Sunday, 8 December 2019

British politics has become an ideas desert

This week the nightmare is over. After months of uncertainty and delay, the A14 Huntingdon bypass is finally going to open. The roadworks over the last few months have forced me to listen to more Radio 4 than any normal person could tolerate  - which is bad at at the best of times but excruciatingly awful during an election. They seem to think that sending a sound van out to Warrington to get vox pops from the regionals constitutes getting out of their bubble, but wherever they go, they seem to take it with them.

Happily though, the election is also coming to a conclusion. An election I couldn't have been less interested in. I shall be glad to see the back of it. Normally everything goes on pause to do politics during an election whereas this time real politics seems to have gone on hold to indulge in the standard fare that goes with any election, ie blether about austerity and the NHS. Yawn-a-rama.

That is not to say that such issues are not important, but I don't have the energy in the day to engage with the sort of deranged histrionics we see on Twitter. We have NHS privatisation scares at every election and if it was going to work for Labour then it would have done by now.

What's been missing, as complains, is a comprehensive debate about the next phase of Brexit, but the bottom line is we're all sick of it. There's nothing much new to be said and nothing that is likely to change anyone's mind about anything. This election you do have a choice. You can either vote Tory to ensure we leave the EU or vote Labour for months more fannying around, presumably followed by a wearisome kangarendum and years more wailing. Other issues will not come into play until the election is over. 

It is not a happy choice though. We have to choose between the antiquated socialist dogma of Corbyn or the incompetent zealotry of the Tories so whoever gets in, we're looking at turbulent times and no sign of good governance any time soon. It might actually be better if we have another hung parliament to clip the wings of the Tories, ensuring they don't have a free run at whatever it is they are planning on doing.

This prompts fellow leavers to ask if I actually want to leave or not. The simple answer is yes, I do want to leave, and if I really was forced to pick a side I would have to vote Tory, but seeing as though I live in one of the safest Tory seats in the land I don't have to give my consent to this mob who have certainly done me no favours over the last five years.

Then, this week, we saw a minor Brexit civil war break out on Twitter between the Tories and the Brexit party (the one thing eurosceptics do well) yet I found myself with no dog in the fight. So often do I utter the words "beneath contempt" but seldom is that actually true. I seem to find the time and energy to hold a great many in the deepest contempt, but when it comes to the Brexit Party, braindead drongos that they are, I simply don't care what they do. The public were smart enough to vote leave so they are smart enough not to vote Farage where it matters. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

But my indifference to the Brexit Party does not put me in the Tory camp. If Johnson wins the election, the withdrawal agreement will make it through and then there's a whole new battle over what comes next - at which point I cease to be a leaver (as indeed we all do) in that we will have formally left the treaties of the EU. From that point I have virtually nothing in common with the leave blob.

The last three years have seen leaver attitudes harden where Brexiters compete to hold the most macho Brexit position possible, and though they didn't get their no deal Brexit in the last round, they're still going push for a minimalistic future relationship that in no way is going to be adequate for cooperation between the EU and the UK. Again parliament will have to rise to the occasion and assert whatever authority is has. After the technical Brexit day, Brexit is not owned by those who voted for it. This is a shared endeavour.

In that, I have no time for the free trade delusions of the Tory right any more than I buy into the threadbare "lexit" prospectus. Any action the UK takes domestically or externally does not happen in a vacuum and other nations will craft their own responses. Unilateralism has its penalties. We may reclaim our sovereignty but we have to have a sensible idea of what we intend to do with it and a destination in mind. 

This is where there is no functional difference between the Tories and the Brexit party. They've been chasing the Brexit holy grail for so long that they'll have no idea what to do with it when they get it. Leaving the EU for the most part has become an end in itself rather than a necessary step on a road to something better. Consequently post-Brexit politics will be yet another ideas free vacuum, where we'll see the Brexit blob grasping at any and all misapprehension and folly to give Brexit a purpose, be it banning live exports or propping up failing industries - half of which was probably never prohibited by the EU.

