Ferguson got it wrong, but the buck stops with Johnson

31 Jul

“I wish I were as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything,”  Lord Melbourne once remarked.

More recently, Professor Neil Ferguson has attracted criticism for sounding unduly sure of himself. On 18th July he said it was “almost inevitable” that Covid-19 cases would soon reach 100,000 a day, instead of which the numbers began quite markedly to fall.

Nate Silver and Professor Philip Tetlock are among those who have since criticised Ferguson, not for being wrong, but for being “consistently over-confident” in his predictions.

In 2005, Ferguson predicted that “around 200 million people” would probably die of bird flu. In the event, 74 people died

We of course want to know how far the pandemic will spread, or what will happen to the economy, or which horse will win the 3.15 at Market Rasen.

But as soon as we suppose that this craving for certainty about the future can be satisfied, we deceive ourselves, and fall an easy prey to pundits pretending to impossible knowledge.

There is, one assumes, no pundit who predicted with complete success the results of the elections and referendums held in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.

But there were certainly many pundits who forecast those results and got them wrong, often by following what other pundits and pollsters said, so a conventional wisdom developed which proved as unwarranted as some of Professor Ferguson’s assertions.

When Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, was asked on 17th May whether Covid restrictions were going to be lifted on 21st June, he rightly replied: “We can’t impose certainty in this situation.”

Many people suffer from the delusion that if only one draws up the right plan, and sticks to it through thick and thin, all will be well.

Politics becomes a question of upholding the one true ideology, and policies derived from that ideology. Morality in politics means being faithful to your ideology, in the confident belief that one day the promised land will come into view.

Your opponents are immoral, for they have no ideology, and no policies derived from that ideology. They are opportunists “who think that decency, honesty and integrity aren’t important”, as Sir Keir Starmer recently wrote in The Guardian.

Perhaps, on second thoughts, it is unfair to ascribe anything as definite as an ideology to the present-day Labour Party, but it certainly possesses, as intensely as it did under leaders as different as Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, a conviction of its moral superiority.

This self-righteousness leads it to despise rather than understand the Conservative Party, which follows the pragmatic tradition of winning and retaining power by determining more quickly and surely that its competitors what at any given moment the nation wants, and how to provide it.

The Conservatives sack any leader who has become an electoral liability, Theresa May being the most recent example, and do not allow ideological commitment to obstruct doing what in practice is required.

It would certainly be difficult to draw an account of the Government’s handling of the pandemic in terms of ideology. Vast extensions of public spending and state power were made almost overnight.

The more dangerous charges are unpreparedness and incompetence, as ministers and their advisers proceeded by trial and error to try to work out the the best way forward.

Ministers spoke of following the science, but it soon became clear that the scientists were capable of disagreeing with each other.

Leadership involved, even more than usual, the strength to put up with uncertainty, and to make decisions on the basis of inadequate information.

The buck stops with the Prime Minister, and The Times reports today that his “support has collapsed in Conservative heartlands in the southeast and east of England”.

His touch has seemed a bit less certain as he and his colleagues work out when and how to repeal the measures brought in to contain the pandemic.

The end of a campaign can be less satisfying than the beginning, when the nation came together to meet the threat.

But Conservatives will draw comfort from the thought that the Government’s performance will not be judged against some imaginary standard of perfection. It will be judged by comparison with how well people think Labour would have done.