Saturday, 9 November 2019

The games they play


In all my life I cannot recall a general election so completely without energy. If I hear anything on the wireless about it I immediately switch it off. I don't want to know. I don't want to listen to smarmy politicians and shrill activists. Particularly I'm not interested in the bidding war for votes which is becoming ever more unhinged as though there were limitless capacity to borrow and spend. They're all at it.

Worse still is the way in which this election has become a game of political assassination. Kate Osborne, the Labour candidate for Jarrow, is apparently in hot water by way of posting the above image. 27 female Labour MPs had petitioned the central party, unsuccessfully it seems, to prevent her from standing. Liz Kendall, Jess Phillips and Yvette Cooper are among those (quelle surprise) who say in a letter that such images incite violence.

The image itself is just a pop culture meme based on Pulp Fiction which most people have seen or are at least aware of. It's so hackneyed it couldn't possibly be construed as anything sinister. It could just as easily apply to any politician repeating slogans devised by campaign chiefs. It could just as easily be "Long term economic plan" with David Cameron in the frame.

No doubt the words "Jo Cox" at some point will be uttered if they haven't already. I don't care enough to find out. I don't even know who Kate Osborne is and I don't care. There may be a hundred good reasons for her not to stand but this most certainly isn't one of them.

But as it happens Osborne has survived this assassination attempt for now but several other candidates have not - meaning that anyone with a sense of humour or strongly held opinions with the potential to offend the snowflakes is disbarred from entering politics. And then we wonder why we get the dross we get.

To be quite honest with you I'm struggling to care about politics right now, especially because of this baloney, not least having been a target of cry bullying and faux outrage. I'm inclined to vacate the field and let them get on with it. I'm certainly not going to gratify it by voting. What I want to see is politicians setting out coherent policies for the future, especially regarding Brexit, but instead the election has turned into a full scale moronathon.

The depressing part of it is this is very much their comfort zone. This is the politics they love. This is the politics the media loves. This is what they love for. This election has given them the much desired opportunity to drop all of the difficult technical stuff in favour of virtue signalling and showboating. Had they any self-awareness they would realise it is this exact conduct that makes us despise them so very much. If the likes of Yvette Cooper et al are the target of bitter invective then this is why.

In times like these you can actually be forgiven for thinking we are better off being ruled by unelected bureaucrats - but only if we are spared the inanity of elections. For all that we've campaigned to "take back control" we are handing that control to narcissistic wastrels and morons. We lack the capacity for good governance. Statecraft is now a dead art.

Right now we need mature and competent politics more than ever but we are nowhere close to it. As much as anything the electorate are fifty percent of the problem. We complain when politicians lie to us but what we really mean is they're not telling lies we approve of. Politics will only improve when we stop feeding the beast, when we stop reacting to careful crafted talking points and demand credible answers from credible people.

The sad truth of the matter is that unless we the people are prepared to put our foot down and stop indulging this kind of politics by voting for them, then the leper colony on the Thames is the best we can ever hope for from our politics. The profound incompetence we have seen in respect of the Brexit process is just a symptom of a far deeper malaise to which Brexit of itself brings very little remedy. Brexit may be part of the solution but unless there is sea change in how we do politics then Britain is condemned to eternal decline whether we leave the EU or not.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Labouring the point


Though the media couldn't be less interested in Brexit having found its comfort zone in reporting the general election, Brexit is still the central issue and the stakes couldn't be higher. By an accident of numbers this election could see Jeremy Corbyn in Number Ten.

It seems Labour have settled on a renegotiation policy to then go forward to a second referendum. Here we have to revisit a few basic points. The EU is not going to substantially renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. If there is movement on level playing field provisions including labour rights then there's a chance the deal can be reverted to its status pre-Johnson but if Corbyn wants added extras such as a customs union then he's got the political declaration to play with and nothing else.

In effect he'll be going to a public vote with something not entirely dissimilar to Mrs May's deal that he and his party blocked when they had the chance. But then there's the mechanics of the referendum. For right or wrong, leavers wouldn't support a deal negotiated by Corbyn. The designated campaign, therefore, would be a proposition imposed on leavers. They will call it a remain versus remain referendum.

But that's not the only problem. This is a real question of legitimacy. We were told that the 2016 referendum would be a once in a generation vote. Our chance to decide. We leavers had long anticipated a referendum and some of us had been planning on it. This has now chewed up the better part of five years of my life, to the point where I really cannot afford the time or energy to keep up the pace. Nor can I afford the cost to my career development. I need to make a living and I can't spare more time to fully participate.

I'm not alone in this. Those of us who worked to make it happen gave everything we could and more but we'll have to sit this next one out. So it'll be their referendum, not ours. 2016 will be the stolen referendum. The London wing of the Labour party hated the result so pressured Labour's coward in chief to overturn it. So they'll have their "people's vote" which will largely be a contest between two warring Westminster tribes where the people don't get a look in.

One suspects the immediate issue with any "kangarendum", held largely to appease the few (with no real public appetite for a second vote) will be turnout. For the remain position to have any legitimacy whatsoever then it's going to have to beat the 17.4 million mark. Which it won't. We will be back here again.

The second problem is that Labour cannot possibly campaign against their own deal. They have to argue that it's a good deal. There is no chance of a coherent campaign from Labour. And then just supposing they managed to lose a second referendum, they would still have to get the deal past parliament - bringing us roughly to where we are now. Does Labour want to be the party that revokes after two referendums? If not then it's no deal.

Any which way you look at it, Labour does not have a solution to this current stalemate. Like everything else they do, it's driven by electoral triangulation and trying to ride two horses at once. Labour is simply not a credible option.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Brexit: painted into a corner


The Tories are in full lie mode. They are lying because their biggest headache is the Brexit Party. Both the ERG Tories and the Brexit Party have spent the last year telling us that May's deal is not Brexit and now if they Tories want to save their own skin they need us to believe that Johnson's modified deal is substantially different.

One of the chief complaints from Mogg, Baker et al was the "vassal state" transition. That's still in there so they are now promising it will not go beyond 2020. Liz Truss tweets "We will not be extending the Brexit transition period beyond 2020. The British people have waited long enough for Brexit. We will be able to negotiate a good free trade deal with the EU and other partners in that timeframe."

But of course we won't be. Even if the future deal could be negotiated in a year, don't forget we wasted the entire first year of Article 50 talks because the government had no clue what it wanted and didn't understand the process. We can expect the same again, treading water while the Tories learn the basics. And they will learn the hard way we they first have to be argued with ad nauseum, deconstructing a great many myths they've programmed themselves with over the last five years.

Put simply, there is zero chance of a comprehensive future relationship being negotiated in one or even two years. There are 300 areas of technical cooperation that require alternative arrangements if we want the full spectrum of commercial opportunities. Tories are barely aware they exist. When you're talking about legal arrangements on everything from intellectual property through to data protection, fisheries and financial services, there is no such thing as a "simple free trade agreement". It has to be comprehensive and it's not going to happen fast.

As it happens there is no such thing in the modern world as "free trade". FTAs are about rules for trade governance - so when you hear Tice, Baker, Mogg and Farage blethering about "free trade" you can be assured they are no closer to knowing what it is than they were five years ago.

In respect of the transition, the Brexit Party are very right to be concerned that we will end up in a long term interim arrangement and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could become permanent. It is possible the transition may become a staggered implementation period but the process will complete at a glacial pace.

This is something that could and should have been anticipated which is why we Leave Alliance types insisted that it might be a good idea to have some sort of Brexit plan. In full expectation that disengaging from a system of governance more than four decades old would require a transition, we took the view that the fastest way to get the ball rolling, and to have an arrangement where the EU could not exploit vulnerabilities created by transition, was to join Efta and retain the EEA.

Having failed to anticipate this, believing Article 50 would be used to fashion a quick and dirty trade deal, believing Brexit was an event rather than a process, the Brexiteers have walked blindly into every ambush and will continue to do so. As yet we have an incomplete idea of what our trade defence concerns are, what access we wish to retain and what form the regulatory relationship is going to take. There are many battles to come and many bitter pills to swallow. 

None of this, though will get a look in. Our politics has reverted to its comfort zone of weaponising the NHS and blethering about the gender balance of leader's debates. The Brexit process is far too boring to make a central feature of a general election and if we can't even have an informed rational debate about the NHS then the chances of having one about trade are zero. I have repeatedly attempted to raise these concerns on Twitter over the last three years but each little clan has their own narrative and if there's one thing about our politics, it does not like to be disturbed by reality. What little debate there is exists in a parallel universe.

Of course the Brexit Party answer is not to engage in any of the realities, instead believing we should leave now and slam the door behind us, then demand a fresh negotiation under the remit of GATT24. This narrative has ossified to the point where it is no longer questioned by the grunters and they're going to believe whatever is convenient to believe.