It has been suggested by remainers that if I'm so convince Brexit will be a damp squib then surely it's best to abandon ship and maybe try again some time in the future. But it is what it is. If we remain, the powers that be will make damn sure we never get another shot at it, and there is no reason to believe there is a point in the future where politicians are any more capable than they are now. We let our institutional knowledge of statecraft trickle away and the only way to rebuild it is by doing, albeit terribly. It's going to be a huge shit sandwich and we are all expected to take a bite.

As it happens, it looks like Johnson's Tories will probably win, primarily due to the intellectual and moral collapse of the left, shored up only by a desperate bid by remainers to blunten Johnson's majority. The respective tribes wail about Johnson's absent moral compass while the Tories beat the drum over Labour antisemitism. It's all pointless. It's all priced in and a great many who do bother to vote will be holding their nose while they do it.

What comes next is entirely contingent on what happens at the margins in just a handful of seats, which could still defy all the polls, but more detailed analysis still shows a comfortable win for Johnson. From that day the whole equation changes, where old alliances are broken and new ones begin to shape the final outcome. 

At that point there agenda is there for the taking for anyone with a remotely tangible prospectus. The week after next begins a new space race to define the next decade - which is a wholly welcome development, but it seems for a time we'll be crawling through and ideas desert as politics degrades further still. Maybe that's what it takes, but if there are sunlit uplands I shall likely not see them in my lifetime.   

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Shifting battlegrounds

Insofar as there is a trade debate in this election it doesn't extend beyond the familiar themes, defaulting to the tired panic over a US trade deal. The self-appointed trade experts on Twitter churn over the same four or five basic points, preening as though this were original and hard won insight and, as usual, bring nothing new to the table.

They're wasting their time, though, because nobody cares. Chlorine washed chicken and NHS privatisation are just a stick to beat the Tories with but there is no serious conversation about trade and there isn't going to be. But then as much as I've lambasted Brexiters for their obsolete ideas about trade, it seems that the dogmas of trade wonks are also drifting toward obsolescence.

There was a time when producing goods to meet different regulatory specifications required two production lines and different print runs for country specific labelling. That was a serious problem before the advent of cheap industrial laser printing and advanced bespoke manufacturing techniques. It's even less of an issue now that technical standards have gone global. These days producing to a different standard just means selecting a different mode on the operating software.

Similarly UK businesses are getting ahead of the game where leaving the single market is concerned. Companies are now setting up paper companies in Germany and France, obtaining local phone numbers that redirect to UK call centres manned by French and German speaking operators. With voice over IP systems this has never been easier and if you're a re-seller you just have goods imported directly to the destination. This has been going on for some time which in many respects distorts trade statistics.

Recently I've spoken to a few local companies, some already experienced in exporting outside of the EU, and their view seems to be that new barriers may require an up front investment to adapt to but nothing is insurmountable. What's making this possible is the march of technology and open data services that make navigating country specific red tape easier to navigate and mitigate.

This is not to say that Brexit won't have a serious impact, particularly in services trade, but businesses always have to look for ways to stay competitive. Where customs formalities have proven too complicated and time consuming businesses have looked elsewhere to make savings.

This is where the private sector is light years ahead of the game. Even before the trade debate was fashionable I was keeping tabs on Maersk's ventures into trade facilitation, streamlining and joining up dataflows. Of course intergovernmental trade treaties can facilitate this kind of progress but with agreements taking years to complete, business can't wait around to exploit the technology and is heading them off at the pass.

Throughout the Brexit debate we have seen trade wonks and smug remainers scoff at Blockchain, but as a technology for managing transactions and customs documentation, it's taken seriously enough for IBM and Walmart to go all in on it. Though we are told "the technology doesn't exist", there are already examples of it working in practice as a way to track food through the supply chain to ensure the quality of pork in China.

One of the major areas of concern for food producers is food adulteration and food fraud where tightening up the administrative processes could, according to new research, save the food industry a staggering $31 billion. And if it works for the food sector then there's no good reason why it isn't infinitely expandable. The EU certainly thinks so having funded a major new UNECE research project.

