Thursday, 16 January 2020

The Tories are setting Britain on a course for vassalage


Brexit as demanded by the hardliners stands on the faulty premise that after Brexit the UK is free to do as it pleases and any arrangement where the UK remains bound to the EU is simply not Brexit. Of course we can have such an arrangement but trade and cooperation requires a formal relationship. Sooner or later we would have to surrender to that reality.

The question of Brexit, therefore, was always one of changing our relationship with the EU and deciding the form and extent of that relationship. For all this time we've been caught up in the debate over whether to leave (and why) while the debate over the shape of the future relationship has been shallow and strewn with misconceptions.

This is why I have some considerable animosity toward fellow leavers who have never confronted the unpalatable trade offs that stymy many of our Brexit aspirations. We get the likes of Paul Embery and Claire Fox who are essentially parasites, piggy backing Brexit as a platform for their own personal advancement, massaging their audiences with bogus notions of what we can realistically hope to achieve with Brexit on everything from state aid to fishing.

This hinges on one word. Sovereignty. We have been all too obsessed with British sovereignty while failing to notice that the EU wishes to safeguard its own sovereignty. They have decided the standards they wish to maintain and will act to ensure these standards are not undermined through unfair competition and cutting corners on regulation. They set the terms of market participation and will not grant preferences and participation rights to countries working counter to their international ambitions.

And there's one oft overlooked factor here. The EU is considerably bigger than us with more international clout and even without the UK it remains a global regulatory superpower. If the UK wants to do business in the EU then the EU calls the shots on the terms and conditions. If the UK wants to sell or land fish in the EU (and it certainly does since over 70% of our catch goes to the EU) then we have to conform to their regulatory expectations encompassing sustainability and food safety. We would do likewise. There are reasons why there is a ban on certain Indian seafood products.

But then this goes far beyond fishing. It encompasses all manner of regulatory concerns from waste disposal through to air travel - all with transboundary implications. Here we can get caught up in the detail of where we choose to align and where to diverge, and what mechanisms are available to us such as dynamic alignment and equivalence in order to facilitate commerce, but the relationship is less defined by the areas covered as it is the overarching institutional make up and its governing apparatus, taking into account dispute resolution and court jurisdictions.

Obviously the EU is not going to allow third countries to interpret EU law for it. There will be a role for the ECJ thus those areas still governed by EU regulation essentially remain under EU jurisdiction. This is something the Brexiteers want to keep to a minimum and we can already see there are to be battles over the extent of so-called level playing field provisions. Here the Brexiteers will stamp their feet and demand a minimalistic approach. They may even get their way but if the UK chooses minimal alignment then it can expect minimal market preferences.

Though the Brexiteers will no doubt see this as a victory, while they're busy banging on about taking back our fish, they probably won't have noticed the shape of the governing instruments that will remain a constant as the relationship evolves. There may only be a minimal role for the ECJ as we leave the transition period but then the ratchet begins all over again (this time with no exit mechanism) and as we negotiate re-entry into EU markets in the following years. the more we align the more we become an unwilling supplicant of the EU with the ECJ making our decisions.

Here we should recall that bilateral relationships are a continuum and the agreement is a framework for evolving trade and cooperation between the two parties. The Tories may for a time be content to keep a distance from the EU but when they are inevitably kicked out, Labour will likely start the ball rolling on reintegration of trade. That then becomes an unstoppable trend.

This, of course, was anticipated by The Leave Alliance, which is why we took the view that EU membership had to be reverse engineered rather than starting from scratch. There is now a danger that we will creep toward something rivalling the EEA in scope but entirely under ECJ supervision with the UK becoming a passive recipient of rules. Membership in all but name. This is fundamentally why we preferred the EEA Efta model.

As it happens I'm not a fan of the single market and the EEA means a great many disappointing compromises but the central issue was, is and always will be the governing architecture for the relationship, where the EEA, being an adaptive framework, allows for reconfiguration and renegotiation while cutting the ECJ out of the frame. For larger modifications we could enlist the support of other Efta members, perhaps even working toward including Switzerland to create a non-EU pillar of the single market.

The reality of our predicament is that the EU has an inescapable regulatory gravity and even if we were to cut loose from it entirely we would feel the influence of it as we encounter the regulatory stipulations between the EU and Brazil, the EU and Japan, the EU and South Korea, Canada and anywhere else where there exists a comprehensive EU FTA.These realities are going to give "free trade" Tories a serious headache and will result in a number of embarrassing climb-downs.

The fact is that the EU's regulatory gravity combined with our historic membership and our close proximity means we were never going to break the orbit from the EU regulatory systems and when they are so closely intertwined with the WTO system, along with the galaxy of global regulation, environmental conventions and international standards, divergence was always an obsolete pipedream. The Tory right agenda may have been achievable thirty years ago but since then the EU has essentially become the centre of the regulatory universe. Where it employs equivalence it essentially says you can have any rules you like so long as they are ours. Font and is optional.

Moreover, since regulation and the regulatory process is an expensive business, smaller nations without the intellectual resource and political runtime have taken to copying EU regulation verbatim out of convenience where there is no existing regulation in place, usually with a view to accessing EU markets in the future. They are not going to be persuaded to diverge to a British model.

One suspects the Tories are going to have to find this all out the hard way. Yesterday the Spectator floated an article suggesting we should join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP is a high-quality free trade agreement which binds together Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Chile and Brunei. This is far from a credible proposition.

The EU is presently developing enhanced FTAs with at least eight of them, encompassing EU level playing field provisions and chapters on standards and regulatory cooperation. Being that CPTPP is not a regulatory union, its members are distant regulatory satellites of the EU, divergent only in those areas where it makes no particular sense to align due to their positioning on the other side of the planet thus naturally excluded from short hop supply chains and exports of fresh produce. It's also counter to trend as globalisation reverts once again to near-shoring.

