Friday, 22 September 2017

Mrs May's Florence ambush - setting the stage for a walk-out.

I think Mrs May's speech in Florence yesterday was a turning point. Though it was short on detail, it was heavy on soothing rhetoric. This is not out of the ordinary, but the fact it was billed as a game changer and given in Florence (to much fanfare) tells us this is all part of a propaganda stunt aimed at a domestic audience.

Though the speech has been universally panned on Twitter, it should not be forgotten that Twitter is largely a bubble where hacks interact with each other to the exclusion of all else. The layman and the party faithful, however, will see it only at face value - an ambitious and reasonable offer to the EU. In politics you only need fool some of the people some of the time.

The speech, though, is an ambush. Because of the technical nature of Brexit, the EU first needs the procedural elements completed as per the Article 50 sequence. There is nothing in Mrs May's speech which addresses any of the phase one issues or adds any weight to the position papers thus far submitted. Thus, there is nothing the Commission can say apart from a reiteration of that which has already been said for the billionth time; rhetoric is insufficient.

That means Mrs may can now play the "unreasonable and inflexible" card - painting the EU as the obstacle - while the right wing media messages that same narrative. In effect the government is giving the Commission the runaround by failing to engage in talks at all. Even our position papers have been insultingly shallow - and probably not by accident. This is to maintain the illusion that serious negotiations are underway. This explains why May felt it necessary to say that we have already agreed in a number of areas when in fact nothing has been agreed at all.

It rather looks to me like the stage is being set for a walkout - and one which has been planned for some time. At the very least the Commission's rejection of May's "offer" will give her the capital she needs to play it tough to the home crowd at the Tory conference. Meanwhile, the media have fallen for the decoy, trying to read the runes with regard to the future relationship. They have failed to spot that the speech is deliberately short on detail. This was not intended to bring any clarity to the proceedings. Quite the opposite. This is a political ploy.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Another Brexit timewaster

I am told I would be more effective if I limited my criticisms to the arguments and not the people. There is a certain cowardice in that position because people and their behaviour are very much at the centre of the problem. If it isn't the twisted mental contortions of Andrew Lilico or the outright lies of Boris Johnson and the Brexit Taliban, then it's ambitious social climbers whose opinions turn on a dime.

Then there are the wafflers and timewasters. A prime example of such being Henry Newman of Open Europe, unsurprisingly airing his ignorance on Conservative Home. Typically he sets up the EEA as the straw man...
What we do know is that the Government has ruled out the exact same relationship as Norway or Switzerland: the Lancaster House Speech made clear that we would leave the Single Market. And that hasn’t changed. The Treasury, however, seems to favour a position that leaves us just outside of the Single Market – the so-called “EEA minus” position. Their proposal would entail locking the UK in a regulatory ERM. We would technically be outside the EU and its Single Market, without a seat around the table or ability directly to shape regulations, but bound to implement all the EU’s rules and regulations anyway, other than if we made special pleading in a few exceptional cases.
Readers of this blog or any other with a command of the basics knows these mischaracterisations of the EEA option to be deliberate. These zombie arguments don't seem to die - but that goes with the territory. And then something else that goes with the territory is this... 
The Treasury is inexorably pushing Whitehall towards a Brexit that would limit our chances of ever seizing new opportunities outside the EU. It’s almost as if their aim is to prove Jean-Claude Juncker right – to show that Britain would have a worse deal outside the EU than we do inside. But there is an alternative: placing Britain further towards the centre of the spectrum between Norway/Switzerland and Canada. This would ensure the UK’s right to regulate our markets, and still leave the possibility of opting to adopt some of Europe’s regulations. Ministers need to be candid about the costs of such an approach, but also open to its potential benefits.
And this is where I lose all patience. Time and again these morons pluck things out of the air with no idea what they mean or any idea how to implement them. We've heard all of this before. EEA lite or WTO plus or Pick'n'Mix as though EU relations were a counter at Woolworth's.

For the uninitiated (not that you have any excuses by now) when Brexiters refer to a Canada style deal they mean an FTA in goods with a few added extras. The proposal here above being something that borrows from all the options on the table - which would effectively a bespoke mish-mash of bilaterals encompassing everything from goods to Euratom and Open Skies. As much as Newman has no idea what that even looks like, a destination without a roadmap is entirely worthless.

But in all likelihood the purpose of Newman's article is not to offer a vision on the way forward - rather these are weasel words to position himself between camps in the run up to the Conservative conference. It all sounds very reasonable to the non-thinking fraternity and is calculated for that very end - thus Conservative Home is once again engaged in manipulating its audience.

Sadly we are going to have to put up with a lot of this before, during and after the conference. The temptation is to expend energy debunking it but this is a fever that will have to burn out of its own accord. It is not deserving of serious attention.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

In the belly of the beast

Ironic it is that I have spent much of the week exalting the virtues of independent blogging while not actually having written anything at all. I do, however, have something of an excuse this week in that I've been out and about in London on Leave Alliance business.

In any case, nothing has changed. For all the noise we are still nowhere, with little more than partial leaks and speculation to go on with the occasional decoy thrown in for good measure. Not until we see what Mrs May's Florence speech says next week will we have any more of a clue. And even then, there are no guarantees. 

It's actually telling that I should have been invited to do The Times Brexit podcast. Ordinarily to the legacy media, the blogosphere does not exist, but even they're so stuck for fresh material they will reach out - if only for the free content. It was, however, an interesting distraction and a chance to see inside the belly of the beast. 

The purpose of my visit to London, however, was to visit the Institute for Government for an informal chat on trade and international organisations. For those not aware of their work, the IfG is a non-partisan governance think tank doing a fairly competent job of breaking into Brexitology. They produce some adequate briefings for the layman, and though vastly superior to the output of Tory think tanks, their desire to stay neutral makes their material sterile to the point of being inert. 

It's not until you see their operation that it becomes clear why. The IfG is based in exclusive offices just off The Mall. Their outfit trades entirely on prestige. The illusion of importance. A confidence trick. It's all about putting on big name events and conferences, stroking the egos of nonentity politicians and releasing reports to set the agenda for the day.

If they want to stay in business they have to play the game and be cautious with their criticism. If they upset or offend then pretty soon senior politicians won't turn up to their events. That's how the game works. But that's actually how they end up saying nothing and accomplishing very little. For sure they have a steady stream of notable politicians darkening their door, but without robust criticism it is largely the bubble speaking unto the bubble. 

One feature of the Brexit debate is a number of similar organisations producing dozens of reports, all of which are forgotten within a day of publication. Many of them do not expand the debate nor do they add much to what we already know. It would seem that their only business is to stay in business - to remain at the centre of the bubble for its own sake. 

Though we have heard much over the last few years about "the establishment", this is as establishment as it gets. The network of London think tanks make up the core of polite society where the dead hand of decorum means that there is no quality control whatsoever. The system is its own insular universe of mutual praise so there is no quality control at all. Everything everybody does is "marvellous" and "brilliant". We don't call 'em metro-luvvies for nothing. 

This goes someway to explaining why I am not well received online in that I say all those things that one is not supposed to say, and do not offer unwarranted praise. Privately I am told by many that they agree with what I say but cannot be publicly associated with it. It wouldn't matter if I sanitised it, I'm just saying inconvenient things and in the bubble any criticism is "impolite" - but more importantly, a commercial risk. 

But this is why the output from think tanks tends to be so lacklustre. They won't say what needs to be said in no uncertain terms. It needs to be said without hesitation or reservation that the government's current strategy is entirely wrong-headed, and that the consequences of a no deal Brexit can hardly be overstated. It must also be said that the inane and singularly crass economic theories of the hard Brexiters are nothing short of negligence bordering on lunacy. 

But there is another reason the bubble debate is so utterly shallow. Half of the politico-media bubble is run by unsupervised children. There is no premium on quality research. Interns and junior wonks are cheap - good for looking up facts and figures - and that's what they think research is. They can cobble together factual reports - but there isn't the breadth of experience or maturity to bring any real insight to it - or to see any of the strategic opportunities that good research creates. What they produce is forgettable PDF fodder. 

