Austerity And Brexit

Ever wondered how austerity affected Brexit? Sure you did, but there’s a reason nobody made a nice chart yet. To answer the question, you’d need a breakdown of consolidated central, regional/national, and local government spending by some geography or other (parliamentary constituency, local authority, super-output area, whatever). That in turn means you’ve just constructed your own exquisite hell of cost-allocation accounting to deal with the UK’s numerous overlapping jurisdictions.

Something like this data set does exist – here – thanks to the Centre for Cities, who wanted it for this report – but sadly it was so much work that they haven’t either taken it backwards to create a time series or updated it. If you want to know the effects of austerity, your question compiles down to something like “what is the correlation between the vote for Brexit and the percentage change in the sum of real-terms Departmental Expenditure Limit and Annually Managed Expenditure between 2010 and 2016, for each specified geographical area?”, so this can’t help us.

But there is some data available. Since 2012 the Government has published an annual analysis of how much cash money local authorities have to spend, both in absolute terms and on a “per-dwelling” basis as a crude population weighting.

The current report, for 2016-2017 onwards, is here. This doesn’t cover the NHS, most social benefits, big infrastructure, or central government salaries, but it strikes me as a defensible hypothesis that the same councils who get clobbered by DCLG-managed austerity will also get it from the Treasury. Also, it only covers England. But it’s as close as we get to publishing an acknowledged financial settlement between bits of the country.

Here we go, then.


Greater austerity – i.e. a bigger cut in spending on a per-dwelling basis – is to the right. The Leave lead is just the percentage Leave vote minus the percentage Remain vote. The answer seems to be “Nobbut bugger all” – there is a correlation but it’s very, very weak and the R^2 is 0.12.

We can think about this by pulling out some data points with similar values. Uttlesford, which somehow managed to get a 17% uplift in its funding, was a tie; so was Birmingham, despite a -28% spanking. Great Yarmouth did even worse financially, -29%, and voted to Leave by 43 percentage points. Castle Point was even more Brexity than Great Yarmouth although it lost “only” 9.72% of its money – a little less than Kingston upon Thames, which went or rather stayed Remain by 20 points. Great Yarmouth’s financial suffering was rivalled only by Hackney’s, which set the record for voting Remain.

It’s almost typical of Brexit-related charts, really – R^2 values are terrible, outliers abound, and correlations, such as they are, are powered by weird special cases. Ashfield, Nottinghamshire got away with an -8.9% cut, but racked up the sort of Leave vote – 40+ points – you might expect in South Holland and The Deepings. Can it be…the influence of the great statesman who was its MP for 18 years?

Snark aside, I do think there is a serious point here. This was a remorselessly personal, emotional event rooted in life courses and irreducible choice. That’s why statistical aggregates and polling were poor predictors and why impressionistic journalism seemed to work so much better.

Something cheerful to take your mind off it

I spent Wobbly Weekend 2: The Wobbling, in part, going through the effects of a deceased relative. I guess it was the right weekend for it; it wasn’t going to depress me any more. Anyway, we found this envelope of briefing documents, dated 1963 at the earliest. A reminder, I think, that things could be a lot worse, although God knows how today’s political elite would have coped with the Cold War.

Peggy vs the Bomb

Context is here.

I didn’t know that the WRVS, at the time joined at the hip to the then Civil Defence system, set out to brief three million women, i.e. 20% or the titular one in five of the female population, with the standard Glasstone Effects of Nuclear Weapons spiel and basic advice (some of it not so basic) on protection against flash, blast, fire, and fallout.

But they did, and the strategy they pursued was pretty interesting – startlingly similar to a classic Alinskyite community-organising campaign, getting opinion leaders, serial volunteers, and people respected in the community (and my Auntie Peggy was all three if she was anything) to take the training course and then spread the message horizontally through their social networks. You wonder what the In campaign might have looked like if we’d adopted that strategy.

Also, I rather like the serif typography – very different to Calvert & Kinnear’s Transport/Rail Alphabet work, although the two are contemporaries. Obviously you wouldn’t expect women to go without serifs, not even in the event of nuclear war!

Leave: the biggest 419 e-mail ever

What worries me about the referendum is the trust. Every poll I can think of shows people on the Leave side claiming they trust no-one.

