What Came ‘After the Common Market’?

Sage looks at the thoughts of Douglas Jay, a Cabinet member in Wilson’s Labour Government, who was a staunch opponent of Britain joining the European Economic Community. (Long, technical in parts)

For many years, I have had a copy of the Penguin Special “After the Common Market: A Better Alternative for Britain[1] by Douglas Jay, on my bookshelf, filed under: ‘unread’, ‘historical curiosity’, ‘politics’. I’m not entirely sure how it got there. I was aged five in 1968 when it came out, so I certainly didn’t buy it then!

Does Jay’s short book still have any relevance to the continuing and current debate on Britain’s membership of the EU, nearly fifty years after its was published?

Douglas Jay

Lord Jay is not a household name any more. He was a key figure in Labour politics from the 1930s up until his death, but nowadays his son, Peter Jay, is probably better known.

Douglas Jay was the Labour Member of Parliament for Battersea North from July 1946 to May 1983. During that time, he served as Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Financial Secretary to the Treasury under Atlee, and as President of the Board of Trade under Wilson, serving from October 1964 until 29 August 1967 when he resigned (or was sacked) over Harold Wilson’s policy of joining the EEC. He continued to be opposed to the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community and campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in the 1975 referendum. He was created a life peer in 1987, and died in 1996.

Presumably, he began writing ‘After the Common Market’ after his resignation from the Government in 1967. Certainly, he was aware of General de Gaulle’s second ‘non’ and Wilson’s devaluation of the pound, both in November 1967, which puts an earliest possible date for the final revision of the text.

It would make more sense, perhaps, if Jay had started to write the book in the Summer of ’67 in anticipation of a ‘oui’ from de Gaulle with a view to it being a campaigning document in a referendum, which Jay expected: “…if the party system does not enable a clear choice to be made [at a General Election]’ there is a strong case for a referendum before irrevocable decisions are made.” It was perhaps only after de Gaulle exercised the veto that the book’s slant became more that of seeking alternatives to Britain joining the EEC, an aspect addressed in the final few chapters. As none of these ideas happened, I do not address them here.

Jay was an economist before entering parliament, and held what can be described as ‘economic’ positions in government. It is not that surprising therefore that much of ‘After the Common Market’ presents an economist’s viewpoint. There is little ‘pure’ politics in it, and much of the politics that there is follows from the economic circumstances that Jay forecast would come about on Britain’s entry.

What was wrong with Britain being in the EEC?

In summary, Jay opposes Britain’s entry into the EEC on four major grounds:

  • Effect on the British balance of payments
  • Effect of the Common Agricultural Policy
  • Effects on the Commonwealth, EFTA and other non-EEC countries
  • Loss of Sovereignty

It is interesting that the second and fourth points still seem relevant today, whilst the first appears almost, if not entirely, irrelevant, and the third is now pretty much a ‘sunk-cost’. For reasons of space and time, I will not look here at the effects on other countries, except to note that of the eight EFTA members in 1968, six are now members of the EU. Also, since 1977 there have been no tariffs in industrial goods between the EU and EFTA.

However, much of Jay’s book is about the UK balance of payments, and so is this article. Did Jay misread this issue? And what was the issue anyway?

The balance of payments, the EEC and the ‘Pound in Your Pocket’

A lot of the book, and especially the chapter entitled ‘If Britain Joined’, deals with “the economic effects on Britain of joining the EEC”. To the modern reader the economics discussed seem rather old-fashioned, as it is very largely dealing with possible effects of EEC membership on the UK balance of trade – a very thorny issue in the post war years. It was especially so as it led to the devaluation of the pound in November 1967, presumably why Jay gives it such prominence.

The balance of payments situation today seems of interest only to specialists, rather than the ‘man in the street’. It is not considered as so important as it was. Instead it is now seen more as diagnostic of economic problems and successes and not so much a problem in itself. Why the change?

The economic and political history of the Wilson government from 1964 to 1970 is complex. There are many sources, not all in agreement. Broadly though, the ‘received view’ is that on its election in 1964, the Labour Government inherited a large current account deficit that had arisen due to earlier Conservative attempts to boost the economy. The increased demand in the economy had succeeded in drawing in imports, rather than producing more goods for home consumption and for export. This meant, put simply, that there were more pounds available to non-UK interests than they required.

In a free market, which there was not, this would normally mean a fall in the price of sterling against other currencies such as the dollar and (increasingly during this period) the Deutschmark. A cheaper pound makes imports more expensive and exports cheaper, thereby reducing the one and increasing the other, tending to reduce or eliminate the trade deficit. In a free market, in other words, there is a self-correcting mechanism.

However, following from the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944, sterling and other currencies were committed to a fixed currency exchange rate system. This linked all western currencies to the dollar, and the dollar was linked to gold. It was understood from the beginning of the arrangement that countries that ran a balance of payments deficit would struggle to maintain their currencies’ exchange rates. The IMF was set up under the Bretton Woods agreement with the aim of providing loans to help those countries. Restrictions on capital flows from one country to another were also introduced with a view to preventing speculative pressure on currency values.

Up until the mid-1960s, the Bretton Woods system was regarded as something of a success. The economic recovery in the non-Communist countries following the war had exceeded most expectations. M. M. Postan, writing in 1966/7, noted that the world “aggregate Gross Product increased by well over 85 percent between 1938 and 1964.” [2] Some economists and politicians may have thought that they had, more or less, solved the developed world’s macroeconomic problems, especially that of unemployment.

For a nation like Britain, still thinking of itself as a world power, to be in a position where it could not fulfil its Bretton Woods obligations and maintain its ‘pegged’ exchange rate, was thought to be shocking and ignominious in itself. To be forced into devaluation was politically damaging both at home and abroad. It could be seen as a reflection of an international lack of confidence in the abilities of the Government of the day – and certainly such lack of confidence could make matters worse with respect to demand for sterling.

Further, there were many countries, including most of the British Commonwealth, whose currencies were effectively tied to the pound via ‘Sterling Area’ arrangements. Devaluation of Sterling would mean significant capital losses to these nations, which held much of their own reserves in sterling. British Governments felt a responsibility to these countries, as well as to Britain itself, to maintain the value of the pound.

Finally, for most of the 1960s, Wilson was concerned that Labour would gain the reputation as a ‘devaluation’ party. The only post-war devaluation, before 1967, being under Atlee’s Government in 1949.

Jay was also concerned about the balance of payments for another reason. When the balance of payments was bad, leading to pressure on the value of the currency, loans from the IMF and other nations were (and still are) the only way to shore up the currency if a nations own reserves were too low to do the job. As Jay observes: “The truth is that financial and balance of payments weakness is bound to force any country, and has forced Britain, into a position when it cannot dictate the terms on which it borrows, and others can. The only solution is to strengthen the balance of payments, and ensure that this situation does not arise. That is why the prospect of Britain joining the EEC should mainly be examined in the light of the balance of payments.”