They note that value chains have at least 15 nodes between the production of raw materials to the end-user product so improving transparency is a complex issue. Most of the data collected refer to immediate suppliers and purchasers without information about “the suppliers of a supplier” or the clients of a buyer. They see Blockchain as serious platform. 
 "Advanced technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and internet of things, provide an opportunity to increase traceability and sustainability through the creation of a common source of verifiable information on transactions, accessible to all supply chains parties, regardless of their location, so long as they have access to Internet. A well-designed blockchain-based application has the potential to allow brand retailers to access the blockchain (via a user interface program) and to verify the origin of each input used in manufacturing. Industry regulators will be able to check the data and examine the entire lifecycle process using the blockchain’s digital ledger (including registered inspections made by authorities to identify, for instance, occupational health and safety violations, unauthorised subcontracting or child labour practices). Consumers will be able to view a product’s full journey and its certification from field to shelf via QR codes or apps. So, this will help them to make an informed decision before purchasing a product".
This is doing what a million trade deal can't - digitising the entire export/import process from cradle to grave, on a single platform. A sort of of international trade. This is especially valuable for major brands who lose billions to counterfeiting worldwide. The Central Market in downtown Kuala Lumpur is wall to wall counterfeit goods, where tourists go to get anything from knock of Prada handbags to Manchester United shirts.

Though deals eliminating tariffs between nations are certainly welcome, those who want to stay in the game and stay ahead of global trends are investing in supply chain data technologies, hooking them in with software that calculates the best formulas to evade cumbersome rules of origin. With such technologies increasingly available it is no longer restricted to big players. SMEs have no real trouble utilising trade preferences through such software.

As much as the Brexiteers became dinosaurs over the course of their twenty year long campaign, the trade wonkocracy, resistant to any ideas they didn't invent, will similarly find themselves clinging on to obsolete mantras as the world of commerce bypasses them completely. Formal trade accords between nations will be playing catch up with technologies light years ahead of the game, which they don't understand and don't anticipate for another decade - when much of it is already here and beyond the experimental stage.

In respect of that, the EU is the laggard, only just coming round to the potential of integrated supply chain technologies which could very will render customs unions and certain aspects of trade deals obsolete. Maersk and IBM are developing and setting the standards but not at the EU level. UNECE and the IMO is where it's all happening.

To a large extent, with the emergence of global standards, some nearly half a century old, trade in goods can look after itself. The focus should now be looking toward digital barriers to trade which is a far more complex and difficult nut to crack where in some regards we are going backwards. We started out with a world wide web, but with regional and national regulators now imposing their own agendas on to internet governance, mindful of intellectual property concerns and security threats, we are increasingly seeing the regionalisation of the internet - where (combined with the re-emergence of near shoring), globalisation, as we have known it, is going into reverse. The next battles around protectionism will be rules on data transfers and consumer data protection.

Being that the media can't cope with anything more sophisticated than party political talking points in respect of trade, and with a Tory party in the grip of archaic IEA dogma, believing we can do a quick and dirty trade deal with the EU, we are suffering from bicycle shed syndrome on a massive scale. Ten years from now we'll still be bickering about "hormone beef", no closer to a comprehensive US trade deal, while the major advances bypass us entirely.

As detailed elsewhere on this blog, there is no reason why the UK should be a down and out after Brexit. We may lose clout but we gain agility, and by way of coordinating ad hoc alliances in global regulatory forums we can be ahead of the game, and if we gang up on the EU we have more chance of reforming onerous GDPR rules than we ever did as a member. Outside of the EU, GDPR is viewed as an expensive nuisance. Tackling that on an international level should be a trade priority for the UK but that requires us to wake up to the games in play and recognise there is more going on than the same old tired arguments about food standards - many of which are decades old and no closer to a resolution.

This is where the debate has been boxed in by way of our obsession with FTAs, believing them to be the only instrument by which we advance our agendas and exert our influence. In this game, first mover advantage and ownership of IP puts you in pole position, and there is no reason why, if the UK overhauls its obese and lethargic academic research sector, the UK cannot be a leader and a player. Instead of sucking on the EU teat, Brexit presents an opportunity for UK research to think globally in the national interest rather than advancing EU political agendas. We can get our heads back in the game.