It is not my intent in any way to denigrate the IfG in that they are as good as that system is ever going to get - but this dynamic is entirely typical of London think-tankery - which is entirely dependent on bright young things of a certain ilk. The PPE master race. This also extends to our media where leader articles for international flagship newspapers are written the office juniors. The political apparatus is the same throughout as Oliver Norgrove confirmed to me.  

Of course I did not need to go to London to learn this. I've been around the block a few times and had my introduction to this world before thanks to the late Helen Szamuely. It is from her I learned my healthy disdain for Toryboys, wonks and apparatchiks. All the same it was interesting to view it through more mature eyes. 

At one time in my life I might have been star struck by a prestigious office at the heart of the machine, excited by the prime minister's police motorcade dashing by with a sense of purpose and urgency. Now I view it with wry amusement. It's all a facade. Every bit of it. I hate Westminster that little bit more every time I am pulled into its field of gravity.   

Now that I'm knocking on a bit, in my late thirties, London leaves me too tired to even think. But I guess that explains its political inhabitants. And for once I don't mean that in a sardonic and disrespectful way. It really does beat you up. A meeting here, a presentation there and then media interviews for the rest of the day. You cover a lot of mileage. You barely even know what is going on in the news while you're out and about, let alone able to form a coherent opinion on it. When you get home, all you want to do have a large glass of wine and hit the sack.

This goes someway to explaining why MPs are so hopelessly reliant on the legacy media and parliamentary briefings for information. And this explains why MPs haven't a clue between them. Who is writing the news? Who is writing the briefings? Think tanks!

The dynamic is made worse when MPs have only a very short attention span and only a limited window for absorbing information. You have to break complex issues down into the basics so they can be communicated orally. That doesn't work even at the best of times since they hear so many conflicting views, but when we are dealing with something like Brexit, coherence is next to impossible. Not least since MPs agree with the last person they spoke to and the think tanks aren't even getting the basics right.

Ultimately the system is broken. The inputs don't work. You can set the agenda for the day if you have certain assets at your command - but that's literally all it achieves. It doesn't contribute anything. Thus these think tanks are just stepping stones for bright young things to have a career in media and politics - only to become not-so-bright, not-so-young things running The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. 

In the end, the work has to be done from outside the bubble and fed into the system through brute force. This is what we did with Flexcit and this is how The Leave Alliance continues to punch above its weight. A band of bloggers don't need an SW1 address and don't have the distractions of life in the bubble. No useless meetings to attend at the other side of town.

They say we could achieve more if we were less "abrasive", not offending and not speaking out - but what does that achieve? The bubble dwellers are all very professional and polite to each other - but because they won't call out folly and corruption where they see it, the Legatum Institute snake is coiled around the throat of government. It's the elephant in the room. The IfG knows it, The Times knows it, and I'm absolutely certain the Telegraph is in on it. It's the biggest open secret in Westminster - and nobody is talking about it. 

And that's why they don't like bloggers intruding on their territory. Not only do we see the elephant, we have name for it, and we are breaking the rules by being impolite. They tell us we will get nowhere - but we are still here, still shaping the debate - and we are not going away. 

Monday, 11 September 2017

Smelling like a set-up

Today our friends at Legatum Institute published their proposal on how to handle the matter of the Northern Ireland border. Ordinarily these such reports are forgotten within twenty four hours of publication, but as Legatum are the sole advisers to the Tory Brexiteers, what they say becomes currency in the debate. What they say tends to linger like a bad smell.

The only use this particular report has is as a crystal ball to tell us why and how Article 50 talks will stall. A Legatum report will become the backbone of UK position papers.

The report in question is more or less a micro version of their broader approach to trade which assumes that the UK can have bespoke mutual recognition agreements on standards and conformity assessment along with the ability to diverge at will without consultation. Categorically this is not going to happen.

They also assume that the customs controls on the border can be replaced with behind the border controls based on advanced technology, some of it barely in its infancy. This would be a stretch even if there were no time constraints.

As outlined before, the only way we can ensure an open border in Ireland is to replicate as much of the existing regulatory infrastructure as possible - and since the customs aspects of these arrangements will be unprecedented exceptions the whole settlement will have to be an NI specific special status.

The reason for this being that the NI border also becomes the EU's outer frontier - which we are effectively proposing to demilitarise (for want of a better word). No such arrangement presently exists anywhere in the world and were the EU to make exceptions for the UK in this regard it would have to make the same exception for all. That is how the rules based system works.

This will not be an easy feat. For it to work, the UK needs to present proposals that take account of the EU's technical and legal constraints. Pie in the sky proposals with no acknowledgement of these realities will fold immediately. We have to meet them half way.

The EU is amenable to realistic proposals and will bend over backwards to make it work but one rather suspects Legatum is up to no good. To me it looks like a ploy, presenting something so unworkable, but plausible to the novice, that the EU gets the blame for inflexibility. This could be the pretext for a walkout.

Ultimately the Tories have got it in their heads, largely thanks to Legatum telling them what they want to hear, that we can patch together bespoke and untried instruments without regard to the obligations and commitments that come with customs cooperation. This is simply not a serious proposition and categorically cannot work.

I've been watching the chatter on Twitter and elsewhere today and no trade analyst I hold in any esteem thinks Legatum is even on this planet. That is actually nothing new for London think tanks. They are all dominated by political chancers and frauds. What should worry us is that the Brexiteers have effectively privatised trade policy and outsourced it exclusively to Legatum because they make soothing noises. As corrupt as it is, it is also dangerous. If this is what is informing the government then we are very much in trouble.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Trade must always be subordinate to democracy

I do not seem to be able to learn the lesson that one can disagree with something and just ignore it. Consequently I have committed myself to blogging a piece by Professor Paul James Cardwell in Prospect Magazine. His contention is that "The free trade case for Brexit is folly and crucially, it is new. Eurosceptics never used to buy into it".
“First of all, leaving the EU gives us back control of our trade policy, and gives us the opportunity to maximise returns from free trade.” These words were spoken by David Davis on 11th July last year. Post-Brexit, getting trade deals with countries the world over has become the new mantra. The prime minister’s visit to Japan last week brought this into sharp focus. But getting new trade deals (and getting them quickly) seems to have become not just a consequence of Brexit but a reason for doing it. What is puzzling is where the desire for an “independent trade policy”—as Brexiteers call it—has come from so suddenly.
To save reproducing the whole text I would recommend a read of the whole article. Cardwell examines UK government sources such as The Balance of Competences Review in 2013, the Conservative Manifestos and Vote Leave tract. Probably the last places I would look to ascertain the pedigree of eurosceptic views. 

In eurosceptic land I can't ever recall a time when Eurosceptics weren't banging on about trade. Euroscepticism has always built itself on the Glorious Revival - ie "restoring links with the Commonwealth" and latterly Anglospheric models such as CANZUK. These mantras about "trading with the rest of the world" are as old as euroscepticism itself. In fact, if I grab any piece of Eurosceptic tract off the shelf I am sure to encounter the phrase "the EU is a protectionist racket". 

But then this was always from the Colonel Blimp quarter of euroscepticism - and much of the material circulated via mail groups and A4 pamphlets long before the mass adoption of internet. All that, though, has since been buried as Ukip popularised itself on the issue of immigration - leaving the trade to be pecked over by the "free market" Tory think tanks. Namely the Institute of Economic Affairs. This is where the crackpot Minford theories come from, which again are as old as euroscepticism. 

That wing of euroscepticism has always been obsessed with tariffs and the costs of regulation - and being that regulation is a facet of trade, repatriating trade policy is a prerequisite to the much vaunted "bonfire" of it. A eurosceptic canard that goes back to the dark ages.  

Though "red tape" is a recurrent piece of right wing scripture, and bread and butter for the tabloid press, it has always been the obsession of the ultra right who have been in the political wilderness for twenty years or more. They who viewed Cameron as a simpering leftist. That is why you won't find it in any recent Tory manifesto. 

