Thursday, 16 August 2018

Brexit is the political enema we've all been waiting for


Right now we need an effective opposition more than ever. Whether or not Mr Cobyn is pro-Brexit is neither here not there. A bungled Brexit has severe consequences for all of us - and if it's one that hits UK trade badly then it scuppers any future spending agendas. Labour has picked the worst moment possible to vacate the field.

Whatever your views on Brexit, if you have understood the gravity of it, you know that it is the single most important issue on the horizon. Labour, though, has other priorities. It is singularly incapable of connecting with what matters much less forge a coherent position on it. Politically it is a dereliction of duty.

What's worse is that the party has never in my lifetime been so short of talent. I didn't like Blair's gang but David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Margret Beckett were at least people you could take seriously. You didn't have to like them or their politics but they were titans contrasted with the human detritus offered up by the current incarnation of Labour.

Moreover there isn't even a common agenda. McDonnell is a revolutionary psychopath, Thornberry is is a bossy housewife, Abbott is thick as a box of hammers and Corbyn is a shifty old man with deeply dodgy associations. David Lammy is an obnoxious race baiter and the hard left influencers these days tend to be know-nothing children.

What they all have in common is that they have virtually nothing in common with the average voter. The average voter is not obsessed with Israel and is not salivating at the thought of overthrowing capitalism. All the while the "moderate" faction of Labour is a distinctly out-of-touch middle class London liberal constituency mainly motivated by a desire to remain in the EU. Given the splits in the Labour demographics, this is an unbridgeable divide.

The party, therefore, is caught in a pincer movement between the standard tribal opposition from Tory activists and its own liberal wing - gradually eroding the cult of Corbyn. Some have suggested the party is poised to split, but I don't see that happening. These days the parties are just trademarks and without a mainstream trademark a breakaway movement gets nowhere. Labour moderates will cling on to the last, waiting for the opportunity to steal back the trade mark.

This is the essential problem in our politics. Politicians don't feel the need to build movements or  spell out policies based on credible research. So long as they have a known trade mark all they have to do is wait until the public are sufficiently sick of the incumbents. If Corbyn becomes the next PM it will be through an accident of numbers, mostly a result of voters staying at home. I know I will if the choice is between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. They are equally repulsive and both will open the door to uniquely damaging policies. In all respects what is true of Labour is also true of the Tories.

Right now anybody remotely sane is not planning on voting at all so the next election will come down to whoever the broader public hates the least. Everyone I talk to wants an alternative but nobody can say what form it will take or where it will come from. There's plenty of chatter about a new party but that's either going to be a deadbeat liberal europhile effort or a foaming right wing populist movement. Neither can win because we are still hopelessly trapped in the two party system and first past the post.

For the foreseeable future the outlook for British politics looks bleak. Even remaining in the EU wouldn't fix this. Brexit has exposed the fault lines. Where policy is concerned the cupboard is bare and no politician stands untarnished. Even those we thought were good eggs have turned out to be either duplicitous or out of their depth completely. We're now so desperate that any functioning adults would do.

This is where I see Brexit as a healthy process. For years we've had relatively stable government and for the most part we dodged the bullet of the financial crisis. It could have been a lot worse than it was. Ever since though, we've had tiresome prattle about "austerity" exploiting edge cases to paint a  picture of a broken Britain teetering on the brink of destitution. Meanwhile the Tories have been cowed by the progressive orthodoxy, too afraid to assert anything like a conservative agenda.

Our politics has become self-involved and timid and we've slipped into tiresome routines of manufactured conflict between equally cretinous extremes. Since the status quo only really requires managerial adjustment, politicos can pretty much abandon policy to indulge their hobby horses. Brexit will sweep them out of the picture the moment it becomes obvious that these people have nothing worthwhile to contribute and no answers to difficult questions. People will want to know why things aren't working.

I take the view that Brits do not yet know what they want from politics in a post-Brexit Britain. But I do expect they will know it when they see it. As much as Brexit has exposed many of the political fault lines it will also expose some of the structural defects in governance which is only just holding together. When things start breaking down anyone with coherent answers and new ideas will have our complete attention. It's not going to come from Labour and it won't come from the Brexiteers. All we know is that this political vacuum cannot last forever.

In a way we should be glad that no party presently enjoys the backing of the country. It tells us that the average voter is better than what our politics offers. We are not taken in by the Brexiter fantasies any more than we buy into Corbyn's throwback socialist ideas. Britain does want to break from the status quo but we're no fools. When something worthy comes along we grab it with both hands.

Britain is on the verge of a new era. The turmoil we are now experiencing is democratic correction. We have lived for thirty years under a consensus regime where the authentic voiced of Britain has been silenced. We now need to go through the process rediscovering who we are as a country and seek a new, more inclusive settlement.

Brexit is not the cause of this turmoil. Brexit is a symptom of a political order artificially held in place for too long and one which has, by more than a decade, outstayed its welcome. In that time there have been transformative changes which changed Britain beyond recognition.