As it looks right now, though, with only a shallow collective understanding of trade, the UK is in for a serious shock to the system. It won't take very long to realise that a quick and dirty deal with the EU doesn't cut it and that tariffs are only a bit part of the issue. Only then do I see the UK getting its skates on. I have often remarked how the UK would have to re-learn the art of statecraft but we're going to have to learn the hard way. Our ignorance will make Brexit cost more than it ever needed to. 

Friday, 29 November 2019

The big switch off

There's another big TV election special debate on tonight - which I am not going to watch. It's a collection of nonentities who will in no way illuminate the national debate (such that it is). Right now I could very easily turn away from politics for good. It has nothing much to say to me and I suspect much of the nation feels the same way.

Being that I live in a very safe Tory seat I was already planning on not voting but at this point, even if I didn't, I still wouldn't vote - even to save Brexit. What I want simply isn't on offer. There is nobody even close to representing my position.

We see this today with Boris Johnson's latest announcement to work up a new state aid regime along with a Britain first public procurement policy. This is, as I'm not the first to observe, a departure from the "fwee twade" global Britain agenda we've been subjected to for the last three years. This is an electoral ploy aimed at Bennite leavers in case they're thinking of voting for the Brexit Party.

More than that, though, it's a reactive policy where Johnson has to do something that people believe we couldn't do before. Having no plan and no grand vision for Brexit, they're left grubbing for any ideas with traction (which will then become the post-facto justification for Brexit). Instead of leaving to pursue any kind of coherent vision-based agenda, we'll be doing all manner of senseless things just because we can - which is simply not a credible basis for government. Without an intellectual foundation, Brexit was always going to end up a lame duck.

This isn't the first manifestation either. Last week we had two announcements; the abolition of hospital parking charges and an Australian points based immigration system - both intellectually barren ideas stolen directly from Ukip.

This has to be viewed in the context of the next stages of Brexit in respect of the future relationship where it seems that Johnson will seek a quick and dirty deal in order to meet the 2020 deadline which will see us unceremoniously ripped out of the single market with economic impacts comparable with no deal at all. We will then spend the next decade trying to rebuild a comprehensive relationship from the ground up from a far weaker position. 

Let's call this what it is. Crap. This is a crap Brexit. It is without vision, without ambition and lacking any serious purpose. We're doing Brexit for its own sake - to say that we've left - not to actually do anything. This is not a stepping stone. It's an administrative chore. There is no thought to our place in the world, how we will usefully exercise sovereignty or how we will make our democracy mean something. 

What could and should have been a transformative event in our history will end up an electoral exercise carried out by the uninterested for short term political gain resulting in a recession and decade of stagnation. We're going to be a sad, broken little country with asinine politics incapable of delivering for the people it serves.

But then I don't see this going any other way. If Johnson doesn't win then we'll have our kangarendum, we'll sweep Brexit under the carpet and our politicians will continue to toil in the Westminster ideas desert, oblivious as ever to anything outside of it, only they're let off the hook from having to engage in any serious undertakings like trade and constitutional reform. We'll still end up a sad, broken, inward looking little country - only one that couldn't even leave the EU. I don't know which is worse.

Or rather I do. Remaining is worse because it will be a resignation to the fact that we can't be a self-governing country because we don't have a politics capable of rising to the occasion. The baked-in mediocrity of centrist managerialism is the best we can ever hope for while social climbers and narcissists collect the spoils. There is then no hope at all and we may as well give up on politics completely. 

For a long time I've felt like we're just marking time before something big hits that brings it all crashing down on us. It might as well be Brexit. Had there been a plan and an intellectual foundation, this could have been a turning point, arresting the decline, injecting new energy into our politics. Instead we'll carry on being self-absorbed and inward looking, with politics as an entertainment indulgence while all else crumbles.

