The tyranny of experts

The role of the elected politician is to develop policy, to choose priorities, to raise revenue and to spend budgets in ways that meet the needs and views of voters.

The politician Minister can choose the experts he wants to help. He can subcontract the work to his officials who in turn may well use outside expert help. The skill of the Minister rests in choosing the right priorities, and then choosing the best experts to see the task through. The Minister has to apply commonsense and political judgement to the professional advice he receives.

In recent years it has been popular with the media and many in the political class to want to delegate or give away more and more areas to be run by experts. This is not a good trend.

Ministers can delegate anything they like, but it does not absolve them of blame or responsibility if things go wrong. If we have a great recession as in 2008  partly  owing to  mistakes by the so called independent Bank of England the public does not forgive the Labour Chancellor who had overall authority through Parliament to avoid a crash and maintain a strong economy. Nor could a previous Conservative government wash its hands of blame for the early 1990 s recession, brought about  by the European Exchange  Rate nechanism strongly recommended  by the experts at the Bank  and Treasury.

The crushing defeats of Conservatives and Labour after disastrous expert advice plunged the economy into slump reminds us that in the end the politicians are accountable. Evidence of the last two crashes says that the elected officials have to get more sceptical about official economic policy advice, not less.

Today the Bank is tightening roo much. The government’s line is they can do so because they are independent. It will be the government that takes the flack for the resulting needless slowdown. The UK has been dogged by very poor official advice on economic policy for much of my time in politics. Much of it has related to the experts wanting to copy or stay close to EU policy. The ERM and the banking crash were but two examples. It was also damaging to have a period shadowing the German currency, and to burden the UK economy with the substantial balance of payments damage that EU membership brought with it.