That then puts the Tories in the awkward position of having to dismantle a great many of the falsehoods that they themselves have created. The ERG and their associate propaganda vessels are responsible for much of the no deal mythology. Steve Baker now implores us to read and accept the analysis done by Martin Howe QC who now insists that Boris's deal is a universe apart from May's and is not the BRINO he and Baker have been telling us it is. I suppose having no shame comes in handy. Easy to get away with when the media will give you a free pass.

The ugly truth is that the only way we will conclude a quick FTA with the EU is if we sign one already written by the EU. EEA was the only realistic way to ensure we didn't end up in a "vassal state" transition for years but that wasn't Brexity enough for Brexiteers. They've painted themselves into this corner. We now have to accept we will be locked into the EU's negotiating framework for years or face no Brexit at all. Our fate was sealed pretty much the moment we invoked Article 50 without the first idea of a destination.

Though notionally we could ratify the withdrawal agreement, but then fail to secure a deal over the future relationship, dropping out without alternative trading arrangements, unless Johnson has a commanding majority, parliament may find a way to force his hand. Though it is unclear what form that would take. My hunch, though, is that we will extend for as long as is necessary and for as long as the EU will allow. The Tories have a few collisions with reality between now and then that should further inform their position.

Whichever way you look at it Brexit was always going to take a long time to navigate. The notion that we are going to "get Brexit done" any time this side of 2025 is fanciful. We are looking at a decade in totality but loose ends to tie even after a final future treaty is concluded. In that time, without knowing what that relationship looks like we won't be striking "bumper deals" with anyone. The scope of external deals will be highly contingent on the shape of our relationship with the EU and the kind of EU market access we retain.

To say that the discipline of trade is complicated is something of an understatement and nether our politics or media are equipped to handle it. The UK has lost all its institutional knowledge and that which is in circulation comes from a narrow claque of trade wonks all of whom think in the narrow terms of FTAs using EU methods. Soon that knowledge with reach its natural limitations and we'll be fumbling in the dark.

The Brexit Party are entitled to wail but ultimately the fault lies with Farage. He and his entourage should by now be fluent in all issues Brexit and should have acquired the intellectual capital to have anticipated much fo what befalls us. Instead they've spent the time luxuriating in dogma and slogans, enjoying the perks and publicity. There was never any plan or vision beyond Brexit and there is no intellectual foundation for their message. With not much to choose from between Johnson's Tories or the Brexit Party, one can easily see how they could have their prize snatched away from them. And none would be more deserving of the failure they themselves are the architects of. 

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Brexit: Descent Into Hell


Despite what I posted on The Leave Alliance yesterday, I don't think leave voters need it spelling out.  If you're going to dabble with the Brexit Party in a marginal seat then you risk throwing the game. That message will sink in and the Brexit Party will struggle to poll 9% and return zero MPs.

As it happens I think the big story in this election will be the fall in turnout. It's less to do with the timing as it is the overall mood. Online and off the mood seems to be one of exhaustion. Parliament foisted this on us because they couldn't get their act together. Peter Hitchens seems to have nailed it down.
The grimmest horror story I have ever read tells of a man in despair who hangs himself efficiently and lethally. After a brief, painless moment, he awakes to find he is still very much alive, in exactly the same place he was in before he tried to end it all. Well, almost exactly. It is a lot darker. Dawn never seems to arrive, and things are stirring in the shadows that he does not much like the look of. But what is quite clear is that he has not solved his problems at all.
So it is with our Parliament and our political class. Too weak, irresponsible and cowardly to put their names to the compromise with the EU that was always going to be the outcome, they have sought oblivion by placing all the responsibilities on someone else – in this case, you and me.
They hope that in yet another national poll – the fourth since 2015 – they can somehow escape the moral and political debts and obligations they had before the General Election was called. It is as if an Election was some sort of cleansing ritual, in which a flurry of votes washes away the wicked past and leaves MPs born again and free from all the stupid things they have done (or the things they have stupidly not done) in the past few years. But it is not. The debts all remain. They will be collected. The compromise still has to be accepted, and the consequences undergone. They will all pay.
He doesn't elaborate on what form this will take. Hitchens doesn't seem remotely interested and I sort of don't blame him. If I had to vote I'd be forced to vote (with no enthusiasm) for the default option of the Tories simply because there isn't a viable alternative. The Lib Dems are led by an adolescent social justice activist and Labour is too dreadful to even contemplate. Leaving aside the allegations of antisemitism and Corbyn's associations, there is a greater danger - greater even than their economic agenda.

With Halloween having been and gone without seeing our departure from the EU, remainers spent much of Saturday gloating and mocking the lack of riots widely anticipated by a number of pundits. But of course the public are not entirely stupid. They know who and what is responsible for the delay and yet again leavers are showing more patience than any reasonable person could have expected from them. As much as we've had to endure insult after insult, they keep rubbing our noses in it.

If Labour somehow wins the general election then we are looking at a re-run of the 2016 referendum. They'll call it a confirmatory vote but in essence they are going to make us vote again, rehashing all the same tired arguments driving voters away in droves. And that's really what remain wants to happen. They're not after a positive mandate. They just want a fig leaf of legitimacy to sweep it all under the rug. My hunch says they would probably succeed.

I know that should there be another referendum I will have neither the time, resources or energy to commit to it having already invested the last five years of my life in getting us to where we are now. In that time I've not only had to fight the remainers but also the ERG and now The Brexit Party. I'm done. I have no more I can give to this and if Labour goes ahead with this I probably won't even bother to vote. At that point we will have established that voting really is a meaningless ritual to confer legitimacy on an establishment that will never yield to democracy.

I am now fairly convinced this won't see riots or blood on the streets. There's be a few small protests but nothing seismic. Remainers will take that to mean that we don't really care all that much, failing to recognise that waving placards is more their MO than ours. But as Hitchens has it, the "moral and political debts" won't go away. They will simply fester.

For a time they will have evaded the economic harm of Brexit but the real question is how we move forward with a politically demoralised country. How does any politician ever look a voter in the eye ever again? How can they ask for our votes when we know our votes only count if we vote the right way?

Part of the reason we voted to leave in 2016 was the sore point of the Lisbon treaty which never went anywhere near a referendum. We remembered. And we will remember this. For all that MPs play the victim now and wail about the toxicity of politics, they really ain't seen nothing yet. We can look forward to a darker and more volatile politics than we have ever known. For a time they'll think they've got away with it, resuming their inane political habits but those political debts will continue to mount.

As much as Westminster is in a state of terminal dysfunction, one gets a sense that much else is disintegrating. This from the Shropshire Star is illuminating.
A man who drove at a group of girls, punched one in the face, then kicked a police officer in the chest while being arrested has been spared an immediate jail sentence. Youssef Abi, 32, appeared before Shrewsbury Crown Court on Monday to be sentenced for common assault, dangerous driving and criminal damage. He was speeding, drinking alcohol and was unable to keep his car on the correct side of the road while driving a group of teenage girls from Wolverhampton to Rhyl on February 29, 2018. The court heard the girls feared for their lives and begged Abi to let them out of the car.
When they finally got out of the car on the A53 between Shrewsbury and Shawbury, he drove at them and swerved at the last moment just missing them. He then punched one of the girls in the face when she wouldn't get back in the car. Abi was also aggressive towards a passer-by who intervened and smashed her mobile phone, then kicked a police officer in the chest while he was being put into the back of a van. Kevin Jones, defending, said Abi was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after hearing that another family member from his come country of Syria had died. He was sentenced to 12 months suspended for two years.
Though this is just one case it's consistent with a long evolving trend of relativism in this country where you can get away with just about anything just so long as you play victim. Victimhood is currency. It would seem that the British political and legal establishment is in the midst of a moral collapse. We are failing to uphold even basic standards. 

To have a functioning society both politics and the law need to act by consent and to have moral authority. Both institutions seem to be in a race to the bottom in debasing themselves to the point of perversity. Having lost both moral authority and consent to govern you then have an ungovernable society which can only lead to heavy handed authoritarianism in response. Pretty soon the relationship between the public and the state is adversarial and sour and a breeding ground for extreme politics.

For all that the left have spent the last five years calling anyone with even mildly conservative views a fascist, should they succeed in overthrowing the vote of 2016, they are about to learn a whole new definition of the word that will shake them to the core. Because if the state will not stand up for the the majority view and majoritarian values, using its own position and authority to suppress and subvert the majority, imposing its own warped and debased values, there will most certainly be a furious backlash.  

If politicians think there is an anti-politics mood now, the moment they overthrow the vote of 2016 to replace it with their own kangarendum is the moment they crucify what is left of our democracy and rule by consent. By that point it won't even be about Brexit. Brexit will remain a feature of public discourse but by then it will becomes clear that simply exchanging the personnel in Westminster is not enough. The British public will have an appetite for destruction.   

Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Brexit Party is gambling Brexit away


Posted on The Leave Alliance site.

When we first looked at the withdrawal agreement we were less than enthused by it. It is a document of labyrinthine complexity not designed to be read or understood by anyone remotely normal. Being that it is so opaque it is easy for opportunists to read into it pretty much anything they want others to believe. This is the game the Brexit Party is playing.

For the most part the provisions within the agreement relate only to the transition which is effectively non-voting membership of the EU. Nothing much much changes. We always anticipated this, recognising that Brexit is a process rather than an event. There are over three hundred areas of technical cooperation which need alternative arrangements and we have long taken the view that crashing out without a deal would lead to chaos and uncertainty.

There are risks associated with such a transition but they are overstated and certainly they do not outweigh the political and economic risks that come with no deal. There is plenty of "project fear" around but there's no disputing the EU's official legal position on the UK's status in their markets should we leave without a deal. It makes for grim reading. No one should be in a hurry to inflict that kind of damage.

Any pragmatist would recognise that our departure from a decades old system of government would require transitional arrangements not only to reassure British business but also to cushion the blow. Furthermore, the UK needs to be a close collaborative partner of the EU. We may not wish to be members but we do wish to be allies and friends. For that to happen we need a managed and amicable departure - not the zero sum game of 'no deal' that the Brexit Party demands.

Cynically they seek to whip up opposition to the deal, pointing to provisions within the withdrawal agreement, particularly those concerned with the "level playing field". As it happens the provisions are a relatively low bar and shouldn't present any major obstacle to the UK pursuing its own destiny. Moreover we do not wish to compete by entering a race to the bottom.  

It should also be noted that these provisions exist in every EU FTA and there is no way the EU would ever enter an agreement without them. It didn't make an exception for Canada and will not do so for the UK. Curious then that Brexit Party individuals continue to make reference to CETA. We wonder if they have ever read it. We also note that similar provisions exist in a number of multilateral WTO agreements - particularly on state aid, subsidy and production standards.  

The Brexit Party position, though, is one based on an outmoded perception of the modern world. There is no such thing as "full independence" when you live next door to a trade and regulatory superpower, unless of course you want to completely isolate yourself from lucrative markets and end all formal cooperation. That certainly isn't what we had in mind when we campaigned to leave the EU.

The fact of the matter is that the EU has enormous clout and has its own regulatory gravity and when nearly half of our exports go to the EU, in any case, the EU will continue to have considerable influence over our regulatory and trade policies. We do not operate in a vacuum.

The stubborn and intransigent approach by the Brexit Party will get us nowhere. They assert that we can simply waltz out of the EU and then approach them for a rudimentary agreement under GATT24. Though the use of this mechanism is theoretically possible an interim agreement on tariffs comes nowhere close to addressing the mountain of issues created by new non tariff barriers. All the while the EU has repeatedly stated that, should we leave without a deal, it will not enter any further talks without first resolving the customs frontier issues in Ireland and those other areas addressed by the withdrawal agreement. They have emphatically stated there will be no "mini deals".

The Brexit Party is harbouring a number of delusions based on a simplistic understanding of the EU and trade in general. Trade is more than just moving lorry loads of tinned beans from Warrington to Warsaw. The UK depends on its services exports which are facilitated by dozens of legal instruments for which there is no cover under those "WTO rules".

We are of the view that the withdrawal agreement is suboptimal but ultimately that is a consequence of our collective failure as a movement to anticipate the shape of negotiations and our refusal to forward any kind of Brexit plan. There will likely be more uncomfortable compromises and concessions to come. The balance of leverage is definitely on the EU side. We are certain, though, that leaving without a deal hands virtually all of the leverage to the EU.

By taking a wholly absolutist line, the Brexit Party could split the leave vote in marginal constituencies, potentially handing the game to opponents of Brexit. Cynically the Brexit Party argues that the withdrawal agreement "is not Brexit" as a device to excuse their petulance. At this point we have to ask if Mr Farage really does want to leave the EU or whether the publicity, pay and perks of his current position are too much to give up.

The Leave Alliance is no fan of Boris Johnson and our preferred outcome (Efta EEA) now seems improbable, but the withdrawal agreement is the only realistic means of departure and a failure to face reality at this point could well see us lose the prize entirely. What Farage is doing is inexcusable and unforgivable.  

Thursday, 31 October 2019

New video blog


As we know, this current deadlock is only phase one in a long process. The next phase carries a great many challenges and dilemmas we need to be realistic about.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Election fever

Regular readers will notice I've not been following every twist and turn in parliament. In these times where the situation is fluid it's always best to stand back and let reserve judgement until they've finished fannying around. And now it seems we have a general election to contend with.

I can't say I'm remotely enthusiastic about it. I'm sure it will provide some considerable entertainment on the night when we shall likely see a bloodbath of inadequates but with politics in the toilet their replacements are not likely to be an improvement. Moreover we shall not have seen the last of those ejected since the the media so often returns to its vomit.

Then there's the question of whether an election will solve anything. The facts on the ground aren't wildly different. The Tories are still Tories, Labour is a rag bag of communists, antisemites and gormless fishwives and the Lib Dems have travelled further down the path of remain extremism with a smattering of social justice nonsense.

The only new factor influencing the outcome is an overall sense of apathy where the real number to watch will be turnout. As much as the timing carries its own turnout penalty there is a prevailing sense of voter exhaustion. Nobody normal is in a hurry to make this election a re-run of the referendum. Everything has already been said.

And of course we know the game in play. Reamin's strategy seems to be to delay Brexit long enough to hold a kangarendum, at which point the electorate succumbs to the relentless futility of it where remain limps over the line by a whisker. They'll then seek to draw a line under it at which point Brexit fatigue will see the masses switching off in droves, finally concluding that there is no point in voting ever again. I might well be one of them.

That strategy though, is contingent on a remain party winning - which seems unlikely. I have a hunch we are in for another hung parliament or a small but workable Tory majority. There is widespread disaffection with the Tories but nothing that presents itself as an obvious viable alternative.

One supposes one ought to consider what influence the Brexit Party may have, but I rather suspect it will fall far short of its ambitions. The party seems to have taken up a role as a protest pressure group but owing to its lack of an intellectual foundation it doesn't appear to have a coherent strategy at all. It may make a difference in marginal seats, enough to hand a few Labour seats to the Lib Dems, but we won't be seeing any BXP MPs.

Should we see a hung parliament then we're in for a repeat of the last few months with endless dithering and indecision that will likely see us hit the deadline with absolutely no patience for further extensions here or in Brussels. A crunch point will come eventually. The most realistic chance we have of avoiding a no deal Brexit is a working Tory majority.

For now I suspect I am far from alone in my sense of deflation. With the days closing in, energy levels dropping off and thoughts turning toward Christmas, invasive dental treatment seems more welcome than a general election. Parliamentarians are not likely to win our affections in the coming weeks and the sane thing for any reasonable person to do is tune out. This debacle is far from over and there will be much more to say on the flip side  - but this current Westminster mess is currently theirs to sort out. We'll see what's what when/if they get their act together. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Brexit: A matter of priorities


The classic Brexiter narrative is that after our departure we are free to do as we please. Breaking away from the EU means politics is once again open to the battle of ideas. On the right we have free market free traders and on the left we have good old fashioned socialists.

The problem with Brexit, though, is that both camps are offering up an intellectually bankrupt prospectus. The right are obsessed with tinkering with tariffs with barely a foothold on what the term "free trade" means (if indeed it any longer means anything) while the left seem to think we'll be free to subside and prop up industry without international consequences.

Both are essentially economic arguments. And that's a problem since Brexit is not an economic proposition. Both factions have lost sight of Brexit's intellectual foundations. Such as they are.

Any serious analysis, taking into account the significance of European and global regulations and standards suggests that there simply isn't an economic argument for Brexit. Those things we would be free to do are not necessarily things we should do and if we did, we would find that they actually aren't very good ideas. We then encounter the "double coffin lid" where we find the restrictions imposed by the EU are not entirely dissimilar to the global frameworks from WTO to Basel2.

It actually takes the EU to remind us what the rationale for Brexit is. Today the Commission tweets "Since 2011, the EU enjoys enhanced observer status at the UN. In New York, the EU delegation @EUatUN coordinates with all EU countries to ensure they speak with one voice. It allows the EU to participate and present common positions at the UN’s general debate every September".

That's pretty much the whole of the argument right there. We are told the EU will never be a superstate but all the same it is still a supreme government and one that seeks to replace the member state in the international arena. The voice of member states is subordinate to the common position.

When you factor in the disparity in geopolitical outlooks even within the EU that can only mean that there are times when the national interest is subordinated by the EU common position, largely dictated by the bigger fish. In respect of that, when considering French colonial interests and German energy ambitions, it seems implausible that there could ever be a coherent common position without the UK or any other member being silenced on occasion.