Jay had himself first-hand experience of political weakness when negotiating for loans. In 1965 there was a sterling crisis. On 10 September 1965 the US Federal Reserve and a number of European central banks placed huge orders for sterling, shoring up the pound. A deal had been done with President Johnson to get this support from the US: the deal required that Britain maintained its ‘East of Suez’ military capability, and introduce a statutory incomes policy. The latter condition being the first time that a single nation (rather than a multinational organisation like the IMF) had influenced Britain’s domestic policy in exchange for a loan. It appears that Jay, along with Wilson, Callaghan and Brown knew of this otherwise secret deal[3]. Jay therefore knew there were good reasons to worry about balance of payments crises. But why did he think that being in the EEC would make matters worse?

Changes to Trade

The Common Agricultural Policy (of which more later) would, according to Jay, lead to higher food prices, in turn leading to higher wages and hence higher production costs of manufactured goods which might be exported. “…our costs, both of exports and goods sold at home would be raised… It is obvious at first sight that this operation would mean a net loss to Britain’s balance of trade with the EEC.” In short, British goods would become more expensive than they would otherwise be with respect to those of the other EEC members, and also to those of other nations, hence reducing our ability to sell goods abroad.

“Next stage in the process would be further loss of exports to the Commonwealth, due to the loss of Commonwealth preference for British goods.” “for it [EEC membership] would compel Britain, not only to withdraw the free entry and preferences now enjoyed almost universally for Commonwealth goods in the British market, but in addition to impose a reverse preference on them.” i.e. impose a tax on imports of food etc., especially hurtful to the economies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa[4], and this “would mean inevitably the withdrawal of the reciprocal preferences given by these countries to our exports.” Jay says that in 1966, Britain exported around £800m worth of goods to those four countries alone.

But this wasn’t all. “The worst threat of all to the British economy… after the Common Agricultural Policy, is the abolition of all exchange control even on the export of capital by residents of a member-country to any other in the group.” Jay cites Article 67 of Treaty of Rome. “not merely would there be complete freedom for any UK resident – bank, firm or individual – to indulge in genuine direct or portfolio investment anywhere in the EEC, but there would be complete freedom for a flight of refugee or speculative capital owned by any British individual or firm who was scared by the British balance of payments prospect, or wished to gamble on a fall in the pound.” Jay thinks that this would make “any rational economic policy, let alone a full employment policy, impossible for the UK.” He adds, “Never since 1939 has such freedom been granted to UK residents except within the sterling area.”

Reading Jay’s comments now, in 2015, demonstrates just how far things have changed since he wrote them. The idea that not having exchange controls would make a rational economic policy, not just different, not more difficult, but actually impossible seems remarkable. The shocked tone about giving UK residents economic freedom seem almost totalitarian! Such controls were intended to prevent currency speculation, of course, but were in practice draconian when considered with hindsight. Exchange controls were finally abolished in 1979.

In summary then, Douglas Jay believed that by joining the EU, the British current account deficit will get worse, the pound will come under pressure, reserves will be run down in defending the pound, and the IMF, or more likely Germany, will bale Britain out at great political cost. “In such circumstances [the UK requiring economic aid and loans, probably from EEC partners], it is hard to see how Britain … could possibly escape being politically subordinated to Western Germany.”

Was he right? Not really. There have been no serious British balance of payments crises since 1967. Jay, writing no later than in early 1968, was not to know that the Bretton Woods agreement would collapse in 1971 and that the pound would be allowed to float (more or less) freely thereafter[5]. The crisis of 1976, when the then Chancellor Jim Callaghan borrowed US$2.3bn from the IMF, was caused by the Government’s inability to borrow enough in the markets to fund its public spending, not simply to defend the pound[6]. While the poor balance of payment position didn’t help, it wasn’t the point of the crisis. Callaghan and Healey hoped to defend the pound to control inflation, but the Trade Unions and the rank and file Labour party members wanted them to spend a lot of money they couldn’t raise in tax[7]. Foreign holders of sterling were losing confidence in the Government’s general economic policy, and this was the root of the problem, not poor trade figures per se.

On the other hand, Jay was correct to predict that Germany would become the major player in terms of lending to countries within the EU that fell into difficulties. Jay did not predict a common currency in his book, nor did he foresee a united Germany back in 1968. But the future economic dominance of Germany in the EEC was a correct prediction, as well as that Germany would use that strength to influence domestic policies of other EEC members was also correct, for example by having the ‘final say’ in the bail-out of Greece in 2015.

Balance of Trade

UK Balance of Trade (expressed as % GNP)
Goods (oil) Goods (non-oil) Services Balance
Received Paid Balance Received Paid Balance Received Paid Balance net
1968 0.4 1.8 -1.3 16.5 17.0 -0.5 6.8 5.9 0.9 -0.9
1969 0.4 1.7 -1.2 17.7 16.9 0.8 7.1 6.1 1.0 0.6
1970 0.5 1.5 -1.1 18.0 17.0 1.0 7.8 6.7 1.0 0.9
1971 0.5 1.8 -1.4 17.7 15.8 1.9 7.9 6.7 1.2 1.7
1972 0.4 1.7 -1.3 16.5 16.6 0.0 7.6 6.4 1.2 -0.1
1973 0.6 2.0 -1.5 17.9 20.1 -2.2 7.9 6.8 1.1 -2.6
1974 1.0 5.6 -4.5 20.9 23.3 -2.4 8.7 7.4 1.3 -5.6
1975 0.9 4.2 -3.3 19.8 19.9 -0.1 8.1 6.7 1.4 -2.0
1976 1.1 4.7 -3.6 21.6 21.3 0.4 9.0 7.0 2.0 -1.2
1977 1.7 3.9 -2.3 24.0 23.1 0.9 9.2 6.9 2.4 1.0
1978 1.7 3.2 -1.5 23.1 22.5 0.7 8.5 6.2 2.3 1.5
Figure 1: UK Balance of Trade 1968-1978. Taken from Black, John, ‘The Economics of Modern Britain’, 1980.


Based on the figures for the period shortly before and after Britain joined the EEC, there was certainly no obvious sudden decline in the overall balance of trade (figure 1), although the balance of non-oil goods did get worse in 1973 and 1974. It should be remembered that there was an ‘oil crisis’ in 1973, which had knock-on effects throughout the economy.

