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The Westminster establishment must not be allowed to control the EU debate

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There are some rare issues that unite all the political parties, such as grave issues of national security or natural disasters. 

But even on the contended issues one can observe in and around Whitehall a settled view or culture about the way things are. Indeed, on the big issues of the day you might find it hard to put a cigarette paper between the main parties’ world views, which often frame wider national debate. 

This Westminster view confidently predicted the result of the 2015 general election as a hung parliament and there was a settled view that drove the pro-Union campaign in the Scottish referendum last year.

Of course this ‘establishment view’ across parties has been splintered over the past few years with the emergence of competitor parties such as the SNP, Ukip and the Greens but it has not been shattered and indeed the consensus rattles on.

The NHS funding gap is repeatedly described as £8bn because this sounds manageable with the promise of some more resources. Actually, all parties acknowledge that the true gap is £30bn and more resources alone are clearly not the answer. Nobody knows what is needed and if they do they are not letting on.

Is there a silent political consensus already framing debate about the referendum on our membership of the EU?

The build-up in our media has already begun, with various competing groups, either for or against the EU, arguing, with baffling statistics, that our membership either costs us dearly or adds greatly to the economy. 

While the battle heats up, how are the British people to make an informed choice? 

If we are to be given the chance to make an informed decision about this crucial issue, there are several lessons to learn from recent elections and referendums. Whichever side of the debate you support, we should all support a break away from the Westminster view of how this debate should be run and its likely outcome. 

I must praise the fantastic contribution the Institute for Fiscal Studies made to the quality of the general election campaign. It changed the settled view that saying you’ll balance the budget is sufficient evidence that you will achieve that goal.

I hope a range of genuinely independent commentators are on hand for the referendum. For example, might ‘Brexit’ from the EU increase immigration? Is the debate, that EU membership increases net migration, which therefore requires renegotiation, correct?

People sitting around their kitchen tables, at a bar with friends or debating through social media are not wholly left or right but hold views based on their values or day-to-day experience that do not conform to one, tribal political party.

We can admit to not knowing something or acknowledge that issues are complicated with no perfect answer and are comfortable with competing or contradictory information on which we can form a balanced view.

Politicians can seldom do this. As former conservative chancellor RA Butler once mused: “In politics you must always keep running with the pack. The moment that you falter and they sense that you are injured, the rest will turn on you like wolves.”

Already in the EU debate the data seems flawed, based more on the confirmation bias of the organisation presenting it than objective certainty. Importantly, much of the conjecture also ignores the third of the economy that is the public sector.

I have not yet heard anyone discuss the hidden costs or benefits to the public sector that could accrue to the government if we did leave the EU. There are many that spring to mind, from the costs of border security or regulation to potential savings on the UK contribution. 

I recall the fierce debates in 1975 that pitched the need to avoid another war in Europe against concerns that Britain was turning its back on its recent empire or risking its fisheries. These are not the debates now and I doubt that some issues we’ll explore in depth will seem relevant within a decade, let alone 2055. So what is the long view and where best do we head? What do trajectories suggest?

Over the next few months we must understand the real costs and benefits of the UK’s EU membership. Public finance professionals and public management should ensure the implications for our sector – local government, health, policing – are fully understood.

We should not give comfort to any complacency that an ill-informed debate will nevertheless result in an informed and balanced decision by the public. 

Rob Whiteman, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy




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