Thursday, 11 February 2021

Brexit: customs in the digital domain



The media likes to talk about "customs paperwork" as though it were an insurmountable nightmare. It used to be but it's far simpler now than it ever has been. There are dozens of free-to-use online portals to create the necessary documentation.

The forms themselves are designed to a UN standard - United Nations/Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport (UN/EDIFACT), approved and published by UNECE.

Every form, be it a certificate of origin (eCert) or SPS certificate, has its own XML schema which are now universal. There's about forty different types but for most exporters only three or four are required - depending on what you're exporting.

Electronic customs data exchange is nothing particularly new, but UN/EDIFACT comprise a set of internationally agreed standards, directo­ries, and guidelines for the electronic interchange of structured data, between independent computerized information systems. The data standards allowed developers to build form standards into their own software while more causal exporters can use third party online portals.

This has been moving toward a single window system for some time where exporters log on to a portal to fill in and submit documents, and request the necessary electronic approvals from regulatory authorities. Your applications then get an electronic rubber stamp. Single windows mean standardised information will only need to be submitted once - and your transactions pre-authorised by a chamber of commerce.

The electronic from standards and exchange protocols have been around for a long time, and in 2018, the EU built mandatory e-declarations into the Union Customs Code. The next step is to build in smart contracts to automate stakeholder compliance tasks. The aim is to eliminate all paper from the process, while creating a secure portal that contracting parties, regulatory and customs authorities can see, based on Blockchain. Data is then immutable thus eliminating the possibility of fraud and port corruption. Fans of The Wire will recall why this might be useful in container ports.

As it stands the system is not all that onerous, particularly if you have a dedicated shipping manager responsible for customs formalities. Standard data exchange formats mean that business mainframes can automatically populate the certificates and central data repositories can do all the rules of origin maths from a data bank of trade preferences.

The technology is already there, as is the methodology - and once a consignments loaded on to a truck and dispatched, if the system knows the registration of the lorry, the ANPR cameras as as good a means as any to notify ports and border authorities that goods have crossed a border. Though ANPR is probably antiquated now.

Authorities can flag registration plates if they have any cause for concern and intercept. As per the TCA and UCC, Customs controls, other than random checks, "shall" primarily be based on risk analysis using electronic data-processing techniques.

There is presently no real reason, short of a failure to invest, that Norwegian truckers passing into Sweden should have to queue in a portacabin to get their certificates stamped. That this was ever held up as an example of trade friction EEA members experienced was ridiculous.

Similarly, there was never any reason to outright dismiss technological solutions as part of the solution for Northern Ireland. As we noted at the time, though, the regulatory checks were the larger problem and as yet there isn't a computer system that can stick a thermometer up a chicken's bum.

As the Commission reminded us frequently during Article 50 talks, a customs union alone would have accomplished very little and the the only value as such would be to reduce exposure to tariffs demanded by rules of origin - which would likely be of considerably smaller concern had we joined the PEM convention.

The only problem with this is that single window as a concept is not fully mature - but had it been ready ten years earlier - or we'd have delayed leaving the customs union a while, we'd have eliminated a lot of tiresome arguments. Put simply, customs "paperwork" is going the way of the dinosaur, rendering customs unions all but obsolete in terms of "frictionless trade".

What is surprising though, is how the trade fraternity have made absolutely no mention of this, or that the TCA explicitly says "Each Party shall endeavour to establish a single window that enables traders to submit documentation or data required for importation, exportation, or transit of goods through a single entry point to the participating authorities or agencies". It's happening.

I'm unsure as to the extent of current HMRC software developments, and I highly doubt this much has been understood by MPs, so whatever replaces the current customs system maybe short-lived as single window renders it obsolete. The advantage to much of it being based on open standards is that a lot of it can happen in the private sector with government opting in as an when it is ready.

As is gradually dawning on business just lately, the real headache is the third country controls and the loss of the right of establishment that goes with single market membership. More could have been done to reduce certification problems by investing in the technology but the regulatory barriers were always going to cause problems. Still, though, an incurious media continues to bleat about "customs red tape".

One way or another single window will become the universal way of doing things. Based on global standards and adopted by the World Customs Organisation, and being central to new plurilateral WTO eCommerce agreements, we can expect to see rapid proliferation. It has become a central pillar of trade facilitation and new experimental value chains in Uganda are already using it. The first world is actually behind the curve.

Though we have ended frictionless trade as we know it presently, there is actually no reason why ports can't establish efficient routines. Much of the chaos we have seen comes from a lack of familiarity with third country processes, a failure to prepare and widespread confusion as to what the TCA was going to contain. The lasting hit to business will be the inherent loss of single market particpation rights which will affect non-goods trade even harder.

As regards trade in goods, as single window matures and regulatory processes are built into software protocols and automatically updated, linking in with things like RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) and authorisation systems, in a decade or so, much of this won't even register as a concern. Trade in goods has become an unfortunate distraction from more lucrative markets and the new frontier in trade is in the digital domain.

Throughout Brexit, trade in goods has dominated because it's much more relatable than digital trade issues, Lorries on ferries is a tangible manifestation of trade whereas digital rights, privacy, data protection, intellectual property are not readily accessible. They are perhaps more important though. With homeworking taking off and businesses no longer limited to the locality for finding the best talent, digital rules will be key to creating and protecting jobs.

These are the new global arguments ahead of us. We have recently seen the potential for harm of unchecked monopoly power among tech giants. We can't afford to be distracted by interminable rows about fish. Trade in goods may be getting simpler, but everything else is becoming a whole lot more complicated.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

CPTPP: What do you mean by "comprehensive"?


While we're on the subject of CPTPP, I thought it interesting that the media's third favourite trade wonk, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama (and to my mind the only one ever saying anything worthwhile), should confirm much of what I had assumed. In an older paper written for Daniel Hannan's Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), Makiyama writes:

First, CPTPP and other FTAs do not contain provisions that actually set regulatory standards, but ensures the sovereigns regulate in the most non-discriminatory fashion possible. In other words, CPTPP and other trade agreements voluntarily bind its members to refrain from certain, specific discriminatory practices, like a rulebook against discrimination in national legislation – but do not replace the national legislation itself. This is how CPTPP (and other FTA texts) deal with a complex matter like food safety in just sixteen pages, while the national legislation often runs several hundred pages long – the current UK law, implemented via EU regulation (Regulation No 882/2004) on feed and food runs 196 pages in the Official Journal.

Second, six members of the CPTPP have existing agreements with the EU. In order to ensure consistency between agreements, these countries had to be certain that none of the commitments in their bilateral FTAs with the EU could or would contradict potential TPP pledges. In other words, these countries have already scrubbed commitments which could cause potential conflicts between the CPTPP text and the EU FTA template, as they have signed up to both. In addition, Japan, New Zealand and Australia also had comprehensive mutual recognition agreements (MRAs, based on conformity assessment) with the EU, even prior to their EPA/FTAs. In highly regulated sectors, such as on motor vehicles, Japan and Australia have also unilaterally accepted or incorporated European standards into their systems.

Evidently, as nothing in the CPTPP agreement precluded Japan and other CPTPP countries to conclude a comprehensive FTA with the EU as well, the UK would in theory be able to pursue both. However, in the opposite direction, whether the EU body of law in its entirety would pass CPTPP commitments, is a different question that is discussed in the following sections.

First off, one would note the disparity of language. The agreement is often described both deep and comprehensive, which it may well be through the narrow prism of tariffs, but by way of the above, it is neither deep nor comprehensive. What it confirms, though, is that in terms of standards and regulations, as discussed here yesterday, it does not go much further than the WTO baseline and merely reinforces WTO principles and ongoing trends in regulatory coherence initiatives.

It is also important to note that CPTPP remains a thin agreement precisely because key members prioritise deeper and more comprehensive agreements with the EU. This point has evidently escaped Daniel Hannan and the various luminaries behind the IFT. In particular, Korea has adopted the EU's REACH system for chemicals. This prioritisation of EU trade is an inherent expansion limit to CPTPP, and I suppose acts as a safeguard against it becoming anything more political. 

What Makiyama doesn't say, is that the respective EU FTAs primarily adopt global regulations and not "EU standards". In the case of motor vehicle, all EU FTAs, including our own, adopt the full stack of UNECE regulations. This is becoming a curious blind spot in the trade fraternity.