Here I'm done blaming the politicians and media, as crap as they are. The real problem is us. We're so easily bought off. Plenty of Brexiters seem happy with an "Australian based points system" and whatever other ideas plucked from the Ukip tombola. We're the ones lacking in ambition and guile. We seem entirely happy to completely upturn the post-war settlement just so we can subsidise failing steel factories in the regions. We get the crap we deserve. It's going to take more than Brexit before we get serious as a nation.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Damned either way.

This has got to be the first general election where I've gone out of my way to avoid knowing anything about it. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to listen to politicians lying to me.

That is not to say there are no important issues to concern ourselves with. Rather our media can only cope with subjects on a superficial level, confining themselves to a handful of half-understood issues while feeding into a national media narrative that has very little bearing on the real world.

I don’t even think I will even be voting this time around. The latest detailed polling hits home how futile it is. Only a fraction of seats are expected to change hands and that will depend on the mood of just a few thousand swing voters.

The decider in this election will not be whether the nation prefers one manifesto over the other, rather everything will depend on whether those swing voters can be bothered to go out and vote on a rainy December day. With it now looking like a stonking Conservative majority win, there may be a great deal of complacency which could still deliver another hung parliament.

But between now and election day there is nothing much to take seriously. The Labour party is offering little more than populist political bribes while the Conservatives look likely to win only because of their unequivocal position on “getting Brexit done”.

This, though, is a tawdry fiction. They expect us to believe that within months we’ll have concluded a trade relationship with the EU and will be moving on to other pastures, with the focus shifting away from Brexit issues and back to the standard domestic fare.

This isn’t going to happen. The Conservative party believes that the system of government we’ve lived under for forty-five years can be replaced with a quick and easy “trade deal”. A slimmed down trade agreement may well be possible, but it’s not a sustainable solution for a major first world economy.

This much doesn’t seem to have registered with much of the media and the wider public. Modern trade treaties touch on everything from fishing through to intellectual property, labour standards, data protection and species protection. They include measures to facilitate trade in services such as mutual recognition of qualifications and work visas. There’s a reason why they take years to fully conclude. The Tories seem to think there's a shortcut that means we can put it all behind us.

Supposing we bought into the Conservative fiction that a quick free trade deal will do, the absence of a comprehensive trade relationship means the UK will be excluded from several lucrative markets – not least airline services. A recession then looks unavoidable. By then it will be glaringly apparent that we need more than just a "free trade deal".

Whether we spend the next five to seven years negotiating a comprehensive trade and cooperation treaty with the EU within the framework of the transition, or whether we cobble together a wafer thin deal on tariffs and customs, the ramifications are sure to be massive and a central concern of government for the next decade to come.

This much is obvious to anyone who’s looked at the issues with any seriousness and if we had a media worthy of the position it enjoys it would be screaming this from the rooftops. Whatever spending plans promised by politicians on all sides, they are simply not credible when factoring in the enormous ramifications of Brexit.

For all that pundits warn of the dangers of a borrow and spend Labour party, leaving the single market is going to have unpredictable and incalculable effects. Of itself that is a major worry, but of equal concern is the complete absence of a realistic mitigation strategy. The Conservative Party have invested their hopes in a deal with the USA but this comes nowhere close to addressing the gaping policy gap.

This is the central issue that's been shunted to the fringes, not least by the Labour party who would prefer not to talk about Brexit at all in order to avoid having a conversation about their own credibility deficit. The issue is an open goal for Labour to exploit but their intellectual lethargy matches that of the Tories.

This election should be a full and frank debate on the options before us, but instead, bored rigid by Brexit, neither the public nor the politicians are engaging, instead choosing to treat the election as light entertainment. A matter of pivotal national importance has been kicked into the long grass.

This leads me to conclude that our politics (and our media) is not actually capable of engaging on a grown-up level. They will coast into the next major crisis having failed to anticipate the ambushes awaiting us.

What we’re looking at here is a polity that failed to adapt to the new reality. Prior to Brexit, elections followed a familiar pattern without much to choose from between the respective parties, with policy announcements safely confined within parameters defined by Brussels with no real major undertakings on the horizon. It suited the kind of retail politics we are used to.

