Trivial pursuits

Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston has quit the Brexit campaign over what she says is the false claim that, outside the EU, the UK would be able to spend an extra £350 million per week on the NHS.

As an outer, I also find this claim frustrating because it is inaccurate on so many levels that it gives the Remainers an easy target.

Unfortunately, those running the Brexit campaign seem not to be aware of the old adage that a good advocate never overstates his case.

The actual figures can be found on the BBC’s website and what they show is that the UK’s dues amount to some £19 billion (£360 million per week) but when you subtract the rebate (£4.4 billion) that is reduced to £276 million per week.

Then there is the money we receive in farm subsidies, Objective 1 and the rest (£6 billion) and we’re down to £161 million per week, net.

That is a very substantial heap of cash (roughly half PCC’s annual budget) so why overlard the bread by using a figure that is patently false?

The problem is that what started out as a referendum on the EU has become a battle for the future leadership of the Tory party and as the old Greek Aeschylus is reputed to have said: “In war, truth is the first casualty”.

It’s not as if the Remain side are beacons of truthfulness, though they seem to have given up on the one about 3.5 million UK jobs depending on our membership of the EU.

The truth is that these jobs depend on our exports to the EU and, as we have a £60 billion trade deficit with our European partners, it follows that more than 3.5 million EU jobs depend on their exports to us. So, unless they want to cut off their noses to spite their faces, they will be as anxious to protect these trade-related jobs as we are.

This is especially so given that average EU unemployment (11%) is twice that of the UK (5.5%) with black spots in Greece (25.2%) Spain (22.2%) Portugal (12.4%) Italy (11.9%) and France (10.8%) (Source Eurostat) with only Germany, Czech Rep and Malta having unemployment lower than the UK.

And Italy’s economy is still 8% smaller than it was before the financial crash of 2008.

So anyone who can can keep a straight face while claiming that the EU is good for jobs and growth deserves an Oscar.

But that hasn’t stopped George Osborne from bobbing up at regular intervals to tell us with deadly precision how this or that think tank has calculated how much Brexit will cost us in lost wages, increased mortgages, cuts in pensions etc, etc, etc.

The commentator Martin Lewis has pointed out that these predictions are based on assumptions fed into computer models and to present them as facts is a form of deception.

As the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr said: “Predictions are tricky- especially when they are about the future” and the American economist J K Galbraith claimed that “Economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable.”

So forget all these scare stories, whether about the country being swamped with immigrants if we remain, or we poor UK citizens grubbing about in the hedgerows for berries and roots if we leave.

These are trivial issues compared to what really matters: sovereignty and democracy.

Much has been made of the amount of cash we receive back from the EU in farm subsidies, structural funds and other goodies.

But what should be remembered is that this was our money originally and it comes with strings attached – we are not allowed to spend it on our own priorities.

Some years ago, because average incomes were less than 75% of the EU average, South Wales received a large chunk of Objective 1 money from the EU.

Unfortunately it had next to no effect (see BBC here) and having failed to increase GDP, the area qualified for another handout.

As the Daily Mail reported most of this largesse was distributed to public sector bodies.

I did an analysis of Objective 1 spending in Pembrokeshire and discovered that almost all the money went to PCC, Pembrokeshire College and Milford Haven Port Authority, all of which were represented on the board (chairman Cllr Johnny Allen-Mirehouse) charged with handing out the cash.

And don’t forget the miles of unused, EU-funded cycle track as you drive out of Pembroke Dock towards Carmarthen.

In a speech earlier this week, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the EU protected workers’ rights from the wicked Tories.

He may be right about this, but, by the same token, EU competition rules would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid to the steel industry.

And, if it wanted to protect the industry against cheap Chinese imports by imposing tariffs, it would need to seek the agreement of our European partners.

These should be decisions for a government elected by the British people not the European Commission.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has fallen into the trap described by the late Tony Benn as “preferring a good King to a bad Parliament”.

But, as Benn was fond of pointing out, the thing about bad Parliaments is that the electorate has the power “to kick the blighters out”.

In answer to this line of attack, Labour spokesman Chuka Umunna told the Today programme that the EU was democratic because all decisions have to be agreed by the elected heads of government who make up the Council of Ministers.

This analysis flawed.

First the Council meets in secret and, second, Mr Cameron can sign up to measures that he couldn’t possibly get through Parliament.

Conversely, if he is outvoted, the EU can impose a law on the UK even if it was opposed by every single member of our elected Parliament.

The undemocratic nature of the EU is no accident.

Having witnessed the destruction visited on the continent by populist movements in the 1930s and 40s the EU’s founding fathers were determined not to let it happen again – hence the system of rule by elites, or as Tony Benn would have put it, a good King.

No doubt if we vote for Brexit there will be volatility on the markets because the whole EU edifice would be in danger.

Former Bank of England Governor Lord King has predicted the collapse of the Eurozone under the weight of its own contradictions and a Brexit vote will provide a handy scapegoat for what may be inevitable anyway.

So, while I will be voting for out, the best result for Leavers could be a narrow win for the Remain camp.

If Lord King is right, we Brexiters will eventually get the desired result without being saddled with the blame.

But the final word must go to Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in Mr Cameron’s government.

In an article in the Daily Mail last month, Mr Javid wrote:

“It’s clear now that the United Kingdom should never have joined the EU. In many ways, it’s a failing project, an overblown bureaucracy in need of wide-ranging and urgent reform.”

And he’s campaigning for Remain.