- Boris Johnson said that, post-Brexit, the UK will have “control over” the £350m it currently pays the EU.
- This has been misunderstood by the BBC and the UK Statistics Authority as claiming that the UK could save £350m in contributions post-Brexit.
- They also seem to think, wrongly, that the UK has control over the money rebated to it by the EU.
- The BBC sometimes reports Johnson as saying the UK will take control of £350m and at others that it will have an extra £350m to spend, as if the two were interchangeable.
- This shows they don’t understand what having control over your money means.
You only control something if you control it
Hetan Shah, of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), said that Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, was right to chastise Boris Johnson for his reference to the £350m per week figure, in an interview with the Daily Politics show (the RSS is devoted to the promotion of statistical expertise, mainly by organising courses and lectures, whereas the UK Statistics Authority sees itself as more of a regulatory body, supervising how statistics are used in the UK).
Without impeaching his statistical capabilities, his understanding of the word “control” is very strange. When the interviewer asked him “So is he [Johnson] just wrong about £350m being available to take control of?” Shah responded:
It’s hard to take back control of something that you’ve already got control over.
Shah glibly and uncritically assumes that the UK has “control” over the money which is rebated from its contributions to the EU.
John Lichfield’s recent Guardian article is victim of the same misapprehension:
Lichfield writes, indignantly, that “a reasonable person might assume” that control over £350m means exactly the same thing as having an extra £350m to spend. My previous post on this subject showed clearly, I thought, that it would be, if not entirely unreasonable, then at least rather crass and simplistic to assume this; that these are two very different things.
Lichfield does, rightly, acknowledge that Johnson, also rightly, denies that the UK’s net contribution is £350m, but is unable to grasp the reason Johnson might say this:
Lichfield, mistakenly, thinks that control for Johnson means being able to decide how the money is spent, not, as I wrote in my previous post, not having to depend on the EU for the ability to decide how it is spent.
When I wrote my first post it seemed blindingly obvious to me what Johnson was saying and why he was right to say it. The subsequent discussion of his article, by Shah, Litchfield and, as we shall see, the BBC, is symptomatic of a congenital blind spot on their part regarding what control means. I will therefore spell it out in terms that anyone, even a Guardian journalist, can understand.
The fact that there is a rebate means the UK doesn’t control it
The UK can, indeed, spend the money that it does not send to the EU as it likes (contrary to Lichfield’s muddled claim that the EU currently “spends” the rebate “in the UK”). To that extent, it does have “control” over that money. But the rebate itself is not something over which the UK has unilateral control. The right to that rebate is something which was given to the UK by the EU, and can therefore be taken away. It would be difficult to take away, but not impossible. The UK is therefore, to some extent, at the mercy of the EU for the continuation of its rebate. To put it plainly, it doesn’t have control over the rebate mechanism that gives it control of the rebated money.
This should be obvious to anyone who steps back and examines the arrangement candidly. If the UK really has full control over that money, then why do you need a rebate in the first place? After all, instead of a gross contribution of £350m per week from which a ~£90m rebate is deducted, to take the contribution to a net of ~£260m per week, the EU could just reduce the UK’s gross contribution to ~£260m and do away with the rebate. But that is clearly not how the UK’s net contribution is calculated. The fact that there is a gross contribution of £350m and a rebate of ~90m, rather than just a net contribution of ~£260m, means that the rebate can always be removed and the UK’s contribution can therefore rise to £350m per week. Had the UK remained in the EU, that sword of Damocles would have been permanently raised above the UK’s head. Removing that sword is what Johnson, rightly, means by “control.”
(The rebate amount is calculated based on the gross, and both change every year. But the EU could define the UK’s net contribution using the same formula, and so remove any possibility that the rebate might be removed).
Here is a simple, concrete example, just in case anyone, Guardian journalist or not, still doesn’t undersand:
Loan shark control
Imagine I owe a loan shark £5,000. Under the terms he imposed on me, I have to pay him £100 a week. But he knows I can’t afford it, so every week he lets me off with paying £25 instead. He adds the £75 he lets me off from paying to the sum I owe him, so I will probably be in debt to him forever. Do I control that £75 he temporarily “rebates” from my instalments? Clearly not. Even though I never actually hand it over. Any time he wants, he can ask me to do him a “favor” to keep the rebate going, or demand I pay him the full £100 – or else.
But now let’s say I “Loanexit” from the arrangement by shooting him and running away to another town where his goons can’t find me. Do I have control over whether I pay him £75 or not? Absobloodylutely. I have full control of my cash now (as well as having to go into hiding and a potential jail term of course). But does that mean I have an extra £75 to spend, versus what I had before when I was paying him? Is there an extra £75 in my pocket? Absolutely not. I was only paying £25 before, so my saving is only £25. But I now have full control of the £100 a week I used to have to pay the loan shark.