Moreover, if the mutual recognition on conformity assessment within CPTPP is tailored so as not to offend the EU, then it doesn't present the obstacles I was imagining, but by the same token, it is not likely to be comprehensive, thus of limited value. That further substantiates my belief that CPTPP is not at all comprehensive. The only slam dunk argument I can see is that it simplifies and improves rules of origin among signatories, but that will very much depend on how it interacts with EU rules. They cannot be looked at in isolation when it comes to complex value chains. 

As to food safety, Makiyama does indeed make the point that it is necessarily a complex area, and a territory upon which CPTPP fears to tread, thus it cannot be said that the agreement does very much at all for non-tariff barriers, and nothing beyond which the parities are already committed to via their own WTO rule based EU FTAs. Meanwhile, by way of geography, the UK's SPS regime will continue to be heavily influenced by the EU whether the government yet knows it or not.

More than anything, the UK's accession looks more like a dual-use move; to establish a diplomatic presence in Pacific trade conversations, and to broadcast our "Global Britain" credentials. It certainly won't live up to the hype, and so far as the consumer is concerned, against the unfolding consequences of leaving the single market, it is likely to make no noticeable difference.

As with Brexit, the CPTPP debate will largely concentrate on tariffs, ignoring services, and will completely neglect any consideration of non-tariff barriers. As per the discussions over the TCA, Geneva will remain the elephant in the room. That neither the media or its rent-a-quote trade wonks are remotely aware of it speaks volumes. 

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Actually, CPTPP isn't a bad idea


The UK is applying to join a free trade area made up of 11 Asia and Pacific nations, under its post-Brexit plans. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership - or CPTPP - includes Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

Hitherto now I've been somewhat sceptical in that one wonders what value there is in joining a regional trade agreement on the other side of the planet comprising of members we already have comprehensive agreements with. Furthermore, it is not a regulatory union, and not all that deep in terms of regulatory cooperation. It largely builds on copy-outs from WTO agreements and GATT.

Comprising of only 10% of our current exports, it's difficult to see what noticeable value it will have. It goes no way toward softening the impact of leaving the single market, America is unlikely to join it, and the rudimentary mutual recognition of conformity assessment within it doesn't really do much for us. More than likely it will complicate our remaining exports to the EU. The further we move away from a Europe first policy, the bigger the problems we have. But then since we seem to be hell bent on ruining most of our exports with the EU anyway, that's something of a moot point.

From a trade point of view you could easily conclude that CPTPP isn't worth the bother. But in taking such a narrow view I'm falling into the trap of seeing relations only in terms of their more immediate material gains. More than likely the government is taking a more strategic view to strengthen trade and investment ties with the Asia Pacific region. The agreement itself doesn't appear to go very far on investment but it does have that potential, and though it is not a regulatory union, it does commit the members to working on regulatory coherence and standardisation.

This pans out quite well for the UK in that it doesn't really require much of us. The UK is already at the global benchmark in most areas, while other CPTPP members have committed to reaching that bar by way of their deals with the EU. The UK, therefore, is well placed to consult on these matters. By driving forward the convergence agenda, the UK recruits more non-EU partners to its own initiatives, thereby counterbalancing EU clout in various international organisations.

Ultimately the UK needs a presence in the region and it also needs to upscale its regulatory diplomacy operation, and CPTPP is as good a place to start as any. Though the EU and UK may have set the standards for trade in goods, areas such as digital trade and electronic commerce are still relatively virgin territory out in the big world. There are threats and opportunities on the horizon, and CPTPP, if nothing else, is a good early warning system. One might even argue that if the UK is going to rebuild its trade and diplomatic capabilities we can't afford not to join, and sitting alongside Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand, we are at least among friends and allies. 

Where there is genuine concern about CPTPP is the lack of transparency over the decision-making and the complete absence of public debate - and the debate that does exist in Westminster is a low information debate among politicians and journalists whose understanding of the issues has not meaningfully advanced since 2016. Meanwhile the government seems intent on avoiding all scrutiny.

We will no doubt see a great deal of scaremongering over CPTPP, be it food standards or carve outs for the NHS, or ISDS, most of which will be irrelevant noise and party political gaming. It that respect, it wouldn't matter if there was a system for parliamentary scrutiny since MPs are usually distracted by the trivia, recycling the same old themes while utterly neglecting things like services and digital trade - and even if they were asking the right questions, they tend not to understand the answers. There likely are problems with CPTPP but we likely shan't know what they are until it's too late. But then that was true of the EEC, so we are at least consistent, I suppose. 

Friday, 22 January 2021

Brexit: towards a new normal


Not because of Brexit, but because of decisions taken by the Conservative government, Britain is going to lose a substantial chunk of its trade. This will be single market based trade we've evolved since the mid-nineties. Trade that didn't really exist before and now we've lost those contracts will probably lose out to EU based competitors permanently. We're no longer part of those value chains. The red tape and the third country controls will see to that. 

It is going to hurt more than it ever needed to because of a number of faulty assumptions during trade negotiations and because our preparations were wholly inadequate. Much of the system relies on software that simply isn;t designed to cope with the number of declarations and submissions. We could have bought ourselves more time by extending the transition - which would also have led to a more comprehensive deal but Boris Johnson in infinite wisdom decided that wasn't necessary.

Worse still, the the EU has a fully developed system for handling third country interactions, the UK does not. We do not as yet hold the institutional expertise, nor have we established a routine. We are inexperienced in these matters. There isn't the capability to sort out the problems. Business is unprepared, government hasn't a clue, the infrastructure isn't ready and there are not enough trained or experienced people on the job. It's all building up to a perfect storm.

Sooner or later warehouse stockpiles will need replenishment, informal grace periods will expire, and the French will get up to speed with implementing third country controls. This will get messy. I do not think that we have seen the worst of it. Any Brexiteer who thought we got away with it is kidding themselves. 

I do, though, think we should be able to sort it out. It is going to take a number of years. It's going to take a year at least to fully comprehend the causes of the bottlenecks and then a further two years of refinement followed by a process of installing a more permanent system. 

The new system will be heavily influenced by the EU's Union Customs Code. The TCA compels both parties to harmonise their data requirements for import, export and other customs procedures by implementing common standards and data elements in accordance with the Customs Data Model of the WCO. From this we will see a proto-Single Window emerge, which was always the direction of travel, largely eliminating paper declarations and more can be done in terms of customs cooperation and trade facilitation to get the routine running smoothly. 

It will likely never run quite as smoothly as it did before but we will arrive at something within tolerance. By this time, if I've understood the TCA, we will have Authorised Economic Operator systems in place so that regular exporters will have a much easier time of it and we will see improvements to the TCA in the fullness of time. 

From this we arrive at a very different way of doing this where much of the activity moves from behind the border to the ports, and in many ways it will spur some much needed modernisation. The good news is that we are already seeing tech-startups utilising the respective data standards to help navigate complex procedures such as Rules of Origin. Ironically the UK could become a global leader in customs and trade facilitation technology and setting the standards worldwide through international organisations.

In this it is even conceivable that the end point could see a return of relatively "frictionless" trade. Frictionless trade is as much about routine and predictability. When we have the systems in place and trust is established, though the same third country controls will still exist we'll be a lot better at managing the impact. In this we should note that trade has it has existed is not frictionless as such. There is still a great deal of "red tape" only it is conducted elsewhere. Some sectors such as food and chemicals will continue to face obstacles, but anyone who wants to stay in business will adapt. The question is whether they can continue to compete.

Though the present mess is still a disaster for current exporters, especially those who have failed to prepare, it is conceivable that when we arrive at a new regime (likely five years from now, give or take a software procurement scandal) things will being to look normal to the casual observer. Being that businesses will continue to use ISO and UNECE standards, their main area of concern will be product authorisations and testing. Any future government will likely press the EU for mutual recognition of conformity assessment and seek equivalence agreements based on retained regulation. The EU is likely to play hardball but I wouldn't rule it out if it's in the EU's material interests. Both parties will have Covid recovery imperatives.