One also notes that the CPTPP agreement is only a shallow agreement with nothing particularly to speak of on services and no regulatory frameworks to create regional markets. There is perhaps the basis of a Pacific bloc but when sandwiched between two other rival regulatory powers (China and America) its chances of becoming a contiguous regulatory bloc are nil.

All of this has ramifications for any future trade deals. The Tory mentality is one of "notches on the bed post" believing one trade deal to be much the same as another, completely failing to grasp that they vary in scope and each has consequences for the next. Little of this registered when the extent of comprehension is limited to tariffs. And even then it doesn't seem they have a handle on that either. Thanks to this (wilful) lack of comprehension the UK is embarking on a half-baked, doomed experiment based on Tory "free trade" delusions and the ill-conceived notions of sovereignty among Brexiters. 

The elaborate instruments that have interfered with direct expressions of national sovereignty exist with good reason and the UK had a hand in their creation. Our departure from the EU doesn't mean the EU stops existing or influencing the rest of the world. It is a reality with which we must contend and our post-Brexit strategy (such that it is) can only fail if we are not mindful of it. Our goal should have been to safeguard our position of relative economic strength by preserving our deep trade relationship with the EU, then carefully setting a path to independence. Instead we're inflicting massive economic damage of our own volition and by our failure to anticipate where this might lead we are on a path to subordination and vassalage. Taking back control this is not.    

Monday, 13 January 2020

An open goal for Labour


I actually wish Labour would just crawl under a rock and quietly die. It will survive though, because it's just an empty brand name whose values are wholly contingent on whichever faction happen to be in charge of it. For as long as there are enough activists who think it's a vehicle with which to advance their agenda there will continue to be a fight over the brand ownership. Whether it's electable is wholly contingent on whether the people running it have a passing relationship with the voting public.

One thing we can say with come certainty is that they're not going to win the next general election. Corbyn's clan has done a lot of damage and Labour now has to think long and hard about what it wants to achieve in politics before it can rebuild. I don't think that can be done for as long as the far left have any influence in Labour. Their values are too at odds with normal people. If it is to survive, however, it needs to make a good go at opposing the Tories.

Luckily for them the Tories have left the goalposts wide open. I get the sense that trade policy is now being steered, if not directly controlled, by the ERG. They're pushing hard for full regulatory divergence. Steve Baker asserts on Twitter that "If the UK becomes an EU regulatory satellite, we've failed".

In due course that become the accepted wisdom in the Tory party (if it isn't already) and that likely means taking a massive hit to UK services and anything that relies on frictionless trade. One notes that those countries who are "regulatory satellites" are so because they have a border with the EU and basic gravity principles dictate that we need a higher level of technical and regulatory integration than most.

Then, of course, there's the "Brussels effect" where essentially most of the EU's core trading partners have aligned to EU rules as far as they can and the foundation of those rules are global standards, so in taking us out of the EU regulatory ecosystem the Tories are essentially unplugging us from the global stream of regulation with a view picking and choosing on an ad hoc basis. For the Tories, the last three decades of global regulatory convergence just didn't happen.

In this they have their sights set on the USA, which is problematic since the USA's influence in regulatory affairs is declining being that it is largely a closed market and one that has fallen behind in the global race to export standards and regulations. Moreover the USA is not a contiguous regulatory area. the disparities between states make it difficult for Washington to make uniform comprehensive deals with other countries. A lesson the EU has already learned which is one of the many reasons TTIP stalled.

Then, of course, there's those "WTO rules". The UK is a signatory to the WTO agreement on technical barriers to trade meaning we essentially stay aligned to ISO, Codex and all the familiar standards bodies. When you add up all the complications, divergence starts to look like a fool's errand. It doesn't open up any new markets.

Being generous we could say that, were there a joint strategy between the UK and the USA to work toward a rival regulatory framework, using the UK's residual influence with Commonwealth states, there is a basis for divergence but that would be no small feat and would require a twenty year plan between the two at a time when it looks like there isn't even a plan to get us to then end of the year. If such a plan existed, in all likelihood would look like high fantasy.

Whatever the Tories have been smoking there is no chance reality is likely to intrude any time soon. If the UK follows the expected trajectory then there are sure to be some hard lessons and some red faces. Likely it will take less than a year into the future relationship before the effects of a hard Brexit are felt. That means there are four years of bad press ahead for Labour to capitalise on. These are not necessarily the effects of Brexit of itself, rather the culmination of poor decisions made on the basis of Tory fantasies.

Among these is the Tory fixation with free ports; a wholly obsolete idea now superseded with similar exemption status for individual companies within ports which we could have promoted while in the EU at any time. Free port status worked for Singapore in that it's a maritime hub in a region of disparate economies and regulatory areas, whereas the UK is on the doorstep of a powerful contiguous regulatory bloc which might have a thing or two to say about it.

In this Labour needs to recognise that it's going to spend at least one election cycle in the sin bin so should spend the next few years grooming a viable leader, developing a coherent recovery plan while selecting an interim leader like Starmer who can continually give the Tories a bloody nose at the dispatch box and hammer their majority down a little at the next election.

What I expect will happen is that the Tories will get their cut and run minimalistic deal but will end up in negotiations with Brussels for the next decade or more that will eventually see us reintegrated into the EU regulatory ecosystem. Steve Baker believes a US deal is the one guarantee against such an eventuality but he's being optimistic about the scope of any future deal. It's ironic then that Baker should want us tied up with a US deal to prevent any future government changing tack.

A leader like Starmer can't win the next general election. I doubt any of the current contenders could. Anyone taking the reins has to accept their role as a caretaker whose only job is to discredit the Tories as much as possible, making it feasible for the next leader to win. If the opportunities are exploited (and there will be plenty of them) then the Tories could be in for a rough old ride.

The first question off the bat is how all the new regulatory barriers between the UK and the EU (and consequently all the other countries aligned with the EU) can possibly be consistent with Tory promises to revive the economic fortunes of the north. We're about to put a serious dent in our exports of goods and services to the EU without anything approaching a coherent strategy for the rest of the world. It's open season!

