The Real Numbers: Statistical information play a role in Brexit?

JOHANNESBURG – British Prime Minister Theresa May lost the Brexit vote but survived the motion of no confidence. 

The machinations took my mind to an old friend Jan Fisher, who moved from headings the statistics agency to a caretaker prime minister of his native Czech Republic.
His fortunes came with a huge bonus as the country was to ascend to the Council Presidency of the European Union, a move that put him on the ladders of the political game that May has been riding.

UK chief statistician John Pullinger may not be as lucky – what with the Brexit date scheduled for March. Pullinger has been working on an interesting project teasing national interest on the prospects of what the Brexit will imply. 

When you visit the website of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) you come across a quiz and interactive charts which asks you to provide views by plotting a graph of implications of the Brexit.  

The topics cover unemployment, migration, growth domestic product (GDP) growth, prices etc.The website pulls the measured observation against your guess. It tells you, for instance, that since the Brexit referendum, GDP registered a positive 0.6 percent , in the third quarter yet inflation trebled to 2.2 percent last November from 0.8 percent in June 2016. 

The pound lost 14 percent to the Euro.   

In the meantime unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent , numbering a of the nearly 10 million that South Africa has.  Immigration from the EU declined to 219 000 in June  while visitors to the kingdom dropped 9 percent year on year.  

Importantly, the exchange rate means Britons would be 14 percent poorer compared to fellow EU countries.

The question that might be asked now more than two years from the time of the referendum is whether the statistical information played a role on how the Britons started looking at the reality of Brexit.

Did the vote of the House of Commons have anything to do with what Pullinger was supplying from his office?  Or did they vote on the basis of other influences?  Did Pullinger and/or his office serve the Britons with information good enough to make them take informed decisions when analysing and interpreting the numbers on a matter national interest.

Analysts benefited from Pullinger’s numbers as they raised the quality of discourse on the Brexit question in the UK.  

May faces the biggest challenge of her entire political career. But this cannot be because of Pullinger’s analysis and interpretation of the facts nor any statistician’s desire for high office.

Statisticians bring numbers to the fore in order to shed light and inform the public on matters that are of paramount importance.

It reminds me how some legislators in South Africa harboured insidious views about the motives of my performing my tasks mandated by them in law – to collect, process, analyse and informing society.   Perhaps such people need some enlightenment from the UK Brexit and learn of the liberating power of statistical evidence and knowledge.  

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

BR Stats General 1188 - The Real Numbers: Statistical information play a role in Brexit?

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