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Welcome To A World Built On Lies

25/11/2016 16:55
Bloomberg via Getty Images

You probably still remember what was written on the side of the pro-Leave campaign bus: 'We send the EU £350million a week. Let's fund our NHS instead.'

And perhaps you saw Thursday's headlines, after the Office for Budget Responsibility published its forecasts to accompany the chancellor of the exchequer's autumn statement: 'Revealed: the £59billion cost of Brexit decision.'

Yes, I know the OBR's forecasts are not engraved on tablets of stone ('a high degree of uncertainty' is the favoured official formula). They are, however, an informed best guess from people who are paid to crunch the numbers as dispassionately as they can. So if you turn to page 249 of their Economic and Fiscal Outlook report and take a look at Table B.1, you will see a line entitled 'Changes related to the referendum result and exiting the EU'. The numbers are stark: over the next five years, government borrowing is likely to be £58.7billion higher than if the referendum vote had gone the other way.

Why? Because there will be fewer migrants paying fewer taxes; because productivity growth will be lower due to investor uncertainty; and because of higher inflation due to more expensive imports after the 15% fall in the value of the pound against the dollar since the referendum.

Do I need to spell it out? If the OBR is right, the country will have to borrow £250million a week more over the coming five years, not be £350million a week better off, as the pro-Brexit campaigners claimed. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, lower wage growth and higher inflation mean that the squeeze on pay that started with the financial crash of 2008 is likely to be the longest for at least 70 years.

Higher borrowing means higher interest payments, which means less cash available to pay for the prime minister's beloved infrastructure projects, new affordable housing -- and, oh yes, the NHS. As Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times: 'Nothing can disguise the reality that Brexit is likely to make a UK economy already blighted by low and stagnant productivity still weaker ... The UK is likely to be poorer than it would have been if it had not made the decision to exit the EU.'

Project Fear? No. Much more likely to be Project Truth.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, President-elect Donald Trump has been doing some mega-schmoozing at the New York Times. Remember those chants at his pre-election rallies when supporters yelled their hatred for Hillary Clinton: 'Lock her up'?

No, no, of course Mr Trump doesn't want to lock her up. What was it he had said in the TV debate when Mrs Clinton suggested it was just as well that someone with his temperament was not in charge of the law? Ah yes, it was one of those great Trump snarls: 'Because you'd be in jail.'

This week, though, it was all sweetness and light. 'I don't want to hurt the Clintons, I really don't. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways ... It's not something that I feel very strongly about.' So that's all right, then.

Remember how he was going to authorise the waterboarding (ie torture) of terrorism suspects? Well, apparently, the man he may be about to name as his defence secretary, General James Mattiss, doesn't agree that it's such a great idea. 'He said: "I've never found it to be useful. Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I'll do better."  I was very impressed by that answer.' Not that Mr Trump has changed his mind, you understand, but it has at least made him think.

Just like the pro-Brexit campaigners, Mr Trump promised whatever he thought voters wanted to hear. The simpler the message, the better. Who cared whether it was true or not? When the Wall Street Journal asked him if he thought he might have taken his campaign rhetoric too far, his reply spoke volumes. 'No. I won.'

So politicians tell lies in order to win votes. Who knew? But in the age of social media, when more people read fake news stories -- stories that have been deliberately invented in order to mislead people -- than real stories, the lies have more power than ever before. Sure, they may well reflect real fears and real anger, but they are still lies.

The response, I think, has to be to answer anger with anger. What happened in the UK in June, and what happened in the US this month, was not right -- massive, disruptive political change was ushered in on the back of wholesale lies and distortion. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian, the problem for the progressive Left is that 'too often, we play nice, sticking to the Queensberry rules - while the right takes the gloves off.'

That's why I prefer the response of the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who was not among the select group chosen to sit down with the president-elect on Tuesday. 'The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing.'

And he had this message for Mr Trump: 'You are a fraud and a charlatan. Yes, you will be president, but you will not get any breaks just because one branch of your forked tongue is silver. I am not easily duped by dopes. I have not only an ethical and professional duty to call out how obscene your very existence is at the top of American government; I have a moral obligation to do so.'

Good stuff.

And by the way, if you're interested in what I was doing in Nigeria a couple of weeks ago, you can read the report that I wrote for The Observer by clicking here. It might help to put some of our own problems into perspective.

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