Sir Andrew Dilnot tells Oxford Fellows Chapter that British political culture lacks numerical understanding

November 28, 2014

British political culture has a hole at its heart, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority told a recent meeting of the Academy’s Oxford Fellows Chapter – and the gap is a basic understanding of numbers and proportion.

Sir Andrew Dilnot, warden of Nuffield College, former director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and BBC radio presenter, enlisted the community of social science in the uphill struggle to improve media and political accuracy, leaving his audience in no doubt the task will be harder, and more important, as we move into the pre-election season.

Dilnot cited misunderstanding of the distribution of income and failure to grasp where the median UK household income falls – a lot lower than most MPs, ministers, journalists (and perhaps a few social scientists) think. Dilnot took issue with all those who say ‘we cannot afford it’, when the UK’s GDP had grown so much over recent decades, the recession notwithstanding.

He took some recent figures from the Office for National Statistics to illustrate both his own continuing fascination with the political arithmetic of modern Britain and the necessity of spreading better public and political understanding. For example the exodus of young people who move north to university but do not stay in the north and north-west of England.

The UKSA is a regulator and watchdog and Dilnot indicated it would bite ministers’ and shadow ministers’ ankles without fear or favour if they misused or abused the numbers. A significant proportion of the UKSA’s recent reprimands have winged their way to the Department of Work and Pensions.

He said he did not expect a warm welcome for the factual compendium that ONS plans to publish in the spring, as a companion to ‘election studies’.

Dilnot’s talk on 12th November was attended by about two dozen Oxford-based Fellows and guests, and was followed by dinner in St John’s College, whose President, Professor Maggie Snowling FAcSS, had introduced proceedings. Dilnot recalled his time as an undergraduate at St John’s, where his tutor had been the distinguished economist John Kay. Those in attendance at the lecture and dinner included the doyen of UK electoral studies, now in his 91st year, Sir David Butler.

A request for help

The Academy is seeking to establish Chapters of Fellows in other parts of the UK and one will shortly be starting up in Yorkshire. Council would like to encourage all Fellows to consider establishing a local Chapter, to bring eminent social scientists together on a geographical, rather than disciplinary, work or institutional basis, for discussion and networking thereby furthering the Academy’s aims. A variety of models can be used for meetings. Please contact Madeleine Barrows if you are interested in starting a local Chapter.

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