COLUMN: February 1, 2018

The Millennium Falcon

DO you remember the Millennium Bug? Younger readers might assume it was something to do with Star Wars. Slightly older readers will assume it’s the disease baby boomers have passed on to their children and grandchildren which means they can’t afford to buy houses or have final salary pensions.

It was not. Essentially, it was a widespread computer software error caused by programmers assuming there was absolutely no way the code they were writing for equipment in 1976 would still be used 23 years later.

Without going into the sort of detail that has me regularly shunned at parties, it meant that at midnight on Millennium Eve, many computers would think it was the year 1900, causing their software to experience anything from mild colliwobbles to a full-on nervous breakdown.

And while this might have been amusing for some applications, say, in the software controlling a Big Trak toy truck, it would have been less so in, say, a Soviet-era nuclear power plant or air traffic control system.

Luckily for the human race, the Millennium Bug was one of those problems that could be solved by taking it seriously and throwing money at it, like homelessness or the NHS. Disaster was averted, and the worst thing that happened on December 31, 1999, was the Queen not knowing how to hold hands for Auld Lang Syne.

In fact, it was so successfully averted that people now suggest that it was a hoax. “Look,” they say, “They warned us for years that the Millennium Bug was a disaster, but we’re all still here.”

These are the sort of people who might only be convinced if planes dropped out of the sky, and even then they would probably say, “Those planes were too high anyway. That was a necessary corrective.”

These are the same sort of people who think that they don’t need to vaccinate their children against measles, because nobody has measles these days.

These are the same sort of people who made scientists change the term “global warming” to “climate change” because “Ha! They say that the world’s heating up, but it’s been the coldest winter since records began,” as if “the coldest winter since records began” shouldn’t ring alarm bells.

And these are the same sort of people who are ignoring all the evidence about Brexit, because what sort of loser pays attention to inconvenient facts when the important thing is what your instinct tells you?

These are people like the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who rails against “the metropolitan elite”. Now it is unfair to play the man rather than the argument, but he does not make it easy for me to resist temptation.

That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, the wealthy Eton and Oxford-educated investment banker son of the late Lord (William) Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Arts Council (1982-1989) and editor of The Times (1967-1981).

That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Parliamentary representative so in touch with ordinary people that he admits he has never been to IKEA. (I do not blame him, if I had never had to buy my own furniture I would also avoid the Doomed Maze of Arguments.)

That’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who could legitimately wear a top hat even if he were neither a magician, nor at a wedding in 1993.

Following the leak of a report by the Department for Exiting The European Union saying a hard Brexit could hit economic growth by 8%, Mr Rees-Mogg said the report was “highly speculative”, and he added that predictions of job losses if there was a vote to leave had been “comprehensively wrong.”

And previously he has said the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal are being exaggerated “much like the Millennium Bug”.

It’s hard to imagine that if the report had predicted an increase in growth that he would be so blasé about predictions.

The thing is, predictions can be wrong. We still laugh at Michael Fish’s assurance that the hurricane that took down most of Sevenoaks’ seven oaks was not on its way, forgetting that most of the time the weather forecasters have it spot on.

The weight of economic evidence points to Brexit being a disaster. If Rees-Mogg and his not-remotely-elite chums said this was the price we pay for regaining our sovereignty, that would be an honourable position to take.

But this handwavy, “oh, something will turn up” approach to Brexit is the one thing that will make economic disaster more likely.

And it will make the Millennium Bug look like a hoax.

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