Interestingly though, there has never been a unified view on trade issues in that Euroscepticism has always used whatever stick available to beat the EU with, whether it be consistent or not. Consequently there has always been a strong vein of protectionism in Euroscepticism when convenient. 

It is interesting that Cardwell mentions The Referendum Party which was "according to Zac Goldsmith, founded by his father due to his opposition to EU law applying in the UK and the supposed assault on “ancient English civil liberties.” Nothing to do with global trade". As it happens, James Goldsmith used to talk about trade quite a lot and, interestingly, he was fiercely anti-trade liberalisation. Then on the left of Euroscepticism there has always been an economic nationalism.

There has always been a schizophrenia in euroscepticism where "free trade" was good, just not European free trade - because, obviously, anything to do with the EU is bad, even if it's good. The issue of trade, however, has always been an implied issue in the debate, in that the roots of euroscepticism boil down to one concept alone - sovereignty. 

What Cardwell has latched on to is the sudden popularisation of "free trade" but this really isn't anything new. It has always been part of the narrative that we are "shackled to a corpse" and leaving the EU could herald a new era of buccaneering free trade. That was the carrot we always used.

Since the referendum free trade has become a central theme in that it is a necessary device for the ultras to push for hard Brexit. It is a tacit admission that leaving the EU will come at the cost of some European trade and this nebulous concept of "free trade" will miraculously fill the void. 

Cardwell is right to note, however, that eurosceptic interest in trade in the more specific context of EU FTAs is a recent thing. This is more political opportunism in that right wing eurosceptics noted some rumbling on the left about TTIP and something called ISDS. If the left saw it as something inherently evil and something that threatened the NHS, then it was an obvious issue to adopt. It was always understood that a mandate for leaving the EU could not be won without winning the backing of the old left. In the same vein, the right were never especially interested in the fate of Greece, but if the left were raving about it, it was a handy device.

In fact, it would be correct to say that eurosceptics have never really cared about anything in politics except for leaving the EU because we're all monomaniac bores with a sovereignty fetish. When you are convinced that the EU is the root of all the problems, the problems themselves become less interesting - and the sole mission is to attack the root cause with anything that comes to hand. That's why there has never been any real consistency in euroscepticism. This is also why most of the popular leave case collapses post-referendum. 

The reason the hard right have nothing to bring to the table is simply because they've never bothered to update their views or understand the issues. This is why there is such intellectual poverty in Tory think tanks. They are the dog that finally caught the bus it was chasing. 

Ultimately the eurosceptics have been fighting the EEC for thirty years and are not now intellectually equipped to handle the process of leaving. The EU is a beast that crept up on them and it is not one they understand. They don't know exactly what they do want, only what they don't - and if there is an answer it must have something to do with "free trade" - whatever that means. 

But ultimately, in taking such delight in Brexiteer disarray, Cardwell gets ahead of himself because there is actually a very sound rationale for taking back control of trade. 

Cardwell makes note of the common critique that "deals concluded by the EU are substandard because they have to satisfy 28 member states and can be vetoed by any one of them (as we saw with the Walloon Parliament on the Canada deal)". But this misses the point, says Cardwell. "Any form of comprehensive, bilateral deal takes a very long time: there is no evidence of any “quick” deals between major economies. And the more ambitious the deal, the longer it takes. The fact that the EU’s internal ratification process is lengthy is something of a red herring".

I disagree. It is an entirely valid criticism that FTAs are bureaucratic, cumbersome and prone to failure. Years were invested in TTIP for it to fall flat, CETA had whole tracts removed from it in order to pass, and the EU has a habit of counting its chickens before they hatch. Cardwell is right to say that any form of comprehensive, bilateral deal takes a very long time but when you do have to clear them with 28 governments the scope for failure and dilution is magnified many times. 

But actually, everyone is missing the point here; the Brexiters, the remainers and indeed the EU. This actually points to the folly of ambitious and far-reaching FTAs. They make for good headlines and they serve as propaganda set pieces, but the more intelligent way to go about trade is through unbundling, seeking out sectoral agreements and establishing global standards one product at a time. 

To be able to do this, the UK needs to be able to pick and choose its alliances in all of the top regulatory forums and if bound by EU membership it has no independent vote, no right of reservation and no right of initiative. If we are to modernise our approach to trade, moving beyond the dinosauric FTA, then leaving the EU becomes a prerequisite.

It is a depressing facet of the debate that the FTA has become the holy grail of trade. Keeping score between the EU and the UK on how many FTAs they can each pass is not the measure of Brexit success. This is a remainer paradigm and it is one writhing in incomprehension. Big and comprehensive FTAs are largely the domain of regulatory superpowers with large markets and our ability to play that game will be limited. 

The UK will have to look at entirely new approaches and everyone concerned is going to have to come to terms with the fact that FTAs are not the only instrument of trade. One of the most seismic agreements in modern times was not an agreement between any bloc or country, but an accord between standards bodies. MoUs and cooperation agreements involving UK expertise can put us at the forefront of regulatory innovation. Notwithstanding Brexit, BSI is still a major international influence. 

Furthermore, as we repatriate trade, we also take back control of a major part of our aid spending, allowing us to reintegrate trade, aid and foreign policy where we can look at trade facilitation measures, working with a whole spectrum of international organisations to secure and increase the profitability of value chains. If we fall into the trap of assuming FTAs are the only measure of success then we are setting ourselves up to fail. 

As far as FTAs are concerned, the UK should be primarily concerned with carrying over existing relations we enjoy via the EU and negotiating a mechanism for opting into EU FTAs as and when they arise. After which the UK needs to look beyond the myopia of the FTA paradigm and look at navigating the upper tiers of the trade and regulatory ecosystem to its advantage. As an independent player the UK can be more agile and more creative. 

Ultimately though, the modern FTA is far from just a trade deal. Increasingly they require the selective pooling of sovereignty and establishing mechanisms for regulatory harmonisation. Consequently any deal is yet more trust invested in systems that facilitate the automatic adoption of rules and standards. This puts governance on autopilot whereby we find we are adopting standards and regulations by way of statutory instruments without scrutiny or debate. 

The scrutiny that does happen is way off the radar, not in the public eye and very often escapes media attention. Every trade deal has its own chlorinated chicken and it's only the more controversial aspects that receive any real attention. This has always been a negative feature of EU membership in that we have continually adopted rules without forewarning, destroying businesses at the stroke of a pen, with no real safeguards and no means of reform.

Now that the EU is expanding the scope of its trade exclusivity and is increasingly adopting its regulations from the private regulatory sphere, little by little we are witnessing the establishment of a global single market of private legislation where the torch of democracy never shines. As much as the EU has never really been an adequate safeguard against sweeping globalisation, the problem is set only to get worse. 

We are told that trade liberalisation is near universally good, but sovereign peoples must have a means of control and the right to say no. To continue on the path of ceding ever more sovereignty is every bit as bad as Patrick Minford's theorem of unilateral trade liberalisation. It removes the decision making from government leaving us to cope with the fallout without ever having been usefully consulted. 

The case can very easily be made that the repatriation of trade will lead to a slowdown in trade liberalisation, possibly resulting in a drop in living standards, but this is not entirely an economic estimation. It underestimates the value people place on having some degree of control and not being subject to the whims of market forces. Trade liberalisation has externalities and consequences for traditions, heritage, social cohesion and landscapes and, rightly, the public feel that not everything is to be sacrificed on the altar of commerce. 

Sovereignty and control are not dirty words. They are essential to any functioning democracy. Consequently, taking back control of trade is a requirement of Brexit. Moreover, it is not preordained that our exclusion from EU FTAs necessarily harms our future trade - especially if you look at utilisation rates in any real detail. There is nothing to say that UK specific optimisation of existing FTAs cannot be beneficial. 