At the same time, Nigel Farage says smoking is just the best for your health and the official Vote Leave campaign issues maps suggesting Iraq and Syria are candidates for accession to the European Union, talks about the finances of the EU without counting the rebate Margaret Thatcher secured, and suggests we all need to be more like Albania.

I can see it – drive my cigarette boat over the Adriatic in a 500 horsepower blitz of seawash, slash some clown who lacked respect and toss his carcass in the harbour, dance like a wild peasant youth with a dark beauty – but I’m not seeing Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith keeping up.

There’s a reason why they come out with so much bullshit. There’s also a reason why they come out with so many outright lies. A couple of years back, people at Microsoft’s research lab were trying to work out why spam is so obvious. We’ve all wondered how anyone believes the Nigerian prince and his money are on the other end of the wire, or why anyone bothers trying to sell us drugs that are free on the NHS. The Microsoft researchers realised something important.

Even a leopard needs to sleep. Predators only have so many hours in the day, so they have to pick the prey that gives them the best chance of a feed. Spammers are looking for suckers, but you can’t pick those by looking at their e-mail address. The more time you waste on someone who’ll get wise, the less money you’re making and the more likely you are to get shopped to the police.

What you can do, though, is scare off all the other people. If you make your scam so excessive, so shameless, an outrageous camp striptease of a scam…well, you don’t need to worry about picking your marks any more, because the only people you’re talking to are the ones who weren’t paying attention. All the others have gone. It’s a kind of negative marketing – the point isn’t to get people in, it’s to put them off.

That’s where all this bullshit is coming from. The Leave campaign is the most fully realised exercise in negative marketing yet. The whole point is to show that they’re going to lie flat out to your face. It has to be obvious. They think you’re an idiot, a sucker, a bag of money on legs. You should see it as an insult to your intelligence.

In case you’ve wondered, there’s a reason why every Remain campaign message seems to come from people who define themselves by something they do, from scientists and trade unionists to midwives and skateboarders. We want you to think about what you do best, and act with the generosity of confidence. They want you baffled and scared by what you believe is your own mediocrity. Nothing else could put such a bunch of dullards in charge.

Let’s not be the country where 50% plus 1 vote chooses the Angus Steakhouse option.

The public rejects racism, but sadly you can’t say the same for bullshit

One thing the referendum campaign has cheered me up about, paradoxically, is the social acceptability of outright racism. One thing it’s profoundly depressed me about is the social acceptability of outright bullshit.

Consider the Leavers’ arguments about immigration.

If you’re not going to make some essentialist argument that foreigners are just bad – i.e. to come right out as a racist – you’re going to make some argument about population. There are too many people, pressure on public services, etc. But the UK population is growing quite strongly even without the contribution from net migration. Logically, if you believe net migration is a problem because population you should believe population growth is. Nobody on that side wants less population, nor do they have any plan to spend more on public services, develop cities outside London, or whatever.

So it’s only a problem if they’re foreigners? Isn’t that…a bit racist? Well, now we get the argument that we could have just as many immigrants, but from the Commonwealth rather than the European Union. First of all, if you believe this, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Secondly, this makes so little sense. If you’re worried about too many people, or foreigners taking our jobs, why would Nigerians be any better than Italians?

The next dodge is the famous points system. The problem here is that once you set up a system where you get into the country if you have X points, you’ve implicitly committed to accepting anyone who makes the cut. If you believe that an Englishman has won first prize in the lottery of life, yadda yadda, you should also believe that it would be worth doing almost anything to rack up the points. All countries that have had a points system have done so in order to get more immigrants. Also, if you really are worried about immigrants from Europe, who are the two iconic figures of European immigration? The Polish plumber and the French engineer, both of whom would ace the shit out of any conceivable points system.

The appeal to points is interesting in its Michael Young, Rise of the Meritocracy quality. We’re going to get rid of the immigrants by setting them an exam! Because, as Young pointed out, privilege that is expressed by credentials you get by passing an exam is seen as justified, not least by the people who pass. Ironically, as the thing about exams is that you can pass them if you practise a lot, this promises to subvert the whole thing. And of course no generation was ever as trusting in exams as the people who want to leave the EU, who were also precisely the people Michael Young was worrying about. It’s as if the baby boomers want to check out with one final, epic act of credentialism, a giant collective A-level. Perhaps Young’s predictions finally came to pass, just with regard to nationality rather than class?

