Defence procurement is a mess. Most new equipment seems to be delivered late, over-budget, and partially defective. So why does the government keep going back to the same failed contractors?
Bad procurement has left big gaps in Britain’s defences. As the Sunday Times revealed yesterday, we have spent billions on drones that can’t fly, ships that can’t sail, and tanks that can’t be transported.
But are the contractors penalised for ripping Britain off?
Quite the reverse. After every fiasco, they get another, bigger contract. No failure goes unrewarded.
This isn’t just incompetence. It’s the result of bad policy.
Every government favours a tiny contractor cartel with operations in Britain. That oligopoly knows it can hold the government to ransom. It’s called producer capture.
The supposed argument for protectionist procurement is that it maintains a strategic industry. But that’s a myth.
Most British defence companies have long since been merged into pan-European conglomerates. Almost no equipment is produced solely in this country.
So when ministers talk about “buying British”, they actually mean buying from across Europe – requiring the permission of half a dozen different governments. So much for industrial sovereignty.
But perhaps even protectionism doesn’t tell the full story.
President Trump is not only the foremost protectionist in the Western world but the loudest supporter of bottomless defence spending – and he leads the country with the world’s biggest defence lobby. Yet even he has called out price gouging by major contractors – and actually got them to cut costs.
It’s depressing that our government can’t summon the courage to do the same.
The Bank of England has revised up its forecast for the UK economy again. So much for the post-referendum recession they told us would definitely happen. But it does make you wonder: are economic forecasts worth anything at all?
Many pundits seem to treat social sciences as no different from the hard sciences. Economic predictions are reported as facts. But that’s a mistake.
Empirical science is based on testing hypotheses. Experiments are controlled. Variables are isolated.
But a social science, like economics, can’t possibly work that way. There are far too many variables. Instead, broad principles about economic growth are inferred from broadly similar experiences.
Yet economic predictions are based on the premise that those principles can be turned into universal equations. A few assumptions are seen as sufficient to make specific forecasts for future growth rates.
No wonder those forecasts are invariably wrong. How could they not be?
In the last 500 years, human knowledge has expanded enormously. The rate of progress has been extraordinary – so much so that ‘experts’ are often expected to know.
But there are many things we can’t know. It will never be possible to predict the behaviour of millions of people accurately. It’s a conceit to think it could be.
Yet forecasters trade on that conceit. Like oracles in the ancient world, they claim prophetic knowledge that no one else possesses.
Calling out these so-called experts isn’t about dismissing science. It’s about recognising the real limits of knowledge
Three cheers for TheCityUK! Its latest report anticipates post-Brexit opportunities, instead of rehearsing yesterday’s arguments. If only MPs could do the same.
TheCityUK isn’t the only lobby group to perform a volte face on Brexit. The CBI has too. Project Fear pessimism is gradually being replaced by optimism.
I suspect the lobbyists are now playing catch up with their clients. Public-affairs folk may have bought into George Osborne’s narrative, but businesspeople are pragmatic. Now that Brexit is happening, they’re interested in the potential gains, not the spin.
But that positive attitude still hasn’t spread to all of the House of Commons. In the Article 50 debates, many MPs seemed to be stuck in a pre-referendum time-warp, repeating talking points from the Remain campaign. Many others supported Article 50 through gritted teeth.
That approach is counterproductive. Not just because it doesn’t help the government going into Brexit negotiations. But because a forward-looking Parliament could be remarkably effective.
Taking back control from the EU is a big job for legislators. This Parliament and the next will have more influence on Britain than any has had for decades.
As TheCityUK says, this is a once-in-a-generation chance to shape our future. If only MPs could see it.
It’s now 224 days since a majority voted Leave on June 23rd. It’s 4,237 days since I first called for Britain to leave the EU in Parliament – in my maiden speech. We’ve talked about Brexit enough. Now it’s time to implement it.
Today Parliament will vote for the first time on beginning the Brexit process. It’s a day that I’ve been waiting for my entire political career.
I know most of my constituents feel the same. Indeed, I’m acutely aware that many are aggrieved that the process hasn’t started already.
With a few notable exceptions, yesterday’s speeches on the Article 50 Bill were striking for their lack of content. There are no new arguments to be made that weren’t put before the people last year.
Instead, the debate centred around process, as the last few MPs set on blocking Brexit came up with ever more sophistic excuses for ignoring the decision of the electorate.
But the grandstanding is just for show. Continuity Remainers don’t seem to be prepared to force the issue – and settle it in a general election. Their delaying tactics serve no purpose whatsoever.
So let’s just get on with it. Brexit is about restoring Parliament’s legislative sovereignty, after all. MPs should be jumping at the chance.