Twenty years ago we didn't have Amazon. Ten years ago we didn't have smartphones. These innovations have transformed high streets and our homes. Instead of having a hi-fi, a PC, a VCR and DVD player and a telephone, it's all now in the palm of our hands. The traditional bank branch will soon vanish and retail as we know it will be dead. Soon our supermarkets will be fully automated. The next major revolution is only around the corner.

Even the order of 2008 is vanishing as traditional modes of retail dies. Our towns and cities are changing. Internet has changed the way we socialise and do business. It is changing the nature of work. We are reverting to a state prior to mass employment. Our working modes are no longer sustainable. We have different expectations and different preferences to the previous generation. We want flexible hours and working from home.

All of our labour laws are obsolete, as are our political institutions and community facilities. Something more seismic than Brexit is happening. Something wonderful and terrifying in equal measure. The internet multiples our influence and we now have a weapon against media manipulation and political lying. Nothing stays a secret for long and we know where the bodies are buried. They can't pull the same stunts anymore without us getting wind of it.

As much as the EU isn't capable of responding with the kind of tailored policies we need - and certainly not inside a decade, Westminster isn't either. This is why a new party isn't the answer. We do our politics through an ancient institution with habits and procedures stemming back to the bubonic plague. Our political machinery simply isn't cut out for the digital age when we demand more say in what happens to us, more transparency and more control. We get to elect a representative once every five years and if you live in a safe seat you might as well not bother voting. This isn't meaningful democracy.

In the last three years I've had thousands of conversations about Brexit with remainers and leavers alike. I've had furious arguments with both over the nature of government and democracy, and if there is one thing nearly all of us can agree on is that the UK's so-called democracy is nothing of the kind. If the people we elect act without a legitimate mandate then our participation in the EU cannot be democratic either. It is that lack of democracy which drives the fundamental disaffection and apathy.

This current breakdown of politics is the death throes of a system that simply isn't appropriate for this new era and its denizens are never going to be able to fix the problem because the one notion truly off limits for them is that they are the problem. If you put six hundred and fifty ambitious sociopaths in the same room and give them power without being accountable in any meaningful sense, they will do exactly as they please and sign away vital powers if it suits their vanity.

Politics as we know it has a way to go yet before it is entirely expired but Brexit is going to give it a little shove off the end of the pier. The status quo has for some time been propping up a zombie economy and the EU has propped up our zombie politics. Of course they want to put the genie back in the bottle, but nearly everyone knows we cannot go on like this. If we are to rebuild Britain we must first rebuild our politics from the ground up. Unless we do we face only stagnation and decline.

Brexit is the only way to repair our zombie politics


By all rights we should have been where we are a lot sooner than now. Politics should have already disintegrated. The 1997-2010 regime was a freak series of events; a new experiment in political media management. New Labour was adept at it. They call Blair "Teflon Tony" because the sort of sleaze that gradually brought down the Major government didn't seem to impact Blair at all. The administration was no less incompetent or any less corrupt. They simply worked out that so long as nobody resigned they could wait out any media storm.

Conveniently for them the Tories were unable to put up anything remotely inspiring. Hardly anyone remembers that Michael Howard was Tory leader and nobody was going to vote for Iain Duncan Smith. Meanwhile the economy was doing quite well so far as the average punter cared. Cheap credit and an endless supply of cheap goods from China. There wasn't much of a reason to kick Labour out.

The only reason David Cameron took office was because Labour had simply run out of steam and even then, having buried the right wing elements of his party, he was little more than an extension of the status quo - and couldn't win outright. Had we not gone through the cycle of boom and bust our politics would have imploded long before now.

Fast forward to today though and the names are pretty much all the same. Those we laughingly call statesmen have moved into other arenas but the personalities on both benches are pretty much the same dregs we've had for the last twenty years. Now the dregs are in charge in the dying days of the old establishment. The one that would rather send people on sensitivity training than address an epidemic of Pakistani rape gangs.

Were it not for Brexit it could undoubtedly limp on for a good while longer. Government can just about cope by limping from crisis to crisis. Most of what it does is reactive and doesn't require detailed thinking. Most of the problems we have from flooding to a tower block fire are resolved by throwing money at them. That takes no particular ability.

The reason it's all going wrong is because these underwhelming individuals have been tasked with implementing a massive change - one that they never wanted, have no idea how to approach and one that involves taking responsibility - which they do not want to do.

Westminster for the last twenty or more years has been a politics theme park where the ambitious build media careers. Nobody goes to London to fix problems. Being that we have regional development agencies masquerading as local government, robbed of any semblance of democracy, the whole system has found a comfortable managerial groove where things just about hold together but is incapable of observing the more subtle long term neglect.

Regional development largely involves big ticket town centre remodelling and sticking plasters here and there but we don't see ideas to address the underlying collapse of social mobility and increasing economic exclusion. All the while we see a self-indulgent politics in London that simply doesn't reflect the values and concerns of the broader public. The politicians think we are impressed by hashtag gesturing. Turns out that after the suicide bombing of a children's pop concert "Refugees Welcome" is not a vote winner.