And then of course if the EU is to have an international presence at the top tables it needs its high representatives - people such as Federica Mogherini who, so far as I can work out, is accountable to nobody. EU foreign and neighbourhood policy then takes precedence and our international concerns are a distant second. As much as this is true for the UN, it is also true of UNECE, Codex, WTO, ILO, IMO and many other key global bodies - especially in the domain of trade which is an exclusive EU competence.  

This is where remainers roll out the "clout" argument in that "pooling sovereignty" enhances our international power. They do not say, though, why the UK cannot act in ad hoc blocs and alliances according to the arena utilising its own considerable soft power. They can only think in terms of a fixed international alliance in all matters.

That said, I am the first to admit that Brexit does indeed reduce our global clout in terms of trade - quite substantially should we fail to secure a deal, but that clout is illusory when we find ourselves on the losing side of important arguments within the EU over what the common position is. So it comes down to a question of whether it is better to always have a voice and the ability to lead or whether it's best to play it safe accepting we are subordinate to the EU. 

If we follow the latter to its inevitable destination we find UK delegations disbanded entirely and replaced by the EU on everything from fishing subsidies to human rights abuses in the far east. Our consular services are shuttered and our official presence is no longer felt overseas. Then of course if there is an overarching foreign policy there is an overarching military policy since the latter is a tool of the former. British warships will be doing the bidding of Mogherini. British flags but EU armbands.

Our continued membership of the EU is a commitment to replace European states with an active political cabal playing its own games of empire. Britain will retain its flag, its monarchy, its national anthem and its red phone boxes but these will be mere relics of a former nation. The end of Britain as an independent sovereign country.

This I will never be reconciled to. It is why, at the end of the day, I will gladly pay virtually any price to leave the EU. It's not about saving £39bn or spending £350m on the NHS or deregulating or even subsidising British manufacturing. This is an existential question for the country - and when you look at the constitutional make up of the EU it's an existential question for European democracy.

Whatever baubles are up for grabs, be they pan-European health insurance, abolition of roaming charges or visa free travel, nothing dangled in front of me is worth the terrible cost of the EU. Our country is more than just an economic region. It stands for a particular set of values (though they be in flux) and if we wish to be a sovereign people capable of defending and exporting those values then we must at all times have a voice internationally.

Looking at what has been achieved through UNECE, the WTO and other major global bodies, it is clear that we can defend the environment and uphold labour standards and human rights through multilateral cooperation. Political subordination is neither necessary or desirable. Britain punches above its weight because we are willing to invest and because we keep our word and because we are a great country with massive cultural influence. We would be fools to turn our backs on that.

Of late Brexiters seem to have lost sight of this, instead getting worked up about the relatively trivial details of the withdrawal agreement, arguing the toss over inconsequential sums of money. They measure any deal against what they hope to achieve economically, losing sight of what's important. 

Whichever way Brexit goes we will remain closely aligned with the EU in matters of trade and we will find that breaking out of the EU's regulatory orbit is largely futile - with limited utility. What matters is that we reassert ourselves internationally making it clear that though the EU is a valued partner, we do not share in its destination nor walk the same path. That is the objective. I didn't get into this to save a few quid nor strike free trade deals. This is about something much bigger. 

Monday, 28 October 2019

Restoring parliament


"Westminster politics is seen as aggressive, entitled, phoney and unprofessional, a braying bear pit hopelessly out of step with modern workplaces, where respect and empathy are increasingly valued." says Harriet Harman reflecting on her 40 years in parliament.

This is, of course, a bid for the Speaker's chair. She will make all the right noises but nothing will actually change. Leaving aside that Harman has a questionable record, the problem is bigger than any one person's capacity to resolve. Half the problem is our media.

Were I to go out into the high street and ask passers by to name a few MPs the responses would be predictable. There seems to be two kinds of MPs. Those who seek the media spotlight (and get it) and those who do all in their power to avoid it. We know everything about the former and nothing about the latter so our perceptions of MPs form up on the view that they are narcissistic, slippery and quite a bit thick.

Of the ones who do register in the public eye most will be prolific tweeters. Their time in the Commons is viewed less as an opportunity to make a pertinent point as it is to provide fodder for their next social media video clip, signalling to the folks back home that they're raising issues important to them, or parading their own right-on credentials.

Too often are we subjected to grandstanding and lip wobbling emoting along with staged walk outs or sit-ins - which tells us virtually everything they do is calculated in accordance with the "optics". It was bad before social media when MPs competed to get their face on the Six O'clock News, but now MPs have their own media operations where they can prepare and promote their own selectively edited content.

Respect for parliament really comes down to one factor. The more we see of them the more we hate them. The 24/7 media circus sustains this behaviour and encourages the cynical manipulative stunts we see all the time now - which has even spread to select committees. The dull forensic questions don't make it into the public eye but the finger-wagging and hectoring does. Unless there's a gimmick, the media isn't interested. 

The obvious answer is that cameras need to come out of the Commons. Having cameras in their creates a cottage industry in punditry which turns our MPs into performing seals. We cannot talk about trust in parliament when the presence of CCTV is an implicit statement that we do not trust them. Nothing they ever say or do is off record. Trust simply cannot happen when they are never let out of sight. 

But of course there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Were MPs to move toward the removal of cameras they would face predictable accusations of seeking to hide from scrutiny. We could perhaps ration TV footage and limit it to special events and PMQs but that wouldn't be sufficient for the media mob.

Since we cannot, there is really only one answer and that is to dramatically reduce the role of Westminster in our politics. We need to see a lot less of them. We need to starve the media beast. This unhealthy politico-media bubble needs breaking up and moving out of London. Possibly the only thing in politics more inane than a virtue signalling MP is a Westminster lobby correspondent.

For all that we saw unedifying squabbles over the prorogation of parliament I was certainly not alone in asking what they would usefully do with the time otherwise. As it happens, nobody was remotely surprised to see parliament half empty and when it did sit, its output was of such little value that they may as well not have bothered. The fact is that we don't need parliament to sit passing laws all year round. Much of what it does could be devolved to local politics and would be improved for doing so. 

Brexit has done much to erode public confidence in our so-called democracy, stretching the limited abilities of MPs to the max, but if it wasn't this then it would be something else. Public frustration with our political process is partly why the public voted to leave the EU in 2016. We are long weary of the shenanigans and parlour games. We are tired to the hypocrisy and heartily sick of having it foisted on us without having a meaningful say.

As it happens I voted to leave the EU simply because I do not believe that decisions taken far away can ever be democratically informed decisions and the more centralised the decision making the more likely it is to be an ideas cartel, closely guarded by the corrupt and self-serving. That is true of Brussels but it is also true of London - which is why Brexit of itself does not solve very much - if anything at all.

For the last few months parliament has done itself no favours by obstructing our departure and many have warned that if they succeed in overthrowing the referendum of 2016 then there will be blood in the streets. There are days when I believe that and days when I'm not so sure. I think perhaps the effect would be much more subtle.

If we reach a stage where MPs have manoeuvred to silence the voice of half the country to assert their own supremacy, and so doing killing off any chance of meaningful change, then the public will quietly conclude that voting is pointless and leave them to it. They perhaps might like that but the consequences is a collapse in respect not only for parliament, but also the rule of law. If we are not ruled by a body with gravitas and legitimacy then the conventions that bind us, that make up a functioning society, will simply fall away.

If we ever are to restore public faith in our system then we must take the power away from Westminster and put it in the hands of the people. They won't always be right or even wise but at least then they will own the consequences of their decisions. For as long as the public are ruled over rather than participants in their own democracy, the rulers will always be the object of hate. That is not a sustainable basis for government. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Changing platforms


After some years building up just over twelve thousand followers, my Twitter account has been terminated. This is most likely a result of vexatious predatory reporting. There is a core of nihilistic remainers whose main motivation on Twitter is platform assassination. Consequently over 150k tweets, threads and pictures have vanished down the memory hole.

This does not come as a surprise to me. I'm genuinely surprised I lasted as long as I did. I know my reputation as a potty-mouthed misanthrope and I have never moderated myself in the slightest. It was only a matter of time. In this game you can behave as badly as you like just so long as you maintain a veneer of civility. I've always found it hypocritical.

Critics have long said I would have fared better had I been a little more composed but the reason for this ban couldn't be any more ridiculous which largely demonstrates that the ghoulish remain mob will keep trying until something sticks. It's a game you can't win no matter how careful you are.

But there's another reason I am the way I am. Some time ago I realised that I could be prim and proper but it wouldn't get me anywhere. I exist below the line and I'm not batting for any particular tribe. I don't represent anybody and I don't slot neatly into either of the extremes. I parrot no narrative. I simply say what I see. That means the tribalists will never trust me even if my views sometimes align because they know my guns can just as easily turn on them.