This is where Labour needs someone vaguely clued in, and of the available matter, that's Starmer. If Labour selects one of the intellectually subnormal females on offer out of some misguided diversity agenda then they're not going to focus on the issues of immediate importance, are not going to credibly oppose and are not going to get to grips with the dry technical detail that opposing requires of them. They'll declare themselves irrelevant for the next parliamentary term and beyond.

Labour couldn't have picked a worse time to go into meltdown. They've essentially given a reckless Tory party a free ride to impose their economic experiment without any regard to the basic realities of trade and globalisation. These issues might not be of interest to the man in the street who is bored to tears by this stuff, but the consequences certainly will be of acute interest. If Labour abdicates from opposition now then they deserve the extinction that awaits them.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Rebuilding a coherent Labour party is impossible


I went into Ely the other day to buy a few bits. I felt a bit peckish so I went in the fish and chip shop. I asked for a fish butty. The very obviously foreign owner stared at me like I was from Mars. So I explained in more basic terms - a bun with a fish in it. No joy. He told me he only sells fish and chips. I couldn't be arsed to argue. I thanked him and left without buying anything. This is where I feel my inner Daily Mail gammonista coming out. What's the world coming to when you can't even buy a goddamn fish butty from a fish and chip shop?

Since I was in town I figured I might as well go and get my hair cut. That was a bit more successful but not at all easy since nobody in the barber shop spoke a word of English. Course, this is nothing new under the sun but as I get older it becomes more tiresome. It's one thing to expect a rainbow of languages and cultures in the capital but can a society function at all when this is also the case in a sleepy fenland market town?

But here I'm committing the great sin of preferring to live in a country where I have a few basic things in common with my fellow citizens apart from limbs and a basic need for oxygen. That's out of keeping with the leftist orthodoxy of "enriching our culture". This partly explains why Labour is struggling in the polls.

If there's one thing about Brits, they will do virtually anything for a quiet life. It's why councils feel they can heap ever more burdens on us, knowing that we will simply do as we're told to avoid fines and bureaucratic harassment. It's just our nature. And as people get older they don't want to be disturbed by noisy neighbours, loud music, smelly takeaways and crowded pubs. There's a reason rural regions are creeping upwards in average ages.

And of course young families want that same peace and security. They don't want their kids mixing with the kids nobody cares about who'll end up using or selling drugs. Since most suburbs are now crowded and the housing overpriced, people are now extending their commutes looking for cheaper houses - usually anywhere within an hour's drive of a city.

Over Christmas I've done a lot of miles going up and down the A1 and one thing you notice is just how many new housing developments there are, from Huntingdon all the way up through the mining regions and into the Vale of York. They're all boxy and raw but actually a million times better than the two-tone pebble dashed huts they built in the 60's.

Essentially these are the "socially conservative, culturally and racially homogeneous" working class places the Guardian speaks of which now replaces the traditional Labour caricature of working class people working in mines and steel mills.

For those people, people like me in fact, life is a bit of a squeeze. Aside from the long miserable commutes and parking charges and balls-aching congestion, if there's one thing all these new builds have in common is that they're all far too small, have no storage and inadequate parking. Planning is such that the roads connecting these new build estates are antiquated and in a state of decay. For all that we have an onerous planning system you do have to wonder if any serious infrastructure planning happens at all.

The only way to find houses with adequate space is to look further out, so while house hunting yesterday we found ourselves driving round the boondocks of East Yorkshire, which as a WWII aviation geek I could live with, but you're then heading into League of Gentleman territory culture wise.

As yet I don't know what the local politics looks like. There seems to be an active campaign against the building of a new mega prison at Full Sutton. The one thing I'm pretty sure doesn't feature in voting estimations is what the local candidate's views on Palestine or Kashmir are. And I'm pretty sure if I'm commuting from Holme on Spalding Moor to a data centre in Pontefract then I'm not going to give a tinker's shit who owns the railways. Trains is for Londoners and Bradfordians who haven't found a way to avoid Leeds.

Ultimately, Labour's squabbles have nothing to say to the north of England. Even the antisemitism row is largely a London thing. You're not likely to consciously see a Jew outside Manchester or London. But despite Labour's inherent racism toward Jews, it still finds time to lecture the rest of us about race and diversity. As it happens northerners know all too well what diversity looks like and it's not the bewildering array of different foods and cultures Cambridge academics think it is. It means dirty and dangerous slums that make living in Selby sound like a viable idea.

What's happening politically is summed up by a tweet today from Dr Lee Jones. "Surely the problem with identity politics is that when you split everyone up into minority groups, you're left with a rump residuum often called the "white working class", which is then interpolated as an "identity" itself? This is the right-wing telos of contemporary "leftism".

When you constantly have the state broadcaster embedding diversity messages on everything from Eastenders to Radio 4 afternoon plays it largely reminds us that the media and political class view the plebs as bigoted idiots whose neanderthal values are in need of reprogramming. Ultimately we're not going to vote for people who think they know better than us and think they can disregard our votes at a referendum while still feeling entitled to our votes come election time.

Now that Labour have been pummelled in a general election they're now taking their best guesses as to why northern neanderthal is not voting Labour. They'll get it wrong of course because they don't know anything about governing. All the electoral bribes in the world aren't going to make Labour any more likeable. They'll conclude that they need to send out messages northerners can relate to which leads to them to appeal to a cartoonish notion of northerners which is wholly lacking in authenticity. They think acting the part is sufficient.

Ultimately you can't fake authenticity. You can't preach the same old dogma just with a northern accent. The national politics has to in some way reflect the lived experiences of real people. Labour, though, is just a clan of London progressives who not only don't care about anything beyond the M25, they're simply unaware that any other politics than their own exists. Labour can't forge an alliance with a northern working class stereotype that no longer exists and it can't forge a coalition with people whose values they loathe.

