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Economists have spoken with almost one voice ahead of Britain’s historic EU referendum — but the public has barely been listening.
The profession has split roughly nine to one in favour of remaining in the EU, but as voters went to the polls on Thursday they appeared more in sympathy with Michael Gove, the leading Brexiter, who said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
Opinion polls have repeatedly ranked the economic impact of a Brexit as one of the most important issues in the In/Out vote on EU membership. But despite the consensus among economists themselves only a minority of the public believes Brexit will make them worse off.
In Monday’s YouGov poll, 37 per cent thought leaving the EU would harm the UK economy, with only 22 per cent thinking it would bring benefits.
Moreover, 46 per cent of the sample held that Brexit would make no difference to their personal circumstances — by far the most popular response to the question.
Economists, by contrast, expect short-term damage from uncertainty and long-term harm that would drag national income down between 2 and 8 per cent below the level it would otherwise have reached. An impact on such a scale would clearly affect most people.
Most economists also agree with Treasury warnings about the risks of Brexit; more than 280 recently fired off a letter that said the government analysis “described a plausible range for the scale of these costs”.
The public is less trusting. Ipsos Mori found this month that only 17 per cent of people it surveyed believed the Treasury’s headline figure that Britons would be £4,300 worse off per household while 70 per cent thought it to be false.
Yet 47 per cent of respondents thought the debunked Leave campaign slogan that Britain sends £350m a week to Brussels was true.
By the end of the campaign, the heads of Britain’s most respected economic think-tanks issued a joint statement, so worried were they that the message had failed to connect. Paul Johnson, head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Jagjit Chadha, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and John van Reenen, head of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, said Brexit would “almost certainly make us financially worse off compared with staying in the EU, quite possibly by a substantial amount”.
“In our lifetimes we have never seen such a degree of unanimity among economists on a major policy issue,” they added.
But as the campaign came to a close, economists worried that they were ineffectual, either because their message did not resonate with the public or because their communication strategies failed.
Some blame the media for failing to give sufficient space to their warnings. Tony Yates, a professor at Birmingham University, has criticised media organisations for failing to give much space to the 280 economists who signed a letter of support for the Treasury’s analysis.
Simon Wren-Lewis, professor at Oxford university, is more critical of the broadcasters for giving equal space to critics of the economic consensus even when the views have as much respectability in the profession as climate deniers.
But those outside economics also have a more critical view of the economics profession itself. Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, says: “Macroeconomics and national figures quoted seems remote and theoretical to many,” adding that “the core Brexiters are older working-class people without degrees, which may explain why Brexiters are half as likely to trust academics as Remainers.”
There is also a grudging acceptance that the Leave campaign has been effective in engaging ruthlessly in attacking people rather than ideas and repeating statistics that even their supporters accept publicly are untrue.
Prof Wren-Lewis says: “The Leave campaign chose to headline a figure which they knew to be wrong. They did so because they also knew it would do them no harm. They knew it would do them no harm because no one in the media other than the broadsheets would have the nerve to describe it as a lie. They knew that from observing how the media has worked in the past.”