Anyway, what gets me about the whole rhetorical circus is that the people behind Vote Leave really, really believe at some level that Britain has a racist majority (note that John Mann MP, a big fan of unpopular-populism, has suddenly discovered Euroscepticism), but at the same time, they realise that everyone who has ever tried this has lost, horribly, and there’s probably a reason for that. That’s why they have to include the unlikely promise of lots more Pakistani immigrants, pretend to care about schools whose budget they slashed as education secretary, or outsource their prejudices to an exam paper.

Something has to fill the gap between the two beliefs, and that something is bullshit in the full Harry Frankfurter sense of the word – speech divorced from reality, to which it makes as much sense to say “truth” or “lies” as it does to say “green” or “capacitive”. The prejudice against that still needs work.

Yes, Michael Gove is an extremist and has been for years

Martin Kettle is all worked up to learn that Michael Gove is either a cynic or an extremist, now his extremism, or cynical pose of same, affects an issue he cares about.

Where was Kettle when Gove wrote a whole book about the secret rulers of the world’s scheme to hand Europe over to the Arabs? Didn’t he read his own newspaper’s detailed coverage of Gove picking a special adviser who turned out to be a eugenicist? Or its award-winning coverage of him using his wife’s GMail account for confidential government business in order to break the Freedom of Information Act? Did he not think someone who was a News International editor in the phone-hacking, gak-ridden imperial phase might be a bit of a cynical careerist bastard? What about when he brought the eugenics guy back to help run his referendum campaign? Didn’t he notice him arguing that the country needs to be more like Albania?

None of them affected Kettle’s holidays, I guess, so there you go. Personally I said back in 2006 or thereabouts that Michael Gove would take us into the next Iraq War, and it’s telling that David Cameron kept him a long, long way from anything related to foreign policy. Now, though, he thinks he’s found a way to perpetrate a similarly atrocious policy disaster without even being in the Cabinet.

I do hope, though, that the referendum might yet give the commentariat a Gary Larson moment on Vote Leave’s whole tin-pot triumvirate of tat, Gove, IDS, and Boris Johnson.


They’re arseholes! And what have we been licking? Sadly, Larson can also offer us the likely response.


How to win a general election

The Monkey Cage has an interesting post on how British political parties spent their money in the 2015 general election.

Specifically, they plotted spending as a percentage of the short campaign limit against how marginal each seat was. The more marginal a seat is, the greater chance you have of picking it up – or losing it, depending on whether you’re the incumbent. Therefore, a rational campaigner would commit their resources to seats proportionately to how marginal they are.

If you think of marginality in terms of positive for your marginals, negative for theirs, you’d expect to get a plot with a peak in the middle of the marginality distribution. An incumbent party would choose to peak just on their side of zero, a challenger just on the other side. The Cage’s plots look like this.



A couple of things stand out. It struck me that the targeting process seems to be less ruthless than we tend to imagine – both parties have a lot of fairly safe seats that get a lot of resources. Also, the curves are asymmetric.

Winning a seat that you wouldn’t otherwise have won is worth, obviously enough, one additional seat. But holding a seat you would otherwise have lost is worth exactly as much – one additional seat. You shouldn’t put more effort into your 70th percentile seat than you do into their 70th percentile seat, but evidently they do. There might be an opportunity to do better by shifting resources from safe seats, and pushing more marginals up to the 100% mark.

This could be an example of psychological loss-aversion, a constraint resulting from intra-party politics (for example, if the safe seat MPs are too important in the party to starve of funds), or an artefact of the hard legal limit on spending. If you’ve reached 100 per cent of the limit in all your target seats and you have money left over, why not use it? However, so few seats hit 100% that we can probably rule that one out. Another possibility is that seats don’t necessarily stay safe, and parties want to maintain their infrastructure in case of a sudden SNP, Green, or UKIP insurgency.