Labour has an impossible task. This week Brendan Cox popped up on Twitter to suggest that immigration control policies aren't racist. Big mistake. He spent the whole day fending off the accusation that he is now enabling the far right to set the agenda. Anyone wishing to salvage anything from the wreckage of Labour is wasting their time. It can't be done. If immigration can't be debated then Labour has nothing to say to the north. The left is maintaining the position that there are no downsides to immigration and anyone who thinks otherwise is a nazi. It's now at the point where the only reason a leftist hasn't called you a nazi is if you haven't voiced an opinion at all - which is what they want.

The problem is now that in order to have a conversation about the north we have to have a conversation about all the things that the left would rather hide from. Most of what they seek to avoid can be swept away with a single grunt of "Islamophobia". But of course this is less to do with Islam and everything to do with Pakistani men and a corrupt and broken visa system. The left will keep hiding from it for as long as they prefer the votes of inner city ethnics to white working class people - and hide from it they will. For as long as they do, politics will increasingly be drawn on racial divides. Our politics is now defacto racist because the left have made it about race. Some might say deliberately.

Britain has seen enormous change in recent years and it has fundamentally changed the make up of our country, where ordinary people now have to struggle to get what was once just a basic expectation of life. These changes have undermined social cohesion and baked in resentment between age groups, class and race. Instead of seeking to bridge the divides the left continues to pour petrol on the bonfire, attacking all the basic norms, hoping to dismantle everything that sustains a viable society. Ultimately the left can't govern something they effectively want to destroy. If they don't even believe in the nation state how can they ever hope to heal it? 

Friday, 10 January 2020

The British fish for British boats delusion is about to be shattered


Fishing was always going to be a big row in Brexit because it's one of the most emotive issues - touching on matters of territory, identity, heritage and sovereignty - but especially because it was one of the most visible symbols of what was done to the UK without consent. Effectively, the EU in conjunction with the British government did to the fisherman what Mrs T is said to have done to the miners. Anyone alive at the time will have vivid memories of family boats at the wreckers. It left a deep economic and emotional scar on coastal towns.

Consequently it attracts a lot more political runtime than it should, and the fishing lobby are expert at playing the victim. Possibly they're the most politically overindulged constituency there is because they're totemic for eurosceptics. But like Mr Corbyn and his silly notions about reopening mines, there is no going back.

What has been built over the last 25 years is a single market in fishing of amazing complexity which is not so easily undone. The CFP hooks in with a number of trade and environmental objectives derived international law. Moreover this hooks in with a major global industry where 38% of workers in the North Sea fleet are from outside the European Economic Area. It's a dangerous job that increasingly doesn't attract British youth. Moreover, fish processing for export is worth more to us than fishing itself.

Furthermore the industry has changed in the last three decades with a handful of large boats doing the equivalent of a fleet's worth of fishing. This idea, then, that Brexit means that once again British harbours will be bristling with masts and alive with bearded Scotsman singing sea shanties is something of a romantic delusion. 

Nobody wins from the British fish for British fishermen mentality. If we want a market for all that processed fish then naturally we would wish to avoid tariffs and non-tariff barriers so whatever regime that follows will require a high degree of conformity. There will be no miraculous deregulation, not least because of international rules. If we want to land and sell fish in the EU then there will need to be a bilateral high-alignment agreement on fishing - and that will in all likelihood mean access to UK waters for EU boats.

Where it gets intensely political is over quota allocations where the UK will nominally be back in control but for a number of years will have to respect that quotas are bought and sold under a particular framework and foreign boats will have legacy rights. 

We should not, therefore, get carried away with the idea that there will be a great renaissance for British fish. Even if we took a nationalistic protectionist path with a view to consuming more domestically, we'd likely be no better off for it. It should be noted that fishing is worth less than a billion as an industry and is a fraction of our GDP. Overemphasis on fishing is a huge distraction from the bigger issue of the single market which is worth £270bn per annum upon which our services sectors depend.

In many respects Brexit has come far too late to save fishing, along with much else. If we want to make the best of Brexit we need to look at the world as we now find it. Sacrificing our single market access for a nostalgic delusion, expecting a coastal regeneration that simply isn't going to happen, is foolish. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Labour just isn't a serious party


The Tories are up to something. We do not as yet know exactly what that something is. What we do know is that it's inspired by right economic radicalism and that, traditionally, doesn't end well for those caught in the crossfire. If the Tories go for unilateralism in trade then it's curtains for British agriculture and without some regulatory cooperation then our services sectors find they're frozen out of their nearest foreign market. All manner of horrors await and now would be a good time to have an opposition party.

That means Labour has some decisions to make. Is it going to bleat on about Israel and gender pronouns or is it going to participate in real world politics of consequence to British voters? If Labour wants to become a government it has to start taking an interest in things it traditionally isn't interested in.

The thing about Brexit is it means the UK will now be taking on a whole raft of new responsibilities that come with being an independent state. We now have the task of forging our own independent foreign and trade policy and have to build our own regulatory capacity. This is not schools 'n' ospitals and it isn't babies and benefits. This is the stuff of statecraft that requires serious people capable of serious thinking and not reducing issues to cheap talking points.

And you know what else this stuff is? Boring. It's not in the least bit surprising that parliamentary scrutiny of the EU was minimal over the course of our membership and not surprising MPs were only too happy to delegate that difficult business to the EU. The only people bothering to pay attention to the EU in any serious way were the eurosceptics.

But you know who focuses on the boring things? Adults. Competent adults. And that's what we need now more than ever. We have a majority Tory government armed with some crackpot theories founded on obsolete assumptions and no discernible knowledge. It should be easier than ever to wrongfoot this government on details because we have a prime minister who simply doesn't do detail and a cabinet full of Brexiteer yes men whose grasp of the issues is flimsy at best. But the reason they can act with impunity is because Brexit is largely a Tory project that Labourites simply have no interest in.

Ultimately if Labour ever wants to be in government it has to show that it is competent in opposition - and to do so they will have to do some serious opposing by way of exposing the agenda and the ineptitude of the Tories and by having some viable alternative proposals. This is why any rejoining effort is a cop out. Arguing to put things back how they were (as impossible as that is) ignores the very real shift in the political dynamic here in the UK and in the EU. We have chosen a different path and now we set about defining it. The question for Labour is whether it wants a role in defining that future.