The balance of trade, of course, has itself been awful for many years now. Since 1970 and up to 2014, the only years in which there was a trade surplus in goods were 1971, 1980, 1981 and 1982. How much of this deterioration can blamed on Britain’s EU membership?

In 2014, 44.6% of UK exports of goods and services went to EU countries, and 53% of imports were from the EU[8], as compared to Jay’s figures: “Some 65 per cent of our imports come from outside Western Europe, and about 65 per cent of our exports go to countries outside Western Europe.” So, if we take Jay’s  ‘Western Europe’ to include countries now in the EU which were not in the six EEC countries in 1968, we find that the proportion of exports outside the EEC/EU has fallen only by 10% over the whole period 1968 to 2014, and given that the EU now include countries such as Poland that Jay would certainly have considered as outside ‘Western Europe’ we can conclude, given the huge changes in world patterns of trade over those 46 years generally, that little difference has been made to our exports.

Imports from the EU however have grown considerably up to the present day, so that in 2014, the balance of trade with the EU is in deficit, which is large enough to outweigh the balance with the rest of the world (figure 2). Of course, if Britain did not import from the EU, it would probably have to import the same kinds of things from elsewhere.


Figure 2: UK Exports and Imports 1999-2014 (ONS). Graphic from City AM http://www.cityam.com/218917/how-important-eu-uk-trade

Balance of Payments

UK Balance of Payments on Current Account 1968-1978 (expressed as % GNP)
Trade balance Property – Taxes Transfers Balance (current account)
1968 -0.9 0.9 -0.6 -0.6
1969 0.6 1.2 -0.6 1.3
1970 0.9 1.3 -0.4 1.8
1971 1.7 1 -0.4 2.3
1972 -0.1 1 -0.5 0.4
1973 -2.6 1.9 -0.7 -1.3
1974 -5.7 1.9 -0.6 -4.4
1975 -2 0.8 -0.5 -1.7
1976 -1.2 1.2 -0.7 -0.8
1977 1 0.2 -0.9 0.2
1978 1.5 0.6 -1.3 0.7
Figure 3: Taken from Black, John, ‘The Economics of Modern Britain’, 1980.


Again, the current account balance of payments (Figure 3) shows nothing of especial concern around the time of Britain’s entry into the EEC. While the balance does get worse from 1973 to 1976, it is not exactly at crisis point, and there is nothing to suggest that joining the EEC was as bad for Britain in this respect as Jay predicted in ‘After the Common Market’.

Common Agricultural Policy

Jay was very concerned about the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the UK, and not just because of his concern about its effect on trade, described above.

Firstly, “The high food prices in the EEC are maintained by a form of protectionism known by the high-sounding title of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It is in fact more restrictive and reactionary than any system of agricultural protection previously known, short of outright prohibition of imports.” This is done by a system of variable ‘levies’. “This means that the price is unalterably determined by the high cost of the inefficient home producer; and that if the world or import price falls, or home prices rise, the levy rises to make up the difference.” So the consumer “whose interests are barely considered at all at any point in the whole business” cannot gain by falling world prices.

Secondly, Jay complains that “it has meant the survival of highly inefficient, outdated – indeed almost eighteenth century – farming methods right into the second half of the twentieth century, with the inevitable consequence of strong and persistent pressure to keep up food prices in order to save this unproductive agriculture from extinction.”

Jays contrasts the CAP system with the British system of support for farmers then in force, which he supports. A scheme of making “so-called ‘deficiency payments’ from the Exchequer to the farmers which allows us to combine low prices to the consumer and the lowest import prices in the world, and therefore greater social equality generally, with a reasonable income for farmers and farm workers, a rapid increase in farming efficiency and output, and a great economy of manpower on the land.”

In short, the CAP kept the prices of farm goods high by tariffs on imports and price fixing of home produce, whereas the UK supported farmers by paying subsidies direct to the farmers, and letting consumer prices fall to market rates.

Jay is not entirely accurate in his description of the British system. There were at least some measures in place whereby agricultural prices were supported by market intervention and central marketing. A good example is the Milk Marketing Board[9]. In place from 1933 to 1994, the board bought up all UK milk production and managed sales to maintain prices.

None the less, Some of Jay’s criticisms of the CAP were also shared by the EEC Commission itself. In the late 60s, the increasing costs of CAP, and the inefficiencies of the small farmers were supposed to be tackled by the proposals contained in the Mansholt Plan. This would “encourage nearly five million farmers to give up farming: that would make it possible to redistribute their land and increase the size of the remaining family farms, in order to make them viable and guarantee for their owners an average annual income comparable to that of all the other workers in the region”. However, the farmers firmly rejected the plan.

By the late 1970s, overproduction in EEC farms was becoming an issue, especially in dairy. In 1979 penalties “for serious over-production” were introduced in that sector.

But it wasn’t until 1992 that there was any progress at all in changing the method of support for the agricultural sector from price maintenance to income support for farmers, the system broadly recommended by Jay.

While price support in 2015 is considerably lower than it was, and income support for the producer now forms a major element in the CAP, price support is by no means abolished (see ‘Agriculture: A Partnership between Europe and Farmers’). It is noteworthy that the present CAP is still trying to do the things recommended by the Commission in 1960s, such as modernising farming!

Despite the best efforts over the years of GATT and WTO, there are still CAP related import controls and tariffs in operation with regard to trade with the non-EU world. See, for example, HMR&C’s guidance.

So, in many respects, Jay was not wrong about the Common Agricultural Policy. The problems he identified with it have been somewhat ameliorated since he wrote ‘After the Common Market’, but have not gone away. In other words, the CAP is still expensive to maintain and administer and still encourages inefficient farming methods, although it is probably better now than it was in the 1960s.

However, Jay may well have been wrong with respect to food prices, although it is hard to say for certain. Certainly there were noticeable rises in food prices around the time the UK joined the EEC.

The major problem in looking at the data for the period around Britain’s accession to the EEC is inflation. UK inflation, following the ‘Barber Boom’ from 1972 and the first oil crisis of 1973, soared from an average of 5.4% 1968-70 to 7.8% 1971-1973 and 16.0% in 1974-78[10]. So the effects of any UK food prices rises due to the CAP might easily be covered up by rises for other reasons, such as higher fuel prices increasing distribution costs.

Variations in Inflation (%) 1969-1978
Commodity Group 1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978
Food 5.4 5.0 9.5 6.8 12.3 16.7 23.3 15.7 16.2 8.5
Housing 6.3 8.7 10.5 11.7 15.1 19.8 22.5 15.0 14.9 11.6
Motor vehicle running costs 8.8 2.6 5.7 4.8 7.7 28.2 29.7 9.7 12.7 1.9
Fuel & Light 2.9 3.8 9.5 7.0 2.8 17.5 31.5 24.4 15.6 7.3
CPI 5.7 5.9 8.4 6.5 8.6 17.2 23.7 15.5 15.0 8.4
Figure 4: Taken from Black, John, ‘The Economics of Modern Britain‘, 1980.