In short, nobody was ever going to formally acknowledge I exist despite me being one of the most prolific writers on the subject speaking to thousands of people almost every day. I'm not in the gang. Whatever foothold I have in this debate is that which I clawed out for myself speaking directly to people rather than relying on media exposure.

That process has been slow and though I've had one or two breakthroughs I am still toiling in obscurity. Much of the time I've spent on Twitter in the last three years has been a futile indulgence. But then others have chosen to take a more placid approach, conforming to the unwritten rules of conduct and they haven't got anywhere either. The media is more interested in polemical speakers and those with a gimmick. Meanwhile remainer voices seem to have no problem at all. That's how we know who the real establishment is.

The one consolation I take from having my voice deleted from Twitter is that it makes zero impact on blog hits. This platform is still very much alive and kicking - and as it happens, sometimes I can get a hundred or so blog retweets and it makes no discernible difference to hits either way. I strongly suspect 90% of what is retweeted isn't actually read. Twitter is an important communication tool but it's still a bubble with limited reach and its denizens are nowhere near as important as they think they are.

But then as we are this particular juncture in Brexit, it seems an opportune time to take stock. Perhaps it is time for a change of approach. Previously on Twitter you could do the Reggie Perrin stunt of reinventing yourself under a new account, but Twitter has sophisticated techniques to detect it now. My replacement account was locked and deleted in minutes along with the EUreferendum account. They are quite determined that I am not welcome on Twitter.

I will not, therefore, be resuming my typical activities on Twitter. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. After nearly five years of tweeting into the void, depleting my own resources, I see no reason to further indulge Twitter. They've decided it's going to be a regulated sphere for those whose opinions conform and if you don't belong to the self-regarding self-referential claque then you're talking to yourself until the assassins get you.

From now on I will maintain the @LeaveHQ account for the purposes of linking to the blog, but I think from now on I will follow EUreferendum's lead and cultivate better debates in the blog comments - over which I have control. Try as they might, they're not shutting this down.

As it happens I concur with the EUreferendum assessment that it isn't worth the energy following every twist and turn of the Brexit soap opera and even if a deal passes, as outlined in yesterday's post, there is next to no chance of our politicians making a good go of it. We simply have to let them do whatever it is they're going to do and we'll pick up the pieces afterwards.

It has been clear for some time that a viable managed departure is beyond the abilities of our political class not least because it would require a better media than the one we currently have. For the last few weeks I've been watching events to assess whether an EEA Efta Brexit is still possible and I really don't think it is. That was the theme of my talk on missed opportunities last night at King's College. I have more chance of living to see a new moon landing.

The only certainty here is that whatever the Tories manage to cobble together in the next few years it will be neither adequate nor sustainable. We probably face as long a road to a workable outcome as it took to leave the EU. And to do it we are going to have to start all over again. We are going to have to build a political movement the old fashioned way from scratch and it's going to take twenty years. We can, therefore, afford not to stress anymore about the current crisis. What matters is ensuring that sensible people are in control of the narrative when another window of opportunity presents itself.

Interestingly I was asked last night if there is still a future in blogging. I think there is just so long as there are people willing to work very hard for a long time for little reward. If there is one mistake The Leave Alliance made, it was not acting sooner in cultivating a network of bloggers. It takes a long time for a blog to establish. Presently EUreferendum.com gets tens of thousands of hits every day but I remember for its first five years there were long stretches where it wouldn't even reach the 4k mark. The trick to this game is patience and persistence.

So while you'll no longer see me pumping venom into Twitter any more, I'm certainly not going away. The Brexit process is in a transitional phase, as is our politics and it seems, so am I. Having lost the battle for a viable Brexit outcome we now need to cut our losses, regroup and rethink. The leave movement has lost its intellectual foundation and the Brexit Party is certainly not part of any solution. We need a fresh debate about longer term objectives.

In respect of that, I think it's time to refocus on The Harrogate Agenda not least because we can't fix the Brexit mess until we've fixed our politics. For the last three years The Harrogate Agenda has been very much on the backburner with Brexit chewing up all of our time and intellectual energy. But now that is wasted energy we need to look at ways in which that energy can be better spent.

To that end I think very possibly it would be worth putting on another THA conference. the last three years have revealed flaws in our politics and has taught us many lessons about the functioning and relevance of referendums and THA perhaps needs revisions to take into account our departure from the EU and the suboptimal relationship that will likely replace it.

What was interesting about last night was that the auditorium was one of the very same rooms in which the eurosceptic movement began. I never imagined I would be speaking there. The turnout was respectable and certainly we had some high quality questions from the audience. I certainly think such an event is worth doing again and it seems to have been appreciated. That is perhaps a way forward to rebuild. One thing I'm certain of now is that I need to get out from behind this keyboard. On that score, Twitter might well have done me a favour.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Brexit: eyes to the near future


Usually I have a decent idea of what's going on - except for when it comes to parliamentary fannying around. You would think with up to the minute news on Twitter it would be easier but reports come in thick and fast from other people who don't know quite how it works either so I usually leave it til the end of the day before making any definite remarks.

One gets a sense today that this was the day when remainers hopes died. For sure we are not going to meet the Halloween deadline and there is yet more parliamentary mucking about but the remainers have probably played their last hand. My hunch is that the numbers aren't there for a second referendum and this is going to go to a general election and Johnson is going to win it.

One way or another this deal is going to pass and there is now little the wreckers can do to derail it. They can legislate for a customs union but I don't see how it can be meaningfully binding even if such a stipulation made it as far as the political declaration. Which it won't. Brexit day is in sight. The end of the beginning.

Brexit day, though, brings a whole new contest into light. The battle to shape the future relationship. I suspect we are in for some nasty surprises. It wasn't until Article 50 was invoked that we got a clear idea of the format for the talks, which then resulted in a year long contest over sequencing. I strongly suspect we are in for more of the same. There is no time to waste but waste it we will.

Here we must work on the presumption that the Tories want to replicate a "Canada style deal" which isn't much more advanced than the boilerplate EU comprehensive FTA. This is where we will see the deep rooted misapprehensions of the Tory blob coming to the fore in assuming an FTA does more than it actually does. We're going to have to have a new argument pointing out that an FTA is insufficient and that we need a more more comprehensive regulatory relationship. Eventually the Johnson administration will be forced to climb down in much the same way Mrs May did.

At that point we'll have to go through the same old arguments as Tory think tanks wheel out their "goods only single market" gibberish, probably emanating from Open Europe and the IEA. I don't think we've heard the last of the ill-fated "common rule book" outlined in Mrs May's Florence speech, latterly dubbed Chequers. Only this time, because it falls from the lips of Boris Johnson rather than our Theresa, the Tory clan will praise it as innovative and pragmatic. Especially so when the EU rejects it for roughly the same reasons as before. No cherry-picking! Again we shall have to explain the basics to Brexiteers on the functioning of the single market and the MFN principle.

It won't take very long to realise we have squandered a great deal of time and that there isn't sufficient time to conclude an agreement whereupon we will go through a whole new cycle of extensions to the transition (which will come with the same obligations and a further demand for monies). This time, though, parliament's ability to interfere with a Benn Act mechanism will be limited by way of Johnson enjoying a working majority (one assumes). We'll then face another cliff edge.

This is actually Theresa May's fault. Initially the Tories resisted the idea of a transition phase, failing to understand the necessity having failed to plan for Brexit and having failed to understand the enormity of it. The boneheaded assumption on was that we would trigger Article 50 and do the whole deal in one sitting and head off on our merry way. Only when the penny dropped did May concede to an "implementation period" (failing to understand that at that point there would be nothing to actually implement). Being that she was held hostage to the ERG she bowed to pressure to make it a short period of two years.

Whether or not the Tories have acquired any greater institutional knowledge of trade in the interim remains to be seen. At the time the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and assorted Tory spads believed an FTA could be rapidly concluded despite treaties of this nature taking a minimum of five years. There is also the somewhat inconvenient realisation to come that there are three hundred areas of cooperation that will require alternative arrangements taking the scope of the future relationship beyond even an Economic Partnership Agreement.

If we are going to do this properly we are going to need some sort of ramp down process, bringing new agreements online as an when they are negotiated (assuming we don't crash out). That then could see us in a never-ending "vassal state" transition where we're still adopting EU rules (without a say) and paying through the nose for the privilege. Once we add in the time we spend dithering by way of having no clue what we actually want we could be in Brexit limbo half way into the next decade and still not see light at the end of the tunnel.