Another thing that struck me is that I found the charts difficult to compare by eye. What I wanted to know was which party’s targeting was closest to an optimal strategy. So I redid the whole thing. I started off with the Electoral Commission dataset and wasted a lot of time trying to match a share-of-vote dataset to it that had nonstandard constituency names. Then I found the British Election Survey’s data, which has the same constituency UIDs as the Electoral Commission. I defined marginality as the percentile rank of the winning party’s vote less the second placed party’s vote as a percentage of the total vote cast, so my charts have an absolute rather than party-relative scale.

The slope of the trend lines should tell us how aggressively the party in question targeted their spending on marginal seats. Their level, meanwhile, should tell us how well-funded the party is overall. So here goes. First, the numbers for the short campaign.


Interestingly enough, Labour was the closest to an optimal allocation, although as you can see from the chart nobody was very close. The slope is given by the second term in the equation, in this case -0.67x, which compares to -0.55x for the Tories, or in other terms, a targeting advantage of 18%. The overall level of funding is represented by the constant, which tells us that the Tories were about 4% better-funded across the board. If it was just a question of getting enough munn into the marginals, we ought to have been OK.

I was sceptical of the Cage’s conclusion that Labour probably couldn’t get much better at targeting, but it looks like they might be right. However, their calculation is based on the impact on the average constituency, and of course it’s not the average constituency but the average marginal that counts.

The best-funded party in the UK, though, turns out to be the SNP, in black on the chart. They were about 9% richer than Labour and about 5% richer than the Tories. Interestingly, neither the SNP nor the Lib Dems bothered with targeting their spending in 2015. I interpret this to mean that they are well aware what their targets are – the subset of seats where they are competitive at all. The SNP had easily enough cash to blanket the whole of Scotland, and it looks like responding to this drove Labour to spend a lot of money in supposedly safe seats in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems had relatively few MPs and no choice but to fight for each one. In fact, it looks like the equivalent of the big parties’ “target the top 100 marginals” strategy for a small party is “pick a subset and target them all”.

This is even clearer looking at the long campaign.


Tory long-term spending was about 18% higher than Labour’s, and Labour compensated about half of that through better targeting. Meanwhile, neither the Liberals nor the SNP really bothered with the long campaign, choosing to keep their powder dry. Interestingly, the Tories spent significantly more in the long campaign than Labour did.

Now, here’s a question for you. This is all very well but it assumes that the parties told the truth to the Electoral Commission. The Tory national campaign return contains no less than £4.7 million in spending on “market research/canvassing”, or as Tim Fenton points out, £47,800 each for the top 100 marginals – including £46,787 they accounted for as going to the Wirral Area Conservative Association itself, very close to a top 100 allocation. So what if we replotted that including this money?

The next chart shows the total spending, short and long, as a percentage of the total limit, and plots both what the Tories declared as local spending – in sky blue – and what that would look like allocating the missing millions evenly to the top 100 marginals, in dark blue. Or as we might also call it: the truth.


Not only are the Tories’ local campaigns vastly better funded on this basis, the targeting coefficient has absolutely exploded, by a factor of 49. So much so that the series is now logarithmic. The Monkey Cage reckons the Tories could expect about 4 percentage points of additional vote share by getting a typical constituency to the spending limit. Their median top-100 marginal spent 61%, without the dark money, and 156% with it. Very roughly, then, we might estimate an uplift in their share of vote of 8 to 10 points. So, that’s how you get to be prime minister if you fuck pigs. (Also, I note that the Lib Dems’ colourful Majid Nawaz doesn’t seem to have filled in their return from ultra-marginal Hampstead and Kilburn – both long and short spending is given as zero, and there’s no way that’s right.)

You can get the spreadsheet here.

This is what the mandate of heaven looks like

Here is a really superb paper on the 50 cent party, the Chinese Communist Party’s army of loyalist Internet trolls. The researchers scraped literally millions of below-the-line comments and Weibo posts, hired Chinese students to identify the 50-centers in random samples and classify the posts by subject, checked that the students, who worked independently, agreed with each others’ classifications (they did with a likelihood ratio of 0.880, where perfect agreement would be 1), and trained a variety of different machine learning models against this corpus. They then evaluated the different models against more randomly selected comments and picked the best, sending the results back to the students for cross-validation. That done, they could turn the machine loose to churn through the pile of comments.