What we can say is that it's going to get substantially worse before it gets better and it's going to create serious problems for Ireland. Already Irish supply chains are breaking down but this does not register with the media to the same extent as the Dover-Calais route. The former is seen as more local news whereas Dover is the international gateway. That is also where the government will focus its main attentions, and being that UK-Ireland relations are not in good health, the Tories will likely treat Ireland with a degree of contempt. Every time the EU makes life difficult for the UK the UK will seek to pass on those difficulties.

This is motivated largely by a sense of Tory victimhood. On Brexiter Street, Ireland is seen to have cosied up to Brussels with a view to weaponing the Irish border leading to the unhappy NI protocol now in force. The Tories also believe they can bounce Ireland out of the EU by making life difficult for them. I don't think it's likely to succeed, but the difficulties Ireland faces could be interpreted as the EU failing to live up to its promise of solidarity. I do not think the politics are clear cut. 

Though Ireland has made alternative arrangements to transfer freight from mainland Europe, the length of the voyage creates its own problems - particularly for Ireland's race horse sector. With an overall retraction of commerce from the British Isles, Brexit could end up hurting Ireland almost as much as the UK. Depending on what the UK does in the distant future, Ireland may be forced to rethink its relationships. In those stakes I don't see UK-Irish relations improving until Boris Johnson is gone.

In any case we've bought ourselves a decade of diplomatic and bureaucratic stress not entirely dissimilar to the process of joining the single market. Only this time the media will report it because it's politically useful to do so. We shall see no abatement of Brexit bickering but ultimately we just have to get on with it until we find our new normal. 

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Brexit: time to get on with it


I rather thought I was going to enjoy pulling the wings off ultra-Brexiteer types as their delusions were skewered by the encroachment of reality but it's turning out to be meagre pickings since many of them are too stupid to even realise there is a problem and the rest are unwilling to believe it has anything at all to do with that thing they campaigned so intensively for. 

The other problem is with me. I just can't be bothered. There's no real sport in it if it's easy prey. And of course, it scarcely matters now. What's done is done. The fishing industry is mostly getting what it deserves and I don't have that much sympathy for British manufacturers either. Rules of Origin should not have caught them off guard.  

Moreover, Just In Time supply chains are not necessarily about rapid transit, rather it is a matter of planning to ensure goods get to their destination precisely when they are needed while spending as little time in warehouses as possible. 

Though the precise trade regime was not known until the last minute, the writing has been on the wall for some time that we would assume third country status and though government communications have been poor, there was nothing at all preventing them from doing their own groundwork - yet a great many of them sat on their hands. 

Of course, nobody can say that the government has upheld its own part of the bargain. Customs software isn't up to scratch, the support isn't there and the trade deal itself is barely worth having for all the use it is. Brexit is done and we've made a pig's ear of it. 

The energy, therefore, is better invested in thinking how we make the best of it. I do not believe that re-joining is likely, possible or even desirable, and if Efta EEA was a losing bet before then it is now for much the same reasons. The argument for remaining inside the EEA regulatory sphere was to maintain EU trade but by the time we re-joined it, our trade would already be a distant memory and would likely never be the same again. Our current value chains are the product of thirty years of evolution. 

I will never stop beating remain MPs over the head with the fact they voted against EEA Efta, but for better or for worse the TCA is the foundation we must build on. It is now a fact of life that, for the time being, things are going to cost a bit more, we're going to export substantially less to the EU, and business will have to adapt or die. I don't like it but there it is.

Of course the remainers are going to whine for an eternity, particulary about any regulatory divergence. In their minds any divergence is bad, and any way that isn't the EU way is inferior. But that never has been true. Regulation has always been used by the EU as a tool of integration where it never particularly mattered if it was bad regulation just so long as it was uniform throughout. Though it gets improved over time, improvement is always a suboptimal compromise - and still more concerned with finding an acceptable average than tackling the problems regulation is notionally designed to solve.

There are aspects of environmental law and waste policy, only tangentially related to trade, that could now be reformed without that process of negotiation. Energy, water and waste policy is now up for grabs. Moreover, the UK is now, to a point, free to make its own decisions on product regulation. We have long been a dumping ground for substandard Chinese counterfeit output, which the EU system failed to prevent.

The EU's system has, in fact, encouraged corporate irresponsibility, instilling a culture of "plausible deniability", where retailers and their suppliers can plead that the "paperwork and procedures" were in order, thus dumping the blame for any failures on anonymous producers, largely keeping their own reputations intact.

While people were complaining about the opening of our borders to the inrush of immigrants from other EU member states, another revolution was taking place. Our borders were forcibly opened to a torrent of cheap, often substandard imports. And, as long as they carried the "magic talisman" of the CE mark and had the correct paperwork, local port inspectors were effectively prohibited from examining the goods.

What were termed "technical inspections" were condemned as "barriers to trade", on the basis of which the commission rigorously pursued their agenda of dismantling port controls. Furthermore, once in the shops, the official presumption is that goods bearing the CE mark are "safe", so that officials such as trading standards officers are actively dissuaded from carrying out spot sampling. And no longer do local authorities make budget allocations for routine tests. 

That is a large part of the problem in UK governance. Across the board, adoption of EU regulation has weakened enforcement and lessons from enforcement are not fed back into the system - and where they are there is little reflection of it.

Among national politicians there is a presumption that technical governance of this nature does not require them to be familiar with it, being that it's an EU competence and the sharp end of it is handled by local authorities. Enforcement is then a matter of mere budget allocation rather than governing philosphy. This we have seen with the sweatshops in Leicester where there is no shortage of regulation on treatment of workers and health and safety, but what good is Rolls Royce regulation if enforcement is still British Leyland?

As much as there is an overreliance on the EU and international organisations to provide the regulation, there is a presumption that the system is self-maintaining without the direct involvement of our politicians. To a point that's true, but that's how we get to critical decision points like 2019 and the average MPs has no concept of what they're even debating.

Under the terms of the TCA it is unlikely we shall see that "bonfire of regulation" and suppliers to global corporates will still elect to follow international standards. Britain will still have to make its own representations to the global bodies where the rules are made, but over time the EU will lose interest in monitoring what the UK is doing internally, particularly as its attentions turn elsewhere, by which time there should be policy space to rethink how we do things.

Since we have already damaged our trade beyond repair we now have little to lose by experimentation and regulatory innovation. In terms of animal welfare and disease control there are obvious advantages to having a distinct system to the EU, and though we should still look to liberalise our trade, there is no reason why we should continue to allow China to abuse the certification process in order to keep dumping fraudulent goods on our market.

Though trade metrics report of volumes and values, they don't give us an idea of the economic, health and social costs of a profligate society living for conveniences, always sacrificing quality for price. The mentality of the last forty years has been geared toward the maximisation of trade volumes but with scant regard for the wider implications. With Covid and geopolitical trends interrupting globalisation, we could certainly use a "great reset" in the way we think about trade and regulation. 

Wokeness: echoes of East Germany


We're having some technical problems on Turbulent Times tonight so I'm posting here 


What have the woke left and the East German secret police got in common? Quite a lot as it happens - you won't be surprise to learn. A cornerstone of the contemporary leftist thinking is critical race theory. I must confess I'm no expert on it, but it appears to be a ranking system according to your victimhood credentials; a social grading system that determines whether your opinion has any right to exist. 

A new California curriculum in the news this week uses racial distinctions to divide people into those who are considered white (and therefore privileged) and those who are non-white (and therefore oppressed); and in the case of Jews, it combines the two, pitting "Jews of color" against Jews who are tarred with "conditional whiteness" and its attendant "racial privilege".

This is essentially rhetorical weapons system designed to bake in discrimination. It comes as no surprise that the woke left puts Jews in their crosshairs first. The system is based on a ranking of what they term "privilege" which is based on all the old left wing bigotries and stereotypes, so it was only a matter of time before Jews became the target. And these people pretend to be "anti-fascists".

But it does fit with history. Communists have always defined themselves primarily as anti-fascist. GDR authorities officially referred to the Berlin Wall as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the "will of the people" from building a socialist state in East Germany.

