Charles Moore

The political nature of statistics

The political nature of statistics
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Sir David Norgrove, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), is an honourable man. When he publicly rebuked Boris Johnson for his use of the famous £350 million figure about our weekly EU contribution, I am sure he was statistically, not party-politically motivated.

But two points occur. The first is that Sir David was, arguably, mistaken. He thinks Boris said that, after Brexit, Britain would have £350 million a week more to spend. He didn’t. He said ‘we will take back control of roughly £350 million a week’. This is correct. So long as we are in the EU, that £350 million a week is out of our control, because even our rebate, which forms part of that figure, is EU-dependent. When we leave, it will all be under our control.

Sir David’s reaction came too fast. The UKSA had already attacked the £350 million figure when first used by the Leave campaign in the referendum. Is it in a grudge match with anyone who answers back?

Which leads to my second point. Never a week goes by without a senior politician using a statistic controversially. This is part of the adversarial character of politics. If a public official comments on one such remark, one naturally asks why he ignores others. Why attack Boris alone? People begin to doubt his neutrality. Looking at the authority’s record since Sir David became its chairman in March, I see that it has rebuked only one other politician — complaining to Amber Rudd about a misleading leak of immigration figures. Is it credible that Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell or numerous Remainers have brandished no figures which do not add up?

As Treasury private secretary to Mrs Thatcher (and a very helpful witness for me in my biography of her), Sir David had painful experience in the ‘shadowing the Deutschmark’ saga of how hard it is to disentangle the economic and statistical aspects of the European issue from its politics, so it should give him pause. The schoolmasterly role of UKSA is part of a bad trend in modern governance which sets officials in judgment over our elected rulers. The intention is to uphold higher standards. The effect is to impose rule by a bureaucratic establishment which we, the voters, have no opportunity to kick out and which — not coincidentally — is full of Remain supporters.

In an interview with the magazine Civil Service World in June, Sir David said, of the £350 million: ‘I thought it was clear that the Brexiteers didn’t mind about the number so long as there was focus on it.’ No doubt this is his sincere belief, but on this most divisive subject, such words will not be seen as impartial.

This is an extract from Charles Moore's notes. The full article is available tomorrow.