Don't be fooled by Gordon Brown's fierce logic

No one can obfuscate like our Chancellor. Mystification is the source of his power
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He always leaves a little something in there for the duty news editor. In the run-up to his great announcements, Gordon Brown leaks everything except one thing. Perhaps this time his clever newsbite will be: "It's a Yes! Referendum Thursday!" It could as easily be one thing as the other - we shouldn't be deceived by the volume of the famous paperwork. The documents are now measured in kilograms, but this is just Gordon Brown's shock-and-awe approach to political debate. Friends and enemies alike have to surrender, you can't fight an argument if you can't be bothered to read it. Indeed, if a single MP or a single minister has read the full analysis I'll eat my liquorice trilby.

The scale of the achievement is a familiar tactic in our Chancellor's strategy of obfuscation. No one can obfuscate like Gordon Brown. He is the obfuscator's obfuscator. Mystification is the source of his power. To listen to him in committee rooms is to listen to some science fiction cyborg, something that has been engineered out of an angry animal and an out-of-control spreadsheet programme. He charges wildly into questions, he spews unintelligible streams of data. Percentages, fiscal years, targets come in maddening profusion (they certainly seem to have maddened him). There is no point in struggling against his weapons of mass confusion.

But it's worked well for him, very well. His reputation for economic management is almost sacerdotal. The vast reports play a central role in his power play: they are the sacred texts of his pantheon. They are what prevent the masses (or indeed MPs) having any influence in the argument. Only seminarians, only acolytes and initiates can have any place in the debate.

And such students are well removed from the herd. They're like medieval scholars able to swap Bible quotes from the chapter and verse numbers. As we surely know by now, for every economist there is an equal and opposite economist. The euro decision could thus perfectly well go either way. If the Prime Minister were supervising the tests from the same data, he'd conclude that there was more than enough convergence to be going on with.

So the preposterous scale of the analysis obscures an essential fact: we might just as usefully approach the decision with a knife in one hand and a chicken in the other. The appearance of rationality is dangerously deceptive. If we let ourselves believe that the evaluation is based on a fierce and objective logic, we are deluding ourselves that there is actually someone who knows what's going on. But there isn't. There is only our primal longing for someone who does.

No, Gordon Brown's success in persuading the world that he is responsible for Britain's economic performance over the past six years can't be based on foresight. In fact, his strategic achievement seems to be limited to one very important thing. He read JM Keynes' analysis of prices for the hundred years prior to the First World War and saw there was no inflation. He observed what happened when the Bank of England was nationalised and politicians set interest rates. He may have admitted in one long dark night of the soul that politicians were worse than useless at this, and as a result gave the Bank of England its independence.

From his realisation of politicians' ineptitude, their arrogance and impotence, from this realisation and subsequent action has flowed the great stability which has had such a wide effect on Britain. Gordon Brown's success has been to recognise decades of failure by his brothers, his cousins, his close professional relatives - and he has withdrawn his big, blundering presence from the scene of the crime.

One particular effect of stability has helped Mr Brown's reputation for knowing things. The accuracy of Treasury forecasts has improved. There is an interesting reason for this which has nothing to do with the abilities of Treasury forecasters. The naïve forecast (that next year will be the same as this) almost invariably beats expert forecasts. Experts, studies show, are almost always wrong. But, in a stable environment, next year is more like this year. That's why Treasury in general and Mr Brown in particular have appeared to know the future.

But economics isn't a science, it's a branch of mass psychology and distantly related to religion. Mad texts like Mr Brown's Five Tests matter but only because they are testaments. They don't reveal cause and effect - they represent the far more important qualities of faith and hope.

Nobody knows what's going to happen to Europe's converging and diverging economies as they spiral and wobble and speed up and slow down. Will Britain continue to prosper outside the rigid and recession-bound eurozone - or will we be fiercely penalised by international investors and trade regulators? There is an answer to this: it's yes and no. That's the answer Gordon Brown is poised to give.