Now we find hand wringing from our political class who ask "what happened to my country?" when in fact nothing much at all has happened. The establishment orthodoxy is largely a self-delusion - the belief that the public shares their "progressive" attitudes. That they can be so completely absorbed by this delusion is a testament to how well the authentic voice of Britain has been frozen out of the political apparatus.

This above all explains the desperation to stock Brexit. Brexit is messy, inconvenient, expensive, but above all it shatters their self delusion and gives a voice to the political excluded. The very people our "elites" not only wish to silence, but also actively despise. Of course there's all the perks of the EU which has formed the basis of their campaign but must of the stated benefits are of little use to working class Brits - and in the absence of a justice system our rights are not worth the paper they are written on.

As it happens they have not learned a thing from the referendum and have been largely tone deaf ever since. We are told that Brexit is a distraction that stop politicians dealing with "real problems" which in their eyes always involves fire-hosing more money at the NHS. Standard fare for the Westminster bubble.

The question for us is whether we can afford for politics to carry on with business as usual. Brexit, whatever form it takes is going to cause a great deal of expense and inconvenience. Already it has done a light on the dysfunction of our politics and how badly we are served by the two party system. It also shows how tribalism and media ineptitude distorts politics. The near total takeover of Labour by Momentum is a symptom of the malaise in politics.

So we can either pull back from Brexit and leave them to it, allowing them to slip back into old habits or we can have this out now. Certainly remaining in the EU is the more convenient road. We could all do without the hassle and we can carry on gritting our teeth at the inanity of the Westminster bubble, but in so doing we send out two gravely depressing messages.

Firstly, it says that votes can't change anything. Don't bother campaigning and mobilising because even if you win it they will ignore your vote. Secondly it says we are content to abandon any hope of good governance. It says we'd rather just let things slide leaving the same band of quarterwits to run things under the same regime, and return to their insular tribal games.

Brexit of itself is no cure for anything. What it does is force a system wide audit of all the rules we've installed without public scrutiny. It will force us to ask questions as to why we do things the way we do, and if we need to change things, this time there is no excuse. Brexit creates the space and the opportunity for meaningful reform.

The point for me is that without Brexit all of the things they say we should be fixing instead won't get a look in. The referendum has not taught them any lessons nor has it shaken them out of their complacency. If we let them go back to business as usual then they will and all of the things that caused the Brexit vote will get gradually worse. Only something seismic will dislodge them.

What Britain needs before it can even begin to address the acute national issues is major political reform. There's a lot of political and philosophical questions we should be asking here. Thus far the debate is dominated by the cult of GDP when we should be asking what kind of society we want.

Recent "no deal" warnings about sandwich production in the UK (an £8bn a year industry) have put the immediate GDP question front and centre but don't we need to ask if it's right that we've created a throwaway society that lives on convenience foods sourced from afar and prepared by low wage imported labour? Why are we allowing public spaces to turn into transit camps for those same workers?

We are told that EU labourers will do the jobs that Brits won't. That's because people who aren't sharing a house with fifteen other people and have kids can't afford to take jobs with exploitative pay. British workers are far less likely to up sticks and make use of freedom of movement not least because the opportunities are asymmetrical - not least because of the language barrier.

As to trade, do we want people to buy high quality UK manufactured goods and look after and maintain or do we want people buying Chinese knock-offs that can be replaced when they break? Availability shapes attitudes to goods and their value. Over twenty years we have built a consumer society based where every whim is catered for and people are encouraged to spend frivolously - and then we have a generation who complains they can't afford a housing deposit.

Remainers tell us that Brexit will cost households £4200 each which may or may not be true but people adapt to new norms and eventually the economy will adapt to new norms just as production adapted to take advantage of frictionless trade. Brexit will change individual and business habits. Business will have to re-evaluate pay along with their abysmal recruiting practices and individuals will have to reconsider how they spend.

The point here is that different consumer choices will create new opportunities because change always does drive innovation. As to business, it will find ways to keep doing business. For all that the US has invested billions in combating narco-trade, the cartels keep finding ways to export their produce. Humans adapt.

One way or another Brexit is to shake things up. It  already has. We are already seeing industry associations being more vocal than ever and as the UK takes back control of its trade policy they will keep up the pressure. So too will individuals make their voices heard. This time, though, ministers can no longer simply shrug and say that their hands are tied. Politics is making a comeback - and that above all is how we address the litany of neglected issues.

Much of our political malaise stems from the fact that we no longer bother with politics. Our political parties are burnt out husks easily captured by their extremes. They only succeed because we let them. Brexit will be a teachable moment as to why political participation is necessary and why their is a high price for turning over politics to managerialism. Ultimately it is we who have to take back control. Brexit is that window of opportunity.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Brexit: the only certainty is incompetence


"Boris Johnson is to spearhead a pro-Brexit push at Tory party conference in a move that threatens to humiliate party bigwigs" says The Sun. "The Sun can reveal the former Foreign Secretary has signed up to give a keynote speech at one ‘fringe’ meeting over the four-day event in Birmingham next month".