Drawing from the work of Maoz Azaryahu, it's worth looking at East Germany. Following a period of direct military occupation by the victorious allies, in 1949 both West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR) were founded as successor states to the German Reich. For both German states, the evaluation of the Nazi past was central to the construction of their respective national identities as German states that represent and embody a ‘new’ Germany. West German society was bent on forgetfulness and suppression of the inconvenient past, whereas antifascism became the founding ethos of GDR.
In communist East Germany, the commemoration of the Nazi past was designed in the framework of anti-fascism (‘anti-Fa’) as a state doctrine. The legacy of anti-fascism juxtaposed the fascists with their victims, but at its core was the celebration of communist resistance and martyrdom as well as the solidarity between communist and non-communist resisters, such as social democrats and clergymen.
Significantly, communist resistance in Germany was construed as an aspect of the struggle led by the Soviet Union against fascism, and the Soviet victory was also the victory of East Germany over Nazi Germany. Especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, the designation ‘fascism’ also applied for West Germany, which according to the East German propaganda represented the continuation of fascism.

As both a historical legacy and political argument, anti-fascism was an instrument to legitimize both the Communist state and the hegemonic role of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in East Germany. Grounded in Marxist-Leninist interpretation, the East German doctrine of anti-fascism regarded Nazi Germany as the local context of a broader phenomenon, fascism, that expressed the crisis of ‘monopoly capitalism’. The Nazi extermination policy against the Jews was seen not in a German context, but as a result of the ostensibly criminal nature of ‘late capitalism’. The doctrine of anti-fascism absolved all East Germans – provided they supported the communist regime, and irrespective of their actual biographies – of sharing the burden of the Nazi past.
Having developed its founding ethos, it then needed its national heroes and founding mythology. According to the East German narrative, the liberation of Buchenwald on 11 April 1945 was a self-liberation by the communist-led underground organization that took control of the camp shortly before American troops of general Patton’s Third Army arrived. Celebrated as the victory of anti-fascist resistance, the ‘self-liberation’ of the camp belonged to the foundation narrative of the GDR as an anti-fascist state. 

Another important symbol of anti-fascism was the ‘Buchenwald Oath’, in which members of the underground organization, shortly after liberation, pledged their resolve to continue their struggle. In East Germany, the ‘Buchenwald Oath’ became a credo of the anti-Fa doctrine.
Buchenwald itself became part of the mythology, becoming the "museum of anti-fascist resistance", juxtaposing Nazi barbarism and anti-fascist resistance and martyrdom, while emphasizing that Nazi 

Germany was but an aspect of the general crisis of capitalism. In the wake of the collapse of the GDR, the narrative of heroic resistance and anti-fascist martyrdom lost both its credibility and authority on the revelation that between 1945 and 1950 the former concentration camp had served as a Soviet detention camp for Germans. This goes some way toward explaining holocaust denial on the left in that the reintegration of Buchenwald into a more accurate record of history discredited the heroic character of "anti-fascist resistance" mythology.

More broadly, GDR was famed for its suppression of speech, a ruthless secret police, mass state surveillance and military borders in order to keep people from leaving. Nobody was risking their lives to go and live in this socialist utopia.

Though my linkage to the modern woke left is not entirely serious, they both define themselves by what they're not and both rely on a rewriting of history. Their whole identity is fashioned on their opposition to fascism which in their minds makes them righteous by default. The authoritarian behaviour is similar because the foundation construct is so flimsy it depends on the policing of language and thought. The transgender lobby has attempted to appropriate Alan Turing as one of its martyrs in the same way that GDR incorporated the memory of Ernst Thälmann. In no way does this stand up to scrutiny but activists become immediately aggressive when challenged. As offensive as that is to me, so to is the attempt to write transgender people into the holocaust.

Though the left doesn't have a Stasi of its own to enforce these doctrines, it does employ doxing and by way of their capture of institutions, it's quite easy to have a sceptical academic removed from their post or a public official sacked - or a book withdrawn from publication.

Though America is not yet turning down that road, one can almost imagine the Antifa mobs of Portland settling the issue once and for all by replicating the Berlin wall around the city - assuming they can find any males who can work construction. Gender studies degrees are going to need a structural engineering module. The woke women will all be too busy in the HR jobs in Silicon Valley.

What particularly piqued my interest in Azaryahu's work, was the concept of "late capitalism" - a pillar of the communist dogma at the time. This have been revived of late, particularly through the medium of memes, and I never realised the significance. Nothing of the current leftist rhetorical construct is remotely original. 

Whoever dreamed up the modern left's playbook and lexicon seems to have been almost exclusively inspired by the GDR. Everything about it is centred on indoctrinating its adherents into thinking that anything in the outside world is fascist - and to disagree is a moral failing.

The only thing original about this is the way in which this iteration of communism has infected the USA by donning the clothes of racial justice and gender equality. The murder of George Floyd last year gave it a window of opportunity and with the election of Biden, it now feels it has a foothold. If enough Americans see it for what it really is then reconciliation is impossible. Civil war may well be on the cards. Either way, unless it is defeated, the liberal democratic America we have known in our lifetimes is dead.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Wind down.


I've slowed down on the blogging over the course of the lockdown. It's nice to have company in the house but I don't get anything like the same uninterrupted thinking time. A lot of the blogging process is reading and thinking in the quiet hours. Moreover, I think I've taken it as far as I can go with blogger. Hits are still showing a steady increase but growth is glacial and you know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results.

With that, and having moved past Brexit, we've also been having discussions about The Leave Alliance and EUreferendum.com. The Leave Alliance site has been more or less dormant for a few months and it has served its purpose but now it's just sitting there costing money. As to EUreferendum, we feel the name puts limits on exposure, especially with the referendum being a distant memory now.

This then presents the question of what next? Well, we've toyed with the idea of a multi-author site for some time. I was actually me who took some convincing, since we've attempted to bring in other writers before to find that good writing is something of a rarity and taking on the workload of editing as well as producing a daily blog is too much to ask. Now, though, I feel less inclined to blog daily since I'd rather produce less at a higher quality. Much of what is said on this blog is repetition, which is fine for a campaigning blog, but in my view it's getting a bit stale.

So with that, we are now moving to turbulenttimes.co.uk. Himself has long complained that my ASP.net content management system was laborious, and not having my head fully in the programming game means even small edits is a major undertaking for which I seldom have the energy (or interest) so I'm finally giving up the ghost and moving to a Wordpress based system.

For the most part the website is ready but we've still some fine-tuning to do which will happen over the course of the next few weeks and eureferendum.com will gradually migrate. Rather than the big launch approach we're going to run it concurrently for a while to iron out the bugs and establish a presence. Once we're confident with it and have the routine down we will then look to take submissions from other bloggers.

I will keep this blog open and will post the occasional piece if it doesn't fit on the main site, but I'm done bashing my head against a brick wall. There are other subjects I'd like to write about and a new start is just what the doctor ordered. When we've migrated I will clean up eureferendum.com as an archive site. It will stay online but I'll be downgrading the hosting to save money.

With that I'd like to thank all of you who've supported this blog over the years, especially those of you who've donated. I try to to send thank you notes to each of you so apologies if I missed you. Being an introvert I struggle to make contact with people. It is, nonetheless, hugely appreciated and means more than I can say.

On that note, our new venture has cost us quite a bit to get going. I've paid a proper developer this time meaning we should have the full spectrum of functionality. If you would like to donate to the cause, you can do so here, but as ever, please keep up the retweets and shares etc. Migrating a site always means a slight dip in hits so your support matters now especially. As ever, thank you for reading, and see you over at the new digs.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Failing at every turn


Twitter is not so much a website as a state of mind. When you're plugged into it, it is all consuming. It can be used productively to inform the debate if you have the time and the energy but it can suck you into the distorted Twitter brain state whereby you end up being distracted and absorbed by trivia. In respect of that this lockdown has been a welcome diversion. I've taken to my modelling bench in a big way, scarcely concerned with the outside world.

Now that I'm outside the Twitter bubble looking in, I do wonder how it ever managed to consume so much of my time. Scarcely anything I scroll past is worth a nanosecond of my time. It tends to gravitate toward petty partisan bickering, neglecting the central issues almost entirely, to the point where its denizens have lost sight of what is actually important.

Part of the problem with the national debate is that we are a nation of news junkies, always waiting for the next big thing which begets a media always trying to engineer the next big thing. Reality, though, is much less interesting. Things seldom happen in rapid succession. The Brexit saga was weeks of inactivity, speculation and churn, only periodically punctuated by something of actual consequence. That's partly why this blog has drifted away from the subject. I keep an eye on it, but there's nothing especially new that's worth a post.