The results are fascinating. Official trolling focuses on five key subjects: ethnic conflict, corruption, disasters, individual leaders, and nationalism.

What fascinates me here is that the mission of the 50 cent party could be summed up as clinging on to the mandate of heaven. Scandal, natural disasters (or more accurately, failure to respond to them), and ethnic strife are the classic markers of a Chinese empire that is losing its grip on legitimacy. The ideological means by which this is resisted seems to be the flag. As for the rest, it’s fairly obvious that, given an army of Internet trolls at their beck and call, individual leaders will tend to use it to look after their reputations. Also, of course, the legitimacy they are trying to defend is that of the leaders.

This similarly excellent paper is based on a very similar research project, but comes to subtly different conclusions about target subjects. This, however, is down to methodological differences. The first paper uses human investigators to classify a sample of the comments by the topics they perceive among them, and then uses software to identify comments with similar properties to the ones in each topic, in what is known as supervised learning. The second uses a different approach. Their software tries to identify clusters of traits that maximise the statistical variance between categories, in what is known as unsupervised learning. The investigators then attempted to identify what these empirically-determined clusters mean to human beings.

On nationalism, for example, they identify a cluster of topics around “taunting foreign countries” but note that this represents a small percentage of total output. This sounds like it contradicts the other study, but by far the biggest cluster they found was identified as “cheerleading”. Typical posts in this category include strings like “I love China!” and “Long live the CCP!”, which I think can fairly be described as expressions of nationalism.

The Chinese students correctly identified that vacuous cheerleading is a big part of nationalism, while the unsupervised classifier correctly detected that nationalist rah-rah yelling contains the same sentiment-analysis traits as the same kind of speech about abstract concepts, local or class identities, or the Party. George Orwell says much the same thing in Notes on Nationalism.

One important point that the unsupervised classifier picks out is that aggressive, negative comment about foreigners (so-called fenqing trolling) is probably a more authentic phenomenon than the 50-centers’ support-the-troops cheerleading, as it doesn’t originate from the official distribution network. Rather than deliver it on tap, the Party chooses whether to tolerate it or not when it happens to break out spontaneously.

Our second paper also shows that the command-and-control network is highly centralised at the district level, with trolls reporting to the Internet propaganda bureau, which communicates with numerous higher government and Party agencies. At the district level, the bureau is a highly critical node in the network.

Both papers converge on similar conclusions about the nature of the 50-centers themselves.

The first paper identifies four types of troll user account, which may even be a life cycle. 50-centers register lots and lots of user accounts which generally don’t engage much and aren’t extensively personalised. They don’t do much until they are mobilised for a topic- and event-specific blitz campaign. In intelligence terms, they would be considered sleeper agents.

Once activated, though, some of them start to display an informal affiliation with the Party and often with the local Public Security Bureau. This allows them to start distributing grey propaganda and projecting informal surveillance. They would now be considered agents-of-influence. Some of them are eventually acknowledged by the authorities, becoming semi-overt agents of the state or the Party. The second paper, basing its conclusions on a major document leak, argues that the typical 50-center actually is a Party or government employee.

Finally, their usefulness at an end, accounts go quiet and are deleted.

I would add that if we read the four phases as a life cycle, it matches some classic ideas about propaganda. The angry eggs serve to project a general mood, rather than specific messaging. In particular, they create false consensus, giving the impression everyone agrees with the system, and a generally hostile environment for dissenters (they are being gaslighted into noping-out of the discourse, some would say). Their development into insider sources permits new content to be introduced into the debate. Their revelation as official agents is a so-called surprising validator, confirming its validity. But you can only blow your cover once, so at this point, that particular account is no longer of use, and it is then garbage-collected.

A really interesting project would be to run a similar method back on Twitter. To what extent do wild-type trolls, cued in by stigmergic interaction with their environment and each other, and artificial ones commanded to act by authority, differ?

This one weird trick will completely fail to replicate the previous experimenter’s results

It’s pretty depressing that British politicians are shallow enough all to glom onto the same risible fad at the same time:

It’s even more depressing that the risible fad in question is also a poster child for the replication crisis in psychology, and completely discredited as a terrible example of the misuse of basic quantitative methods.