By then it's going to dawn on the Brexiteers that any enhanced regulatory relationship is going to follow the Swiss model of adopting EU rules verbatim where decisions form the ECJ have direct applicability. They are not going to be at all pleased about that and they're going to be livid about the mission creep when they see just how many sectors remain under some form of EU regulatory supervision. And they're not going to have an easy time of it when fishing is thrown under the bus for services access.

Of course all of this was predictable and predicted. It was not difficult to anticipate if you took all the facts into account - but Brexiters thus far have spent all of their time hiding from them. I was warning about this early on and it certainly smells like this will be the one significant prediction of mine that comes true. It is precisely this bear trap that led us in The Leave Alliance to conclude that EEA Efta was our safest bet. We could do it faster without falling into asymmetric negotiations. The best way to survive a knife fight is not to get into one.

Whether this dismal fate can be avoided depends on the shift in the political dynamics following a general election. With remaining taken off the table, opponents of Brexit are going to have to refocus their efforts on shaping the outcome, where they may enjoy a great deal more sympathy from my side of the argument than they do now. As it happens, had remainers put as much energy into devising and selling a viable plan as they have stopping Brexit (to no avail) they could now be poised to beat Johnson to deliver a more pragmatic relationship.

Much is going to depend on Labour and whether it can shake off the Corbyn disease to form an effective opposition. But even then, with Labour bizarrely fixated on customs unions and still struggling with basic terminology, even the departure of Corbyn does not necessarily improve the quality of opposition. Meanwhile the Lib Dems will still be campaigning to remain and making prats of themselves.

It seems we are going to have to go through the depressing spectacle of Brexit ideologues learning the hard way, bumping into the limitations of their own dogma. Again we will see demands to quit the process to trade on WTO terms. Which way it goes at this point is impossible to predict. At that point we are at roughly the same fork in the road where leavers are faced with an unpalatable deal that looks nothing like they were promised or WTO oblivion. At some point the shine is going to wear off Boris Johnson and if it looks like another dog's dinner of a deal then the hardliners will desert him and we may yet see another leadership contest. The outcome of that will depend on the cut of the new intake of MPs.

I would like to believe there still is a window for a sensible outcome along the EEA Efta lines but politically it seems unlikely unless remainers pivot to the solution as the basis of a new campaign. Chances are, though, they will spend a long while infighting in much the same way eurosceptics always have, split between the softeners and the rejoiners. The Tories could again be left to fumble in the dark without effective alternatives.

This could be thrown wide open if there is a move to delete the fixed term parliament act so that should really be the first order of business for any serious opposition. Sooner of later the popularity of the Tories will tank. they are only riding high presently because the alternatives are so dreadful and because Johnson is the only man who can get a withdrawal agreement over the line, Beyond that, the voting public may start to turn on Johnson. He may need to reset the proceedings in the same way May attempted to do with her Florence speech. If then, Barnier (or whoever replaces him) points out that EEA is still an option, then parliament would do well to press that line.

In short, we are going to see a repeat cycle of an administration whose ambitions far outstrip their competence and subject knowledge while the EU runs rings round them. Johnson for the moment may be the conquering hero but his reign could just as easily fold as Theresa May's did - lacking the leadership ability to get results. The next phase is equally detailed and complicated and we lack the intellectual arsenal to make good of it. All the while we cannot rely on our media to provide any enlightenment.

If anyone thought Brexit day was a new dawn they are in for a deep disappointment. We still face a long road and big battles pivotal to the future of the country are yet to come. Thus far we have walked into every ambush and show no sign of having learned anything and this perpetual Groundhog Day sensation is not going away any time soon. I don't know what it will take to turn it around but on present form we are set to squander what would have been a workable and sustainable outcome. All for the want of a Brexit plan.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Brexit: why and how?


I'm not one for written speeches so when I give my talk on the missed opportunities of Brexit this Wednesday, it will likely follow the video blog format where I riff off a number of themes and take direction from those asking the questions. I thought, though, that it would be useful to lay out a primer of how we arrive at Efta EEA as the preferred outcome for Brexit. 

Firstly we have to establish a few facts.
  • Just under half our trade is done with the EU.
  • Much of our exports only exists because of the facilitation measures inherent to the single market.
  • Frictionless borders is a product of regulatory harmonisation.
  • The EU is a regulatory superpower.
  • If you want to do business with a regulatory superpower then you follow its rules.
  • It doesn't have to take your position into account. 
  • The cost of non-tariff barriers far exceeds the cost of tariffs. 
  • You do the highest volumes of trade with your immediate neighbours.
  • The EU is the largest contiguous regulatory block in the world, extended by way of its own FTAs and external agreements. 
  • The UK already enjoys tariff free trade via a number of EU FTAs.
  • There is no likely combination of new FTAs that could ever offset the loss of the single market.
These statements I believe to be true. On the face of it, therefore, there isn't an economic case for leaving the EU. If only this were just an economic question. Brexit, though, touches on a range of issues which come into conflict with the direction of travel of the EU.

It is said that the EU wishes to be a federal superstate. EU scholars say that ambition ended with Lisbon with a recognition that member states to not share that aim. To a large extent they are right. It's only really the mouth foamers such as Guy Verhofstadt who still speak to that goal.

But the EU is still an incomplete project and one that is still guided by its founding dogma of "Ever closer union". Economic integration is a tool of political integration. As rules are harmonised authority over them is centralised which diminishes the power of national parliaments to reform or repeal laws according to their own values and political manifestos. If we take democracy to mean the ability of peoples to organise and take power to direct the institutions then the EU does not qualify. It is a benign dictatorship but a dictatorship nonetheless. There can be no democratic choice against the treaties.

The EU may never become a federal superstate with homogenised law throughout but it will continue to weaken member state sovereignty and lay down the parameters in which member states must operate. Primarily the objective is to liberalise trade within the borders of the EU so that national borders are increasingly meaningless. Superstate it may not be but it is most certainly a supreme government with the power to overturn laws of member states.

The effect of such rapid integration on the UK has been profound. Economically and culture it has made a deep and lasting impact. It has transformed the culture of politics and government. All levels of government below the EU are constrained by it and must give over much of their resources and time to implementing agendas devised in Brussels and above. The people can be overruled and their decisions nullified.

That the EU has a parliament does not make it a democracy. Elected representatives turning up to rubber stamp initiatives devised by the EU machinery is a figleaf of consent but one lacking a legitimate mandate. Especially when you consider the Euro election turnouts.

This system of government works toward a "level playing field" across Europe. That level playing field, though, is really about removing the obstacles to commerce so that business and workers can move freely around the continent under a single regime. The grand design, though, fails to accommodate national and local laws derived from the customs and values of diverse peoples. The human touch is subordinate to the economic and political integration objectives, alienating ordinary people from their laws and law making institutions. Brexit is a manifestation of that alienation.

In 2016 the public were finally given a choice as to whether to continue working toward the completion of this project. By a small but decisive majority, Britain voted to leave. Though there are a number of individual freedoms created by the EU and a great many economic benefits, the public weighed up these factors against other concerns and on balance decided, despite a wave of warnings, that the economic was subordinate to the political. The British public were not won over by the economic case for remaining. And it was an economic case. At no point did the remain campaign make a case for the vision that drives the European Union.

The case for Brexit has always centred on the desire to repatriate decision making and restoring a sense of control over economic policies that define our country. Immigration and trade are a huge part of that which the EU, to a very large extent influences or controls outright.

The case for Brexit is easily made. Once viewed in terms of what it truly is - a supreme government rather than a "trade bloc", the arguments tend to fall into place. The case for remaining, however, is based on a wholly negative premise that the act of leaving is simply too damaging to our economy and our international standing. That therefore presents a number of questions as to how we extract ourselves from a 45 year old system of government. That's the hard bit.

I have long spoken of the need for a managed departure in recognition of the fact that Brexit is a process, not an event. Many believe that on Brexit day we terminate our membership of the EU and the matter is finally resolved. If only that were true. Being that regulation is the WD40, it is unthinkable that we leave the EU without a system of alternative agreements.

Trade in the modern world is not simply protocols for moving lorries full of tinned beans from Worcestershire to Lisbon. Trade now encompasses all manner of services and digital services that didn't exist even twenty years ago. The EU governs everything from data adequacy, intellectual property to European space policy. Our departure creates a vacuum that must be replaced by a new relationship.

So what form does that relationship take? The British attitude to the EU generally been standoffish, not least because it doesn't carry the same cultural significance. We have traditionally viewed it as an economic necessity in the absence of an alternative. Most Brexiteers will tell you "we just want the trade bit".

But Brexit is not only a question of our relationship with the EU but also our place in the world as a midranking power and medium sized market. For half a century the EU has served our political elites as an empire substitute. Going it alone is not something we have psychologically prepared for.

That is where the bland list of realities mentioned above come into play. There are two types of Brexiter. There are those who hold them to be true and those who deny those realities. The latter believes that leaving without a deal has manageable consequences and an an exaggerated economic impact. I therefore have as much difference of opinion with them as I do remainers.