Now, though, we have a mammoth political engineering task ahead of us with politicians manifestly ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Instead of doing the groundwork to get up to speed, they've retreated to the comfort zone – talking about building more schools and hospitals and hiring more teachers and doctors. This ought to be challenged by the media but the media goes along with it because it’s easier for them too. They know the routine and it doesn't demand anything of them. They don't have to learn anything new. Which is just as well given their limited abilities.

It's no great secret that the toughest EU negotiations are yet to come but it seems that's a reality we are happy to ignore. We collectively buried our heads in the sand. This election became more about stopping Corbyn than defining our future as a nation - and in so doing we have left our fate entirely in the hands of ideologue know-nothings who have a date with the crash barrier of reality.

This should have been a far more engaging election but with so little to offer in terms of a viable alternative, it would seem that Brits have quietly accepted that we have to put up with the least worst option and deal with the worst as and when it arrives. If that depressing pragmatism is now the foundation of our democracy then we are in bigger trouble than I thought.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

A squandered revolution

Despite all the caveats I'm still a sucker for opinion polls. We seem to forget that Theresa May started with a commanding lead yet managed to deliver a hung parliament. This time, though, it seems like the genuine article. Boris Johnson is apparently steaming ahead.

This has remainers in a tailspin. Tweeter Chris Kendall tweets "I cannot account for this. I simply can’t make sense of it. The most incompetent, truly diabolically awful government in my lifetime and probably in British history. Why am I so far out of sync with voters? What is wrong with people?".

I don't know why this is difficult. This is a general election, not a referendum, and we are choosing a government albeit from some pretty dreadful options. Of those options any pragmatist has to conclude that the Tories, as dreadful as they are, are the best of a bad job. There's no getting away from the fact that Labour are degenerates. They're bad at the best of times and they only win when we really need to boot the Tories in the balls, but this time around even borked Tory Brexit looks preferable to a pack of intellectually subnormal deviants. Britain certainly does want change - but not that.

I fully accept that Boris Johnson is all the things they say he is. There can be few less deserving of power. Britain needs and deserves better but this is where we are. When Labour decided to put Corbyn in charge they created a hard left socialist party but one that actively despises ordinary working people and their values. They were told Corbyn was unelectable but they didn't listen.

The real mystery though, is not the size of Johnson's lead. What's truly unfathomable is why Labour are doing so well at 28%. One suspects it's the Brexit factor in that remainers are having to make a similarly depressing compromise. Though the Lib Dems are offering to revoke Article 50, the only way they get near a second referendum is if Labour calls the shots. In any other circumstances Labour would be circling the drain.

What's interesting is that back in the real world nobody is talking about the the leaders debates. In fact there's no chatter about the election either. A great many have simply tuned out. If you're doing a twice daily commute and a long day at work there simply isn't the energy to engage, especially in the sleepy wintry months. Every hour outside of work is precious and nobody sane would pollute it with politics.

There will, though, be a high price. This election has become a typical retail politics bidding war where the primary concern is fending off Corbyn when it should be a full and frank debate about the shape of of Brexit. Instead Brexit has been parked. The elephant in the room being that getting an Article 50 deal over the line is far from "getting Brexit done". There is a debate to be had about the future relationship where we should hearing competing visions but seemingly nobody is interested.

The Tory spin machine has it that Johnson can pull off a trade deal before the end of 2020, there will be no need to extend and those of us who say it can't be done are wrong because we said the withdrawal agreement couldn't be reopened. You can try to argue but there's no point. They repeat the narrative just to hold the line. They won't let reality intrude and they'll cross that bridge when they get to it. Our politics can only cope with one battle at a time. There is no value in being ahead of the game.

Of concern is the fact that the trade debate is still underdeveloped and it still hasn't sunk in that there are FTAs and then there are comprehensive trade and cooperation treaties. The notion that a first world advanced economy can operate without a comprehensive relationship with its similarly advanced continental partners is still one that occupies the minds of Brexiteers and nothing can shake them from it. They don't want to know.