I can well imagine you can learn to project authority on stage – it’s called acting – but there’s a world of difference between that and this god awful, one weird trick snack-thinking.

#Brexit: strategic incompetence for fun and profit

Out funder Peter Hargreaves thinks leaving the European Union would be “like Dunkirk” and would turn us “into Singapore”.

That he mentions two of the most catastrophic disasters in our history is surely Freudian. Dunkirk saw the British Army booted off the continent of Europe, forced to sabotage every bit of its equipment heavier than a Bren gun, let down by a serious failure to prepare adequately. But at least they made good their escape. You couldn’t say that about the Singapore campaign, during which the total means of national power were all comprehensively thrashed, jointly and severally. In this case, there was a strategy, laid down years before, and a huge investment in infrastructure, but it was profoundly unrealistic and poorly thought through. This time, there was no escape.

Does that remind you of anything? It should. People keep saying how much the referendum campaign reminds them of the Scottish referendum campaign. In the Scottish campaign, it became painfully obvious that despite having had 40 years to think about it, the SNP hadn’t managed to answer a question as basic as what currency would circulate in an independent Scotland. In the referendum campaign, it is painfully obvious that despite having had even longer to think about it – right back to the 1950s – the Outs haven’t come up with anything like an alternative. As @Scientists4EU says, with 40 days to go, the SNP had published a 670-page white paper on independence detailing how they planned to unpick Scotland from the UK, and do you see anything like that from the Outs?


No. Instead you either get this sort of swivel-eyed loon newsletter stuff, or vacuous rah-rah like the Vote Leave activist who told me on Saturday that “I’m a democracy guy”. He also spent fifteen minutes telling some poor woman that the EU “is a beast”. And it wasn’t even his leaflet.

Ideas there are. Part of the problem is that they are entertaining quite so many options. Perhaps we could be like Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Singapore, or Albania? Each one comes with a little national flag, a sort of enamel lapel pin, for the sake of easy reference. But they have next to nothing to do with the countries named.

Take Norway. Being like Norway sounds pretty sweet! Anyone for some prosperous, egalitarian Nordic social democracy? It goes without saying that none of the Outs have any intention of, say, legislating that all public companies should have 50% women on their board of directors, or worse, that their boards should include worker representatives. It also goes without saying that there’s no way Brexit would cause more oil to appear in the North Sea.

What “Norway” means here is that we’d leave the EU but stay in the European Economic Area, thus keeping (mostly) tariff-free access to EU markets so long as we respected EU regulations. I say “mostly” tariff-free, because in fact there are nontrivial tariff barriers between the EU and Norway on agricultural products. Actually, one of the main selling-points here is that we could be more protectionist towards farmers and fishermen. On the other hand, we’d still have to pay into the EU budget, respect the rules, and accept freedom of movement for labour. Also, financial firms in the UK would have to get regulatory approval for each EU country where they wanted to do business.

To put it another way, we wouldn’t be much like Norway at all. In fact we’d be so little like Norway we might as well be Switzerland, which has basically the same set-up. Perhaps ski-ing makes you into an Out? Is all the falling over affecting their brains?

What about Singapore? This is the one that really gets on my nerves. A lot of right-wing people imagine that Singapore is a libertarian utopia because the public sector share of GDP is quite low. But this is silly. Singapore doesn’t have big spending ministries, but it does have a huge sovereign-wealth fund that owns major industrial and infrastructure projects in the country as well as financial investments worldwide. Rather than pay welfare benefits out of tax money, Singapore made it compulsory to pay into private insurance, through the so-called central provident fund, a little like a much more comprehensive version of Obamacare. Oh, and basically everyone lives in a council flat.

After independence (from Malaysia, and Britain) the Singaporean political and business class took a joint decision to develop the port as the major regional transport hub, and to take advantage of that to build up industry around it, notably chemicals and computer/semiconductor manufacturing. Their thinking was that economic development in Asia would create a huge opportunity for this role. This worked really well, but it’s worth noting that it was very much a succession of joint decisions by government technocrats, political leaders, and investors rather than some sort of idealised libertarian hands-off process. That is supposedly more true of Hong Kong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a myth too. You’ll note they didn’t start off by creating a new tariff barrier between their massive port facility and the market it serves.