It is right that we put Brexiteer free trade claims under intense scrutiny, but the fixation with FTAs and the fatalism of remainers is based on a similar level of incomprehension. Ultimately Brexit is about bringing decision making closer to home, shortening the chain of accountability and giving people a real say over things that directly impact their lives. For eurosceptics the watchword has always been democracy - and a nation not in command of its own trade relations is not one in control of anything. 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Brexit: unleashing a wildfire

Defending Brexit is not the easiest thing to do at the moment when we have a government hell bent on delivering the worst case scenario. It also doesn't help that the Brexit groupthink produces pretty feeble economic justifications rather than looking at the issue as a whole. Fighting on the enemy's turf is always a loser and the mainstream Brexiter economic justifications are collapsing

I have argued for a long time now that the economy is a secondary concern - and as far as that goes, the aim of the Brexit process should be to minimise what is bound to be economically stressful. Something this government is failing to do.

But then, I repeat, this isn't an economic question and it never was. It is political, cultural and constitutional. It is said that Brexit has divided the nation but in fact all it has done is exposed a deep cultural chasm that was not being addressed by the status quo. There is a gulf of misunderstanding between the factions and it's time we dragged it all out for examination.

When we look at that we find that it stems from a collapse of trust in UK institutions. And that can hardly be a surprise. Every major increment in EU membership has been done by subterfuge and deception. Direct consent has never been sought and our interactions in the EU have been yet more deception. Cameron's phantom veto and the bogus attempts at reform were quite obvious pieces of political theatre from an establishment with no regard to the wishes of the public.

This opens up broader questions as to whether the EU is dysfunctional or whether our own "democracy" is failing. I'm going to say both, but even if I sided with the remainers in saying it is a problem entirely with UK democracy, I would still choose to leave on account of there being no defence mechanisms or restraints on what the government can do to us in our name - especially in relation to the European Union. Brexit is an overdue corrective.

As much as the various ratchets in our EU relationship have left a scar on the psyche of the nation, I do expect that Brexit will do the same - and that will shape our future decision making. If nothing else we have lodged the issue of sovereignty and control into the political discourse and the lessons will inform whatever happens next.

I also expect that we are due for a deep and thorough clean out of politics. Neither party enjoys the confidence of the nation right now and Labour is only going to form the next government simply because the Tories will have to be punished for delivering a mess of a Brexit. There is no way that can last.

Ultimately politics has to find where the new centre is. It's too unpredictable now because Brexit has a polarising effect. One suspects, though, with a majority disapproving of the way Brexit is being handled, the far extremes are not in good standing with the country. A new order will have to establish itself and that is a very necessary thing.

What we can say is that things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. Brexit is poised to be a shambles and I have a feeling the next government is going to be worse than this one. With the Brexit vote we have bought ourselves a decade of political and economic restructuring.

As to what the new economics looks like, I really cannot say. It could well be that the remainers are right and that Frankfurt becomes the financial centre of Europe, leaving the UK government with fewer tax receipts to play with, triggering some more fundamental questions about what we expect of government and what it can realistically provide. I'm not going to complain about that. What it is certain to do is pop a few bubbles and open up a few doors.

After about ten years we should have established a base competence in trade matters and certainly the Brexit process will be a baptism of fire. We will have restored trade as part of the national political discourse and it will refocus political debate for the duration. The public will demand that the promise of more trade be kept, somehow, and that will be the obligation of any post-Brexit government.

With any luck this should see a renewed sense of focus and purpose in government, and it is my hope that we'll then see devolution of some of the functions that Westminster has confiscated over the years as displacement activity under EU rule.

Right now it's all looking and feeling pretty bleak. I share some responsibility for what has been unleashed and the toothpaste is out of the tube. It's not a good feeling knowing that what we have unleashed cannot be controlled. But then I remind myself that this isn't over yet and even when it's over, it isn't over. Politics is a continuum and the fight will go on for as long as it takes to reshape Britain as an independent democracy.

Ultimately Britain entered a new era at the end of the Second World War. A new order of British socialism was established, a new era of European relations was born. That settlement belonged to my parents generation. A hyperglobalised new world where the very nature of commerce and communication has changed requires a wholly new settlement - and a politics more befitting of the internet age. We have undergone a technological and cultural revolution but Britain hasn't had a political revolution in decades. 

This is why I won't make an economic argument for Brexit. Revolutions are not known for being economic necessities. They are entirely political, and economics always takes a back seat - because it has to. My case is simply that Britain must reinvent politically lest we be locked into a gradual managed decline. Culturally and economically.

Those who hold the real power and those with the most to lose from Brexit will continue to make this an entirely economic argument. If they can win the economic argument then they may forestall the revolution that threatens their political control. They may not be in office, but their stranglehold on the narrative and public institutions is as strong as ever it was.

As it happens, I think the remainers are fighting a forlorn hope. What's done is done. I don't see that they have any opportunity to stop this chain of events, and polling would indicate that there has been no significant shift in attitudes. There can be no going back so now it is a question of opening a new dialogue as to what the new Britain is going to look like and who is going to run it. On that score I will probably have more in common with remainers than those on the hard right.

It may well be that Britain sacrifices a good deal of influence and prosperity for having done this, but those arguments will ring hollow. Britain's influence in Europe and beyond is not exercised on behalf of the people - and a poorer Britain could in many ways lead to a healthier society. Britain has a soul sickness that prosperity cannot cure. Collective affluenza you might even call it.

What I am sure of is that we could not have continued as before with half the country ignored, despised and rejected by the wealthier half. They say that Brexit is Britain turning inward. I can argue that it isn't, but in some ways it rings true. I don't mind. I don't see that a little introspection is necessarily a bad thing. A little reappraisal of who and what we are can go a long way.

It would be a bonus if we can get through this without the Tories torching all of our trade and good relations with the EU, but as just about everybody is keen to remind me, that was always a risk and one I opened the door for. I can live with it. Democracy carries risk and the alternative political stagnation was not without risk either.

It would appear that what remainers object to most is the inconvenience and the perturbation. That much is not my problem. They can either get with the programme and be part of the renewal process, or they can sit on the sidelines and do what they do best; whinge. I'll just be getting on with it. Brexit is now ours to define. Opt out at your peril.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Downing Street suicide pact

Probably for the first time in my life I am very seriously worried by what the government is doing. Worried is a word we use all too often but it has taken on a new meaning for me of late.

There is no doubt in my mind that a no deal Brexit would be unimaginably damaging to the UK. No responsible government should allow it - and a functioning government apparatus would be so acutely aware of the consequences that there would never be any question of allowing talks to fail.

This, however, is where we are headed. This government is playing games and its attitude to the EU is completely inappropriate. Bizarre even. David Davis has misread the EU completely. He is absolutely convinced the EU is only in it for the money. He thinks EU is mounting an elaborate sham simply to extort the maximum amount of money from the UK. There isn't the slightest understanding of the EU's position, its limitations and constraints.

Were that the reality, seeing it in those terms, with the EU cast as the playground bully, it makes sense to make a robust, principled stand. That's what they think they're doing, but it's based on a child-like appreciation of what the EU is. It has no foundation in reality. They have literally created a fictional narrative and are then basing all their responses and decisions on that. There is no logic to what they are doing. Their entire response is based on something which is not real - thus it can only fail.

At the centre of this is David Davis, unimpeded by Theresa May who is not in command of the events or the issues. One suspects May's influences are being heavily policed and she is not getting impartial or even realistic feedback. She has no grasp of Brexit or indeed the consequences and the Brexit Gestapo and making sure it stays that way.

The consequence of this is that we will continue to misdirect our efforts over what ought to be the least difficult part of the process, wasting time we don't have. I rather suspect it is on this issue that Davis will launch a grandstanding stunt. They have convinced themselves that there is no penalty to the WTO option and that, in any event, within days of telling the EU where to go, the "colleagues" will come crawling back giving us everything we want.

This is not going to happen. The EU is not going to tolerate that kind of stunt and if collectively they feel that the UK is not going to engage then there is little point in prolonging the proceedings. The plug will be pulled.

