, prepared to put my life in the hands of a heart surgeon (although we did check his credentials first). Likewise, one assumes that the teams up front in the passenger jets taking us places are experts. We certainly trust them.

As I wrote yesterday, though, our real aversion is to the ranks of all-purpose experts – people such as economists and lawyers who may or may not be expert in their own fields, but who then trade on this slender base to claim expertise in far wider areas than is warranted by their qualifications and experience.

Many of these are “media experts” – talking heads brought on to fill space with their opinions which most often have no basis in well-founded research – mostly used because they confer academic prestige to an otherwise unsupported argument.

The lack of expertise in academia is actually well-illustrated in the latest report from the UK in a Changing Europe, which hosts a galaxy of stars to inform us lesser mortals about Brexit, six months on, featuring once again Portes and Menon.

This, amongst other things, rehashes the same, trite, superficialities on the “Norway model”, having Angus Armstrong, Director of Macroeconomics, National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), tell us that acceptance of EEA membership “implies acceptance of free movement”. Dr Armstrong may be an expert macroeconomist, but he sure as hell knows very little about Efta/EEA membership.

On this, when I took my PhD, one of my supervisors was Jim Duguid. Author-editor of the seminal textbook on medical microbiology, he knew as much about microbiology as any man alive.

Doing a favour for a journalist friend, I once asked him to contribute to a story about a viral disease which was hitting the headlines. In characteristic fashion, Professor Duguid refused. He might have been a microbiologist but his specialism was bacteriology. He was not, he said, an expert in virology and would not allow himself to be called one in that context.

A bit of the same humility would be welcome from the Changing Europe academics, including Jonathan Portes, who writes in that latest report on immigration and free movement. Portes also works for the NIESR as a principal research fellow but his expertise is in economic policy – and he fails to make any mention of Article 112.

Portes, Menon and the whole rag-bag of authors Changing Europe have collected together are perfectly entitled to write about the subjects they do – as am I. But they are not entitled to call themselves experts on Brexit, or imply that they are. They are not. As I have written before, there are no experts on Brexit. And on many issues in this area, their painful lack of knowledge is all too evident.

Now we hear that Portes and Gove are to debate Brexit issues. On current and past form, though, it will be the blind leading the blind. Portes may be able to tackle Gove on his Big Lie, but then a ten-year-old could do that. In other areas, Portes (and Gove) will quickly be out of his depth.

Currently, Portes is arguing in the Guardian that we need a mature Brexit debate – and we’re not getting it from Michael Gove. On that, he’s absolutely right. But we’re not getting a mature (or even informed) debate from academia either.

Interestingly, Gove has been quick to complain that Portes lacks humility, but that clearly cuts both ways. Putting these two together is going to be a fight between chimney sweeps. Politicians and academics both need to up their games. Neither group have got anything to shout about.

By Dr Richard North. This piece originally featured on the

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Well Dr Richard North is an expert but he is different; he’s right.

    I have followed him for over ten years. He keeps his readers well ahead of the game.

    How many people had heard of Article 50 a year ago? Very few. Try this from 2012 –

    • billybloggs

      Dr North certainly adds focus and options clear explanations of actions and consequences with his excellent series of Monographs on his eureferendum blog. with value to the debate, but sadly is marginalised by the noise from the Bubble Dwellers, well some of them at kleast.

    • I avoid calling myself an expert. I’d rather say that I’m knowledgeable in certain areas, and am a competent researcher and analyst (capable of making mistakes like everyone else).

      However, I do have an advantage in my assessment of expertise in operating as a free-lance consultant in the court system at all levels, making a substantial contribution to my earnings as an expert witness. As such, I have been very conscious of the limitations and constraints of expertise. This is a good vade mecum on the subject …

      On an extremely important case of national important, I once spent three days in the witness box as a witness – in which the “opposition” tactics were to challenge my credentials as a witness – on the basis that they could then prevent me from giving evidence. You learn from such experiences how fragile protestations of expertise really are.

      It seems to me, therefore, that many academics are far too free with the term and mistakenly allow themselves to be called experts, or claim an expertise to which they are not entitled. To a very great extent, this has debased the term. But it is not necessary to be an expert to have a point of view, and it is perfectly valid to assert that one is “knowledgeable”. It is also valid to claim expertise in research and analysis, and therefore to offer the fruits of one’s labour – with the appropriate evidential support.

      One tires, however, of the cult of the expert, and the inference that someone lauded as an “expert” is necessarily any better informed than one who is simply a toiler in the vineyard.

  • billybloggs

    Absolutely Dr North, there is a dire lack of focus in the debate, no apparent plan, just so called “Experts” going head to head on conflicting ideas, a clear plan like your Flexit with Eea/Efta as an interim to a credible endgame is essential.

  • knoweuro

    Dr North should be the default reference on any issue regarding the European Union. Read the masterpiece that is FlexCit. Then read EUReferendum as a source of reference. Theresa May is missing a trick by not consulting him.

  • billy_buster

    I wouldn’t insult Dr North by calling him an ‘expert’, but he does have a welcome eye for detail and the ability to get to the bottom of complex matters, so is able to come up with original perspectives. Hope therefore to see more guest contributions from him as this vital debate gathers momentum.