As it happens, Corona is unfolding in much the same way. There are milestone events with a cacophony of noise in between. More causal consumers of news rely on mainstream outlets such as the BBC trusting their judgement as to what is actually important. Consequently there is little hope of any kind of informed debate. The BBC is readily distracted by soap opera and lacks the capacity to do thorough and far reaching journalism. The important news stories will drift by unnoticed.

As to the online debate, very few are actually interested in what's really going on, consuming media as ammunition for their own agendas. In aid of that people tend to prefer filtered narratives even if they have only a passing relationship with reality. Primarily it's about media consumers abusing news for personal entertainment.

This is where Corona and Brexit have yet more interesting parallels. Whether or not the lockdown was the right thing to do, the more important debate is how we get out of it now that we are in it. Like the Brexit debate, people will churn over the former question for years on end rather than address themselves to the mechanics of the situation, largely because it requires a level of greater understanding and a much more objective outlook.

In these such situations you have to understand all of the moving parts - their history and function, and how we got where we are. The adjacent debates, though, are far more accessible, more popular, and more profitable if you're in the business of harvesting clicks and likes. The more I see of that dynamic, the less I want anything at all to do with it - especially since it isn't remotely productive in any sense. Twitter influence is not influence. If you are influential on there then chances are you are part of the problem.

With Corona I've been less able to analyse events not having any prior knowledge but my experience on the Brexit front lines has taught me that if there are answers out there, or at least better questions, then the media and their favoured prestige experts are of zero value and the people who rate them can't be persuaded of anything because they're wedded to a tribal narrative construct.

One such example is the trading of graphs on Twitter. Every single national epidemic curve graph on the internet is fiction. No exceptions. Every national epidemic curve chart is based on ropey data, but more importantly an aggregate curve gives you no clue as to what is happening in the country as a whole, or what will happen when the lockdown is relaxed. They have no epidemiological value in terms of trying to control the disease. A declining aggregate curve may simply represent one large area in decline while concealing a number of other areas with small outbreaks which are rapidly increasing.

We have to control this epidemic one infection at a time, one outbreak at a time. We are looking at several peaks so the notion we are "through the peak" of a fictional political construct is PR spin and should be disregarded as irrelevant. The decline we see is really only the result of the lockdown but the virus is still out there and there is no indication the government has understood or implemented the necessary toolset to avoid a second spike. There is simply no evidence that current government activity other than the lockdown has been in any way successful at controlling outbreaks - and it may even be counter-productive. 

Then on a deeper examination of the issues, we find that there is a major missing element to our understanding of the virus where exposure alone is not enough to cause illness. If that turns out to be true then it will be used as a vindication by all those who said the lockdown was never necessary whether they too the time to understand or examine the issues or not. That's the other part of the problem. Media consumers seek vindication for their predispositions and validation. Information and understanding is optional. This is why much of the corporate media has abandoned its obligation to inform.

If there is indeed another dimension to the virus we have not yet understood then a great deal of the current controls are unnecessary, and most of the necessary controls are not being applied or applied incorrectly. The contact tracing system crucial to hopes of easing lockdown will be outsourced to private call centre operators including Serco, The Times reports. This ought to be the sole domain of local authorities based on local knowledge and conducted by trained field operatives. This is just going through the motions. This should be the main story of the week but that's unlikely with our trivia addicted media.

As I understand it strategies do exist to control outbreaks based on high quality intelligence gathering, focussing resource where it is most likely to occur but instead the government is pegging its hopes on gimmicky contact tracing app for the general population - which from a technical perspective is problematic but highly questionable also in epidemiological terms. Standing back from the media noise, there is no apparent signal that anyone in the government has really grasped what we are dealing with or has any real idea what to do. Much like Brexit. 

It seems the Downing Street machine is adept at spin, mobilising its supporters to cement narratives in the general population but it doesn't have the ability or institutional knowledge to handle anything of complexity and importance. That's something of a problem when the entire business of government deals with matters of complexity and importance. Our system simply isn't fit for purpose. and it's costing us a hefty price in blood and treasures. 

Friday, 1 May 2020

Games with numbers


At the moment I'm more cautious than usual about venturing an opinion. This epidemic has too many moving parts to understand exactly what is happening. There are plenty of forceful opinions about but not much in the way of useful or accurate data, and even if there were, data alone doesn't necessarily clarify anything, and a figure like daily deaths is a somewhat arbitrary statistic since it's an aggregation of multiple outbreaks in various states. 

Particularly, there are a number of reporting irregularities while we also have a hidden epidemic where there is really no way to tell how severe it is. We're getting conflicting information where what is actually happening could be the exact opposite of what you might reasonably assume, all the while (much like the Brexit debate) the nation conversation is polluted by half-understood notions and alternative political narratives which again have no bearing on the real world. Time and again the same dynamic applies with cynical actors using events to stoke discord. The right are as bad as the left.

As regards to the politics, it again mirrors Brexit where we have a poorly advised executive attempting something it doesn't understand while fending off a feral and largely ignorant media, leaving the rest of us in the dark, where the more you expose yourself to the daily soap opera, the less likely you are to get an an accurate picture.

Meanwhile the lockdown argument continues to rage. Whatever the science says, the continuation of the lockdown is 100% a political decision. At some point it has to end simply because it is not economically sustainable and the public don't have the stamina or the means for a prolonged outage. 

We are told we are through the peak, but the peak is a narrative construct based aggregated data. This tells you this government has no idea what it's doing. If they're looking at a national figure they're still treating it as a single outbreak rather than several concurrent outbreaks at various stages. The virus could easily become endemic and we simply have to adapt to living with a highly contagious deadly virus. That probably means sustained social distancing measures coupled with track and trace while treating Covid patients in separate facilities. It may be some time before anything close to normal is resumed.

What makes this virus especially problematic is that we know so little about it. Any easement of the lockdown is a political gamble that could see a second surge, and with country to country comparisons being next to worthless we have no yardstick. A worthwhile look at this appears in The Guardian.
"But, of course, people are not so interested in the numbers themselves – they want to say why they are so high, and ascribe blame. But if it’s difficult to rank this country, it’s even trickier to give reasons for our position. Covid-19 mainly harms the elderly, with the average age of deaths above 80, and its fatality rate doubles every seven years as a person ages. Italy’s population is elderly (it has a median age of 47), while Ireland’s is much younger (a median age of 37), so we would expect different effects. And Covid-19 is a disease of crowded areas – New York is rather different from Reykjavik. An obsessive comparison is being made between Norway and Sweden: Sweden’s more relaxed social distancing policies may or may not have been instrumental in their current death rate being 233 per million, compared with Norway’s 38.
Even – if we can imagine it – we reach some sort of stable situation, will we ever know the direct and indirect health effects of the epidemic, taking into account reduced road accidents, the benefits of reduced pollution, the effects of recession and so on? Many studies will try to disentangle all these, but my cold, statistical approach is to wait until the end of the year, and the years after that, when we can count the excess deaths. Until then, this grim contest won’t produce any league tables we can rely on."
For now we're having to make policy on the fly on the basis of assumption and guesswork, where only time will tell. Unhelpfully we'll remain in the dark as government continues to shift the statistical goalposts. So long as the party faithful submit to the narrative they can successfully distort the national debate to cover up a multitude of sins. With a lazy and incurious media failing to investigate, we may never know how it's unfolding.

Ultimately the economics will be the decider. This lockdown is quite an expensive do for this government and there are no more rabbits in the hat. The various bailouts and funds to prop up businesses and individuals simply cannot be long term measures. This is cartoon physics. The coyote is over the cliff but hasn't yet looked down. The function of Corona funding is to keep the pilot light burning on the normal order of things, but the longer this goes on the less likely there is a normal to go back to. What is done is not so readily undone. The mantra will eventually shift from "save the NHS" to "save the economy".

Thankfully the government is now displaying signs of having exhausted all the possible errors so unless they get creative they might just start getting a few things right. That, though, is going to take some time to come to fruition so we can reasonably assume the lockdown has to roll on a while longer. Having dismantled a great deal of local capability we are faced with rebuilding our response apparatus from scratch. No easy feat.