Food price inflation was 12.3% in 1973, a year in which only the non-EEC influenced housing costs were inflating faster (probably ‘Barber boom’ effects) (Figure 4). This could be CAP effects, at least in part. After that, the oil crisis effects dominate in all categories. As the index itself has a weighting towards consumer food purchasing, comparing the price of specific food items[11] to the overall index doesn’t help much. A brief review of price data does not seem to suggest any special CAP effects over the period from joining the EEC that can be distinguished from general price increases, unless it is seen in the ‘one-off effect’ in 1973.

Today, there is nothing especially expensive about British food, at least in comparison to other developed countries.

According to a Guardian article in July 2014, Germany had the lowest priced ‘basket of goods’ as compared to London, and other EU and non-EU developed countries. This is broadly in line with data on numbeo.com in October 2015. The Guardian’s list includes many products not covered by the CAP, of course, but even when this is allowed for, Germany is still cheap by comparison to the other countries in the survey. The non-EU cities included in the survey, New York, Toronto and Sydney, are all more expensive than London. What is also noticeable is the variance between EU nations: Milk, at £1 (for 4 pints), is cheapest in the UK, but the highest EU country price is given as £2.15 in Paris, with Dublin being roughly half-way between at £1.53. My point is that, nowadays, there is nothing particularly expensive about food in the EU as compared to other developed countries’ prices, and that there is a good deal of variation within the EU itself, which shows that factors other than the CAP are influencing prices. This could be variations in local supply and demand for the various goods, or varied competitive environments between retailers. The linked Guardian lists several possible explanations. Of course, 46 years on from ‘After the Common Market’, and after nearly 22 years since the 1992 CAP reform, the effects of the CAP on British prices may have been lost amongst all the other factors that affect food prices.


Democratic Deficits

Perhaps where Jay has proved to be the most correct, and certainly his criticisms still remain, is in the context of the ruling institutions of the EEC. Jay notes “the fundamentally undemocratic nature of its [Treaty of Rome] constitution and of its ruling bodies: the Commission of officials, the Council of Ministers, the mass bureaucracy in Brussels, the Court and the so-called European Parliament which seldom meets.” Despite much ‘reform’ of the EEC/EU since 1968, these comments seem to apply just as much today.

“[The Community Parliament]’s only power, and that by two-thirds majority, would be to pass a vote of censure on the Commission which would require the whole of the Commission to resign.” This was deliberate by the framers of the rules, claims Jay, as “Either a supranational authority like the Commission is not democratically controlled at all, or there must be an effectively elected Parliament to control it; in which case a federal system and a further surrender of sovereignty are unavoidable.”

The EU Parliament today is different from that in 1968. For one thing, there are elections to the parliament whereas in Jay’s time members were selected by the governments of member countries. Direct elections being introduced in 1979. The parliament still does not have full legislative powers, it cannot initiate any legislation, but does now have the ability to ask the Commission to draft legislation for it. Much of its legislative power, and its control over the budget, is shared with the European Council (the Council of Ministers). While the EU parliament is certainly more powerful than Jay knew it was in 1968, it is still does not control the Commission, nor is it ever likely to.

Jay says that, in joining the Treaty of Rome “the British Parliament would hand over to the Council of Ministers and the Commission the power of legislating in the future, in ways not known at the time of signing the treaty, on the internal affairs of this country…without any approval or discussion by the British Government or Parliament.” With the strengthening of the powers of the European Parliament since 1968 one could amend what Jay says a little. He was completely correct in predicting the loss of sovereignty of the British parliament, of course, as it was as plain as day even 50 years ago that this was going to be the case. The institutions of Europe, at least when acting collectively, really can call all the shots today. This is especially obvious in the Eurozone countries such as Greece, where the domination of the Commission-led (and German influenced) ‘Troika’ in the internal economic affairs of that country is blatant.

“It [the EEC] is founded on the central belief that modern society ought really to be ruled by the expert, the technocrat, the super-bureaucrat, the scientifically equipped wise man, who can find the right answer by pure calculation, unaffected by the pressure of vested interests or politics. It is rooted in an essential distrust of the people.” The very nature of the Commission, still largely uncontrolled by any directly elected body, is that of a bureaucracy. Whilst it is now the case that the President of the Commission is now elected by the EU Parliament, it still cannot remove him (or her) without sacking the entire Commission and this requiring a 2/3rds majority. The Commission cannot really be said to be responsible to the parliament.

It is still a matter of debate whether the EU parliament should be fully democratic and really control the Commission, in which case it could be argued that, as Jay suggests, a fully united EU polity has formed. If one doesn’t want that, then it is perhaps best that the EU parliament remains relatively weak. However, what Jay said about it in 1968 remains broadly correct, despite the many reforms since.

… And Propaganda

“The Commission still controls the EEC ‘information’ machine, on which £1m a year is spent…from which propaganda and entertainment is conducted on a liberal scale throughout the EEC: one indirect source no doubt of much of the brainwashing propaganda encountered outside the Six as well as within.” According to Eurosceptic group ‘Business for Britain’, the EU budgeted to spend £536m on direct publicity in 2014. This may be a high estimate but it is difficult to pin down what the EU’s publicity budgets actually are. Each part of the Commission seems to have a publicity/PR department of its own, and funds can also be made available for special projects and campaigns from other sources. The estimate does not include publicity expenditure required as a condition of all EU grant funding, which can be a material proportion of the grant expenditure. I think we can conclude that EU publicity spending is as significant, if not more so, than it was in Jay’s day.

So, Was Jay Right or Not?

Jay was writing for his time, and he was a man of his time. In 1968 he was wedded to the post-war certainties and didn’t concern himself with the problems of the Bretton Woods system. He couldn’t foresee the collapse of the system and the change in economic assumptions that it implied. Thus his concerns about the UK balance of payments and hence the exchange rate are now rather old-fashioned.

He was right that the balance of trade would get worse, but perhaps wrong as to why that was. There is little reason to believe that the situation would be any better today if Britain had stayed out of the EEC/EU, and less that it made much difference around the time that Britain actually joined.

Douglas Jay did understand the nature of the EEC/EU as an institution, and correctly identified the ‘democratic deficit’ that underpins it, and the role and influence of the Commission and the other institutions that reduce or eliminate national sovereignty of member states. He was correct to identify the large expenditure of the EU/EEC on self-promotion and publicity. I am not sure that any of this was a great insight, however, as it was as plain as day then, as it is now, that this was how the EEC/EU worked.