  • James Newman

    I welcome the comment attributed to Sir Ivan Rogers (rightly or wrongly) that a deal with the EU (presumably a bespoke one) could take ten years.We need more transparency and realism from both politicians and journalists, while recognising the strictures imposed by the negotiating process.

    Dr North led the debate on snatch Landrovers and decisively moved that argument. On Brexit he has got all the big calls right so far and Flexcit represents by far the best exit plan for both the UK and the EU, given the time constraints. The fragility of the global economy means that a WTO exit and its attendant problems could be an utter disaster for everybody not just the UK.

    A Flexcit type structure (‘parking’ the trade issue) would find support across the political divide in both parliament and the country (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) as well as across most of the remain/leave divide. Importantly, it would form the basis for a continuing relationship with our European neighbours without the rancour of the past. The UK and the EU27 would need to find a compromise on immigration but with goodwill, that should be possible, especially as the argument has moved considerably over the past twelve months.

    Flexcit needs more support at this critical time:over to you Mr Portes.

    • billybloggs

      Flecit has been left in the wilderness and ignored by the big beasts like Davis and Boris, as it isn’t Hard or Soft Brexit, it is a plan.but at the moment maybe not palatable enough due to it emanating from outside the Bubble, so beyond their present understanding. Or am I just being a cynic?

  • LostLeonardo

    I have read every day for several years. UK in a Changing Europe was one of a small number of sources providing a reasonable level of information during the referendum campaign. Even, maybe especially, where there are points of disagreement, I see this kind of dialogue as enormously positive; something we will need much more of if we are to make a success of Brexit and what comes after.

  • More misbehaviour by academics …

    … compounded by the media.

    • billybloggs

      They deserve whatever is coming to them by way of criticism, exposure of their moribund thinking and bull-headedness as in they are always right whatever.

      • There is a standard package of mantras which seems to get handed out to academics with the rations, to cover all eventualities. It is mindless, inaccurate and unhelpful, based on a superficial understanding of the general situation. They don’t bother justifying it – they simply repeat it ad nauseam and ignore any divergent or non-conformist ideas.

        Yet these are the people who are supposed to be our intellectual elites – the ones on whom we are supposed to be able to rely for guidance. In reality – as far as one can generalise – the academic “community” is ignorant, inflexible and derivative. Most academics follow rather than lead, acting as a brake on progress and understanding.

  • This is still worth a read …

    Because a man is an expert on medieval French history, that does not make him the best judge of the disposition of the Saar Valley in 1919. Because a man is a brilliant prison doctor, that does not make him the person who ought to determine the principles of a penal code. The skill of a great soldier does not entitle him to decide on the scale of military armament; just as no anthropologist, simply as an anthropologist, would be a fitting governor for a colonial territory peopled by native races.

    To decide wisely, the problems must be looked at from an eminence. Intensity of vision destroys the sense of proportion. There is no illusion quite so fatal to good government as that of the man who makes his expert insight the measure of social need. We do not get progress in naval disarmament when admirals confer. We do not get legal progress from meetings of the Bar Association. Congresses of teachers seem rarely to provide the means of educational advance. The knowledge of what can be done with the results obtained in special disciplines seem to require a type of co-ordinating mind to which the expert, as such, is simply irrelevant.

  • Alan Davies

    I respect “UK in a Changing Europe” for posting this – despite it being so critical of ‘the London-based think-tank cesspit’. All credit to you for opening up to other voices.

    Going a little off-piste on the subject of ‘expertise’… I think one of the great (and thus far, largely unrecognised) things to come out of the whole EU referendum debate, just as with the Scottish independence referendum debate, is that millions of ordinary people (on both sides) are now coming forward as armchair experts (or bar-room-bore experts) on the many complex issues that face the UK separating itself from the EU.

    Of course, most (myself included) are not experts at all in any meaningful sense. It’s not our expertise or what we can contribute by way of specialist knowledge that I’m thinking of as a ‘great thing’, but the simple fact that ordinary people are getting fired up and involved in the politics and the future of our country after decades of turning a blind eye and leaving it up to the supposed experts – the politicians, the press, the pundits – who have so clearly let us down over the past few decades. The shock of Brexit could prove to be a vital shot in the arm for our lazy democracy.

    Some of the best resources now for us ordinary armchair experts, are the independent political bloggers (such as Richard North, and others). These individuals are challenging the traditional media, offering a serious source of information and ideas rather than the old, tired diet of celebrity, spin and sensationalism. More power to you and your ilk, Señor North.

  • beat_the_bush

    Credit to the UK and EU team for allowing a dissenting opinion.

    The author points out a problem whilst not recognising he’s a part of it. Most members of the UK and the EU team do indeed try to confine themselves to speaking on their area of academic expertise, though sometimes do stray. Dr North however though qualified with a medical degree, has no deep understanding of social or political sciences. This is not to denigrate his opinions, but they are just that opinions. He spends his time rattling on about how no one else understands the the miniutae and details of the Union – though is oblivious to his own misunderstandings. For example, though he repeatedly brings up the “break” mechanism of Article 112, he has never brought up the subsequent Article which outlines that this break is subject to retaliatory measures, with the an arbitration panel acting as an intermediatory, and a specific instruction in the treaty that reviews should be conducted every 3 months with a view to withdrawing any emergency break as soon as possible. This has been raised several times, is well established, and yet Dr a north talks as if we are all too stupid to see what he does.

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