In the early days of this epidemic we didn't have a clear idea what to expect. With only heavily redacted Chinese news to go on and Italy only just climbing the curve, we had to assume something approaching the worst case scenario. It doesn't appear to be as bad as expected in that it's not a movie style apocalypse, but that's no reason for complacency. This virus is still filling up morgues and we still have no idea what will happen in the near future. Those still claiming it's just the flu haven't grasped that the flu has a high degree of predictability. The unpredictability is what has authorities spooked, and it was politically impossible for any government to take a reckless gamble on the basis of unknowns.

As it transpires, the inaction on the early days was because the government was following a plan to deal with a flu like epidemic. It's precisely because Covid isn't like the flu that our limited containment strategy never stood a chance of working. As to whether it's more deadly than the flu, we simply don't know being that our methodology for recording deaths from either is highly questionable. Ultimately all the "it's just the flu" brigade have succeeded in doing is convincing me to take the flu much more seriously. As a younger person it doesn't really feature in my regular concerns but it probably should. The danger here is that our response to Covid is so inept it simply becomes another mass killer that we all ignore until it affects us.

I haven't looked at any news reports in any serious depth for a week now largely because I'm unconvinced that any of the headlines give us any real information. News from other countries is interesting but not especially useful, and the UK press is mostly toadying sycophancy or shrill, unhinged bleating which is even less useful except as a further marker in the decline of British political culture. That, in the long run, could be more deadly than Corona and more expensive than the lockdown.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Media: Better off without


It has been a very very long time since I received any television channels. I don't feel I'm missing out on anything. It's certainly not useful for news or analysis and from what I see vomited on to Twitter, it gets worse all the times. I think the rot started when newsreaders exchanged their desks for sofas, losing any sense of seriousness or formality.

Particularly loathsome is the rise of the anchor person, spawning a new breed of A-lister lobby hacks and pundits who continually try to make themselves the centre of the story. They're smug, smarmy, condescending, out of touch and their output is inane.

There has long been a debate about media bias. I was once part of the anti-BBC crowd complaining of pro-EU bias. Undoubtedly there is an institutional pro-EU bias but that is born of its more serious metropolitan bias. As it happens I'm not that bothered by it anymore. You can take or leave it and I choose to leave it - and encourage others to do the same.

Where the media is most problematic is its inanity. I can tolerate the bias because I, like most, have my own system of critical faculties and my own opinions derived independently from book learning through to lived experience. What bothers me is the low quality. Instead of informed debate we get uninformed debate between the two polar extremes of any given issue where usually both sides are parroting carefully crafted slogans and factoids without challenge, largely because the interviewers tend to be empty vessels who have never worked outside of London and have never worked outside of media.

As much as the make up of the media is wrong, being largely Londoncentric, it wouldn't actually matter if you moved them all out to Manchester. They still exist within a bubble of their own making. The fundamental problem is their arrogance believing that viewers are incapable of grasping nuanced debates, and don't have the attention span to absorb in depth exploration of issues. Everything is fighting for a sliver of air time where we get only surface level discussion where they even manage to get the basics wrong.

What pisses me off the most, though, is that our A-list hacks are complete wastrels. By way of having privileged access to politicians they have repeated opportunities to ask intelligent, probing questions that could easily show the politicians up as being out of their depth, lacking a clue, and dishonest. Instead they play their own inane little "gotcha" games that the public are sick of, failing to add anything of value and leaving people no better informed for it.

We saw this during Brexit where the media was more interested in the soap opera than the actual issues. Journos didn't have the first idea what the difference between a customs union and the single market was, but had they even half a clue, they would have understood the implications of what they were being told which would have generated more and better questions that could have steered us to a viable, sustainable outcome.

With Corona we see more of the same, with the focus on PPE and human interest stories, unable to interrogate vents intelligently - when they could have asked why Corona was being allowed into hospitals when we had Nightingale hospitals up and running and ready to take patients. Effective media has the power to change government policy yet here we are some weeks into the lockdown and the government is only just getting to grips with the basics with the media lagging behind.

As it happens I don't think the media can be reformed. It cannot reclaim the seriousness it once had. With media now being an internet driven partisan battleground, and with a media unable to bring any depth to the issues, the media itself has become a participant in our politics but one that is largely concerned with its own brand prominence. It's not going to improve until news consumers vote with their feet.

But here we have a problem. There is presently some public pushback. It has not gone unnoticed that the media is dire over the course of Corona. But I don't think it's genuine. They'd be happy with a fawning and subservient media that told them what they like to hear. The right on Twitter seem to regard it impudent to question government at all. They are no more interested in an effective media than the media themselves.

I don't know if it's the lockdown that has changed my habits but lately I'm not even interested in Twitter news. Good analysis is rare as hen's teeth and the questions I have remain unanswered. If I want answers I'm going to have to get them myself. I certainly have no interest in the opinions of Twitter denizens and I'm not interested in playing by their rules in what is essentially a sordid popularity contest among insular tribes who are barely even aware of each other.

The only news yesterday of any particular interest to me was the release of a new set of Notices to Stakeholders, which I will revisit over the next week, but that came to me by way of a mailshot from the EU Commission. It seems I just don't need the media and I suspect a great many more don't either. We are better off without them. Whatever function it serves, it isn't news.

Further down the drain


If you've debated Brexit at any point, you will have ended up crossing swords with a populist grunter who insists on trading on "WTO rules" who will most likely not have heard of the EU's Notices to Stakeholders, much less read them. Up to now they were a series of official legal positions on the standing of a third country in the event of no withdrawal agreement. They detail which markets the UK will be excluded from or will encounter regulatory barriers to participation. 

Yesterday these were updated to spell out the position in the event of an FTA or no FTA post-transition. As before they are split into sectors from air travel to medicinal products. If acknowledged they would likely dispel a great many of the misapprehension of Tory Brexiteers. Every notice carries the same health warning:
In particular, a free trade agreement does not provide for internal market concepts (in the area of goods and services) such as mutual recognition, the ‘country of origin principle’, and harmonisation. Nor does a free trade agreement remove customs formalities and controls, including those concerning the origin of goods and their input, as well as prohibitions and restrictions for imports and exports.
Were that anybody were actually interested in the details there's enough set out in these notices to do a detailed impact analysis just on the basis of what happens in law, but with Corona absorbing the entire runtime of the media and the public, the only people still with their heads in the game are the headbangers and the policy wonks who have nothing at all new to say - and in many instances have regressed. 

The upshot of that particular health warning is that the mish mash of misunderstood concepts the Tories believe are possible inside an FTA are, in fact, not possible. This is nothing at all new to anyone who was paying attention but it's good to have it spelled out in black and white. The functioning of the EU system is not up for negotiation - and certainly not to accommodate the UK. Corona has no bearing on it.

In more practical terms, so far as supply chains go, there is not a lot of functional difference between an FTA and no deal at all, and thus, if we are resigned to leaving the single market the "no deal" debate loses some of its urgency. There is also that small matter of the global pandemic. With Airbus facing a grave and possibly existential crisis, and Ford reporting slumping revenues, Brexit is looking like a sideshow. Corona's disruptive impact on supply chains is a global concern.

As regards to extending the transition, I have argued that it makes more sense to defer, but to a point, Michael Gove is quite correct. It is entirely possible to conclude a threadbare FTA in a short time, and if this government doesn't see the need for a comprehensive deal, and is determined to inflict the maximum possible disruption, then it scarcely matters. Politically it is easier to mask the effects while Corona is running hot. 

This to me is an absolutely foolish move that actually makes this Brexit worse than the original no deal in that we have a dog's dinner of a withdrawal agreement to contend with where Johnson has practically handed Northern Ireland to the EU. If there was a point in a withdrawal agreement it was to buy time to develop a working relationship with the EU but since we're rushing it through and the government has no intention of working toward a viable outcome, we might as well not have bothered at all. 

What follows will be a torrent of propaganda, probably from the IEA shop on how Corona underscored the need for absolute regulatory sovereignty, glossing over the derogations the EU has already made, largely using Corona as a smokescreen to deregulate the way they have always wanted to - still misunderstanding the utility and value of regulation. They're still caught up in their decades old "red tape" narrative. 