It seems that everyone in this is going to much of what they deserve. The Corbynites are going to get a bucket of cold water thrown over them while the remainers will soon come to realise that they have slandered, smeared and insulted voters once too often. They'll see their hopes turn to ashes. But soon after we shall likely have a majority Tory government with nothing standing in their way, giving them a clear run at Brexit. With parliament no longer a barrier the main obstacle will now be a little thing called reality, and with no one else to blame, having painted themselves into a corner, they alone have to account for the consequences of their arrogance.

Whatever this "bare bones" trade agreement entails there are questions that need answering - such as what happens to our trade in services without a data adequacy agreement. Without a regulatory relationship how are we supposed to sell cars to the EU? Without a formal agreement with EASA how are we meant to sustain our aerospace industry? Without an EU approved fisheries plan how are we to sell fish to the EU? There are are three hundred areas of technical cooperation for which we have no credible answers.

Now I could raise these points on Twitter and creative Brexit activists will make some impressive excuses and dream up some plausible (but wrong) nostrums, and no doubt BrexitCentral will do their bit to shore up the flagging free trade narrative and that's fine just so long as all you need is for believers to keep on believing. That is part of their function. The problem being that when it comes to negotiations, simplistic mantras aren't going to cut it. That's when a man as facile as Johnson can't bluff it anymore.

There is now a view, though, that with a general election out of the way and no danger of fresh elections, Johnson will be more able to let the cat out of the bag that not only will there be an extension, there will be a further holding pattern framework agreed so the new relationship can be brought on stream as and when it's signed off. That does seem to be the EU way of doing things. The only way the UK gets anything like a comprehensive deal inside a year is to sign one already drafted by the EU with very little UK input. The ERG are not going to like it - assuming they keep their seats.

Whatever the case, we're not going to get any sense this side of the election - and to a point I suppose it doesn't matter. It would matter were there a credible alternative but since Labour are degenerate morons, and with no sign of the Lib Dems engaging, being too wrapped up in adolescent identity politics, the Tories are the only game in town. Consequently the debate only gets serious when the situation gets serious - and we are a long way off that for the time being. We still have to go through the tedious withdrawal agreement ratification process which could drag on a while longer.

But with that, gone is any hope of using Brexit as a catalyst for meaningful reform. The absence of a Brexit blueprint means we will play it by ear in reactive mode as each new (entirely predictable) stumbling block hoves into view. With the Brexit Party vanishing down the plughole and the Brexit deed done, there is no force in politics capable of leveraging meaningful change, while the Tories won't know what to do with Brexit when they've got it. The chances of any coherent politics emerging afterwards are nil, especially with a Labour civil war to come. We have years of perma-shambles to look forward to. 

For now politics is in its comfort zone talking about all the familiar themes and personalities, but this revolution will remain incomplete until something is done about the Westminster morass. It survived Brexit when it had no real right to and it has successfully fended off the interlopers. But it has done nothing at all to secure its place in our politics nor is it winning hearts and minds. 

The likes of Chris Kendall can't fathom the appeal of Johnson, but they've made the same mistake in 2016. We didn't vote for Vote Leave or Boris Johnson. We voted to reject the alternatives on offer. It's been a long time since we actually voted for something. Had a viable alternative presented itself the Tories would also be facing extinction.

In an alternate reality there is a Britain going through a similar process but with the insurgent Brexit party led by a man with a vision, surrounded by talent, with an intellectual foundation within a whisker of taking power. In this dimension that post is occupied by a shallow narcissist surrounded by half-witted yes men and sycophants who after twenty years still can't cobble together a credible proposal. Consequently it may take another twenty years to rebuild momentum. Whatever comes next will emerge from the Brexit wreckage left by the Tories. If there was a window for change, leavers have squandered it.  

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Brexit: tuning out

This has probably been the quietest time ever on this blog despite having passed the three million hit mark this week. I have new responsibilities that must now come first so this will probably become a weekly blog rather than a full time effort. But there's also another major factor. I am not remotely invested in this general election. I live in one of the safest Tory seats in the land and if the polls are anything to go by then the Tories will probably scrape a win, if not a landslide. I might wish it some other way but the alternatives are too dreadful to contemplate.