What was perceptive, perhaps, was the identification of Germany, rather than France, as the lead nation amongst the rest, and the attribution of significant power within Europe to that nation.

While Jay was broadly correct about the CAP, in that it was expensive and wasteful even by the Commission’s own admission, for many years after 1968. It is possible, but not certain, that it did drive up UK food prices. It is likely that food consumed in Britain would have been cheaper that it was if Britain had stayed out, but for how much and for how long cannot be determined, and by now food prices in the UK are no different to anywhere else in the developed world. The issue for today really is how to ween farmers off subsidies of any sort without a collapse in the supply or unacceptable political consequences:  the same issues that Jay identified, but didn’t care about so long as they were the right sort of subsidies.

Jay was a socialist of the old school: central planning, central controls over the levers of the economy. However, he believed that these levers should be controlled by democratically elected bodies in sovereign nation states, and so he was bound to reject the idea of the non-democratic, bureaucratic EU.




[1] Jay, Douglas, ‘After the Common Market: A Better Alternative for Britain’ Penguin Books Ltd, 1968, ISBN 9780140522587. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes “.” are from this book.

[2] MM Postan, An Economic History of Western Europe 1945-1964, Methuen & Co, 1967

[3] Sandbrook, Dominic, ‘White Heat’, p125, Abacus, 2008 edition.

[4] South Africa was not in the Commonwealth at this time, primarily due to its apartheid policies, but was mostly included in Commonwealth trade agreements.

[5] Not always, of course. Various attempts to peg sterling to the Deutschmark and, most notoriously to the ERM, have been tried and failed since, but none failed simply because of balance of payments issues as such. They were self-inflicted by British Governments pursuing unsustainable policies.

[6] National Archives Cabinet papers. See especially Chancellors statement on page 8, referring to both external and internal deficit.

[7] See for example Callaghan’s speech to the Labour conference of 1976, where he warns party members: “Like everyone in the Labour Movement, I believe in a high level of public expenditure. But I part company with those who believe we can rely indefinitely on foreign borrowing to provide for greater social expenditure, a better welfare service, better hospitals, better education, the renewal of our inner cities and so on. In the end these things, comrades, are only provided by our own efforts.” Coincidently, the speech was written by Peter Jay, son of our author Douglas.

[8] http://www.cityam.com/218917/how-important-eu-uk-trade

[9] See http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/6969/2/cp02fr01.pdf for a brief history and a discussion of how the MMB scheme interacted with the CAP and what happened on its abolition.

[10] Based on consumer prices. From Black, John, ‘The Economics of Modern Britain‘, 1980.

[11] See also ONS statistics on UK prices of various goods including many foodstuffs .xls file

He got what he wished for…

Sage’s forecast rapidly came true!

My last post suggested that the signatories of the letter asking President Obama to prosecute climate sceptics might regret asking for investigations into science funding. How right I was!


The amount that fossil fuel companies spend on AGW research, be it biased or not, is insignificant compared to Government funding around the world. So its where there is big money that we are likely to find the leeches and troughers.

Wishful thinking?

Extract from the recent letter from a group of Political activists – oops I meant scientists – to President Obama:

“One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change”

These people should be careful what they wish for. A similar suit aimed at some of them might be interesting, to say the least.

PC Aliens? Part 2

Should we try to tell extra-terrestrials about gender equality and cultural diversity of human life on Earth? We could try, but it would certainly confuse them, argues Sage Vals.

This piece was inspired following comments attributed to Dr Jill Stuart of the LSE, most notably in the Guardian.

In summary, she believes that in future messages, like the one that was attached to the Pioneer spacecraft, should be updated to reflect how human attitudes to race and gender have changed in the years since Pioneer was launched.

I wondered how on Earth (given that is where we are) we could design a message that reflected values such as sex equality and demonstrated cultural diversity and make that meaningful to any intelligent life forms that might find it.

Species, Race and Gender are for the Birds

Here are two pictures of swans:


Figure 1 Swan 1 source RSPB


Figure 2. Swan 2 source RSPB

Can you tell these swans apart? Perhaps one of the swans is male and the other is a female? Perhaps one is a variety (race) of the other? Perhaps they are separate species?

Maybe this is unfair. I’ll give you a clue. In nature, swan 1 is bigger than swan 2. Does that help? Unless you are a birdwatcher, or have gone to look it up, I’m guessing probably not. Unless you know about swans, you probably are stuck with the same questions: Perhaps one of the swans is male and the other is a female? Perhaps one is simply a pygmy version of the other? Perhaps they are separate species?

So, unless you have prior knowledge, or have looked it up, you can’t really tell them apart from these pictures. In other words, you are a little like a hypothetical alien. But only a little bit. Because you are living in a world where there are birds, and you have seen them, and at least know that the drawings are supposed to represent birds. What possible chance has an alien of even guessing these are, in fact, representations of a whooper swan (figure 1), and a Bewick’s swan (figure 2) and therefore they are different species.

What Does Colour Mean to an Alien?

Let’s have another example. I suspect that everyone who reads this (if they are from Eurasia or North Africa certainly) will know the answers to this one. But this time, please consider the viewpoint of a hypothetical alien.


Figure 3. Bird 1 source RSPB


Figure 4. Bird 2 source RSPB

This time the birds look different. At least in terms of colour. Again, how could you possibly tell if these pictures were either of different genders, different sub-species or even completely different species altogether? This is ignoring the possibility that one is a juvenile (it isn’t), or even possibly a very old bird. In this case, bird 1 is a female blackbird, and bird 2 is a male blackbird.

Hopefully, you are getting the idea now. It’s very difficult to put a meaningful message about diversity or gender into a picture or drawing unless you have sufficient knowledge to place it in some kind of context. Aliens, with nothing to go on but the message itself, can’t do that.

And of course, we must consider people, which is presumably what any message to outer space will be trying to get over.

Human, All Too Human

human 1   Figure 5. Human                                    human 2 Figure 6. Human

Of course, you know the answers. Figure 5 is a black male human and figure 6 is a white female human. You can tell with the people, who are genetically almost identical with you and you are programmed by your human nature and human upbringing, to know what the differences and similarities mean.

But you were not designed by nature or nurture to spot the differences between two swans of different species at all, nor spot that the colour difference between the birds was only that of gender.

Bear in mind that you share a very high proportion of your genes with the birds, and you evolved and were born and brought up on the same planet as they were. Yet still you struggled with understanding what the variations shown in the pictures of the birds – be they obvious or hardly discernible – meant.