So fundamentally out of kilter is our approach that there is little likelihood of a last minute change of attitude. The conceptual misapprehensions at the heart of government cannot be remedied. There is no feedback mechanism and they function in an alternate reality. Reality cannot intrude. It doesn't even have a visitors pass.

It is therefore of some concern that Brexitologists are distracted and churning over the decoy material. There are a number of leaked papers keeping them occupied, scanning for any hint of coherence. There won't be any and they are wasting their time. UK position papers are seriously deficient and entirely unrealistic. This government simply does not understand that the EU is an amalgam of integrated and interrelated systems. Without recognition of that fact any disparate proposals can only fall flat.

The problem is that government is not consulting any wider than a narrow pool of spads, none of whom grasp the technical issues. Any proposals need to be compatible with the EU's systems and aims - not abstract "blue sky" policy. That means technicians should be steering the proposals, not political advisers. They are not up to it.

Again though, this cannot be corrected. Expertise is unlikely to be consulted because that is the last thing the Brexit Gestapo want. They do not wish to be told that this approach cannot work. They have set about doing it their way and consequences be damned. It therefore seems that the chances of success, or even survival, are remote. Our only hope now is for this government to fall.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Davis: Penny wise and pound foolish

They say history is written by the victors. This makes me wonder how the history of Brexit will be written when there are no clear winners. The finger-pointing and blame games will become a part of the story.

One tries not to be too pessimistic but one is not given over to the self-delusion of Brexiteers. There can be no ducking the reality that this is not going at all well. At the centre of this unfolding mess is David Davis, who ultimately does not comprehend the gravity of these talks or indeed the price of failure. Anyone with a realistic grasp of our position would be taking a far more measured approach with the necessary humility.

The underlying problem is one of mentality, where Davis is treating this as a legalistic undertaking rather than a political one. While nobody is keen on paying more than we have to, the debate over our exit settlement has lost sight of the fact that we are seeking to safeguard a £240bn a year trade relationship.

As puts it, going over it line by line to check the totals is penny wise and pound foolish. This is less to do with what we want to pay for as it is to do with what we have already agreed to pay. If we end up paying for a bear breeding scheme in the Pyrenees then that is a question for those who rubber-stamped it to begin with. If such lurid stories are indeed true, that is.

In that respect the media is helping to reinforce the notion that these discussions are a matter of accountancy - when in actuality this is a question of leaving our relationship in good order so that we can move on to the next and more pressing issues.

This prompts cries of "blackmail" from the baying Brexit mob, when in fact, keeping these issues contained in an exit settlement, as Mike Galsworthy observes, is to avoid a situation where either side can employ these issues as devices of blackmail. In future trade talks the last thing we want to be doing is dragging settlement issues back on to the table, potentially derailing the whole process.

Sadly though, this whole process has been misconceptualised by both the government and the media as though is were an adversarial showdown - trying to sex up what should be a fairly straightforward, amicable and tedious affair.

Looking at the bigger picture, the very last thing we wanted to do was get bogged down in the details of the financial settlement. For the most part these are concerns we would be paying for anyway - and anything over an above that is inconsequential next to the value of our European trade.

Choosing to make issue of this eats away at valuable time we will need to resolve the thornier issue of Northern Ireland - when already we have wasted months. You can be forgiven for thinking this is a deliberate ploy to give the EU the run-around, with Davis having no intention of seeking a deal of any kind.

In effect, Davis is the one blackmailing the EU, knowing that a sudden death Brexit could inflict serious damage on the EU. There can be no doubt that it would seriously interrupt the EU, but not irrecoverably - and the UK would be the biggest loser. Davis is playing a weak hand badly. A zero sum game.

As this farce evolves we can already see the moves to blame the EU for its "inflexibility" and it really is working a treat. The Brexit zombies are falling into line and this is becoming the narrative among the party faithful. In that respect the Tories are seeking to hoodwink the British public into a no-deal Brexit.

One suspects that this narrative will hold out just long enough for Davis to pull a fast one - but that is not how history will be written. History will record that the British people were led over the cliff by ideological zealots who never had any intention of a negotiated exit. Davis will go down in history as the man who trashed British exports and demolished our international credibility. It will not speak kindly of those Tories who allowed it.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A downfall we deserve

Returning to remarks made Guy Verhofstad, I was struck by his version of events when David Cameron went to renegotiate UK membership with the EU. Referring to a recent Telegraph piece by William Hague implying that the EU forced the UK out, Verhofstad asserts "I was in the room at the time of the renegotiation and substantial additional exceptions were offered – a new special status of EU membership, with an opt-out from the core principle of “ever closer union” and an emergency brake on benefits for EU workers. I even offered to work with the UK to develop a new form of associate EU membership, but UK ministers rejected it, as they argued that it would mean losing the UK’s seat at the top table. If this is not showing flexibility, I do not know what is".

I cannot be sure exactly how trustworthy Verhofstad's remarks are but if they are true then, in a way, it demolishes the argument that we could have stayed in the EU and reformed it - simply because our establishment, even under the threat of Brexit, would never even ask for it.

This builds on a number of themes in my thinking of late. One of the more convincing remainer arguments was that the EU was not really the source of our problems, rather it is the overall ineptitude of UK domestic governance and the dysfunctionality of our politics. Both are acutely observable right now. The second point commonly made was out lack of engagement in the EU process.

One wonders if the UK could have secured reforms to broken EU policies had we even tried. I recall that in a select committee meeting last year that Owen Paterson spoke of attempts to get a fundamentally bad aspect of the Habitats Directive amended. (Crop rotation I believe).

To cut a long story short, he was told categorically that he could forget it. It took several years to reach an agreement and nobody was keen on reopening a Pandoras Box for renegotiation. Open it up to one amendment and then everybody else wants one and it must then go through the legislative process again. So bad one-size-fits all policy stays in place without the possibility of reform with no opt outs.

I do recall, however, that Ed Davey as energy minister had a wholly different experience. I suppose it all depends on who is asking and what they are asking for. As to whose testimony you believe, you pays your money, you takes your choice. Either way, we can conclude that reform is difficult and that very often our own politics is the broken link - and one thing Brexit does achieve, if nothing else, is remove their go-to excuse.

Prior to the referendum it could be said with ease that I knew more about the EU and its workings than most. That is no great achievement. Most people have next to zero idea how it works and dont; want to know. Of those who do, it tends to be remainers, who hold an uncritical and largely theoretical version of how it works. I think it dishonest to say that the referendum was an informed debate. On that score, we are told that we shouldn't leave because voters did not know what they were voting for. But by the same token, if that be true, then we had no business being in it at all.

Even now, as we race toward an unholy mess of a Brexit our own government is incapable of understanding that which it is subscribed to - and there is little sign that our MPs have much of a grasp of it either. It would appear that the EU as a construct is totally alien to British political culture. It is too self-absorbed and insular to engage in issues of substance.

I rather expect that as a leading campaigner (so I am told) that when Brexit goes tits up I will take rather a lot of abuse for being the midwife to a stillborn. I do not, however, accept the blame. This blog is on record for opposing the appointment of Vote Leave, the individuals involved and the manner in which Brexit is being executed. I did not vote for this government and have spent every day since the referendum attempting to inform the debate in the frankest of terms.

In this, I would observe that the same incompetents in charge of Brexit are the same incompetents in charge of everything else. This dysfunctionality is scarcely new and has been self-evident to anyone paying attention. Brexit drags it into the light of day.

If our politics was working then much of what has been written would by now have filtered through into the high offices of the land and we would be seeing some of that expertise influencing the proceedings. But this isn't happening. The system is impervious and immune to external inputs. This is as true of everything else as it is Brexit, hence why successive governments have failed to address any of the systemic societal problems.

Moreover, the ultimate blame lies with Parliament. This government does not sit with a majority. It would only take the defection of a handful of MPs to bring this government down. It could either bring about a coalition government led by Labour or force another election. The very least they could do is bring down May - or threaten to unless Davis is replaced.

