For once, Humza Yousaf has set an example other politicians should follow

Humza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland, does not often attract plaudits. But last week he overrode the advice of his officials. Shock, horror. Surely Sir Humphrey and the “experts” always know best.  

Officials recommended a donation to UNICEF to finance water programmes in Gaza. Instead, Yousaf decided that the money should be given to the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA).  It is controversial, not least because of the alleged links of UNWRA to Hamas terrorists.  

But regardless of what the actual topic was, Yousaf did what politicians are elected to do. He made his own decision. It is one for which he is accountable to the voters.

In fact, electorates across the West have got into the habit of, when given the opportunity, rejecting the advice of so-called experts.

It started of course with the referendum on Brexit. Despite the overwhelming opposition of expert opinion and the mendacious Remain campaign – think Project Fear – the British people voted to Leave.

Last year, Australia followed suit. The government, spearheading metropolitan liberal opinion, proposed that the constitution be altered to allow for a special voice in Parliament to be given to indigenous Australians. It was rejected in a referendum, in which voting was compulsory, 60-40.

The latest example is Ireland. Last week a referendum was held to change the 1937 constitution. One proposal was to remove the special status accorded to marriage in defining family relationships. The other related to the role of women in the home.

The changes were supported by all political parties and had the overwhelming endorsement of the media. The electorate rejected both by huge margins, averaging a 70 per cent “no” vote across the two.

Economists set great store by a concept known as revealed preference. This holds that preferences are revealed not in answers to surveys, but by decisions which are actually made.

On the few occasions on which Western electorates have been asked to make a decision on a specific issue in a referendum, they have revealed their preferences. And these are in contrast to the views of the liberal elite.

Referendums are few and far between. The strong trend in policy is to remove decisions from democratic accountability and hand them over to bodies made up of “experts”.

The establishment of the independence of the Bank of England and the creation of the Monetary Policy Committee was hailed as a great achievement when Gordon Brown introduced the measure immediately after the 1997 general election.

It is hard to argue that the independent Bank and the MPC have performed better than under the pre-1997 arrangements, under which the Chancellor and the Treasury had a more direct say in the conduct of affairs.

The Bank failed to see the financial crisis of the late 2000s coming, although to be fair once it was upon us it did see the need for very urgent and decisive actions such as the effective nationalisation of banks.

But it then went on to hold interest rates very close to zero for a decade and to preside over an incredibly lax monetary policy. The failures of the Bank and the MPC in the inflationary experiences of the 2020s are well known.

The decisions of the Chancellor are now heavily constrained by the models and forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). Yet it is clear that the OBR has no special expertise which enables its forecasts and policy judgements to be any better than those of anyone else.  

So, for once, the Scottish First Minister is setting an example for elected politicians to follow. By all means listen to advice. But decisions should be made by those directly accountable to the voters and not by bodies made up of unelected experts.

As published in City AM Friday 15th March 2024
Paul Ormerod
Image: Flickr

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