Clueless Aliens

I would suggest that an alien probably couldn’t tell the difference between figure 5 and figure 6. They most certainly wouldn’t know what any differences meant[1], so they would ignore them. Alternatively, they might see difference all too clearly and conclude two different species altogether were pictured. Either way, try explaining ‘gender equality’, or noting that racial difference exists but means very little, using pictures. It is difficult enough for an alien to see and understand what is represented, still less derive any moral values from it.

Clueless Humans

Given the above, let’s consider briefly what Jill Stuart is quoted as saying about the Pioneer plaque. “The plaque shows a man raising his hand in a very manly fashion while a woman stands behind him, appearing all meek and submissive”[2]. Firstly, the raising of the hand was supposed to be a ‘friendly greeting’.to the hypothetical alien, but I can just see that it could be considered a ‘manly’ sort of wave. Whatever that means. It would mean nothing to our alien.


Figure 7. Detail from Pioneer plaque

The second point is that the woman actually is not standing behind the man. It’s not terribly clear, but if you look at the position of the feet, they are both standing more or less in the same position. The woman is shown as being slightly smaller than the man, intended to reflect the fact that sexual dimorphism in humans involves women being, on average, shorter than men[3].

To see this picture as ‘sexist’ is perfectly possible, of course, but I suggest that to do so is easier if you are bringing your own preconceptions to it, which is what Dr Stuart has done. If you bring in a different set of preconceptions, like me, you don’t.

If Dr Stuart and I read this picture differently, can we expect an alien to read either of these views into it? Or anything at all?

Representing Diversity

I agree with Dr Stuart that the people in the drawing are obviously western European white people. One or both could easily have been drawn with facial features that we, as humans would associate with a different race, and that would have been preferable. It should be born in mind though that giving one or both a different skin tone on an engraving would have made the picture harder to read, especially after aeons floating through space. And the aliens may not be looking at it in the same way we do. They may easily ‘view’ such things by touch. Shading could confuse the image somewhat. But mostly, they just wouldn’t understand it.

In Summary

The earlier part of this essay shows that I am far from convinced that sending pictures of people to aliens would be convey much at all. While I am not saying that such pictures shouldn’t be sent, I am saying that they are not likely to convey as much information as we might like to think. So I am not here meaning to argue in support of the Pioneer plaque. I am trying to say that Dr Stuart’s criticisms are irrelevant in terms of providing information to an alien who might read it.

I could perhaps be accused of dumbing down the aliens. It is an assumption of SETI that any alien society receiving a message is going to be at least as scientifically advanced as we are. They may well be able therefore to look at the pictures we send and imaginatively construct our society from them. However, it is much harder, as I hope I have demonstrated, to do this at all, still less to get it right, than to know about universal physical laws such as those of chemistry.

So Is There Any Point?

Dr Stuart, this time quoted by BT.Com, says, “Part of the exercise is looking at our collective humanity and deciding what’s important to us”.

Well, space is huge. “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space”[4]. You could easily conclude that there is such a fadingly slight chance that anyone will pick up any message cast out into deep space on the back of a bit of junk that there’s no point in writing one. That the only reason for doing it is actually for ourselves.

I think that Jill Stuart is actually saying this: We should write a letter to ourselves, trying to show what’s best of humanity, and use it as a blueprint for how we make our culture and our world. Very worthy, no doubt. It might even work, politically, and move the agenda on. But if that is to be the aim let us be honest about it, and admit it is nothing to do with actually contacting any extra-terrestrials.

[1] Perhaps because of the biology of life on their planet, they may have no concept of gender at all, all members of the same species being hermaphrodite, for instance. So, if they did happen to suspect there were two genders represented it would probably be the last thing they thought of, not the first.

[2] Guardian website http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/10/aliens-modern-messages-earths-equality-diversity-seti-yuri-milner

[3] This might actually be cultural. It’s possible that women have been sexually selected for smallness, or that women get less nutrition when growing up, and as these things change the sexes will become more nearly equal in height over coming generations. I think there’s at least anecdotal evidence of this, but I will leave this aside for now.

[4] Douglas Adams, ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe’, but you knew that didn’t you.

PC Aliens? Part 1

The Guardian attempts to make science more interesting to its core readers by making the search for extra-terrestrial life just a bit more Guardian-ish. Sage looks at their misreporting.

Is this another attempt to climb Peak Guardian? “Messages sent into space to tell extraterrestrials about the nature of humankind should be updated to reflect gender equality and the diversity of life on Earth, scientists say.” Note the words “scientists say”.

What do Scientists Say?

The Guardian is reporting on a conference of the UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN) in Leeds this week, where a debate was held on the wisdom of broadcasting messages into space. While the Guardian does mention that debate in the article, it leads on a quite different issue, claiming that “The UK entrants to a Breakthrough Initiative competition agree on one thing: any missive to extraterrestrials must be an up-to-date portrayal of humankind”.

It is true that someone did raise the issues of diversity and sexism. This is reported elsewhere too, but no other news source led with that. Why did the Guardian? And why did they represent the meeting as they did?

What Scientists say it?

The only person cited by the Guardian is Jill Stuart. Who is she? Well, according to her CV, she is a visiting fellow in the Department of Government at the LSE. She “specialises in the law, politics, and theory of outer space politics” and is knowledgeable in “gender and international relations”, amongst other things of a similar nature.

Now some may mock at this. I don’t actually. I can see the fun and interest in some of it, and there is a lot of politics both in space (the International Space Station) and about space (use of military satellites).

What are Dr Stuart’s qualifications? Well her BS is in Political Science, her MSc is in International Relations, and her PhD? It’s in “International Relations, ‘Exploring the Relationship Between Outer Space and World Politics: Regime Theory and English School Perspectives’”. Now, I don’t know what that means in terms of research as I haven’t read it. But I do know is that it means that she’s not a scientist!

Well, OK, she is a social scientist, but not a white-coated, safety glasses and Bunsen burner, big telescope, scanning electron microscope, test tube and retort stand physical scientist. And this is what nearly everybody thinks of when they read “scientist”.

How many scientists say it?

It seems that only one scientist wants a message ‘that reflects gender equality and diversity’ if you count Dr Stuart as a ‘scientist’. None if you don’t, at least insofar as we can tell from the Guardian piece.

So the Guardian Article is Crap?

It appears that he Guardian is either being disingenuous or is incompetent. Or both. Quelle surprise!

Let’s try it again, shall we? What the Guardian should have written is: “Messages sent into space to tell extraterrestrials about the nature of humankind should be updated to reflect gender equality and the diversity of life on Earth, Dr Jill Stuart, a social scientist said.” This makes clear it is the view of one person, and that person being a social, not a physical, scientist.