If our MPs were sufficiently informed and suitably concerned by the drastic consequences of a no deal Brexit, they would already be making noises. If they are going to act then it needs to be soon. Very soon in fact. But as a point of fact our MPs are not sufficiently informed and are not sufficiently concerned enough that they would break from their tribes for the good of the country. That, more than anything is a sign of a political system that is not fit to govern.

Now that we have arrived at this juncture it is likely we will feel the full force of an ignominious retreat from Europe. Not because of Brexit of itself. There was nothing preordained about Brexit being a disaster. This is entirely a consequence of our political culture - the one that created the conditions that led to the Brexit vote to begin with.

I take no pleasure at all in predicting a bloody mess. Even for one who has a strong affinity with the doctrine of creative destruction, this may be a bridge too far. But in the final analysis even the EU cannot protect us from a fundamentally spent political system. Continued membership of the EU is only really delaying the inevitable. British politics as we know it has to die in order for it to reinvent and Brexit makes that possible.

I think it was in the mid-nineties that, alongside many of my countrymen, I decided that voting was a futile endeavour. For the better part of twenty years any vote would still result in an establishment government which subscribes to the social democratic consensus. One that is unwilling to take any of the radical measures necessary to kickstart productivity, continuing to pile on a toxic blend of its own legislative creations along with EU entitlements - which ultimately hit the poorest the hardest.

For just a very brief moment in time it looked like Ukip could rattle that settlement into action. That though, did not transpire. It wouldn't have made a difference if they had. We have seen how this plays out. The SNP had their surge, they had their chance to whine and rock the boat and then they were irrelevant, having accomplished nothing. The system knows how to deal with political insurgency.

The short of it is, only something big, only something radical, and only something carrying a serious threat was likely to break that political slumber. Now it has, it is faced with the first and only real test of its mettle in forty years. It will fail. It is then up to us to get rid of it. And if we don't, we will have the government and the country that we actually deserve.

Brexit: last chance saloon

If Brexit has taught me one thing it is that one can dislike a person and everything they stand for and still find cause to agree with them. Today we see Stephen Kinnock picking up on the possibilities of the EEA. Meanwhile I am finding myself ever more tolerant of Chuka Umunna and Keir Starmer. Compared with the Tories, there is the makings of a semi-competent Brexit cabinet there. What I did not expect, though, was to find myself in full agreement with Guy Verhofstadt writing in the Telegraph. Says Verhofstad;
UK ministers seem to want to devise a new customs union and seek to recreate all of the EU’s structures, in order to continue to benefit from the best elements of the EU, without it being called the EU. This is not serious, fair or even possible given the negotiating time remaining – now significantly limited by the UK’s own decision to call a general election after the triggering of Article 50. The UK has informed us it is leaving, which we regret – but all we have ever asked for is that this disruptive decision is implemented in an orderly fashion and that we first agree to the divorce before planning a new future together.

The EU can be bureaucratic but, from day one, the EU-27, the European Commission and the Parliament have been fully transparent about their negotiating positions and mandates. It is as if we are now told we are too efficient. It is in the interests of the EU for us to secure a close relationship, but we must first agree a methodology for the settling of accounts, secure the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and have a frank discussion about the Irish border. This is not a ploy to derail talks, but an inevitable consequence of the Brexit decision. It’s time for UK politicians to be more honest about the complexities Brexit creates and for them to recognise that other governments also have obligations to their own taxpayers.

The discussion papers rolled out by the UK over the summer are helpful and welcome, but only a more serious engagement with the financial consequences of Brexit and the other divorce issues will unlock discussions about the future relationship, which I hope will be a close one. Given the current pace of talks there is a real danger that sufficient progress will not be made by October. It would be a very risky strategy to burn negotiating time now in the hope that individual EU leaders will ride to the rescue; it was EU governments who defined Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate.
As the costs of Brexit become clearer, I have no doubt the hardliners who promised the British people utopia will once again seek to blame Brussels for a lack of progress in the talks. But is a further poisoning of the atmosphere really in Britain’s interest? Our continued relationship is too important for our citizens and our firms to be jeopardised by dramatic political gestures. A divorce is never easy, but a strong future partnership is in the best interest of us all.
Foaming europhile and federalist though Verhofstad may be, there is nothing especially controversial written here. It is the consistent message we have heard from the EU from the beginning. The one message that is not getting through to our government. David Davis seems singularly incapable of recognising that no new relationship can be contemplated without addressing the administrative matters to hand. Verhofstad's closing remarks differ little from my own observations.

There is, however, a question of sincerity hanging over David Davis. Though incompetence cannot be ruled out, this could just as easily be the Brexiteers giving the EU the runaround to give the outward appearance that a serious negotiation is under way, all the while the right wing press build on the narrative that the EU is refusing to cooperate. Looking at the Brexiter sentiment in the Telegraph comments and on Twitter, as a strategy, it appears to be working. Davis does not need to fool you or I. He only has to convince the Brexit faithful that no deal is possible so as to justify walking away.

I sense we're on the cusp. The next few weeks will be decisive. Either the UK will decide to change tack and take a more emollient line at the next negotiating session, and we start to make progress, or we will go under. As things stand we are in the last chance saloon, and still haven't even decided whether to order any drinks. We need greater events to take a hand - something that precipitates the collapse of the May government. Short of that, we are royally screwed. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

A rocky road ahead for the EU

If I have learned anything about the EU it is that long term speculation over its future is, more often than not, wishful thinking. Over the years I must have published dozens of my own prognostications of varying accuracy but I think it safe to say that all of them have been wide of the mark. I think it goes with the territory of being a eurosceptic. Even now hard leavers will retweet anything that suggests the EU's imminent demise.

In more recent month and years I have taken the view that the EU will linger on and slide into irrelevance. For the last few months, EU watchers have been wondering if the EU will make an intervention in Poland over its judicial reforms. I am now seeing indications that it won't. The EU may be putting a brave face on Brexit, sending out messages of renewed vigour, but anything that could be interpreted as an overt intrusion on national sovereignty from now on, especially in the wake of Greece, will only serve the agenda of eurosceptics.

Meanwhile there is an argument still to be has as to whether Eastern European member states will take a share of refugees. For the moment Hungary and Poland have right wing leaders who will not give way to the suggestion. It would be that a new government will give ground, but that will be seen as a domestic betrayal which will store up consequences for the future in the same way that it has in the UK.

This brings us to a surprisingly thoughtful article in the Financial Times, which suggests that Brexit very well could be a long term threat to European unity.
Poland and Hungary, both run by ultra-right governments, have also been distancing themselves from the mainstream. The EU has launched a sanctions procedure against Poland in protest at reforms that would leave the government largely in control of the judiciary. Poland and Hungary are also both refusing to accept their share of refugees. Listening to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, one wonders how long his country will want to stay in the EU. When Hungary ceases to be a net beneficiary of EU funds, his Euroscepticism may no longer be tempered by financial considerations. Once the UK leaves and stops contributing to the EU budget, the assessment of the pros and cons of EU membership, especially by non-eurozone countries, will change.
In that respect Hungary is not alone. A number of satellite members view the EU as a practical necessity and a source of funding. When that funding slows and the accession development funds dry up, questions will be asked. Britain is not the only country in the midst of a political realignment.

The FT seems to think that Brexit will be the barometer when it becomes clearer what the consequences of leaving are. In that regard I think the EU is fairly safe in that we can say that Brexit is not going to be the roaring success that Tory Brexiteers believe it to be. All the same, though, the writing is on the wall for the EU. It must reform and there must be a fundamental change in the nature of the organisation.

It is expected that Macron will lead the charge for reform but there is reason to doubt his sincerity and his credibility. A multi-speed Europe is a perennial idea that never seems to come to anything. It would be hugely ironic if Brexit were the catalyst that finally brings it to fruition.

What commentators tend to miss, though, is that the architecture of the EU from the ground up is designed to fend off reform. Moreover, if junior members think a two speed Europe means missing out on anything then they are likely to torpedo it. Consequently reform may be thwarted by the EU's own bureaucratic inertia.

