Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Brexit: a debate in crisis

I was intending on keeping up pace with the blog since Brexit day but celebratory drinks with The Boiling Frog on Saturday knocked me out of action for two days. I can't handle the beer like I used to. But then I didn't miss much. We've had a wave of impenetrable noise and the usual bloviation and bluster from the PM, and this week every man and his dog has an opinion on trade. When it gets like that it's better to let the wave wash over you and attack the substance when something coherent emerges.

As I've often remarked, though, a good reason to leave the EU is to repatriate decision making on trade and put it back in the public consciousness. It's good to see that for the first time in a very long time there is a public debate about trade and government is relearning the ropes. The sad part, though, is that it isn't an informed debate particularly because the Tory apparatus and its associate propaganda vessels have gone about deliberately misinforming the Tory tribe.

This blog has often made the case that there are dozens of good reasons to leave the EU, not least the chance to build a more responsive democracy, but "free trade" really isn't one of those reasons. Yet, the ERG wing of the Tory party have made free trade their central crusade and in order to secure our exit from the EU, preferably without a deal, and have poisoned the debate with all manner of issue illiterate nonsense. All the while editors like Robert Colville of CapX uncritically republish any old tribal toss without any verification process. And then there's the malevolent Conservative Home and BrexitCentral - who have a lot to answer for.

They say a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing its boots. That is especially true in this instance since Twitter is a facilitator of echo chamber dynamics. Trade is a subject that turns on detail which is easy to get wrong (where even the experts bump into their own limitations) and it's hugely dull. It can't compete with heavily biased narratives (such as EU dumping chicken on Africa) that suit what leavers want to believe.

What makes it worse in matters of trade is that every narrative is usually carefully crafted by lobbyists employed by multinationals from all over the world. There's an awful lot of corruption involved where, if a lobbyist needs the voices of government officials or producers to add weight to their arguments, they'll splash the cash around and then send the press releases to think tanks in Washington, Brussels and London who will obligingly recycle it as news for newspapers who have long made their own investigative capabilities redundant. We see this on everything from dairy and tobacco products through to palm oil and chicken. They then press into service their own bought and paid for "experts" like Shanker Singham to spread their gospel. Nothing can be taken at face value.

The aim is to weaken the EU politically - and very often it works since these narratives are picked up by eurosceptics and anti-free trade left wing groups on the continent masquerading as NGOs. As ever there's a germ of truth in some of these narratives, but must always be taken with a pinch of salt. That, though, doesn't stop Brexiteers picking up any stick to beat the EU with regardless of where it came from. Meanwhile the EU has been poor at countering many of these bogus narratives.

That said, for all of the EU's dogma, lobbying works both ways and the EU is by no means a saint. A case can be made that Africa is a dumping ground for EU and US agricultural surpluses, and African states are rightly suspicious of signing FTAs with the EU with all the conditionality that goes with them. As to what is actually true, it's a brave man who calls it. I've done my own (limited) investigations and some of these issues are six of one and a half dozen of the other, and the verdict is inconclusive.

One such instance is the accusation that the EU's palm oil ban is more to do with protecting European rape oil producers than saving the environment, but then at the same time the palm oil business is indeed a bloody, corrupt and dirty business leading to deforestation. UN FAO statistics suggest otherwise in places like Malaysia but the Malaysian government has become quite savvy in distorting the statistics by corruptly reclassifying land after controlled burns of bush land. To get at the truth we'd need a a trustworthy independent investigation and we probably won't get any such thing from the UN. If they have been taken in they'll never admit it - which explains why so much junk climate science survives.

Of course there are some people in the game worth listening to but with academia having gone all out for remain for the last four years, nobody on the leave side will listen to them in a million years. British academia has squandered its influence and burned all trust with the wider public.

The other problem with trade is it's very possible to sound plausible without actually knowing what you're talking about. And I should know. Some of the older work on this blog could be described as total crap. I do get things wrong from time to time. The problem we have, however, is that it's difficult for people wedded to an ideology or groupthink to ever admit they're wrong and will keep on repeating the same falsehoods over and over again no matter how many times their work is debunked. There is always someone willing to believe them.

That said, the remain side of the argument isn't in much better shape. They will go out of their way not to find fault with the EU and on the whole their understanding of trade issues is no more developed than the average Brexiteer. As defenders of the status quo they have no curiosity and in their eyes "clout" is the only factor of importance. There is no discussion beyond that.

But then it's not the remainers who are on trial here. We know what the status quo looks like. It's not perfect but it's tolerable. The Brexiteer proposition has to be equal or better, and most of us know that it won't be. The Brexiteer "free trade" prospectus stands on a foundation of intellectual sand for all the reasons outlined over the course of this blog. Sooner or later, the madcap theories of Tory think tankers will be put to the test - and will fail.

In respect of that, though much fault will lie with the Tories themselves, this is also a failure of media. There has been a detailed discussion of these issues on the blogosphere and on the fringes of Twitter going back well before the referendum. This is a debate CapX, Guido, City AM, Spiked and BrexitCentral chose to ignore, instead giving houseroom to prestige opinion with no basis in fact. Not only is the media failing to inform the debate, it is acting as a barrier to it.

Nobody want to see Brexit succeed more than I, but if it is to succeed then leavers need to decide whether they are going to keep refighting the referendum or engage with uncomfortable facts and get real. They are going to have to decide if we were fighting for a better democracy or whether this is all for the greater glory of Boris Johnson and the Tory mob.

Over the coming weeks and months we are going to see all manner of issue illiterate poison pumped into the public domain by all of the usual suspects - and will be retweeted thousands of times whereas genuine seekers after the facts won't get a look in. For all the exposure we get on Twitter we might as well go and talk to the dog in the village pub - which would at least be a receptive audience.

We are told that during the referendum our fragile little minds were warped by Russian bots and sophisticated targeted advertising, but the truth is more depressing than that. People do a fairly good job of brainwashing themselves without help from outside. They select sources that tell them what they want to hear, only accepting sources aligned with their existing position. Anything from outside is treated as suspicious and anyone attacking that source is immediately branded as someone from the other side of the binary divide. It's difficult to see how we can ever have an informed democracy when all the influential actors don't care if they are misleading the public just so long as their side wins.

Britain is headed for seriously choppy waters right now. Though yesterday we took up our independent seat at the WTO, the robotic rhetoric will be measured against our approach to the Brexit negotiations. How can the UK set itself up as a champion of the multilateral rules based order when its approach to Brussels sends the signal that UK policy is going against the aims and objectives of the WTO and has little regard for its rules. The WTO is seeking globally harmonised standards and customs processes while the UK is talking about diverging and toughening up standards, thereby creating new barriers to trade.

One thing now obvious to all is that there is no coherent trade strategy and nothing like a joined up policy stemming from a well thought out philosophy. All we get is vague aspiration peppered with misplaced jargon, pomposity and bluster. Meanwhile those who should know better reinforce the narrative with evidence free assertions and fantasy. Without an informed public debate and with a media that shuns reality, there is little hope of making a success of Brexit. We won't even know what hit us.

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