This is, of course, not news. The ultras plan to release a "no deal" Brexit plan to take back the initiative. More than likely it will be a rehash of prior works from the ERG's Brexit guru, Lee Rotherham, whose most recent report pulls the same old trick
The default scenario of a set of ad hoc arrangements means No Deal coverage should be more honestly discussed in terms of delivering a Strongly Mitigated No Deal. The exact level of mitigation cannot be predicted and is a significant variable.
So what they actually mean by no deal is a "mitigating" padded no deal. Which is not "no deal". The absence of a deal is "no deal". This is an admission that there is no such thing as reliance on "WTO rules" contrary to everything the Tory propaganda machine has said.  

Essentially the "no deal" scenario doesn't exist. It's a choice between a single, coherent deal before Brexit day, or multiple, ad hoc deals after Brexit day. Even at its simplest, however, it is going to take days, weeks and even months to put together the whole range of deals. 

The "no deal" as envisaged by the ERG could never be part of the Withdrawal Agreement since they reject the backstop for Northern Ireland and have designs on paying nothing on exit. They would be seeking mitigation after the fact, having dropped us all in it. It all then comes down to what the EU needs to do out of self-interest and whether it is prepared to show any mercy. This is not what you would call an intelligent plan. 

Our fate now rests on whether the performance in October is enough to de-throne Mrs May and whether Johnson carries enough support to win the day. Since none of the factions can command a majority May is probably safe. A leadership contest would be a huge distraction at a critical period, with a completely unknown result. Your guess is as good as mine. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

There is only one way to avoid becoming a vassal state


In principle I agree with the Brexit hard liners. It would be a pretty poor show if the UK ended up as a vassal state on a tight EU leash. This explains the phobia of any kind of agreement with the EU. The point they miss, however, is that regulatory harmonisation is the WD40 of modern trade and there is no scenario where the EU, our nearest regulatory superpower, will not wield influence on the rules we employ for the production and export of goods.

Being that we are just a few miles off the shores of mainland Europe we will need formal arrangements for continued participation in the economic and social life of the continent. This is why no deal is something to be avoided.

As far as that goes, we have had the full spectrum of warnings, some more drastic than others. But nearly every analysis shows that we will be scrabbling around for waivers, temporary measures an interim fixes to avoid emergencies and critical shortages. Even those who advocate no deal end up admitting that we will need peripheral bilateral deals on aviation and nuclear safeguards.

These such deals are likely to mirror those held by other third countries so we have a fair idea of what that looks like but the point that seems to escape hardliners is that no deal cannot stay no deal. We will need to evolve from wherever our landing point is.

There are those who say the damage of no deal will be greater to the EU, but what they miss is that the effects are distributed and the EU is better able to absorb them, not least because the Commission is on the ball. The UK, however, will be in the midst of a regulatory minefield as we restore functionality to active regulatory systems. Our need will be more acute.

By that point we will be looking to enter talks in respect of a more comprehensive trade arrangement only this time the EU will not be waiting on the UK to devise a workable solution. The EU will have a take it or leave it deal waiting and whichever administration is left to clear up the mess left by the Tories will probably be compelled by domestic political pressure to sign it.

It is a certainty that any such deal will come with a number of up front demands, not least something very similar to the Northern Ireland backstop and where trade in goods is concerned, full adoption of EU rules with direct ECJ oversight. At this point the EU has it where it wants us. It will be calling the shots and we really will be a rule taker with no say in the rules.

Being that the UK will have a separate agreement to that of Norway and the Efta states the EU can very easily gang up on the UK and we are then little more than a background admin chore for the Commission rather than a partner. At that point we are certainly no better off in the sovereignty stakes in that every future concession we ask from the EU will come with a price, be it financial contributions or concessions on freedom of movement.

Over the years we could end up in a BRINO situation comparable with the so-called vassal state transition - but on a more permanent basis. The irony here is that no deal ultimately ends up with the UK being in exactly the position ultra Brexiters sought to avoid - having criticised the EEA option as BRINO when it is in fact nothing of the sort.

As this blog, among others, has detailed, the Norway relationship is far from a vassal state set up. It is not a passive recipient of rules and there structure of the EEA agreement allows for modifications and adaptations. The point, though, it that it's a mulitlateral set up rather than bilateral - and if the UK chooses to pick its battles well, combining its political capital with that of EEA members, it stands a better chance of evolving the EEA agreement into something more to our liking.

Here we cannot discount the role of Geneva in regulatory affairs. All you have to do is crack open an EU regulation or a trade deal to see how global standards originating from Geneva play a pivotal role in trade and from the backbone of much of the EEA acquis. It is a second nucleus within the single market. Efta+UK then becomes one of the major soft power and intellectual influencers of regulation and able to shape the rules in ways we could not as a "BRINO" vassal state.