With so much else going on I don't see there being much in the way of political resistance. The Brexit saga was already exhausted with new twists providing only morsels of entertainment for the media whose audiences are bored stiff of it all after four years of intense and ill-natured bickering. The continuity remain campaign have even pivoted to become an anti-Boris movement, more concerned with the mismanagement of Corona - but as usual getting distracted by the trivia and having no sense of proportion. 

Beyond Corona, it is difficult to imagine what the trade landscape then looks like. The price of oil provides some easement, but trade is sure to be more political than it has been in recent years with food and biosecurity taking centre stage and economic nationalism surging back. Corona will have brought about a number of changes in consumer behaviour, some of which will be here to stay. Buying locally produced goods may just become a necessity since shipping lines are on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, we are going to miss a lucrative export market place in our own backyard.

As it happens, there is every reason to believe we won't strike a deal with the EU. They UK red lines are too out of kilter with the EU's trade methodology. The UK is resistant to level playing field instruments, failing to comprehend that as far as the EU is concerned, a level playing field is a the whole point of FTAs which are their principal instrument of regulatory hegemony and soft power. Between that and the gulf that exists on fishing, the Tories have the pretext for a walkout that will be hugely popular. The European question, therefore, will remain unresolved. No deal cannot stay no deal. 

I would like to think that sooner or later the criminal negligence in their handling of Corona, and the botched exit from the EU will cost them later down the line. For the moment, the unpopularity of the media is giving the Tories a free ride, which they have skilfully weaponised by picking fights with A-list lobby hacks. It works for Trump and it will work here. The media is not doing itself any favours.

As regards to anything like coherent opposition, Keir Starmer brings no remedy to Labour's woes. Aside from being wooden and having all the charisma of septic tank, Labour still has an irreconcilable identity crisis to fathom while its factional infighting prevents Starmer from doing anything useful. He's no Blair and he's not even a Kinnock. But then, there is a deeper crisis in that they've forgotten how to effectively oppose. They take their agenda from the media and have no idea how to usefully exploit the mistakes made by Johnson. 

For the time being government is just something that is done to us where public consent doesn't really come into it. There is a public debate of a sort but it doesn't influence anything. We simply have to endure a feral government with no means of correction until the next general election, where, as ever, the options will be unpalatable, unedifying and fatally uninspiring. Meanwhile the media gets worse so the government remains more popular than it has any right to be.

I've been writing solidly about politics for five years now. I got into it with the hope that we could change things, arrest the decline and give government the overhaul it desperately needs. I'm starting to think it may not be possible. We are ebbing further away from democracy all the time. It;s nothing to do with Corona either. Public debate focuses on the leader and all power gravitates to the centre. The media reinforces it by making the Prime Minister the central focus - the prism through which all events must be viewed. Politics has died a death and not even Brexit managed to resurrect it while Corona just makes it more tribal than ever. 

Since Margaret Thatcher, each government has been more banal than the last as they choose to engage the public via the media. Politicians become bland sloganeers - evasive, dishonest and incurious. We have become so accustomed to manufactured scandal that real scandal no longer rates so conduct in politics declines. There is no price to pay for failure and no consequence for malfeasance. Since the public have been politically castrated they no longer care. Politics is now entertainment and they wouldn't have it any other way.

I've long felt that the public would have to feel tangible consequences for political indifference before they got angry. We were at least close to that with Brexit but with Corona being a cover all smokescreen we are even robbed of that. Government can continue to evade responsibility and people are all to happy to make excuses for it. I don't know how bad it has to get but it seems the answer is "worse than this". As if it wasn't depressing enough already. 

Monday, 27 April 2020

Corona: behind the learning curve


Very early on in the Corona epidemic it was known that the virus was more than likely airborne. A new study confirms this. You didn't need to be an epidemiologist to see that cramming people on underground trains was going to spread the virus - but they carried on doing it.

Anyone with practical experience in outbreak control said we needed to treat this as several outbreaks rather than a single epidemic - which needed local coordination rather than the West Wing soap opera we have seen in recent weeks. The very basics of outbreak control says test and trace procedures are our best bet. This government didn't think so and stopped doing it early on. Only on Wednesday, some weeks behind other countries, did it decide to recruit a test and trace task force.

Meanwhile some of us have been saying for weeks that the Nightingale hospitals should be used as primary treatment centres to keep the virus out of hospitals to prevent the re-seeding the virus. This they did not do, killing thousands of people in the process. Only now does the government consider a change of policy. This is all a bit like that saying about American foreign policy. They will always do the right thing - but only after they've tried everything else.

This is not a matter of 20:20 hindsight. This is the fundamentals of outbreak control where the government has abandoned all good practice in favour of its own hapless blundering - much like its handling of Brexit. Its Corona track record is a litany of failures. The decision to infect care homes ought to be something of a national scandal - and it would be were the media capable of concentrating on anything instead of producing valueless noise.

It would seem the current policy reversals are in preparation for an easement of the lockdown - which is about right. The public don't have the stamina for it, the economy cannot afford it, and politically it is unsustainable. If the government can get its act together with test and trace, and can shift the workflow away from hospitals and care homes then it is feasible to ease up. Some seem to think the issue is binary, but every policy has to be look at in conjunction with whatever other measures are in play.

There does, though, seem to be a unfounded air of optimism. Twitter is mostly useless but it does have moods and yesterday morning the mood was one of expectation in the belief that it was almost over. Between unused Nightingale hospitals and misleading statistics, there is a sense that this is all just a massive overreaction and we can return to the normal we knew. Even a government as crass as this one doesn't believe that. If there a plateau it's because the lockdown is working and a sudden end to the lockdown would see a flurry of activity that would set off a second wave. This is going to have to be managed over the long haul and it will take some time before easement measures are in place.

Though country to country comparisons are to be met with scepticism and suspicion, It seems that New Zealand did get it right in the early days. It brought in some of the toughest restrictions in the world when it only had a few dozen cases and closed its borders while enforcing quarantine of all arrivals. It brought in a stringent lockdown and an extensive test and trace regime. It is now presently Corona free.

Obviously the UK and NZ are massively different countries with different topography, demographics and climate, and NZ is not host to a global city like London. The chances of containing it outright were slim. But had we gone back to first principles we might well have contained it outside of the capital and lockdown measures outside of cities may not have been necessary. This government has made every avoidable mistake in the book. We now prepare for the second act when the first was treated as a dress rehearsal. There's no question about it. This government is incompetent.

As explored previously this is the culmination of decades of maladministration, but cucually there is a talent drought at the top of government and no institutional knowledge of how to meet a biosecurity threat of this magnitude. It is now playing catch up, weeks behind the learning curve, and needlessly killing people as it goes. 

This government has enjoyed a certain immunity in the polls thanks to the self-immolation of the opposition, and with the public largely not informed about the mechanics of trade, Johnson's Brexit bloviation has gone largely unpunished. The rap sheet on Corona, though, is growing longer by the day. The right has it that the media has misread the mood of the nation, and perhaps it did initially, but this is like driving through plague of locusts. Eventually the windscreen is covered, the wipers jammed, and the radiator gets gummed up. Tory drones can deflect and defuse, but the sheer ineptitude of Johnson's administration will soon overwhelm even their capacity for self-deception. There has to be a political price - and I suspect we shall not have to wait long to see it. 

A model for the future?


I have been otherwise occupied. This F4 Phantom is my latest and, without a doubt, my best ever effort. It has now taken pride of place on the mantelpiece. I'm now working on a Canberra PR.9.

It's interesting, though, that when I look at my full shelf line up, I note that every jet I grew up with is now retired. Aviation geekery used to be an interest in the present and the future. Now it's nostalgia. The major advances in aerospace are in the civil domain and it no longer captures the public's imagination. I think with the passing of the Tornado from RAF service last year, we really did see the end of the cold war technologies. We are in more than one way in a whole new era. Between Brexit and Corona, the world I knew is gone.

There is, however, nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia. The political history of Britain's aviation industry is one worthy of study. Every post-war aircraft in RAF service was as much a political decision (or a consequence of one) as it was one of capability. The Jaguar was a stopgap, as was the Buccaneer and Phantom, as Britain was torn between the US and Europe, while trying to sustain its own aerospace exports.