In respect of that, it's no good having focus groups to find out what voters want. That's just brand marketing. In this game it is for parties to set out their vision and persuade voters they should want it. Given the omnishambles the Tories are sure to deliver, Labour could inherit power just by way of showing they are a viable alternative.

That, though, is no easy feat for Labour. The raw material just isn't there. To have a command of these issues requires a glimmer of intellect and a sense of intellectual curiosity. But of the leadership contenders declared thus far you wonder how they even manage to dress themselves. You didn't have to like Tony Blair to at least recognise him as a serious politician but from this starting point I start to wonder if Labour can ever revive its status as a party of government.

If anything, the post-mortem of this election should be asking not why it did so badly, but how on earth it managed to do so well. No doubt the Brexit Party saved a few Labour deadbeats from the guillotine and the promise of a second referendum prevented the exodus to the Lib Dems, but with the question of our exit from the EU now settled, what can save it from oblivion now? Would it be better to just put it out of its misery?

That, though, is for Labour to decide. I only care insofar as I don't want an unopposed government. If Labour wants to survive it has to at least start from a position of sharing certain basic values with the wider public. They can make the case for liberal immigration and win the argument but not by assuming those who want managed immigration are in some way xenophobic. You can't represent the working class when ultimately you think working class values are backward and uncouth. You can't claim to stand up for British workers while siding with the EU in any negotiations.

Tony Blair understood that to take power you needed a vision but first to prove yourself in opposition. He looked like a prime minister long before he took power and in the run up to 1997 we all knew he would win. It was a combination of self assuredness and ruthless competence. It doesn't look like this iteration of Labour is capable of either. They're not interested in governing or opposing so for the time being, it looks like we're on our own.

We're still left guessing on Brexit


The Tories didn't get to walk away from Article 50 negotiations. Instead they're taking the hit of the withdrawal agreement if only to defuse the situation and remove the immediate peril that generates so much troubling press for them. So now instead of no deal they're going for the next best thing in their book; a rudimentary agreement on tariffs and seemingly not much else. After which they will do everything possible to sabotage the functioning of the Northern Ireland agreement. They have no intention of honouring what they signed up to. That's my gut feeling. We are chucking all the normal rules of play into the bin. It's pure adversarial politics from here on in. 

How much of the hardline bravado is just a negotiating ploy I can't say, but there is a game in play. What's driving this, I reckon, is concerns from the City and its hostility to accepting EU rules and the Tories are prepared to sacrifice a lot to ensure regulatory independence in the financial sector. This is why the EEA was never on the table for consideration. This is the one the EU has reason to fear the UK in that we could create our own regulatory gravity.

The Tories aren't saying it, and they're concealing their true motivations but it smells very much to me like Singapore on Thames is still at the centre of their thinking. A massive gamble. One that could even work too. We're not in the top ten economies because of a Nissan plant in Sunderland and an Airbus factory in the Welsh borders. These regenerative baubles were always designed to make our supply chains dependent on EU integration and to persuade the public that EU membership was indispensable. To an extent, it worked. 

The Tory mind, though, believes that the EU fear a newly competitive UK on its doorstep which is why it's keen to keep the UK inside the EU regulatory orbit, particularly in respect of level playing field provisions. The Tories, not unreasonably, think this is leverage. The extent to which it is depends on how far the EU can flex its own system of rules without compromising other external relationships or even placing internal stresses on itself. One suspects the EU will not deviate from its hard and fast rules on equivalence.

Here's worth reminding ourselves that much of the EU's much vaunted clout is largely contingent on Britain's EU membership. Without the UK, the EU just a Franco-German alliance with Germany carrying most of the financial responsibility for a league of heavily indebted dysfunctional parasite states. Though the impact of Brexit is sure to have a greater impact on the UK, it does leave the EU substantially weakened in terms of its financial clout, meaning smaller EU states who've only ever been in it for the generous development cash can start sabre rattling for more opt outs. There is a lot at stake for the EU.

Meanwhile, we know there is no intellectual force behind the Johnson administration. Johnson is only interested in playing the part. Johnson is just the figure head to spout populist initiatives and slogans. The real agenda is set by forces behind the scenes largely bent on becoming a low tax, light touch regulation state which, theoretically, could see the UK remain an attractive destination for investment. Again that's another huge gamble based on a number of flawed suppositions.

Here we're putting a few critical narratives to the test. The presence of non-tariff barriers is not necessarily terminal to trade and like the black market, legitimate business is just as capable of finding innovative ways around problems. China doesn't seem to have any problem getting its substandard tat into the EU. EU controls as much as anything are a belief system. Its power is derived from the faith put in it by our policy class.

It rather looks like we are going for a massively disruptive Brexit aimed at frustrating and antagonising the EU rather than cooperating with it. Ironically it may precipitate reforms in the EU we could never accomplish as members. Brexit can't be business as usual for the EU and they know it.

As an approach, though, we can at the very least call it reckless. We could also call it needlessly adversarial if not outright hostile. We are gambling a great deal, centring all of our attention on the City when if there are any lessons to be learned from Brexit it is that the regions are in need of economic revival rather than regeneration cash. How then is this Brexit compatible? What is the endgame?

In all this the EU is going to have to think carefully. While it has its own red lines and defensive interests, playing hardball could lead to a more antagonistic and reckless UK which is not without its perils for the EU. A deep and lasting recession for the UK is not limited to the UK and even outside of the EU the UK is a major regional and neighbourhood interest. The danger for us all is that the EU apparatus is just as capable of shortsighted arrogance, clumsily wielding power because it can just to settle a score, but those games can backfire in the long run if they're damaging the interests of member states by souring relations with Britain.