I illustrate this with this simple diagram:
It is exactly the same with the EU (no offence to any loan sharks reading this post). Although the UK will not save its £350m weekly gross contribution, but only its ~£260m net contribution, it will regain control both over its net contributions and over the rebate, which will no longer depend on the EU’s grace and favor:
The BBC out of control
As I reported in my earlier post, the BBC at first reported, wrongly, that Johnson’s article said that the UK would have an extra £350m to spend. But something seems to have changed since the weekend. Radio 4’s Today Programme reported Johnson’s continuing spat with David Norgrove in its opening headlines on 18 September in the following terms:
Charles Carroll: The Chairman of the UK statistics authority Sir David Norgrove says he stands by his criticism of the foreign secretary who he accused of a clear misuse of official figures. Last week, Boris Johnson revived the claim that the UK stood to regain control of around £350m a week after Brexit. It’s understood he’s told the Prime Minister she must get the whole sum back. Alex Forsyth reports.
Alex Forsyth: Boris Johnson’s decision to resurrect the claim that Brexit will restore control over £350m a week was met with surprise in some quarters. That was compounded by his defiant response to criticism for the UK statistics authority, which resulted in a public row over the accuracy of the figure. It’s understood the foreign secretary has told the Prime Minister the UK can and must regain control over all of the money it currently pays Brussels. More generally, he’s thought to be concerned about the direction of Brexit. Publicly, cabinet colleagues played down suggestions of a rift, and Mr Johnson’s spokesman said he was fully behind Theresa May (my emphasis).
Here, quite rightly, both Carroll and Forsyth refer to Johnson saying the UK could regain control of £350m a week, not save it.
But they then completely confuse things by describing the controversy over his statement as being related to the “figure” or “sum” of £350m. If you understand that Johnson is talking about controlling the £350m, not saving it, then there is no controversy over the figure whatsoever. No one is disputing that £350m is the correct figure for the UK’s gross contribution. What people might object to would be if Johnson were to have claimed this was Britain’s net contribution, and therefore that the UK could save £350m, or have an extra £350m to spend, post-Brexit. In other words it is the use of the figure, not the figure itself, which is controversial.
As we have seen however, when you read what Johnson actually wrote, he did not claim any such thing. What he said about the figure was perfectly reasonable. Carroll and Forsyth’s references to the figure in the headlines above make it seem as though the £350m sum was toxic in itself, however you use it; as if you could’t even say “£350m” any more without automatically implying that this was the amount the UK could save.
Today reported many times on this item thoughout the programme. What is amazing, to my mind, is how it reported in some cases that Johnson was saying the UK was going to take control of £350m, and in others that it was going to have an extra £350m to spend, as if the two were interchangeable:
- Carroll, half an hour after reporting that Johnson was saying the UK would take back “control” of £350m, now describes that £350m as a “windfall”;
- Smith describes the figure itself as “controversial,” even though he goes on to say that Johnson was talking about taking control over that figure, not claiming it as a saving;
- Humphrys wrongly claims on two occasions, using identical words, that Johnson said the UK would have an “extra £350m to spend.”
What a mess. What has clearly happened here is that one of the editors has had a quick due diligence read of the article, spotted the problem, tapped them on the shoulder and said “guys, err … you do realise he was talking about control?” The journalists have then gone out and duly mentioned “control,” but continued as if control and saving were the same thing, giving a complete misrepresentation of Johnson’s point. The editor will be wondering why she bothered.
Humphrys, in particular, seems to have ignored both the article and his producer’s memo. I think Johnson would be entitled to seek rectification from the Today programme. Humphrys has plainly and simply misquoted and misrepresented him. What Humphrys said is factually incorrect. Johnson does not, anywhere in his article, say the UK would have an extra £350m to spend. Fake news. The BBC’s reality check unit took Johnson to task for his £350m claim. Maybe they should have a word with Jon Humphrys?
What does control mean to the BBC?
Of course, you could legitimately debate whether the rebate represents a lack of control; under what circumstances the rebate might be lost and what safeguards the UK has over it. That might have been an interesting and informative debate. By wrongly conflating control and saving, the BBC has avoided even having that debate. It has therefore failed in its role as a public service broadcaster. And it has particularly failed in this role on a crucial topic: what does it mean for a State to have control over its money today?
The £350m figure is clearly a bugbear for Remain supporters, and regularly invoked by them to claim that “Leave lied” and thereby discredit the referendum result. Far from Johnson resurrecting any claim that there would be a £350m saving from Brexit, it is the BBC which has misleadingly attributed that claim to Johnson in order to discredit his positive presentation of Brexit.
This blatant misrepresentation by the BBC’s journalists, Shah, Lichfield and others has, at its root, a strange concept of what controlling your own money means. They all think it’s just fine to owe the money to the EU and depend on the EU rebate. These are all educated people, who think the Leave voters are somehow naive to think they are “taking back control.” Silly, benighted Leave voters. You already control that money, bless, is the underlying message Johnson’s critics are giving. But, as illustrated with the loan shark example, the Leave voters’ basic common sense understanding of control is correct. Not for the first time, the supposedly low information Brexit voters understand things better than the sophisticated intellectuals lecturing them. For all his bombast, Johnson understands that too, and he deserves credit for it.
Disclaimer: no loan sharks were harmed in the writing of this post. This post does not encourage anyone to shoot people to whom they owe money.