As I understand it, while many get misty eyed about the VC10 and what could have been, and what a superbly capable aircraft it was (allegedly), the RAF had it foisted upon them in order to make the production line viable. For every supposedly world beating aircraft we had a half dozen failures while propping up a massively inefficient industry - not having a the first idea how people were to be otherwise employed. The only reason the Canberra bomber had a plywood fin was to give the craftsmen at De Havilland something to so when the writing on the wall for wooden aircraft was already faded.

To a point the remainers are quite right. Britain's self-image as pioneering player is somewhat trumped up. The one that really gets plane spotters misty-eyed is the TSR-2, which for its time probably was as good as they said, but there's a shed full of flops to get us to that point and it wasn't much over and above the North American A-5 Vigilante.

It didn't even improve when we went in on European collaboration to produce the Panavia Tornado. It took twenty years of concurrent development before it was a capable aircraft and the fighter variant, unfairly described as useless, wasn't nearly as capable as the F16/18 and in the end a good deal more expensive. We latterly repeated that mistake by going all in on the Eurofighter.

The Eurofighter, or Typhoon as we now call it, is undeniably an amazing machine for something that looks like Finger Mouse, but offers little over and above a later model F16 at a third of the price. It doesn't even represent European cooperation since the French went off and did their own thing with the Rafale. With the F35 we have probably seen the last European venture for some time. The atlantic pendulum swings again.

Where Corona makes things interesting is that it finally kills off the big four engined passenger jets. The ill-fated white elephant Airbus A380 will soon be making its way to the scrappers with no real interest in developing a feight version, bringing an end to another politically motivated project. Another era comes to a close - and with Brexit, very possibly the beginning of the end for aerospace manufacturing and in-service support at Filton.

In the tradition of obsolete and expensive ventures to keep people in the regions in decent jobs we now wait to see if the Tempest fighter programme comes to fruition, but Corona may see that hitting the buffers before the artists impressions are finalised. Once again the UK will have to choose between Europe and the USA is we can even afford to be in the game. Since any manned fighter is practically a museum piece at inception, and with Corona related defence cuts a near certainty, the UK has to think about whether it can even sustain an air force in the classic sense.

Between Brexit and Corona, bearing in mind that air travel demand has gone off the cliff, aerospace and defence is turning a corner. It may be that plastic aeroplanes out of a shipping container from Japan will become Britain's main aerospace interest. Not that I have a problem with that.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

A milestone on the long road of British political decline


Now that Brexit is over the line I'm considerably less emotionally invested in defending it which gives me a certain clarity I didn't have before. Or rather I don't feel the same obligation to defend it. There was a battle for ownership of Brexit and the hardliners won. I think probably that battle was lost early on, and though there were opportunities to reclaim it from the headbangers, Theresa May wasn't up to the job.

Being that in the eyes of Brexiteers I am not even worthy of the name leaver, despite having stood for UKIP in the early days (and having campaigned full time to leave, being a co-founder of an independent leave group, I am happy to concede the ground to them. I had long argued that Brexit wasn't a populist coup, wasn't isolationist, wasn't "europhobic" or "right wing". Or at least there's no reason why it should be, but ultimately that message couldn't cut through the noise of Johnny-come-lately leavers who saw Brexit as a vehicle for a wider culture war.

Since they have now cemented their victory not only over remain, but also any moderate voices, it is now theirs to defend. I am now at liberty to ask all the questions that demand answers. I keep asking and will ask again; with only a rushed threadbare EU FTA or no deal at all, and UK-US talks postponed indefinitely, what genius moves does this government have in mind to get us out of the Corona slump, bearing in mind the public wants shorter supply chains?

I know how I would go about it being that I have taken the time to explore trade and trade treaties in depth, but these questions are not for me to answer. I can't speak for Brexiteers because they would vehemently disagree with anything I proposed. They need to answer these questions and be judged on their answers (or the absence thereof). 

Very occasionally a Brexiteer, usually with a poorly photoshopped campaign avatar, will take a stab at it, but it only goes to demonstrate that the average Brexit grunter doesn't have the first concept of what a modern FTA is, is not interested in finding out, and prefers the alternate reality constructed by the Daily Telegraph/Express to the one we live in.

At no point are we going to get coherent answers. It might be good to know from Richard Tice how we are to become "self-sufficient" in agriculture while unilaterally trashing our trade defences. How does the "buy British" shtick live side by side with being a "global free trade champion"? If we are abandoning EU state aid rules, what about those WTO state aid rules? And on that subject, how do they square calling for the abolition of the World Health Organisation when it is integral to the functioning of the four main WTO agreements?

Course we know the answer to all this. There is no consistency or coherence to be gleaned from their issue illiterate ranting, and the way in which they have so effortlessly turned from no-dealers to Coronavirus "it's just the flu" truthers tells you all you need to know. This is pure populism at work that pays no regard to facts. It's a malcontent movement of wreckers all too happy to destroy but offer nothing n terms of vision or what comes after.

The great pity of all this is that Brexit could have been a pivot point for British politics; an opportunity to convert the Brexit momentum into real and lasting democratic change. But in the end, they weren't interested in that. They are entirely happy with the elected dictatorship system just so long as it's their dictator and Boris Johnson is enough to placate them. That's the height of their limited ambition. They don't care what this government actually does just so long as it keeps grunting the right noises. The only outcome it will be measured by is if Brexit is Brexity enough for them. And, of course, no Brexit short of no deal will ever be enough.

There's no getting round it. Brexiteers are pretty shitty people and the leaders they have chosen to speak for them are thick as they come. They not even aware of their own inconsistencies let alone capable of intellectually addressing them. They've turned it into a giant popularity contest (something they can win with ease) and by way of having influence over the agenda, but no actual power, they never have to take responsibility for what happens, so they feel no real obligation to supply credible answers. Ultimately the Tories will have to carry the can.

But with Brexit now eclipsed by Corona, there is no day of vindication for anyone, least of all me. Any layoffs at Airbus or Rolls Royce will be put squarely at the feet of Corona. The industry will gradually rebuild but not with the UK in the picture. Brits will become poorer than before without ever realising what was done to them.

Brexiteers will argue that Corona has weakened the EU's trade clout, which to a point is true. The same cohesive bloc will not reassert itself for some time, if ever, but for as long as the EU does exist (and in my view it will survive) it calls the shots for the continent and is a power with which we must contend. Looking at it in the wider context, we are sure to see a pivot away from China, accelerating the near-shoring trend, meaning that our regional markets become all the more important.

But then, as this blog has long argued, it won't be the Tories who define the longer term relationship with the EU. Any FTA is just an empty bucket to be filled at a later date. With Tories may get their empty bucket but it is for others to fill it, and fill it they will full of obligations and commitments. This government will be judged on its performance during the Corona crisis (and public opinion gradually is turning against them), and it will be for others to decide how we climb out of the Corona slump and the shape of our relationship with the EU. The grunters will have had their day and squandered their opportunities.

With the Tories presiding over a Corona shambles, having infected care homes directly from hospitals, and with questions still to answer over their inaction in the early days, if the opposition gets their act together, there is no end of material to smack the government with at a time when events have surpassed the minuscule abilities of the prime minister. Add to that a bungled Brexit that sees us cut off from our most important export market, and a serious talent drought at the top of government, Johnson will fall in disgrace.

For all that, I still see nothing in the EU that persuades me we should wish to be members, Its lacklustre response to Corona reveals it to be the creaking and dysfunctional mess we always said it was, but Brexit is no longer a turning point. It's just another milestone on the long road of British political decline. Statecraft is dead - and having squandered the opportunities Brexit afforded us, we are likely looking at a slow plod toward associate membership with little opposition in the country thanks to the populists. They are not as popular as they think.

Much in the future now depends on the grim daily increment of Corona fatalities. There is an emerging public mood that we have seen the end of the beginning and can look forward to resuming a mode of normality in the not too distant future. With the official body count having surpassed the 20k benchmark of a "good outcome" with possibly as many more outside the hospital system and more to come, with another possible surge should there be an easement of restrictions, by the time we are done we could be looking at unthinkable numbers. At that point, the "it's just the flu" Brexit brigade will have to account for themselves. They can perhaps hide from the trade impacts but the body count is one statistic they can't walk away from.