But that doesn’t sound so impressive does it? I suspect that the Guardian reporter, or sub-editor, knew that it doesn’t. So they chose to be economical with the truth instead.

PS There’s more to come

Now that I’ve put the Guardian in its place, I want to be very clear that here I’m not knocking what Dr Stuart is quoted as saying. She has every right to state and argue for her opinions on the content of any future message sent out into space.

Personally, I think she’s wrong, but that will be for my next blog: PC Aliens? Part 2. Coming soon!

Post post Script

It gets worse. According to the BBC, Dr Stuart is not even a member of the UKSRN. So presumably she was not even at their meeting! If so, the scientists who were there absolutely, definitely, did not say that our messages needed to be updated.

Psychology, Philosophy and Confirmation Bias: Evolutionary Denial?

Is there anything in our evolutionary history that makes us more likely to accept or reject the Anthropogenic Global Warming Hypothesis? Paul Biegler thinks so, and so does Sage (a bit), but for some evolutionary reason they have different interpretations…

It is a bit late in the day, but I’m raising a few points regarding “Climate of Disbelief” an article by Paul Biegler in the July/August edition of ‘Philosophy Now’ (£).

Biegler, a bioethicist at Monash University, Melbourne, applies some psychological ideas to the issue of the rejection of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis by many members of the public.

A Big Assumption

Biegler assumes at the outset that those people who do not agree that global warming is happening, or that it is anthropogenic in origin (he doesn’t distinguish, but we know what he means), do not do so because of scientific evidence. He believes that there is an “overrepresented toehold [for scepticism] in the popular media”, which he suggests means that non-specialists have a misguided view of “the science”. While he concedes that the climate experts are themselves still somewhat baffled on the details, it is clear that he himself has little doubt. His argument is therefore premised on the “truth”, in the general sense, of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) hypothesis. In other words, he believes that human-generated atmospheric carbon dioxide is/will be the cause of catastrophic damage to the world’s climate, and all that is said to entail. As a result, his argument is constructed very much in one direction. Assuming the sceptics are wrong, he seeks to find out why they should ‘want’ to be wrong. For Biegler, this is the only possible reason why sceptics should reject the views of scientific authorities – such as Prof Stephen Hawking who he cites as an example[i].

Make a Wish!

Basically, Biegler believes that “there is another candidate to explain our reticence to embrace the painful but credible truth of a warming planet. The idea of wishful thinking.” By starting with such a stance, he almost completely fails to see the converse to his argument – it could equally well apply in its entirety to proponents of anthropogenic climate change.

Using the ‘thought experiment’ of bad news from the doctor, he says we generally tend – initially at least – to deny worrying information. This is “a famous type of motivated reasoning: confirmation bias.” That is people prefer their own view of the world, and tend to reject or “discount data that contradict it”. Further, Biegler cites John Cook (Queensland) in “The Conversation” (06/09/12). In that article a survey showed that there was a Republican/Democrat split in belief in AGW. Biegler does accept here that this argument cuts both ways. “Those with left political leanings, are keen to see big entities pay, will be partial to warming data”, but excuses this as “the tiebreaker is that warming predictions are backed by good scientific pedigree”. Again, his own confirmation bias shows!

A Peer Review Proves What Exactly? And a Misrepresentation.

Biegler asserts that the peer-review process acts as a check on scientists’ own bias. Mischievously, he even cites Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal as saying “Most scientists do not try to disprove their ideas; rivals do it for them. Only when those rivals fail is the theory bomb proof” (July 27, 2012). Biegler takes the Ridley quote totally out of context. Ridley was not talking about the peer review process here. He was suggesting that science progresses when one scientist challenges the work – and sometimes the preconceptions of – another scientist or scientists. This is done by repeating experiments or observation; by framing and performing other experiments or observations that might confirm or deny the first scientist’s work. This is not the purpose of peer review. Peer review is, or should be, a sense-check on the research to be published. It is meant to ensure that other published work on the same subject is addressed, where appropriate, and to check that the underlying research methodology is basically sound. It should not be (though some may say it is) a way of disagreeing scientists to prevent publication of a competitor’s work. I wonder if Biegler understands the peer review system, or is being disingenuous? I certainly hope he doesn’t do any peer reviews himself.

Those who haven’t read the Matt Ridley piece may not be aware that it was also part of a series about confirmation bias in science generally, although he does refer to climate scientists too. Ridley was arguing for more challenge, suggesting that scientists do not challenge each other enough, either in general or specifically in climate change research. Indeed, it took pretty much the opposite line, with respect to scientists, that Biegler takes in Philosophy Now.[ii]

Where Does Wishful Thinking Come From?

Paul Biegler then proceeds to explain how such ‘wishful thinking’ arises.

First, he answers the question how does wishful thinking work? He suggests that: “the logic is as follows. Imagining that our cherished projects will actually materialised makes us feel good. When someone suggests the contrary… [this] makes us feel bad. We are left with two options. We can give up our aspirations, which is a big ask. Far better to downgrade the credibility of the objector.” Biegler’s lack of awareness that this applies to both ‘warmists’ and ‘sceptics’ is extraordinary enough. That he doesn’t notice that it applies a fortiori to those activist climate scientists, whose reputation is at stake, is unforgivable. It is those such as Michael Mann, Kevin Trenberth, and many others in the ‘warmist’ sphere who have the “cherished projects” that are under threat. And they do “downgrade the credibility of the objector” too.

Darwin, Stone Age Man and Actions

But why do we as human beings react this way at all? But why do we use feelings rather than evidence for belief? Biegler recognises that there are competing “theories” (he means hypotheses, of course).

Biegler cites two “time honoured neo-Darwinist lines” to explain “why would we use our feelings rather than, say, the evidence as a basis for belief?” Biegler takes an evolutionary approach. In the state of nature (my phrase) what made us feel good was, usually, actually good for us. “Your emotions are your genes’ insurance that your behaviour tilts in their favour”, and as emotions precede, in evolutionary terms, the intellect, we decide stuff on emotional level, then rationalise. We use emotions as decision-making shortcuts, and usually, says Biegler, they work.

So the first argument is that it’s just ‘common sense’ to run away from a charging rhino, using ‘state of nature’ argument again. Clearly, there’s an evolutionary advantage in running away, or dodging the rhino. To pretend it’s not charging won’t work. So emotionally generated beliefs shouldn’t be ignored. However, I would argue that avoiding injury is not the same as “reward, and so feeling good” which Biegler suggests. Anyone who has ever run away from a dangerous situation, like the charging rhino, will know that there’s no good feeling about it. The sense of relief comes after the escape is complete, not when one starts to run away.

