Generation Brexit


The aim of the Generation Brexit blog is give voice to British and European millennials in the Brexit debate.

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By rejecting its own Brexit impact reports, the government sets a dangerous precedent

Posted by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (Admin) Feb 5, 2018

 The relationship between politicians and civil servants is like that of an ice-skating duo. To be   effective, both partners must work in perfect harmony. Any disagreement over the direction of travel   risks humiliation, peril and fractured limbs. By rejecting its own Brexit impact reports,   the government sets a dangerous precedent, writes Will Heilpern (LSE).

Last week the symbiotic bond between British politicians and bureaucrats endured the equivalent of a face-plant, when ministers denounced the Department for Exiting the European Union’s leaked impact assessments. "The only purpose of economic forecasts is to make astrology look respectable," said Brexit minister Steve Baker MP, quoting John Kenneth Galbraith. Mr Baker was not alone in his derision of the report, with the Prime Minister dismissing it “very preliminary” and the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith explaining that it should be taken “with a pinch of salt.”

There is nothing new about members of Theresa May’s government playing down the negative consequences of Brexit. However, this is more damaging than a typical slur against the results of a pro-Remain Think Tank. The government’s reaction to the leak is just the latest in a flurry of populist attacks on academic rigour and expertise, as well as a direct insult to an already demoralized department. During the referendum campaign, cabinet minister Michael Gove infamously said, “People in this country have had enough of experts”.  No one expected it to become an official government rebuke to its own salaried wonks.

There is nothing new about members of Theresa May’s government playing down the negative consequences of Brexit.

Even the hardest Brexiteer cannot label the impact assessment as part of “Project Fear”. It was compiled by the Government Economic Service and DExEU’s own economics team. According to ITV’s Robert Peston, secretaries of state were allowed to bring their own chief economists to meetings to scrutinize analysis and provide input. The ministers’ auto-rejection of the impact assessment out of pure econo-scepticism should leave every number cruncher in Whitehall feeling nervous. The implication is that government should not bother commissioning them to predict the costs of its policies at all. Even worse, it will have a corrosive effect on future administrations, for many years to come. Any sober calculation of expected costs and benefits will now be easy to laugh off.

Image by, (Flikcr), (CC BY 2.0).

In the 21st century battle between experts and fake news, the British government has yet to decide which side it is on. Last week, it announced plans to launch a specialist team dedicated to tackling fake news and disinformation. Ironically, due to the government’s inability to answer substantive questions abo... Fake News Unit, Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, labelled the announcement itself ‘fake news’. Regardless, tackling disinformation requires more than simply exposing misleading clickbait from viral websites and even propaganda from the Russian state press machine. Being on the side of truth requires real engagement with facts. Economics is not an exact science and Brexiteers are entitled to point out that Treasury predictions have been proven false in the past, but the way to challenge an economic forecast is to question its data, assumptions and analysis. Not to relegate a respected academic discipline to the realm of pseudo-science.

A look inside the report shows that DExEU predicts a soft Brexit would cost the UK economy two per cent of GDP over the next 15 years. A hard Brexit, with a Canada-style free trade deal would shrink GDP by five per cent. While a no-deal scenario, with the UK left to trade on WTO terms, would slash eight per cent from the UK’s GDP. What about “Truly Global Britain” and its re-kindled relationships with economies outside of the EU? The report expects that a future trade deal with the US would add just 0.2% to GDP, and treaties with other non-EU countries would add a somewhere between 0.1 and 0.4%.

Of course, these predictions may all turn out to be false. The assumptions about the growth of the EU could be wildly over-estimated and trade with India and China may become easier than expected due to the sudden invention of teleportation. We simply cannot know. However, it is certain that politicians who take the advice of their economists will more likely deliver prosperity than those who use populist rhetoric as the sole basis for their economic acrobatics.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Generation Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Will Heilpern is an MSc candidate in Global Politics at the LSE. Previously he has worked as a journalist at CNN and Business Insider and as a speechwriter in The European Parliament. He can be found tweeting here.

This post was edited on Feb 5, 2018 by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz

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