Moreover, I am simply not interested. When the internet came along, for the first time we were seeing an explosion of political conversation far outside of the control of the traditional media. For a time it looked promising and even exciting. Not so any more now that the various platforms have matured, acquiring their own respective groupthinks and rulebooks. The normal order of coprophagia has been restored.

Twitter especially has a hand in this by way of sanitising newsfeeds. There are the select chosen ones whose tweets rise to the top and then there are those below the line who get clipped if they fly too close to the sun. Consequently the agenda is still set by the Westminster politico-media bubble and Twitter users have again become consumers of talking points. If you're not willing to be a passive consumer of politics then Twitter has outlived its usefulness.

There was a time when I thought Twitter was valuable to correct various faulty narratives but then it turns out that our politics works by a different set of rules. British politics is a parallel universe - or rather multiverse where several alternate realities are created and destroyed every day where something is only true as long as it is convenient to a narrative. Should it become inconvenient it can be casually discarded and nobody seems to notice or care.

For instance we've had Steve Baker this week lecturing a Brexit Party MEP on why Article 24 wouldn't be a viable avenue. This the man who previously told us we could leave without a deal and patch up our trade with a series of mini deals. Once the gatekeepers have spoken, the tribes fall into line and yesterday's reality ceases to exist and nobody ever has to take responsibility for the lies they told.

In this instance Baker has realised that the only Brexit we are likely to get is the Johnson deal, and though remarkably similar (in most instances identical) in effect to the deal negotiated by Theresa May, the deal they spent months railing against - to the point of ousting May, the deal they told everyone was BRINO, has become the new gospel. And now that there is a deal ERG hardliners will settle for, the Brexit Party has to oppose it for no other reason than to stay relevant and make it look like they;re paying attention.

Meanwhile we now have Michael Gove going on the radio to tell us that there absolutely will be a deal by 2020 , attempting to pacify the Brexit Party mob who insist that Johnson will end up extending the transition - which he almost certainly will. Nobody at all serious thinks a deal can be concluded by 2020 but that's the fictional reality the Tory faithful are meant to uphold until it has served its immediate electoral function. When it has it will disappear in a poof of blue smoke as though nobody ever said otherwise to the fact that Brexit will take longer than 2020.

Keeping track of all these narratives is a full time job, but one that no sane person would do given how utterly futile it is. Notionally we should have a media capable of exploding these alternate realities but Radio 4 presenters etc can only cope with a few morsels of detail at any one time and only from nicely sanitised sources meaning they're either wrong or so lacking in nuance as to be counterproductive. Most mornings if it's a choice between Radio 4 and the low hum of traffic jams then the latter is preferable.

The upshot of all this is that politics is as much a top down affair as ever it was with politics being a London blob you either choose to partake in or ignore completely. Given the futility and uselessness of partaking unless you wish to do the bidding of the blob in exchange for social status within it, you could be forgiven for switching off completely - as so many now do. It's almost as though the inanity of British politics was the establishment's immuno-defence mechanism to ward off interlopers.

Far from expanding political debate, the internet has now regressed to a collection of debating silos with very little interaction or cross pollination. The two sides of any particular divide only interact in order to exchange unpleasantries from fixed positions. No idea exists unless it comes from within the bubble. The rest of us can choose to be either spectators or join the ranks of the uninterested.

In the case of this general election I'm choosing the latter. They're welcome to it. There is nothing much to be said until we know which way it goes - which is not decided by the country as a whole, rather it is decided by a few thousand swing voters in a dozen or so seats where the wildcard is really whether the nation can be bothered to show up and vote. This renders most political activism completely useless - not least when those most likely to be the deciders are the zombies still hopelessly enslaved by the BBC.

Come mid December we should know which way this goes. Either we shall have a Tory government with a working majority, in which case we get the first stage of Brexit over the line, or we face a hung parliament and more of the same, and possibly another referendum annulling the first. Either way there will be new battles to fight. Until then, I'm saving what's left of my fragile sanity.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Three Million

At some point today one of you became my three millionth visitor. Thank you for reading.

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.