As mentioned much of our high tech just in time economy is a product of regulatory harmonisation and much of our trade with the EU only exists because of it. An overnight departure, subjecting us to the full force of tariffs and third country controls (as defined by the Notices to stakeholders) is a hammer blow to the UK economy with grave ramifications for jobs. Thus far this has been disregarded as "project fear" - with Brexiters ever keen to remind us that this isn't just an economic question.

On the latter point I do not disagree but the economic question is not one we can afford to ignore. In the bluntest of remainer terms, you can't eat sovereignty. Bills have to be paid. Mortgage payments have to be made. Politics impacts our lives.

Here it is commonly assumed that trade is in the mutual interest and that eventually the EU will do a deal with us. The problem with this point of view is that the EU does not see this issue purely in economic terms any more than we do. The single market is a quarantine area as much as it is a regulatory union. It is a system that facilitates trade but also (in its own estimations) embodies the values of the European Union.

One way or another the EU will seek to conclude a trade relationship with the UK, but will not extend any preference that in any way undermines the basis of the single market or gives a third country a competitive advantage over members. You can have the trade benefits of the single market but only if you are prepared to accept the obligations that go with it.

This has never really sunk in with the British polity. This is betrayed by some of the clumsy abuse of terminology we see peppering the debate. Very often we hear Jeremy Corbyn telling us we need to maintain "a close relationship with the single market". But you can't have a relationship with the single market any more than my body can have a relationship with my right foot. It's either attached and functioning as part of my body or it isn't. You are either part of the single market operating under the same rules or you're not.

For many Brexiters, very probably most of them, the obligations that go with single market membership, not least freedom of movement, is too high a price to pay. Brexiters also believe that regulatory independence is a pillar of the Brexit canon. The hardliners believe that unless those two objectives are met then we have not meaningfully left the EU.

The essential problem here is that Brexiter objectives are now decades old. Regulatory independence as a demand stems from the old Conservative belief that pettifogging regulations were a burden on business that stifle international competitiveness and that regulations at an EU level are stacked in the favour of global corporates designed to cripple competition. The latter is partly true and the regulatory process will never not be corrupt and politically skewed according to who has the best lobbyist.

Having looked at this debate from every imaginable angle it's always six of one and half a dozen of the other. But the fact remains that the EEA single market is the world's largest contiguous regulatory area and the most sophisticated and British exporters and service provides face innumerable obstacles to commerce outside of the European regulatory ecosystem.

Complicating it further, the EU has for the last two decades used global standards as the basis of its regulations and the base framework of regulatory cooperation in its external relations. Globally we are moving toward a single regime of standards, leaving only the USA and China as the sticks in the mud. Were we to secure a deal with the USA according to their system of standards, even if it doubled the volume of trade done with the USA (which not FTA has ever done) it wouldn't come close to mitigating the loss of the single market.

The scope for divergence, therefore is minimal and leaving the single market leaves us broadly aligned against a backdrop of a public that doesn't favour deregulation, only we'll have lost the recognitions and authorisations necessary to participate in European markets on the same terms. The buccaneering "Global Britain" dogma does not account for these realities, very often placing undue emphasis on tariffs as the tool of trade liberalisation.

Leaving the single market, therefore is somewhat self-defeating. It would be logical were Brexit motivated by a strain of nationalist protectionism but we are told by the Tories that this move is primarily about free trade. That is not to say there isn't a nationalist protectionist mentality in the mix but that's a relatively recent phenomenon as relations with the EU have soured in the last few months.

The logic of leaving the single market is further eroded as industries such as automotive, computing and electronics are becoming more regionally concentrated, with companies increasingly looking to make their products close to market to be better able to cater for changing patterns in consumer demand and to reduce disruption from political risks such as a trade war, which is known as near-shoring.

Much of what is commonly understood about trade follows assumptions from the previous decade of globalisation when offshoring was the fashion and corporates moved around to exploit differences in tax regimes and labour standards. To some extent the EU has sought to close some of these holes by way of its own "level playing field" provisions and seemingly it has an effect.

But if we are ruling out the single market then we must evaluate the alternatives. Having no relationship at all is obviously not a solution which puts us in FTA territory. In respect of that the EU is increasingly moving toward a boilerplate model of zero tariffs, a 50% Rules Of Origin threshold and, depending on proximity, customs cooperation protocols using WTO conventions as a baseline along with similarly boilerplate affirmations on technical standards. Although the UK could adapt to this model it would soon reveal its own inadequacy. Regulatory cooperation in EU FTAs is only rudimentary where the most advanced it gets is the framework for vehicle type approvals as defined by UNECE.

Under this regime there would be considerable administrative overhead in order to exploit trade preferences. UK goods would not be subject to tariffs and the generous ROO threshold would suffice for most eventualities, but overall we would still be looking at a dramatic reduction of trade with the EU. We are then looking at the next level up where the UK would follow Switzerland in adopting parts of the EU acquis with ECJ decisions having direct applicability.

At this point the conditions begin to erode the logic of leaving the single market. In short, the UK pays a heavy price for prioritising the end of Freedom of Movement and as we rebuild trade relations over time, there si the danger of becoming the "vassal state" as our regulatory relationship evolves.

The truth of the matter is that the UK, not least because of our size and proximity was always going to become a "rule taker" (to use a clumsy phrase). Brexiters could and should have anticipated this and recognised it as an inescapable consequence of Brexit. Had they done so they'd have recognised that the real emphasis should not be on what rules we adopt, rather the mode of adoption. If the intent was to remove the influence of the ECJ and to repatriate the decision making process then the best available model for trade and cooperation with the EU is the EEA via Efta.

I not not here rehearse the argument of how the EEA Efta relationship functions. Some will never budge from the assertion that Efta is a passive recipient of rules and a slave to the ECJ as it suits their own narratives to do so. I only ask that implacable opponents of the option identify a better alternative.

The sticking point, though, continues to be Freedom of Movement - and while "liberal leavers" can (and do) argue that it's a secondary consideration, it has lodged itself into the Brexit narrative as something that must end come what may. The Leave Alliance has always taken the view that the issues must be addressed in order of significance in which case we deal with the process of exiting the EU first and the matter of immigration later down the line. We identified a process beginning with Article 112 of the EEA agreement that could fundamentally reform FoM as we know it.

That, though, is a hard sell especially when we're dealing with full spectrum ideologues who will find any excuse not to acknowledge reality. Put simply, the puritanical sovereignty sought by Brexiteers is possible but of limited utility and the "free trade" envisaged by leavers is based on a faulty premise. We must choose form an array of suboptimal trade-offs.

In this I have always taken the view that our relationship with the EU is a continuum and though from a Brexiter perspective the EEA Efta solution is far from optimal, our weight combined with that of Efta could be applied to reshape and rebuild an agreement which is long due an overhaul anyway. A re-balancing of the equation would make the single market a joint venture rather than the exclusive domain of the EU.

The point of such a relationship is less to diverge from where we are. Rather it is a means to draw a line in the sand to say this far and no further, allowing us to opt out of further integration and allowing for negotiated divergence as and when necessary. This is in recognition that the EU is a power with which we must contend as an independent state. Were you to listen to Brexiteers you could almost get the impression that the EU stops existing after Brexit day and it ceases to have any influence over our internal and external affairs. We may wish that were true but it isn't.

A pragmatic government would recognise that though 52% is indeed a mandate to leave the EU, neither extreme of the debate offers us a sustainable way forward. Britain values its open relationships and its global reputation for open markets but does not see itself as a mere region in a politically motivated homogenising integrationist project. A solution does exist if we are willing to make the necessary compromises but it requires a thorough understanding of the issues and a desire to reunite the country.

Presently both sides of the Brexit debate are playing double or quits, and the Brexiteers have behaved shamefully in trying to provoke the worst behaviours of the opposition in order to advance their intellectually stunted ultra-Brexit agenda. Similarly "lexiters" share a great many traits with Corbynites who believe that once we are free of the EU we can subsidise, bail out and privatise without international reprisals. Leavers seem to have lost sight of the fact that Brexit is not an economic proposition, rather it is an assertion of independence and a statement that we are allies and partners of the EU but not subordinated to it.

Brexit of itself delivers nothing in terms of tangible economic benefits and it is unlikely that we will ever roll back the cultural impact of the EU in our politics, and much of what ails the UK is only tangentially related to EU membership. Many of our problems stem from an antiquated system of government with a flawed democracy which is long overdue a radical overhaul as set out in The Harrogate Agenda. Brexit provides a window of political opportunity but leaving the EU is only a catalyst. A failure to secure a viable outcome to the immediate Brexit process will only make that process longer and more costly. 