Also, Outers tend to imagine that the Singaporean financial centre is completely unregulated. Financial people find this intensely funny. Anyway, it’s much more accurate to think of Singapore as one of the so-called “coordinated market economies”, like Germany or the Netherlands. Now, does anyone think the Outers have any plan to be more like Germany? Thought not. They want to get Out precisely in order to avoid being more like Germany.

In the end, this shows us two things about Out. One thing is that they have failed – haven’t even tried – to put forward a coherent strategy to avoid their Dunkirk moment turning all Singapore. The second is that, as with the SNP, there are reasons for that.

Sticking with their original plan to join the Euro would have shown up that an independent Scotland might be a lot less nice than they made out, and certainly no haven of protection against recession. Using sterling would mean admitting that independent Scotland wouldn’t be all that independent. Inventing a new currency would mean admitting that the social basis of independence would be a huge bet on the oil price. They didn’t answer the question, because the question threw light on all kinds of other questions they didn’t want asked.

Similarly, the Outers don’t want anyone to ask about their post-Brexit plans because the content of their plans, such as it is, is invariably vastly unpopular. How many people want to turn the country over to Mosseck Fonseca as a libertarian tax-haven? Well, Peter Hargreaves probably does, and he has a billion reasons for that. What is it that first attracted billionaire financier Peter Hargreaves to Brexit? It looks like we found the missing link between Out and ski-ing – money! But let’s not pretend he is normal. Similarly, does anyone want the common agricultural policy but with more farm subsidy? Only people who stand to collect, and they’re a tiny minority.

The answer, then, is strategic incompetence. You can avoid having to answer the difficult questions about your post-Brexit policy by simply failing to have one. That this strategy appeals to Boris Johnson ought to be obvious.

Tory election spending and the #codgerbonds. Can you help?

Everyone is talking about the Tory election spending thing. Apparently, there are MPs who fear they might go to jail. The latest break involves letters sent out over David Cameron’s signature, which may count against the local spending limit because they addressed the reader as living in the constituency in question.

But that wasn’t the only Tory campaign involving direct mail that took the form of personal letters from a very senior government minister. There was another one, signed by George Osborne, that literally offered the reader hard cash and came very close to offering unauthorised financial advice. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out about it, and discovered that Osborne went to some lengths to claim it was exempt from the regulations but the civil service pushed back.

The codgerbond campaign was effective. The Daily Mirror got a FOIA disclosure to the effect that the biggest sales of the bonds were in seats the Tories targeted at the election, presumably because that was where the letters were distributed. Or you could just ask the Economic Secretary to HM Treasury, Conservative MP for West Worcestershire, Harriet Baldwin:

If you bought them, you will find that once they mature, the special interest rates are no longer available, because there isn’t a general election on any more. Also, NS&I changed the terms and conditions of the offer to make it harder to withdraw your money rather than roll it over into the new issue, which This Is Money describes thus:

The short-term rates are lousy compared to what is currently on offer by challenger banks. Since the summer, there has been a battle in the independent This is Money best buy fixed-rate savings tables, with a glut of better deals on offer. In fact, the one-year rollover rate offered by NS&I is so low, it wouldn’t feature in our table, beaten by at least 18 providers.

You used to be able to ring up and cash in your investment straight back to your current account. Now you need to send in a form, or use their website. Because, you know, the Debt Management Office loves £13bn of cheap funding, what with Omnishambles Budget 2016 to pay for. It’s not a bit…Angolan, though, as Alan Clark memorably put it?

Really, everyone in the UK ought to be jointly ashamed of this. This is the kind of polity we’ve ended up living in.

Annoyingly, I can’t find a complete letter, because I am fascinated to find out if they were localised in any way. If they were, they might constitute yet another spending limit violation. The original Guardian piece just contains a cropped detail but I’m convinced I saw a full version at the time.

can you help?

Update: Can you help, I said, and they did! Here’s an image of the whole letter. It didn’t, as it happens, contain a locally-targeted message, so it wasn’t illegal. Only shameful. Thanks to Rich Greenhill on twitter.