Friday, 21 September 2012

"People aren't interested in graphs": Chris Skidmore's response to my review of "Britannia Unchained"

In an interview with the Spectator's Isabel Hardman, Chris Skidmore MP has responded to my New Statesman review of Britannia Unchained, his book with fellow MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss . She quotes his response:
‘Well, it’s a 116-page book, there’s 433 footnotes to it. I go back to the point about data, there’s statistics, it can be backed up. The point, the broader point is that Jonathan Portes and the NIESR, you know, this is the problem we have with political discourse is that as politicians we want to get across a message and I think he was critical about it – I don’t know how well NIESR pamphlets sell, but people aren’t interested in looking at medians and graphs. We have a duty to try and broaden that message outside of the think tank zone.’
There is an obvious irony in the explicit admission that the book - which claimed Britons lack a sufficiently strong work ethic - was deliberately dumbed down, because if it included graphs no one would buy it or read it.  But, leaving that aside, the first sentence here is highly misleading.  This is what I said:
"The first statistics in the book, on page two, point out: “The dependency culture has grown dramatically. By February 2012, 5.7 million people were claiming some kind of benefits. At over 13 per cent of the working population, this is one of the highest proportions in the OECD.”
What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? No footnote (in a book that contains several hundred, most to newspaper articles). What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort. 
So where are the data, statistics, and footnotes to back up the original passage?  Mr Skidmore clearly thinks that including a graph showing that the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits peaked in 1994 would put their readers off (there's a graph showing this in my recent paper for the National Institute Review. Buy it here and prove Mr Skidmore wrong!). Of course, it would also show that the statement above is highly misleading.  But providing a footnote or source to substantiate the final assertion that benefit claimant rates here are "one of the highest proportions in the OECD" is hardly too much to ask, is it?  Unless it's simply untrue.


  1. I'm pretty sure I have heard people from Policy Exchange on newsnight referring to a huge rise in "benefits" whilst discussing job seekers - and then quoting figures that are dominated by a rise in the number of pensioners and higher pensions. And of course they always elide between in-work and out of work benefits whilst implying that benefits discourage work.

    Perhaps some of them are just sloppy thinkers -but some must be wilfully misleading.

  2. Reagan sold his supply-side economics with the Laffer curve, Clinton delivered at the DNC a speech with dozens of statistics and its the golden age of infographics.

    The thing is for some people is more convenient to assume that people are dumber than they actually are.

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