Richard North, 17/07/2019  

Tucked in behind the Telegraph paywall is a piece by Jacob Rees-Mogg which manages to combine an extraordinary level of ignorance with the patronising superiority which is the hallmark of the man.

In his piece, Rees-Mogg is setting out to demolish Chancellor Hammond's prediction that a no-deal Brexit could cost the UK economy £90 billion. In so doing, rather predictably, he dismisses the Treasury's work as "project fear", substituting his own received wisdom to make his case.

Central to his supposed demolition of Hammond's case is a straw man assertion that the greatest negative impact of a no-deal Brexit "is the idea that 'behind the border' non-tariff barriers will suddenly spring up". depressing GDP by a staggering 4.2 percent. This, accounts for around half of the £90 billion negative impact cited by Mr Hammond.

Simply stated, says Rees-Mogg, "this means the Government believes that all sorts of new product standards will face our exporters and importers, despite over 20 years of shared rules and standards". And, this is an idea that Rees-Mogg rejects, on the basis that "such behaviour on the EU's part would be illegal under WTO anti-discrimination rules".

From the very start, however, Rees-Mogg miscasts Hammond's statement. The Chancellor did not refer to the effect on GDP in general, but to a "hit to the Exchequer of about £90 billion" over the next 15 years, which would have to be factored into future spending and tax decisions.

As to whether the 4.2 percent loss of GDP cited by Rees-Mogg is accurate is anyone's guess. These financial predictions are difficult to get right, not least because there are so many variables. But the actual figure is not the issue here. What we are dealing with is the classic "rookie" mistake that has this backbench MP believing that a no-deal Brexit will lead to a situation where "non-tariff barriers (NTBs) will suddenly spring up".

Sadly, this basic error still distorts the Brexit "debate", but someone of the status of Rees-Mogg should at least be aware of the fundamentals. As I pointed out in a blogpost of February 2017, there is no question of these NTBs suddenly springing up. They already exist.

The analogy I used was one of a medieval walled city, inside which the 28 traders happily do business – with the public and between themselves – secure within the fortifications.

I then posited that, when one of those traders decides to move his stall outside the walls, he will no longer be able to trade freely with the businesses still inside. But this is not a question of new barriers being erected. They already exist, and the trader has chosen to move himself outside the walls, placing the barrier between himself and his trading partners.

The second basic mistake that Rees-Mogg makes is in assuming that conformity with "shared rules and standards" gets us a free pass to trade with the EU. Yet, as we have seen so many times, Barnier has referred to integration with the "regulatory ecosystem"- the "standards, certifications, rights, regulations, supervision and jurisdiction" that make up the Single Market – as an essential precursor to frictionless trade.

As I also pointed out, this time in July 2017, conformity with standards is only the "starter for ten". Without a major element of systems harmonisation, mere conformity with standards is not sufficient to allow exporters to gain untrammelled access to the markets of EU Member States. Yet still, Rees-Mogg believes that "over 20 years of shared rules and standards" actually means something.

For his third error, however, Rees-Mogg comes up with the classic. The "imposition" – as he would have it – of supposedly new non-tariff barriers would, he asserts, "be illegal under WTO anti-discrimination rules". This is the man who is so keen on the WTO that he sees no bar to leaving under "WTO rules", yet in this vital aspect has almost no idea of how they apply.

As early as 2014, though, in Flexcit, I was rehearsing this issue, noting that free trade agreements were essentially discriminatory, permitting parties to relax trading rules between them. But, in the absence of such an agreement with the UK – as in a no-deal scenario – the EU would be obliged under WTO rules to apply the full range of border control measures to EU-UK trade. "The EU would have no choice in this. It must obey WTO rules", I wrote.

We thus have the extraordinary situation where Rees-Mogg in his interpretation of WTO rules has the situation exactly reversed. Far from applying NTBs being a breach of WTO rules, the EU would be obliged under the rules to apply them. 

In his article, therefore, we have a man purporting to set himself up as the great authority on matters to do with a no-deal exit, making three of the most basic mistakes possible – indicating a most profound ignorance of the subject. Yet what really sticks in the craw is his patronising attitude as he marks down Hammond's view of a no-deal Brexit as "pure silliness".

Rees-Mogg, of course, is not the only person to take such a lofty view of opposing ideas, with the academic Lorand Bartels resorting to a similar epithet when challenged over his own errors. Bluntly, someone who resorts to this sort of language isn't all there. In the case of Rees-Mogg, this betrays an essential lack of maturity which speaks much of his personal inadequacy as a human being.

The trouble is that here we're not dealing with just any ordinary backbencher – if there is such a thing. Jacob Rees-Mogg is chairman of the European Research Group, supposedly leading the intellectual spearhead for the "hard Brexit" case. But, if after three years down the line from the referendum, we have such a key figure displaying this level of ignorance, there is no hope.

The point here is that Rees-Mogg is not on his own. This is a man venting his errors in the pages of the Telegraph. This is a national daily newspaper, where contributions are supposedly checked for accuracy. Clearly, when they vetted this authored piece, the editors went AWOL.

What comes across from this is that there is no longer any premium on accuracy or knowledge. As long as your face fits and you are saying things it wants to hear, the Telegraph is home to any manner of ill-conceived tosh, betraying the trust of its readers and abandoning its duty to present factually correct information.

Under such conditions, it is almost impossible to conduct a rational debate. Where error and misinformation is freely allowed, vested with privilege and prestige, mere facts and argument cannot compete. The most carefully constructed case can be swept aside in an instant by a surge of ignorant drivel – polemics and prestige trump the facts every time.

But there has to be more to this than mere stupidity – an issue that has fascinated and troubled this blog for years. More recently, though, I quoted Simon Kuper, who argued that some people sound stupid or ignorant because they are stupid or ignorant. And, in this context, it is not difficult to concede that Rees-Mogg is saying stupid things because he really is that stupid.

Nonetheless, I had promised to explore this phenomenon further, as to why politics these days seems to be dominated by institutionalised stupidity. And if this is having such an effect on contemporary politics, it is something that can no longer be ignored. Stupidity now seems to be a major influence on events.

On the other hand, if someone could come up with another plausible explanation as to how a high-profile MP can prosper on the back of such profound ignorance, with the apparent approval of a major national newspaper, I'm all ears.

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