Out of date thinking

But now, citing George Ainslie (Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 32, 2009) he states that “how our beliefs feel is no longer a consistent guide to their accuracy” since there “was an increasing disconnect between beliefs and survival outcomes”, especially where it is only possible to see if belief is true or false at some time in the future. “Good feelings were a reward for beliefs whose falsity might never be exposed on the battlefield of natural selection”. I am reminded how so much of the warnings about the future bad consequences of ‘global warming’ are set so far in the future that the scientist or journalist, and most likely the reader, will be dead before ‘the truth’ really comes out. In 50 to 200 years?

Always Look on the Brightside of Life…

The above argument, Biegler denotes as the “‘by-product theory”. Biegler then looks at another idea: looking on the ‘the bright-side’ might not just make us feel fuzzy and warm. It might actually be good for us too. As he is a medical person, it is no surprise that Biegler mentions that lower stress of the optimist – or in this case someone who contemplates “a palatable rather than perilous future” – is better in health terms than the ‘chronic stress’ of the worrier.

It is true that some believers in the AGW hypothesis do worry. I can often detect feelings of abject despair in George Monbiot’s writing on the subject, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. As a sceptic, I can also get myself quite upset and annoyed when I read just how much money governments, including the EU spend on simply propagandising the AGW hypothesis, or subsidising wind farms. It doesn’t do my blood pressure much good, I can tell you.

The New Stone Age

Biegler suggests that a Neolithic optimist may therefore have survived better than his pessimistic brethren in the prehistoric past. Those who are optimistic in other situations do seem to do better than pessimists he says. He cites ‘optimistic’ HIV-positive men living longer than more pessimistic victims of AIDS. Of course, if optimism is significantly better than pessimism as a survival strategy, why are there any pessimists left nowadays? Perhaps there’s no difference in survival to the point of reproduction between optimists and pessimists in which case natural selection can’t work, and the argument must fail. Or more likely, it’s a very weak selective force.

Optimism, Pessimism, and the Future

Anyway, given either or both of these reasons for an evolutionary ‘preference’ for optimism, then Biegler suggests that “the somewhat startling upshot is that motivated reasoning [wishful thinking] may confer advantage upon those it drives to reject the climate science conclusions”. Also, outside the immediate future, we still look forward to good, not bad, things. He says we “project our feelings into the future”, such that we seek “outcomes that earn positive sentiments…”, and that we also attach feelings to beliefs.”…we embrace those [beliefs] imbued with positive feeling, and shun those that accrue disdain”. So thoughts about the future are as affected by our ‘emotions’ as thoughts about the present.

I agree with the general observation that human beings do, generally, discount the long term too much, preferring jam today. This is most obvious when the long term is beyond a lifetime. But Biegler says that nowadays humans can reasonably foresee certain events in the longer term, and given this we should react accordingly. He suggests that we don’t take action over anthropogenic climate change because the future is perceived to be uncertain.

But Biegler – again injecting his own wishful thinking – says “but concerning climate change, our prospects are increasingly certain”, and we (as a species) should “act now”. Of course, as Biegler says, “feeling good about beliefs say little about their veracity…”. This is easily restated as “feeling bad about beliefs say little about their veracity…”. I could be terrified by a firmly held belief that one day the zombies will come and get me. It doesn’t make it true either[iii].


Biegler are now turns from psychology and epistemology to ask the political question “how then to persuade the dissenters?” I won’t spend much electronic ink here. Basically he suggests that “climate communicators must appeal to emotion”, citing Hume (I think out of context, but I’m not going to quibble here) by saying that reason becomes slave to the passions. Basically, the argument is that ‘warmist’ propaganda should set out to appeal more than it does to the ‘Republican’ worldview. For example, advocating nuclear power as a low carbon energy source rather than ‘green’ solutions like windmills; or adopting pro-business solutions rather than socialist ones. I’ll leave that to US commentators to discuss.


In summary, Biegler says that those that ignore climate change because we have “a hardwired predilection for good news even if it departs from the facts”. Clearly, it can’t be ‘hard wired’, or there wouldn’t be a debate, if that was all there was to it. It wouldn’t matter what scientists said, if it was ‘bad news’, and not in-front-of-your-face obvious, like the charging rhino. At best, Biegler should only be saying that there was a proclivity to reject the bad – which I would accept. He should not imply there’s no alternative. It is not an either/or dichotomy.

Even if ‘good news’ dominates ‘bad’, what is good news? No one could argue that if polar bears were becoming extinct due to AGW (or any other reason)[iv] that it would be good news. As a climate scientist, losing one’s grant funding would be bad news. Having one’s pet project, promoting belief in AGW, shown to be based on mistaken science, would not be wishful thinking. Losing an opportunity to lambast ‘big oil’; and the Koch Brothers; and Capitalism: that might be bad news too, for some folks.

Biegler brings his own bias to the debate. It works both ways.

Who Cares? Another Bias.

Speaking for myself, I am a sceptic on the AGW front. This is based on my studies of Earth sciences and especially the way the world has behaved in response to warmer conditions in the geological past. However, if I’m wrong, it doesn’t really matter to me. I have no children, no scientific reputation other than a blog that few people read. So why should I be ‘wishful thinking’ in dismissing the AGW hypothesis? Yes, I will get a ‘warm feeling’ if AGW is sometime proved wrong, or climate change is shown to be so minimal as to be irrelevant, sure, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me (so to speak) as I will be dead anyway in 70 years (on the very optimistic side – I’d be a record holder by today’s standard! Wishful thinking again?). No, it’s the ‘warmists’, proved wrong in their predictions time and time again, who have got it all to lose. No wonder they’re so stressed out!

Or is this my own confirmation bias speaking for me? Who can say?

Authors Note

It should be noted that the above was written before I saw any letters or any other reaction to Paul Biegler’s article that might be published in the Sept/Oct 2014 edition of ‘Philosophy Now’. If you have written a letter to the magazine and it sounds like any of the above, I truly haven’t read it, and I’m not plagiarising.

I may return to any matters raised in those letters, if there are any.

Sage Vals 07 September 2014

[i] I’m tempted to get into the argument from authority debate, which is fascinating – can’t do with it, can’t do without it – but not today.

[ii] You can see the other Matt Ridley articles on the subject here http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog.aspx?filterby=wall-street-journal Look for July 2012 posts down the page.

[iii] A potentially controversial footnote! As well as not paying so much attention to a possible future, could someone refuse to believe some well documented incident in the near-historical past just because it’s too horrible to contemplate?

[iv] They aren’t currently endangered. See http://polarbearscience.com/. I suppose some Alaskans might take a different view about polar bear extinction, so might those hurt by the polar bears, or the relatives of those killed by bears. I’m generalising, I don’t mean any offense.