Angry Oborne’s brush with pseudo-Cicero

Oliver Kamm

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, is angry. He often is. The latest spark for his anger is The Times, which he thinks is not a properly run newspaper. Oborne’s criticism should be judged on its merits; so should Oborne’s qualities as a commentator.

I’ve never met Oborne but I did an ill-tempered radio debate with him once, on the tenth anniversary of the euro. Oborne would presumably claim that the eurozone crisis has vindicated his prediction of the currency’s eventual demise (it hasn’t), but his reasoning stays with me. He argued that the yield spread between German government bonds and the debt of other eurozone members showed that markets expected the currency to fail – not the size of the spread, but the fact that there was a spread at all between different eurozone countries’ bond yields.

That’s like saying that the difference in municipal bond yields between Massachusetts and California shows that the market expects the dollar to collapse. In other words, it’s nonsense. Different countries within Europe’s currency union have different borrowing histories and (obviously) different credit ratings. Within the eurozone, fiscal policy remained with national governments, some of which borrowed too much. That’s why we are where we are.

My favourite Oborne column was a screed, when he was at the Daily Mail, against a welfare system that “blatantly rewards the workshy and the idle”. He concluded:

Writing more than 2,000 years ago, a Roman politician made the following observation: “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”

These words were uttered by Cicero in 55BC. Today they are every bit as apposite.

It will seem incredible, but Oborne copied this passage without checking it or apparently even noting the fantastic anachronism of a Roman statesman’s referring to “assistance to foreign lands”. The “apposite” quotation is entirely bogus.

@OliverKamm

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