Hard-liners imagine that Brexit is a total departure from the EU regulatory environment but this is on the assumption that we'll be setting sail into the wide yonder striking deals all over the world, obvious to the fact that other countries have their own regulatory and standards obligations with the EU, and will not seek to prioritise the UK.

The so-called WTO option would be a whole lot more convincing if the Brexiteers had a well defined trade strategy but as it stands we see no evidence they have even mastered the Janet and John basics. It looks less promising when they are relying on the disgraced Institute for Economic Affairs as their ideas engine. This is very much a suck it and see strategy.

Right now the UK is the position to design its future relationship in tandem with the EU, where the EU will be as accommodating as it can be so long as the UK is realistic. By crashing out, thus shafting our allies, losing all of our third country and inter-agency agreements in the process, the UK loses its bargaining power and much of the goodwill it presently enjoys. (which is rapidly running out).

Any intelligent trade strategy has to take into account that we do £270bn worth of trade a year with the EU. It is presently the backbone of our exports and safeguarding that trade really ought to be our number one priority. Only then do we asses how we approach our independent trade policy. We cannot engineer new agreements until the dust has settled anyway. We need to know what our own customs and regulatory regime is going to look like and how much room for manoeuvre we have.

We could easily jettison the European market in favour of absolute regulatory sovereignty but it's highly unlikely that any alternative combination of third country deals is going to rival our current single market trade, not least since single market participation is what presently makes the UK an attractive investment destination.

More to the point, total divergence from the European regulatory ecosystem makes no sense. There will be some sectors which are euro-centric where there is nothing to be gain from divergence. By the same token, there will be other sectors, most likely services, where our fortunes lie elsewhere. We need a relationship that enables both.

Being that the EEA is an adaptive framework and the UK is not entirely lacking clout, there is every possibility of persuading the EU to accede to opt-outs not least because it would be in the broader European neighbourhood interest. There is no reason why Efta diversification could not complement EU activities instead of going into direct competition. Our trade can be coordinated rather than dictated.

The Brexiter mentality is one of hostility to the EU where it seeks to burn bridges and seeks underhanded competitive advantages and expect that the EU will not respond. That doesn't end well for the UK. The EU can and will frustrate effort by the UK if we give it cause to. We have seen during the negotiations how the EU will stand by its underlying principles and uphold the sovereignty of its systems. Where the UK is concerned that much is not going to change at any time in the future.

Time and again the EU has re-stated that it will not allow cherry-picking of the single market, and it has seen through every deceptive attempt to do so. The only way to truly cherrypick the single market is by being in it and shaping it. Efta-EEA is our best vehicle for doing so. Should we do this, the EU will can and will be more accommodating and will likely not force us down the avenue of a customs union. It will use the structure of the EEA and we'll find alternative solutions.

When evaluating the EEA option most analysis make the mistake of examining Norway as a model - but the UK is not Norway. We are a bigger more complex, more diverse economy where there will necessarily be more input across more sectors and more of a need to participate in shaping the rules. So long as the UK government is a robust and active participant there is no reason why it should meekly accept diktats as Norway often does. Efta+UK is a power in its own right.

In designing our future relationship the government needs to consider our geo-strategic position in Europe and the longer term developments. Being that any buccaneering "fwee twade" adventure is already showing signs of falling flat on its face, the more prudent move is to ensure we remain a power in Europe. Burning all of our bridges ensures we end up on an EU leash and unable to exert any influence.

The facts of life seem to escape the ultra Brexiteers. Leaving the EU does not make the EU vanish and despite the UK's departure the EU is still a superpower able to wield extraordinary regulatory influence far beyond the confines of Europe. The UK is no competition and attempts at a "Singapore on Thames" runs against the grain of building a level playing field through the multilateral system We'll get a frosty reception from our allies and the EU will use its power to isolate us.

A no deal situation really helps nobody. Dubbed the "WTO option" it should really be called "The Failure Outcome". If you're planning for such an eventuality involves stockpiling and civil contingency measures along with emergency waivers from international rules, that really ought to be a clue that it isn't a good idea.

Moreover, much of the trade and regulatory integration has physical infrastructure because it is optimised for European trade and it works. I'm all for ending political union to stop the EU telling us how to run our own affairs, but as far as trade in goods goes, if it ain't broke, why fix it? The ultras in their determination to leave as quickly as possible will end up wrecking supply chains, throwing regulatory systems into chaos and hitting us so badly in the wallet that we lose a lot of the economic clout we'd enjoy were we simply to join Efta.

The Ultras demand a "clean Brexit" but it's no more clean than if I carved my arm off with a chainsaw. A clean Brexit would be an amputation with careful surgery. A careless and hostile departure now creates a cascade of immediate problems but stores up far more serious geopolitical questions for the future where the UK finds itself weaker and less able to withstand the demands of the EU. That would certainly be what our shortsighted Ultras deserve, not least as payment for their weapons grade lying, but that would be a very sorry end to the Brexit saga and nobody wins from it.

Monday, 13 August 2018

It's time for leavers to grow up.


