Understanding big numbers in the referendum: a bit easier 40 years on

As the debate heats up in advance of the EU referendum, you may still remember the furore prompted by the booklet sent by the Government to every household in the UK. While the booklet was meant to provide the objective facts and figures, it was inevitably damned by the Brexiteers as just more propaganda for the campaign to remain in the EU. The Government said that this was untrue and reminded people that an equivalent booklet had been prepared by the Government in 1975 for the previous referendum.

While I can remember the previous referendum, I could not recall the Government’s booklet. This prompted me to find it on the web, which then set me thinking about the differences from the current version. The eight-page 1975 leaflet looks more like a newspaper and is not as easy on the eye as the 16-page 2016 leaflet, with its full-page photos and stylish use of white space, designed for the web and mobile devices as well as the printed page. But in both leaflets there are some big numbers – millions and billions – thrown in to make the case.

EU ReferendumImage source: eureferendum.blogspot.co.uk

What the two contrasting leaflets show is that the government’s graphic design has improved greatly and the public’s access to the supporting data is available in a way that was unimaginable in 1975. But for most of us, thinking in millions or billions is still hard to imagine or to calculate in our heads. How long is a million seconds, for example? 1

In the 1975 leaflet, the main arguments are about “food and money and jobs”. There are just a few numbers in the leaflet, for example: £20m a year for the Social Fund; £40m from the Farm Fund (timing not specified); and £250m in loans and grants for Coal and Steel. At the time, though, these will have seemed big numbers as we need to remember that prices have since gone up about seven times. Nominal GDP per capita in 1975 was only £1,943, worth £12,701 in today’s money.

But were these numbers that big, even viewed through 1975 lenses? The UK’s GDP in 1975 was about £110 billion and public spending was about £52 billion. The Social Fund contributions were therefore just 0.04% of public spending. This was also equivalent to 36p (in the recently decimalised currency) per person per year.

The 2016 booklet does put more of the numbers into context. The cost of the EU is described as 1p in every £1 paid in tax. This is perhaps clearer than describing the net cost of the UK’s contribution as £7 billion. Although a quick calculation can tell us that £7 billion works out at about £100 a head per year or a little more than 30p a day per person.

There are though some numbers in the 2016 booklet that beg the question. For instance, are the 7,000 criminals or terrorists who have been extradited a big number? Over what period? How many haven’t been extradited? In this case, we are luckier than citizens in the 1975 referendum. We can quickly see the sources on the website. In this example, the figure is actually 7,137 over a 10-year period to 2014.

Nowadays – in contrast to 1975 – we can search for the original references on the internet and get an expert opinion from the various fact-checkers. But when we find any big number in any referendum leaflet – from 1975 or 2016 – we still need to remember to ask ourselves: is this really a big number? What is it as a percentage of GDP or public spending? How much is per head? And per year? Of course, this attitude will serve us well when we’re reading other reports after 24 June – whether we find ourselves in or out of the EU.

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Meet the author

Ian Bennett

Ian Bennett

Ian is an expert in change management, efficiency reviews, business cases and costing in the public sector. Ian has over 30 years of experience of working in the public sector, as a civil servant, an auditor and as a consultant, covering central and local government, defence,… Read more »