Thus the EU will linger on in a state of paralysis until it lacks the moral and political authority to do much beyond the humdrum of trade negotiations, and even then, trade exclusivity may not last as a concept for much longer.

Ultimately the founding vision of the EU is tarnished. It lacks the momentum and energy we saw around the launch of the Euro. It's most enthusiastic proponents are on the defensive trying to shore up something that has lost touch with what it wants to be, and dare not aspire to be more than it is.

I'm wouldn't place any bets on a dramatic break-up of the EU, and I can't even be sure that we will see other members leave, but Brexit leaves the EU a weaker, less confident, less capable entity where the balance of power shifts toward members who have traditionally been subordinates out on the fringe.

It is a largely Western European interpretation that the EU is the plaything of the Franco-German axis tempered by Britain, but now the UK as a power is departing, others will move to fill that void and remind France and Germany that they do not call all of the shots. Only one thing is certain. The beast with which we must contend will be a very different animal to the one we are leaving.  

A question of continuity

So Liam Fox wants to copy and paste existing EU trade deals. A few thoughts on that. Firstly, if you're a remainer and find cause to whine about this, grow up. Seriously. It's perfectly sound. This was always the most obvious approach to separation and it's an entirely sensible approach.

The problem with it is that it can only really replicate the tariff aspects of EU trade agreements. That's because the rest of the content functions through EU agencies, committees and working parties. We would have to either scrap those aspects or nominate and existing dispute resolution body.

As to the sections on regulatory harmonisation, this activity can be kicked up to global regulatory bodies. And yes, that is feasible because that's exactly what the EU does. eg Vehicle standards kicked out to UNECE.

For the most part little renegotiation is required. This can all be done by exchange of letters. Because we are maintaining current WTO schedules it isn't difficult - but all will have to be revisited eventually. As to MRAs and customs cooperation, that's all going to depend on what the Brexit deal looks like. This will shape the outcome.

What this approach does not cover is cooperation agreements between EU agencies and international regulators. Inter-agency deals and MoUs will be the most difficult to replicate because we have no equivalent bodies. This is where we will have to either establish new relationships or negotiate with the EU to participate in theirs.

So in the round, as an approach it's only half the job and there is still a lot of work to do. Thankfully this is less of a headache because this the one aspect of Brexit where we do have some very good people on the case.

If this process can be completed then even a no deal Brexit will retain some basic trade functionality. That is not to say that WTO option is not a disaster. It just means we won't have to resort to unilateral trade liberalisation. As far as it goes, it's the right approach but only goes some of the way to replacing our existing relations. No panacea.

I do have to say though, of Vince Cable especially, that the reactionary criticism over this is irrational, unhinged and totally unwarranted. Brexit scepticism is fine. Whingeing is pathetic. Yes, some third countries can choose to frustrate the process if they want but they go to the back of the queue. Trade is a two way street. It's a zero sum game if third countries choose to frustrate the process - which is why the hyperventilation is largely just remainer gaslighting.

As usual we're getting the "why leave the EU if we can only copy the deal the EU has?". This is disingenuous and dumb. This is the process of exit. This is the preparatory work we have to do before we start building new relationships. This is necessary for immediate continuity. Once we leave we will individually seek out refinements and progressions.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Brexit: the sound of white noise

There is a debate on Twitter. The chatter is about transitional agreements and the single market. None of this is going to matter unless we resolve the immediate issues - which nobody seems to want to talk about. Unless a framework for the financial settlement can be found, along with a solution for Northern Ireland then we are looking at a tsunami of trouble coming our way.

This doesn't seem to be registering and the debate is distracted by trivia. The Telegraph is pushing the right wing narrative that the EU is refusing to negotiate and Brexiters are in a world of their own. The serious issues are lost somewhere in the white noise.

When it's like this I usually find it wise to retreat from the field and let the noise-makers make their noise. To quote Homer Simpson, "if you can't win, don't try". This, though, puts me in a peculiar no man's land where I have virtually nothing to say at a time when so much needs to be said.

It seems all but inevitable that the Tories will blow it. Their entire concept of how to conduct these talks is flawed. They are playing crazy-bad games that we cannot possibly win. Consequently I think we are in the end game. It's really only a question of when talks fail and whether anything can be salvaged.

We now know from experience that the political bubble is largely impervious to external stimuli so much of the debate is falling on deaf ears, and there is next to no chance that we will see a last minute Damascene conversion from the Tories. So all we can do is wait here in limbo. Until then all we can do is watch the outward signs of a collapse of confidence in the UK.

Many have asked me recently what my choice would be if this comes to a choice between the WTO option and remaining. I'm evasive in answering that because I think both are miserable choices. I do not, however, think we will get that choice. If the Tories blow it then everything we have warned about will come into play.

Should that happen then we will go into a political meltdown. We lack the direction, leadership and competence to be able to craft any kind of adequate response. There is no serious preparation in the works and there are no serious proposals on the table as to how we manage the fallout.

Just recently I have been exchanging thoughts with Dr Mike Galsworthy, a leading remain campaigner. Surprisingly, we agree on quite a lot in that the motives behind the leave vote can scarcely be attributed to the European Union. The EU in many ways has been a convenient scapegoat and a go to excuse for our own political inertia.

Remainers would argue that the issues are entirely domestic thus there is no need to leave the EU. This is where I disagree. As politics has turned inward and insular - cut off from reality, we see that politics is incapable of crafting an adequate response to any of the serious underlying societal issues. There is no drive, no vision, no competence. The same disconnect between the Brexit debate and government exists on every single issue.

In that I might even argue that the EU is the only thing propping up any kind of functionality in governance. It is just competent enough to slow the rate of decay so that we don't notice what's happening to us. This is why I think we need the wake up call. The EU is acting as a life support machine for a patient that isn't going to recover without an entirely new treatment.

The reason I am talking to Dr Galsworthy is that he is, I suppose, my opposite number. Being a self-starter, Scientists for EU was his initiative, and commanded a very respectable body of support. He was, however, frozen out of the campaign by Stronger In, in much the same way that The Leave Alliance and others were deliberately kept at bay by Westminster bubble dwellers who wanted to own the campaign. It is interesting how his experience mirrors my own.

The political bubble, as we have previously discussed, functions entirely on prestige. One glaring example of this could be found on Twitter today. Oliver Norgrove, formerly of Vote Leave, had his latest blog republished in The New Statesman. Not wishing to discourage Oliver, but none of the points made are anything especially new, and indeed other bloggers have been making these same points for months. Oliver though, being a former Vote Leave staffer, has that glimmer of prestige.

It doesn't matter that Oliver is quite young and had a non-strategic role in the campaign - and in fact was quite junior. All that matters to the media is that he carries a scintilla of official Westminster bubble institutional gravitas. Nothing outside of the bubble exists. That is true of Brexit and it is true of everything else. Though I am extremely pleased that Oliver is getting this exposure, I am also quite annoyed because it tells us that those of us toiling in obscurity have largely been wasting our time.

Right now we are seeing a gradual drip of reasonable competent material coming out of the Institute for Government, but nothing to date matches the depth and and quality of that as produced by several months and years previously. You have to be a denizen of the bubble to get any kind of traction.

What that means is that the points do gradually filter through but the process takes too long and that which does filter through is detached from the originators, riddled with error, diluted and considerably less detailed.

We therefore have an establishment functioning way behind the curve where nothing exists until they discover it, and only if it has some kind of official sanction from within the bubble. The only shortcut to the filtering process is if an FT hack plagiarises your blog. Then we have the distorting factors where the debate is clouded and warped by private commercial interests like Legatum Institute - pushing their poison to anyone who will listen.

So what we have is a detached, aloof and warped political debate that is insulated from any authentic voices. Power is centralised, in the hands of a few and we have no checks or balances to keep it on an even keel.