I've noticed that Twitter threads debunking the WTO Brexit option have now become something of a cottage industry. They are all the rage these days. It doesn't do any good though because we are not actually dealing with people who respond to facts. We are dealing with a belief system.

Certainly it helps to raise awareness among those who are not intellectually subnormal but the people who most need to listen simply won't. They are not thinking it through and they are oblivious to the breadth of EU integration and just how much the EU really does.

That's because most of what the EU does is "invisible government". That which you'd never know existed unless it concerned you directly. This ignorance, however, is shared equally among remainers and leavers.

That is why remainers can tell us with a straight face that we never lost sovereignty. The provides the legislative frameworks for everything from maritime surveillance through to food safety and waste disposal. Its tentacles spread into every area of technical governance.

This is what many of us long time eurosceptics have been warning about for decades. We find that policy desperately in need of modernisation and overhaul is not actually any longer a member state competence.

And this confusion stems from the fact that we have never really been clear on exactly what the EU is. Some see it as a political alliance, others see it as a trade bloc and others see it as a multilateral forum. Except it isn't. It's a government.

If we'd had an honest referendum the question really should have been "Do you want the UK to remain a subordinate of a supreme government for Europe?" That way there would have been no doubt that we knew what we were voting for.

Only when you understand exactly what it is you are dealing with can you adequately forge a policy response to something like the Brexit vote. Here we have to ask if we can realistically rip up the treaties and expect governmental systems to work as normal. The answer is no.

Just about everything that is traded relies on a chain of authorisations and certifications and if the paperwork is not in good order then trade simply doesn't happen. UK bodies capable of authorising goods for circulation in the market are no longer recognised by the EU. There is nothing in WTO law that compels the EU to do so. The EU is actually obliged to apply the same controls to the UK that it would to any nation without formal trade agreements.

Both sides here have inherent contradictions. If remainers are right in that we maintained functional independence then why is leaving so hard? And if leavers are right about the extent of EU dominion, how can leaving possibly be easy?

Recognising the situation for what it is, we face a long and complicated process of unravelling systems and uncoupling our statute book from the the EU. There are two ways to do this. Carefully, and... not carefully.

Now if the EU were a monstrous dictatorship engaged in murder, torture, disappearances and mass censorship then we would quite obviously rip up the treaties and tell them to shove it. But it isn't. The EU post Brexit will still be an ally.

In fact, it will require a great deal of cooperation from the EU to ensure we do this properly and that we continue to have good relations after the fact. That is not likely if we walk away causing enormous damage to both parties.

Brexit need not be a zero sum game, and an amicable departure is entirely within the realms of possibility. Absolutely nothing is served by a hostile and careless exit, not least because in the long term we end up grovelling back to Brussels for a trade deal.

This is the point that the ultras cannot seem to grasp. No deal cannot stay no deal. We cannot function on WTO terms alone and nobody else does either. Trade is substantially more than lorries full of baked beans going through the Eurotunnel.

Driving the extreme approach are two sets of ideas. The first being the hostile kipper nativism that will see us revert to cavorting druids, death by stoning and dung for dinner. The second being the Tory ideology - which is actually worse.

The Tories are informed by an adolescent minarchist doctrine which hopes to minimise and simplify government. This is the dogma of centuries old economic philosophers from times before internet governance, e-commerce and cyber terrorism.

The reason we have "big government" is because the world is a billion times more complicated than it was in the times of Adam Smith. Even government at its most efficient would still necessarily be quite large and expensive.

We have elaborate systems to prevent food contamination and money laundering. We have systems to prevent nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism. Systems to ensure fisheries are sustainable. Capital adequacy rules to prevent another banking collapse.

It doesn't matter if you don't like EU regulation, the fact is, if you're doing away with it, you still need something to replace it with, and simply copying and pasting EU rules does not work. They are active regulatory systems.

It really should be obvious by now that 40 years of technical, economic, social and regulatory integration cannot simply be wished away. Brexit is a process, not an event, and we cannot function without alternative arrangements. It's time for leavers to grow up.

Is James O'Brien finally asking the right questions?


The problem with cleverdicks like James O'Brien is they eventually over reach and demonstrate that they're are about as ignorant as those they chastise. Here O'Brien gets cocky asking "Who elected the people who run the WTO?" and "When did we vote to join it?".

I don't know what he thinks these questions prove. The WTO has no direct authority. It is not a supranational entity. It is a framework and an intergovernmental forum. It does not regulate nor can it exert authority. No member is subordinate to it and it does not enjoy legal supremacy. And that is the beef Brexiters have with the EU.

But it's not surprising O'Brien has not grasped the difference. This confusion stems from the fact that we have never really been clear on exactly what the EU is. Some see it as a political alliance, others see it as a trade bloc and others see it as a multilateral forum. Except it isn't. It's a government.

If we'd had an honest referendum the question really should have been "Do you want the UK to remain a subordinate of a supreme government for Europe?" That way there would have been no doubt that we knew what we were voting for.