For all that we've gamed Brexit and speculated over outcomes, we have all been working from certain assumptions based on a system of rules inside a particular paradigm, but nobody, least of all me, anticipated the last three years going the way they did and there is nothing to suggest the next three years will be any less turbulent. All we can say is that we're heading for a series of crises all of our own making and sooner or later the Tories will need to come clean on what the plan really is. They can't hide in the shadows forever. 

Monday, 6 January 2020

What's wrong with American imperialism?


If memory serves, the Iraq war was, politically, much like Brexit. Though there was vocal public opposition, you could find national polls in favour of the invasion. I was among them. I wasn't taken in by the WMD's baloney, but I did believe Iraq could be liberated and turned into a halfway functioning democracy. I also thought we should show unequivocal solidarity with the USA. Though the link to 9/11 was tenuous, the USA was on a philosophical crusade whose aims (the export of democracy) I supported.

I thought it could be done and had a few variables been different, it might well have succeeded. What we saw, though, was military incompetence on the back of a number of flawed assumptions. By the time we had a handle on the politics of the situation it was already too late. That said, what stands in Iraq now is based on the constitution they voted for and have since developed. The jury, for me at least, is still out.

In respect of what happened next, ISIS and all that, I do not blame the West as is fashionable to do. Iran has played a role, as did Syria, and a wider regional war was always an inevitability. These despotic regimes were bound to fail eventually. One could even argue that the presence of US forces ensured that Iraq's war of reckoning resulted in far fewer deaths than have occurred in Syria, which is still an ongoing conflict.

I'm also of the view that the West can't win whatever it does. The same people slamming the West for the state Libya is now in would have been viscerally critical of the west had they allowed Gaddafi to slaughter Libyans as per his stated intent. We'd have been accused of propping up an evil regime. From the same crowd it's always "American imperialism", but then when America chooses not to act it's "American isolationism".

As it happens, the initial operation was a success by any military metric with minimal loss of life, only there was no appetite for committing ground troops precisely because of the mess we made of Iraq. Only we left a power vacuum and the international response has been piecemeal and inadequate. The consequences are still felt a decade later with Libya essentially in a state of anarchy and haven for terrorists and people smugglers.

The basic problem, however, is that whatever we do, we face forces at home and abroad who do not want us to succeed while we are forced to choose regional allies out of expedience when there are none who could be said to be good actors. It seems all we can do is limp from one mess to the next at enormous expense. The temptation to do nothing at all is great, but that too has consequences. Decision making in that domain is an unenviable task.

As regards to the big picture, I still broadly support the USA. After all the USA was instrumental in the creation of the global rules based order, which has since been used to undermine US aims, and has become mired in corruption, but ultimately the USA is founded on an idea of human freedoms it continues to promote internationally and will commit its military to those ends (unlike say, the mealy mouthed EU that will sit on its hands in all eventualities chiefly because there is no unity of purpose and no common values beyond the platitudes they spout).

Though international politics is riddled with hypocrisy, the USA is still beacon of freedom, and despite its flaws, is still the global defender of liberal values. The world is generally better when the US wins and the despots lie face down, dead in a sewer. For all that there are those ever ready to condemn Trump, the landscape we see now is one fashioned by Obama who made his own miscalculations in the naive belief that a softer approach would yield greater cooperation from America's enemies.

The liberal globalist consensus believed that treating China as a market economy, showing them love would see China opening up and liberalising. Instead that weakness was exploited. That same strategic naivety was applied to Iran and Iran has clearly done the same. These are not nice people we are dealing with and they're not looking to do us any favours. They are behind efforts to destabilise Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, and their intent is, unlike the US, wholly malevolent. I'm not going to lose any sleep if America does what it feels it has to.

Johnson will go unopposed while the left keeps promoting their imaginary version of Britain


I follow the fortunes of the Labour party only insofar as I think it dangerous to have a majority Tory government without effective opposition. By now everyone has their own take as to why the Labour party imploded last year and, to an extent, just about everyone has got them bang to rights. Were it not for the Brexit Party, Labour would very possibly be facing extinction - and very well still might. They need a leader acceptable to both the membership and the wider public which seems an impossible ask of anyone.

Part of the reason Labour failed started not with Jeremy Corbyn, but with Ed Milliband. Corbyn was just a continuation of a theme. Labour activists set about retailing the Daily Mirror vision of what modern Britain looks like - ie record homelessness, unprecedented child poverty and rampant inequality - all as a result of Tory cuts, all motivated by a hatred of the poor. A cartoonish depiction of Tories as cruel greedy fatcats sucking the marrow of the poor and disabled.

As childish as that is, Labour could never quite understand why ordinary people would vote Tory. Rather than examining their own inadequacy they assumed it was because voters are manipulated by red top tabloids, despite the tabloids no longer having anything like the influence and reach they once did. There are teenagers making slime videos in their bedrooms with greater reach than newspaper editorials.

The truth, though, is that Labour's diagnosis was simply not credible. Homelessness and child poverty are complex issues for which there are no easy answers. Moreover the statistics are highly politicised and manipulated and the more lurid the reading of them, the less credible they became. The vision Labour was retailing just didn't marry up with the lived experience of voters. Ultimately if you're in the persuasion game then you don't set about it by taking voters for fools, but that's exactly what they did. And they're still at it.

This is especially true in the Brexit debate where they are now retailing the narrative that Britain has had a lurch to the right having fallen for Boris Johnson's populist narratives and they're behaving as though the UK is going the way of Orban's Hungary, citing bogus hate crime statistics. Not only do they want us to believe it, they need people to believe it and will go to just about any lengths to ensure that people do.

As to who is actually buying it, it will no doubt be credulous hacks from the international press, from the Washington Post to the Times of India whose UK correspondents spend considerably more time in fashionable Mayfair clubs and Oxford university shindigs than Rotherham high street on a wet wednesday. Consequently the only version of Britain they will hear of is one filtered through Brexit derangement. We have a liberal intelligentsia now actively promoting a bogus narrative of Britain abroad.