It has been like this for as long as I can remember. I suppose this is how power games work. Human nature even. But now, we can no longer afford it. Brexit tells you that. Shaping the decisions made in our name is impossible. It is beset by corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

Very often people talk about the need for political reform. Lords reform, proportional representation, run-off voting - none of which represent any real deviation from the norm. The problem is not the voting rituals - it is the concentration of power in London - and the fact that the people have no useful exercise of power for themselves beyond appointing a new witless biped every five years.

As much as this political decay is what will ultimately bring us crashing on to the rocks of Brexit, it is also responsible for nurturing the conditions that triggered it. For years the political establishment has done as it pleases without consent or consultation both in connection with Europe and in domestic policy. From the smoking ban to the ratification of Lisbon to the Iraq war - and all points between, voters have no real say in what is done to them. The referendum was the first real chance we have had to speak in decades.

I am of the view that if we cannot achieve a negotiated settlement that sees us form a new relationship with the EU then I will settle for the second prize - a collapse of British politics. Should we leave with EU without a deal then very rapidly the supermarket shelves will empty, flight-plans will be diverted, prices will skyrocket and the value of the pound will plummet further. Our exports will be in chaos and Operation Stack goes into effect. No government can survive that.

Should these events transpire then we will see a total collapse in confidence in Westminster. We can already see the signals. Corbyn's Labour is level pegging in the polls, but on the whole, neither party commands the trust of the public. The system is at tipping point already and Brexit will give it that little shove over the edge. After that, all bets are off. Politics as we know it is over. A new era of political turmoil begins.

It is said that if we crash out without a deal then Britain will take a substantial hit to its credibility and lose its standing in the world. Personally I think we are already there and it is only the EU that has sustained our delusions of grandeur. The signs have been there for some time. Britain was sidelined inn Syria and had little of value to contribute during the Ukraine crisis and we made a bloody mess in Libya.

If Brexit achieves anything it will shatter our collective delusions about ourselves, our place in the world and our mythical "Rolls Royce civil service". It will show that Westminster is no longer capable of governing even the basics. Then we will have a reckoning. If we do not rid ourselves of the cancer in Westminster then we will not survive as a nation - and will not deserve to either.

Monday, 28 August 2017

EEA: putting the power back where we can see it

A very clever fellow, a remainer, put it to me very recently that we should think of sovereignty as gold coins of power – you can either hoard them like a miser (mine all mine), or invest a sensible proportion in systems which buy you an increase of power to act in the wider world (on behalf of your citizenry & businesses).

One would be inclined to agree. Every single treaty we make is, to an extent, a binding restriction on the exercise of absolute sovereignty. Each interaction is a sovereignty spending decision.

But that to me does not describe the EU relationship at all. To use the framework of this analogy, this is not the UK expending its sovereignty, rather it is granting licence for the EU to spend it on our behalf. This becomes more apparent when you examine the EU's interactions in global forums where the UK has no means of voting independently.

You could liken this with hiring a fund manager - but with this fund manager the terms of the contract can be unilaterally amended (ECJ rulings) and all the while you have no idea what you are invested in, nor the terms of the contract. You only find out what the small print says when it is too late to change anything.

This is why the EU is intolerable to a democracy. Democracy is the safeguard measure; the agency of the people to control what is done in their name. If that agency is removed, and the people have no power, they have no control, thus do not have democracy in any meaningful sense.

That is where the EEA option is the superior model. It really is about "taking back control". When the EU brings a new piece of legislation into being (likely adopted global standards), it is not automatically adopted by Norway. There is a constitutional process whereby the Norwegian parliament debates and decides whether or not to adopt a measure. We know that there is a penalty if they do not adhere to single market rules, but ultimately it is their decision to consider the balance of trade-offs according to their own strategic trade goals and domestic values.

Effectively there is a firewall which preserves agency and repatriates the "sovereignty spending" decision to domestic assemblies - where the process is more understood and likely to garner more media attention. That way, the foreign aspect becomes domestic politics. Restoring the media input is the crucial part of democratising the process.

As much as anything this is about the future. One thing about the Lisbon Treaty, which I have only recently understood, is how the EU effectively becomes merged with the frameworks of the WTO in terms of trade. Every post-Lisbon trade treaty is now effectively a formalised commitment to converge on WTO regulatory aims. Any future relationship with the EU would be on those exact same terms.

It therefore makes the "Norway has no influence" meme obsolete. You will have read arguments that the Norway option is "fax democracy". As others have noted the fax machine is long redundant which gives you some idea how old those arguments are.

In the new order, government is more like your solicitor who goes to court to argue your case and bargain for you. You might argue that the EU is a bigger law firm with better lawyers, but in this analogy, the EU is the solicitor representing several clients and does not necessarily have your interests in mind - and is not giving your case its full attention.

We are told that Norway has no formal say in whether an EU law passes. I would point out that the substance of the law has already been debated by international standards bodies long before it enters the EU legislative process - and early participation in shaping the law matters more than simply rubber stamping it into being. Going to the top tables directly with our own representation is far more significant.

Combined with the ability to refuse adoption, or register exceptions to it in the treaty, it means that we have a much more controlled process where consent must be sought. In the EU model, if you lose a vote, you're still lumbered with bad law. Law you don't get to change.

This is not to say that we cannot licence sovereignty to the EU for mutual advantage if we choose to, but the notion that all of it, all the time, is ceded to the EU is one that I simply cannot live with, especially knowing that the transfer of sovereignty is always away from the people.

We all want the maximum level of cooperation, freedom and collaboration, but ultimately the off-shoring of decision making by recognised, understood and accepted parliaments is an abdication from good governance. This to me explains how our own parliament could have withered so very badly over the years. I believe Brexit will restore some of its vitality. It is on that singular principle I believe the UK must leave. We must repair our own democracy and that is not going to happen without a seismic catalyst like Brexit.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Tories must decide if country or party comes first

If you have given any serious consideration to Brexit then you will know that a no deal Brexit will be a disaster for the country. Trade would come to a standstill and Britain would lose all of its formal trade relations, not only with the EU but with the rest of the world. Put simply, no responsible government should allow it.

We are, however, gradually creeping up on the possibility of it happening by default. We should by now have seen some progress toward resolving some of the more basic issues, not least the financial settlement. Instead talks are hanging in limbo with no outward sign that the government is engaging. Instead it is seeking to reorder the sequence of talks when the EU is not any position to do it even if it wanted to.

The problem lies with the arrogance of one David Davis who believes this is a stand-off in which the EU will blink first. Categorically, it will not. We are, therefore, on a collision course with a the hardest of hard Brexits. In the absence of any serious and relevant proposals from the UK it is a certainty that these talks will collapse.

The first order of business for parliament should be to demand that Davis takes the talks seriously and present a workable framework for the immediate issues. If he is unable to do his job then this government must fall.

These talks will define British standing in Europe and the world possibly for the next century. Should we leave without a deal then it would be a hammer blow to the UK economy - but also our national credibility.

In normal circumstances the idea of a Corbyn led government would be unconscionable. Offensive even. These are, however, not normal times. For whatever economic policies Corbyn may have in mind, it is difficult to imagine a deliberate policy that could be worse than a no deal Brexit.

Though the country would undoubtedly suffer from a socialist agenda, as indeed any country would, it represents the lesser of two evils. As a conservative minded person it brings me no pleasure at all to say this. I don't like it, but there it is. 

Today we learn that Labour has adopted a pro-single market stance. Though this is not relevant to the immediate phase of talks, it at least tells us that Labour recognises the folly of a hard Brexit. This is a position that could win the support of a considerable number of remain inclined Tories. It is now for them to act.

We are already in the last chance saloon and the EU will not be minded to extend talks for the benefit of a Tory government which is incapable of treating the proceedings with due respect. The only likely reason the EU will commit to extending talks is if there is a new government. That is the only way we can buy time to avoid a calamity.

If this means the collapse and possible death of the Conservative Party then so be it. Britain can withstand Corbyn but it is not prepared for a systemic collapse of trade. It is time for Tories to decide whether their clapped out tribe is more important than the future prosperity of the country. Since it is unlikely the Tories can win the next election they have nothing to lose by doing the right thing. Bring this government down.