In 1975 we voted to be part of the EEC but we never got a vote the matter of the EU - and unlike the WTO it does involve the mass transfer of sovereignty. That matter being the reason we didn't seek a public vote on the WTO. It assumes no power over us. But O'Brien is right. It is all about accountability, democracy and transparency. 

There is certainly a question of accountability not just over the WTO but also the entire domain of global governance - much of which is obscured from view by the EU. Insofar as our media bothers to report on anything outside of the Westminster bubble, traditionally very poor at reporting on EU affairs outside of a crisis, there is virtually no public scrutiny of the WTO. Here we find the WTO entering formal associations with e-commerce giants which may not even be legal. 

The WTO has until recently remained a somewhat anonymous entity and most people are barely aware it exists let alone have a coherent idea of what it does. Increasingly, though, it is becoming a pivotal instrument shaping multilateral and bilateral agreements, effectively giving official status to a number of international regulatory organisations and specialised agencies. The WTO is just the tip of a global governance iceberg. 

For all that's been said about the UK becoming a rule taker, the EU itself is a passive recipient of rules from any number of standards bodies where even the Commission is only dimly aware of how lobbyists can subvert the system. In these bodies the EU, having legal personality, gradually replaces member states thanks to the Common Commercial Policy, where the EU dictates our vote and removes our right of initiative. It is entirely possible, therefore, that the UK is obliged to accept standards it would otherwise veto and had no say in. 

On everything from food marketing standards to vehicle safety features, all the way through to fishing net sizes and radio and internet conventions, we find we have inadequate means of veto. Most of the time nobody cares - and there is little here worth going to the barricades over, but recent panics about "chlorinated chicken" and "hormone beef" show that consumers do care about food standards. It is, therefore, entirely unacceptable that these standards could be traded away in secret even if the UK objects. 

One of the immediate benefits of Brexit is that it has reignited a debate about trade and once more we are hearing from consumer groups, environmental groups and the farming lobby where the UK is rapidly acquiring an institutional knowledge of trade issues, and once again trade deals will be front page news rather than EU minutia related to the business pages of the broadsheets. For as long as trade remains an EU competence and outside of our own political culture (or demos) it will continue to be ignored by our politicians and media alike.

And that's really what Brexit is about - putting the decision making back where we can see it, back in our own political arena. The fact that James O'Brien is now starting to ask these questions about the WTO is long overdue. Who is elected at the WTO? Who gains access to our ambassadors and under what circumstances? With the recent IEA tapes scandal it's about time we asked these questions. Can anyone even name our WTO ambassador? I can. I bet James O'Brien can't.

And why stop there? What about the ILO, Codex, UNECE, IMO, ITU, ISO and the WHO? To whom are they accountable? What is the process for adopting the regulations they produce and what scrutiny is given to it? Hitherto, the decision to adopt such rules and standards lies at the Brussels level - which is why our own MPs have never even heard of these bodies. 

Where technical governance is concerned very often the EU is little more then a rubber stamp. There is no possible way MEPs can adequately scrutinise any of this not least because most of them are intellectually subnormal. 

We then get into the much bigger debates. The WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade is possibly the first building block toward a global single market, essentially putting global standards at the forefront of trade. Along with measures from the World Customs Organisation and International Maritime Organisation, combined with new blockchain technologies, some aspects of the EU single market become obsolete.

As this patchwork of multilateral agreements matures, not least the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and any future deal on services, will the WTO eventually face the same criticisms about eroding sovereignty? If rules on competition and subsidy are locked into the global rules based system then we have effectively legislated against socialism. I certainly won't complain, but this does tend to highlight the dilemma of globalisation. You can have trade liberalisation, regulatory harmonisation, and a level playing field, but in so doing we limit the potency of democracy. 

We are now moving into an age where regional solutions to problems are insufficient. The internet brings entirely new problems that require global solutions, as indeed does tax avoidance and evasion. Should we therefore be looking to replace the EU with a global construct? And how can we democratise it?

There actually isn't much difference between the rabid extremes of leave and remain. They are both forms of identarian nativism - which is particularly prevalent in remainers whose horizons do not extend much further than Brussels. The debate on regulation and standards stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the role of global governance. All of this raises questions as to how we usefully exercise sovereignty and the limitations of it where even outside the EU many of the same questions remain.

For as long as we remain in the EU, Brussels will be the fullest extent of our external engagement and the role of international governance will continue to grow in the shadows - ever more the plaything of giant corporations who make profound decisions affecting all of us without our knowledge. 

James O'Brien asks "who elected the bloke in charge" of the WTO. The real question is whether it would be any more democratic if he were elected. Quite obviously the answer is no, but then if that is true of the WTO then it is also true of the EU. Governance on this scale simply cannot be democratic. If we are moving to a model of distributed technocracy then we must ask what safeguards we have to ensure we can defend our interests and the things we value. 

To even begin to answer that question we must ask "who is we?". In this regard you need a functioning demos. One that shares the same heritage, customs and culture and language. Whatever our international aspirations, the truth is that the nation state is the only effective arena for democratic politics yet discovered.