Then, of course, when such narratives are dutifully regurgitated in The Times of India they can say "Look how the world sees Britain now" despite India being one of the most corrupt, racist, unequal, polluted slums on the planet. Not only do British progressive hate Britain, they hate themselves.

That is not to say, there isn't cause for alarm. It's just that while the left is engaged in full blown histrionics, nobody is going to buy it. The truth is somewhat more nuanced. We don't exactly know the shape of this government yet. In some respects it won't be much of a departure from norm, and though Johnson will make populist noises, the same pedestrian managerial ideas will still be central to governance of the UK. We'll see robust rhetoric on immigration and Brexit, and a bit of red meat on civil service reform, but the Tory party is still the same rudderless husk it was during the leadership contest.

Here we should note that Boris Johnson was the slam dunk leadership contender because there was no obvious alternative. That was the case immediately following the referendum where Theresa May was the best they could do as a compromise candidate while the big beasts were ripping chunks out of each other. But now that we have Boris Johnson, we can only speculate on the type of government we actually have.

Outwardly the Tories are retailing the notion that Johnson is going to get Brexit done and once it's put to bed we'll see a raft of far reaching reforms and major investment. The question is whether they believe their own bullshit. On the face of it Johnson is aiming for a bare bones "fast track" FTA that gives us little beyond that which the EU would grant unilaterally to third world countries. If that's where they're going with this then this government will soon be mired in the fallout of a Brexit only marginally better than no deal and big spending plans will have to be shelved.

So either the Tories know exactly what they're doing and are feeding the public a crock or they genuinely don't anticipate serious blowback from Brexit. I don't know which is more dangerous. If it's the former then Johnson is just a figurehead while policy execution is in the hands of the free trade radicals with no oversight to speak of, and if it's the latter then we're dealing with a extraordinary naivety and incompetence.

In either case there is an open goal for an effective opposition, but while the opposition is retailing the narrative that Johnson is looking to sell the NHS to Trump, wind back workers rights to the Victorian era and substantially lower food standards, they end up spinning another inaccurate and unbelievable yarn that simply doesn't tie up with the lived experience of voters.

What makes this all the more infuriating is that Johnson is a profoundly unserious man who doesn't do detail. He can easily be taken apart and shown to be a fly by night who doesn't have a grasp of the issues, but while the opposition is catastrophising and peddling their own ridiculous mythology, Johnson can continue to marshal tribal culture war ridicule in their direction.

What the country needs right now is mature and forensic opposition while Johnson makes an oaf of himself. That, though, is sadly not going to happen. Keir Smarmer is the closest Labour has to serious in any leadership contest, but having taken a resolutely remain line in the last three years, having voted down any compromise option, he can't then complain about Johnson's ultra Brexit approach when Starmer was one of those who put Johnson where he is. As regards to the other contenders they might as well stick with Corbyn. They're just not serious.

My feeling is that the whole country is just waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Nothing can be said or done to dissuade the Tories from their current approach and true believers will not start asking questions until the headlines start rolling in. We're in a second phoney war and we won't see the gathering of any coherent opposition until the Brexit noose tightens. It's certainly not going to come from the Lib Dems in the interim. For as long as the left is in a full blown sulk, blaming just about anyone but themselves for their shellacking at the polls, they will allow this administration to act without opposition.

Friday, 3 January 2020

The Cummings experiment doesn't end well.

Professionally, I build and support business software systems. I prefer bespoke new builds because I'm not constrained by whatever came before. Coming into a company with an established system is much harder because you have to understand how it works in detail before changing even the smallest thing. You can't make unilateral decisions because the consequences ripple out and without knowing the system you cannot predict the effects.

Currently I'm working on an established system that's more than a decade old. Outwardly it looks a bit of a mess and I couldn't wait to get stuck in changing things and making them better. But then I do not assume that the previous developer was a fool. If there is something unorthodox or not in keeping with best design practice, it's usually for a good reason having looked at the balance of trade offs. A high degree of optimisation in code may give you marginal performance improvements but makes upkeep and rapid analysis more difficult. It's a judgement call.

Pretty much any system is the culmination of thousands of decisions, all made with imperfect knowledge, according to the demands and priorities of the time. Reality never conforms to a perfect system design and 90% of intellectual effort goes into dealing with 10% of the scenarios. The measure of a good system is how well it deals with exceptions.

Over time some issues cease to be an issue so you occasionally need some housekeeping, deleting old data tables and code just to keep on top of it. But this is often slow and forensic work in that a careless change can have major repercussions which may even go unnoticed for a time, making them even more damaging. This is why we have change control systems and why system managers push back against maverick programmers who think they know better than the last guy.

And I certainly know the type. I used to be one. Some of the biggest professional cock ups I have ever made have been on the back of assumptions, not fully appreciating that things that seemingly don't belong are there for good reason - only nobody is quite sure what the reasoning was... until it goes wrong. Systems often talk to each other and though some data is seemingly useless it may serve a function for other systems interrogating your own system.

These days if I want to make a change I have to set out a business case for doing so, having done a complete risk assessment, demonstrating the kind of intimate knowledge of the specifics before they will let me anywhere near it. They won't let me go off half cocked without explaining what I am doing and why and I certainly don't blame them. If I muck up and the automatic billing data import doesn't run then people don't get paid.

In the past I have always found change management procedures tiresome and bureaucratic, often killing off spontaneous initiatives which saps the creativity out of the job - which is why I prefer new builds. New builds are not immediately business critical and the consequences of changing your approach are not so urgent. That's me and just about every programmer. Wading through other people's badly commented and undocumented code is not easy, it's boring and having no agency in what can and can't be changed without seeking consensus is frustrating.

And you know where I'm going with this. It doesn't matter if it's a software system or a management system. A system is a system and they follow the same evolutionary cycles and any change small or big comes with its own internal politics where there are enablers and blockers. Sometimes you have to navigate your way around the blockers with careful diplomacy or go the extra mile to persuade. If you go in like a bull in a china shop all you do is get people's backs up, create unnecessary resistance and sour the atmosphere. You're also setting yourself up to fail.