Brexiters still need to be patient


For someone who shows so little patience with people I sometimes surprise myself with how patient I can be with the Brexit process. I'm not one for screaming betrayal every five minutes and though parliament is doing its best to frustrate the process, if we're being generous, there is some just cause for doing so. There is no basis for MPs to trust Johnson and this close to the cliff edge he could always pull a nasty surprise out of the bag.

On that score I'm happy to concede the point that the Brexit process needs more time. Johnson was cutting it fine where if there were any complications ratifying on the EU side (enormous hubris to assume it would be smooth sailing) we could end up with an accidental no deal Brexit. The Letwin amendment is an annoyance but I will also concede that the WAB needs a debate not least so the public can properly digest it. If we are going to the trouble of a managed departure then rushing through complex legislation is no way to go about it.

At this point it should be noted that after all the effort to take no deal off the table, the rebels have played their last card. No deal is now very much back on the table. If the deal wasn't open for renegotiation before then it certainly isn't now. Without a change of government and without a coherent reason for requesting a delay then this time around I strongly suspect the EU will pull the plug. It will become abundantly clear that a deal cannot make it through parliament.

Between now and the next cliff edge we are likely to see the usual wreckers playing their usual sordid little games but it smells like they don't have the numbers for a second referendum (and this parliament certainly does not have the legitimacy to do so) and further wrecking measures such as a tacked on customs union is likely to stall the ratification process. In all likelihood we will waste yet another extension and coast toward the next cliff edge.

What's interesting is that parliament has twigged that even if a deal is passed then there is still a second cliff edge should we fail to conclude a treaty defining the future relationship. They seem to be distracted by that, oblivious to the new cliff edge they themselves have created. 

For now it would seem that the wreckers are winning the battles but losing the war. They can frustrate government business but all the while the chicanery has not gone unnoticed and the chances of a Johnson landslide keep growing. If parliament won't consent to a general election and won't ratify a deal then it's difficult to see how this doesn't end in tears. Not forgetting that Johnson has problems of his own making in throwing the DUP under the bus. Johnson may well find that he has no more success in passing a deal than his predecessor. It could be that the only way to pass any deal in this parliament would be to revert to Theresa May's deal. Such a scenario is so pregnant with irony that we cannot discount it.

This, of course, is all on the assumption that we get an extension this time around, where the EU will be paying close attention to see if there is any point. If an extension means three more months of witless fumbling only to end up right back here, you certainly couldn't blame them for writing it off as a bad jobs and leave us to get to with it.

This is a distinct possibility, though The Telegraph reports that Johnson may "scrap his Brexit deal". This seriously complicates matters. That means the European Council will let its extension decision run to the wire and could make it conditional either on a referendum or a general election. That would then require the government to put the decision to the Westminster parliament to decide, but if there was then a general election, it might not be until next year.

This, though, is where I have to suspend the speculation being that the situation is fluid and changing by the hour. It could all look different by morning and change again by the end of the week. This is why, as some have noted, my predictions often turn out to be crap. I should know better by now. 

On a final note, I will be giving a talk at Kings College in London this Wednesday on a loose theme of Efta and missed opportunities. There will be a Q&A session and will hopefully make it to a pub afterwards. Hope to see some of you there.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Labour is barking up the wrong tree


There has been much talk this week of "level playing field" - chiefly workers rights. There's a lot to unpack here. The basic nature of Labour's manufactured niggle with the withdrawal agreement is the childish presumption that without provisions guaranteeing a minimum array of rights the Tories will prune back those rights to Victorian levels (women down mines and children up chimneys).

Firstly we should note that there wasn't much wrong with existing workers rights before the onslaught of EU rules that couldn't have been addressed by our own democratic processes and institutions. I also think that a number of measures designed to improve rights had the complete opposite effect. It's no coincidence that permanent work became harder to find. Every intervention has unintended consequences.

But there's also a lot that needs to understood about EU "workers rights". Every intervention has a specific purpose and usually it's got nothing to do with workers rights at all. Unions are in the business of improving workers rights for its own sake whereas the EU uses them for a number of political objectives. Primarily they serve as a tool of integration (and subsequent appropriation of powers) but they also serve as a handy means of trade protectionism. They are also very obviously of great propaganda value of the EU as we have seen this week.

But this is where the EU pulls a fast one. The EU claims that there is no mass of legislation emanating from Brussels, choking businesses to death as the Tories would have it. The bulk of legislation that regulates the labour market, they claim, is of national origin. "European laws simply set down minimum standards for health and safety at work and deal with matters such as the right to free movement of workers, equal rights for men and women at work and some labour law which deals with certain rights in specific situations such as collective dismissals, or where a company changes hands or when an employer becomes bankrupt".

The claim that rules are of national origin is always something of a deception in that directives instruct member states to legislate according to parameters defined by the EU so the origin question is never clear cut. This runs throughout the whole debate about where our laws really come from. The thrust, though, is toward "ever closer union" and harmonisation between member states. 

One such instrument being the Posted Workers Directive which regulates a practice used between companies located in different countries. A worker is posted when their original employer sends them to work, for a temporary period, in another company. Posting has been defined as a specific form of labour mobility within the EU. It generates extensive controversy due to fraudulent practices hampering the enforcement of existing regulations. Changes in the location of work raises various questions - namely, who is the employer and which national regulations apply. The use of temporary agencies, subcontracting and posting of self-employed workers gives rise to additional problems.

This is something of a beneficial crisis for the EU which uses something that affects only 1% of the workforce to drive harmonisation on maximum work periods and minimum rest periods, minimum paid annual holidays, the minimum rates of pay, including overtime rates, gender equality, the conditions of hiring-out of workers and health, safety at work. Initially it started out as a set of minimum standards but over the years has evolved into a rigid schema of legislation which is no longer an exclusive competence of member states.

Cutting to the chase, once something becomes an EU competence and the EU is the supreme authority, national parliaments lose the ability to define their own rules and certainly not without checking with Brussels first. Our own rules can be struck down if they in any way interfere with the integration agenda. Ultimately the EU single market envisages a homogenised labour market throughout where the same job has the same pay and conditions wherever you go.

In theory that's great but in practice it neuters national unions who then have to operate as lobbyists at the European level. They then become obedient cogs in the machinery while traditional union activity is replaced by works councils - widely adopted by corporates to freeze out unions. Workers rights, therefore, are largely a technocratic mechanism for the balancing of an economic programme and not done altruistically. If we had a Labour movement worth speaking of, it would strongly object to being sidelined by the EU.

Instead of leaping on Brexit as an opportunity to revitalise the union movement and "take back control", the Labour party sees the EU as a guarantor of those minimum standards - a safe locker where advances (for what they are worth) are bound up in an external treaty. They're working on the presumption that Labour won't be taking power any time soon. Instead of addressing why that might be, they work to neuter Brexit instead.

But then to a very large extent Labour is barking up the wrong tree this week. Though the level playing field provisions have been removed from the withdrawal agreement and shunted into the political declaration, they needn't worry. This has been done to give Johnson an illusory victory knowing that no future relationship treaty will be agreed unless there is a competition policy chapter.

The fact, though, that these provisions come under competition policy of itself should inform Labour (had they bothered to check) that the workers rights are more to do with trade than ensuring Janine in accounting has a VDU assessment and a foot pedestal for her arthritis. Had they looked at any EU FTA they'd see that the provisions largely employ International Labour Organisation standards which for the most part are geared toward stamping out the more egregious practices found in developing countries such as child labour and compulsory labour. Not exactly a high bar for the UK to reach or maintain. 

As with most other chapters of modern EU FTAs on standards, be they food standards or vehicle safety standards, the FTAs only really reaffirm existing global conventions. The same is true of competition rules. The EU-Japan FTA states "The Parties reaffirm their obligations deriving from the International Labour Organisation". Much of the text is lifted verbatim from multilateral agreements that the UK would be an independent signatory to even on a no deal basis.

The fact is, if Labour wanted to retain the high level of labour governance that goes with EU membership then they should have campaigned for an EEA Efta solution. Leaving the single market means leaving the European regulatory ecosystem and all the social flanking policies. Labour assumes that level playing field provisions provide the same guarantees when in fact they're arguing for the "WTO rules" of labour rights. A minimum framework that provides no real guarantees at all. Even with the "level playing field" provisions, the Tories can still have a field day with deregulation. 

As it happens the Labour party is just looking for any excuse to derail the withdrawal agreement and latching onto anything that sounds remotely plausible. One should also note that if this was their sticking point they should have voted for May's deal when they could. But then by now it should be abundantly clear that Labour is opposing the deal for its own sake. For the progressives in Labour, these parlour games are more about stopping Brexit than any heartfelt concern for workers rights. Corbyn just gets dragged along with it because he's a coward. Ultimately you could give Labour whatever they demanded and they would still go fishing for something else to object to. They're taking us for fools.