This is why I'm cautious of letting Dominic Cummings anywhere near the civil service. His demeanour is much like a younger, more arrogant version of myself, assuming all who came before are stupid and self serving, and that things would work so much better if only I had all the power.

I've worked in dozens of companies, and though there are common strands of bureaucracy that are universal throughout, every one has evolved in its own way and though they can all benefit from some radical housekeeping and fresh ideas, asking the questions people have stopped asking, all of them are a balance of interests and everything is a compromise bending to the realities of an imperfect and uncooperative real world.

For sure, in any bureaucracy you get your timeservers, jobsworths and petty obstructionists and people who just don't like you. That's office politics, but nothing is ever improved by bullying management imbued with simplistic ideas about how things work. I've seen this before when HR comes along with half baked faddish ideas they want to impose on people. The moment it happens I start hitting the job boards. Pretty soon you see a major brain drain and you lose the institutional knowledge upon which any functioning organisation depends. When you break up the delicate compromises, interrupting slow and steady change, all you do is leave a wake of resentment.

The Tory clan would have us believe that Cummings is an all seeing, all knowing genius who can turn it all around. They've bought into the legend and added to it - but I don't buy it. We've seen these cleverdick pretentious spads before, knowing less than a tenth of what they think they know. It never ends well as Cummings's track record in Vote Leave shows. He very nearly broke the entire organisation. There is nothing to suggest anything has been learned since.

The psychology on display from Cummings is that of a man who has been frozen out once too often and is now after revenge. Good systems marginalise and exclude men like him. That he is where he is now is a symptom of a system subverted. Mavericks have their place as ideas men and are a good resource to tap - but you never, ever put them in charge.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Brexit: An eye to the future


In the run up to the referendum it was The Leave Alliance view that the EEA Efta option was the best vehicle for our departure owing to the fact that much of our trade is established within a dominant regulatory framework. We saw little advantage in divergence since the trend is toward global harmonisation converging on the EU model.

We took the view that before we turn an eye to trading with the rest of the world it was important to safeguard our economic position and our relations with our largest and closest trading partner. From there we could survey the landscape and make our way accordingly. We took the view that a major economy such as ours added to Efta would give Efta sufficient clout to shift the balance of power in the single market and make it more of a joint endeavour.

For various reasons this eminently sensible approach failed to win a consensus, especially with Brexiters hoping for a more radical departure. The single market is not without its problems and requires compromises even I struggle with. Primarily though, we saw it as a means to leave without the economic harm we shall no doubt endure now that any moderate approach is off the table.

Since we are now to inflict enormous damage on our economy by way of an overnight departure from the single market next year, it begs the question of whether the EEA Efta option is still a workable or indeed desirable destination.

This administration has taken a hard line in its opening remarks in respect of the future relationship. If we are to take the rhetoric at face value then we're looking at a not-even-Canada FTA, which will certainly placate Brexiters in the interim but in the longer term will prove to be insufficient. We will have to rebuild and develop any new relationship which will almost certainly end up with a high level of regulatory and customs alignment. It's an inevitability.

The missed opportunity here is that we have lost an opportunity to modernise and reshape the EEA, perhaps even pulling in Switzerland to become a leading role in a non-EU tier of a European free trade area. Having a separate relationship creates a power imbalance that hands a great deal of leverage to the EU. The shortsightedness and arrogance of the Tories will come back to bite us.

There is, though, little point in wondering how things might have been. We have to confront what we are faced with. The Tories have ownership of Brexit and we'll have to watch them fumble in the dark for a time before we take a more consensual approach. In the interim we'll see them attempt a deal with the USA which in my view will fail to deliver if it even happens at all. Supposing such a deal does happen, all it does is complicate the evolution of our EU relationship which will still require further development.

Though the Tories are sure to deliver a pig's ear of a Brexit, in a way that's good news in that it buys time and creates the conditions to popularise a more appropriate destination. Even standalone Efta membership is worth exploring without the EEA, which could very well gain popularity when the real world consequences of a hard Brexit are felt in the wider economy. Even a best case scenario deal with the USA comes nowhere close to mitigating the loss of the single market and the USA is not going to do us any favours.

As much as ratifying the withdrawal agreement does not "get Brexit done", nor does the completion of an EU FTA. Our relations with the EU are a continuum and we are going from one suboptimal relationship to another and within a year or two into the new trade relationship, the realities the Tories have thus far successfully glossed over will become harder to avoid - and with a house majority, there are no remainer blockers to blame. The December election terminated the last of their leverage.

Though the new year (and indeed the new decade) brings a fresh sense of energy and optimism for some, it won't take long before the Tories have to start breaking promises. Brexit leaning fishing campaigns have been promised a great deal, but no fish can be landed in EU territory without detailed agreements between the UK and the EU. Eventually, much like Norway, we'll have an EU agreement in close alignment with the CFP. The climbdown may not come in the first round of Brexit negotiations but within a decade we'll be back to following EU rules if we want our fishing industry to survive.

More to the point, though fishing is not especially significant as far as the national balance sheet goes, it's as politically significant for the EU as it is Brexiteers. The EU will almost certainly have fishing as a political priority and if the UK wants enhanced services access, fishing will definitely be on the agenda. Soon Boris Johnson will go from being the hero of the hour to a Brexit betrayer. Each new concession potentially destabilises the fragile unity in the Tory party. Meanwhile it's an open goal to anyone who wants to contrast what we're getting with what was promised by Johnson himself.

In all likelihood, the final destination of Brexit (or at least the next long term settlement) will not be defined by the Tories. That task will fall to whoever has to clear up their mess and rebuild - at which point there will be a market for coherent and credible ideas. If we can keep the Efta pilot light burning, there is no reason why it can't be part of the solution. Sadly we just have to let the Tories do their worst for the time being - but then watching the Tories getting a kick in the complacency might well be another hidden benefit of Brexit. Only when all of our national delusions are shattered can we rebuild a new politics befitting the new century. It's already twenty years late.