You will get no argument from me that the WTO option is a non-starter and that the "Brextremist" WTO fetish is bonkers, but the WTO is but one forum among many where the UK needs to be fully engaged in its own right - and as we move into the era of hyper-globalisation, decision making in respect of our global interactions cannot be off-shored to Brussels. We cannot be sleeping passengers of global events.  

Brexit has become an information war


Last July, Liam Fox said a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU should be the “easiest in human history”. He was right. It certainly *should* be. That, however, all depends on knowing what you want. Once we know what we want the EU has a number of templates to cover most eventualities.

The big problem, however, is that this government is struggling to strike a deal with itself. It knows what it wants. They just can't seem to come to terms with the fact they cannot have it. They started off believing they could have all the benefits of the single market with none of the obligations.

Despite being told from the outset that the EU would uphold its own principles the UK political apparatus refused to take no for an answer and has instead devoted all of its intellectual resource to devising creative but implausible workarounds. We've had two years of churn from Tory think tanks, conjuring up ever more elaborate schemes, none of which take into account anything thus far said by Brussels. 

Having lost the argument at every turn, refusing to entertain solutions which could work, they have collectively decided that no deal is workable and will tell any lie in support of that aim. From there we ceased to have debate and moved into an all out information war. 

Here we see the oft repeated assertion that the EU already trades on WTO terms with 120 countries, as do the UK. This demonstrably untrue. You can check for yourself on the EU treaties office database. The fact that Brexiters believe otherwise in the face of evidence from primary sources shows that WTO brexit fanatics are deranged anti-knowledge lunatics. We then find that battle lines are drawn entirely along tribal lines where we see the debate of reasoned debate.

This is exacerbated by the media, particularly the phenomenon of false equivalence which Patrick Howse describes in The New Statesman. "When you have people of goodwill and good intent discussing an issue from different sides, balance can be a useful tool: you tell both sides, and let the audience decide. It breaks down, though, when applied to people who have no interest in telling the truth, and who in fact set out to deliberately mislead. The result is a confused “he says this, but she says that” narrative that gives false equivalence to the truth and a pack of lies".

To a point this is right and certainly in the post-referendum debate we have seen how the Tory Brexiters have resorted to bare faced lying while the BBC gives these liars equal footing with expert testimony. The problem being that our class of experts haven't exactly covered themselves in glory either. Brexit is intensely political and emotionally charged and experts are fallible. The subject matter is also one of considerable breadth where we find experts straying out of their lane to opine on things they know nothing about. 

Being that so many scientists, economists and politicians have a vested interest in the status quo, often disregarding the political motivations of voters, fixating instead on the technocratic issues, they very often cannot see the woods for the trees. Brexit is not just a question of trade and economics. It's a question of what sort of country people want and what they are willing to sacrifice to get it.

The reason we're not getting clarity is because of the way the media functions. It isn't a "balance" issue. It's actually about competence and the way journalists are taught to do research.  They go to their "sources" and ask them what they think and if there are a variety of opinions, they air those opinions. What they should be doing is finding out the truth on an issue, as best they can from their own independent research and reporting on that - stating it as fact. If there are then people who disagree, and there is a controversy, then that should be reported as an adjunct to the report, not as part of it.

If you applied the current methodology to, say, the Normandy Invasion, you would have the BBC reporting Montgomery saying "we are invading Europe", followed by an interview with Rommel saying, "this is not the invasion - it is a feint. We fully expect the main push across the Pas de Calais any day now".

Howse being a former BBC journalist sees the problem in respect of the BBC and misdiagnoses it. He does not understand that this is a problem affecting all legacy media journalism; the obsession with "biff-bam" adversarial news reporting.

When you think of it though, this is the way we do our politics, so it is hardly surprising that the media should do political reporting the same way... "the government says this, but the opposition says that". This then bleeds into all forms of reporting. At fault, therefore, is the fundamental structure of the way we do news.

The more you think about it, the more it becomes obvious. Facts have no fixed quantum: facts are what people with prestige assert. The greater the prestige, the greater the authority of the facts asserted. However, if someone of equal or equivalent prestige asserts something different, then their dissent must be recorded.

Thus, influencing the media becomes a process of acquiring or developing prestige. All influencers play the game, exacerbating the problem. The battle becomes one of building the level of prestige to support one's preferred set of "facts", rather than in acquiring more and better evidence to support them. Prestige trumps evidence every time.

This is problem I routinely encounter when arguing with WTO Brexit fanatics. For all the forensic analysis done on the issue, painstakingly dismantling the numerous misapprehensions, it is all nullified when Sky News, without any verification, runs the headline "Brexit will not cause UK trade 'disruption' - WTO boss".

Here it then becomes a question of who you choose to believe according to your own political bent. The EU's own Notices to Stakeholders flatly contradict such an assertion if you know what it is you're looking at but so long as the it lacks prestige it lacks authority even though it's as official as official gets. Disbelief is a choice and once a person has made that choice there is little you can do to talk them out of it - which is why I no longer try. I know a waste of time when I see one. 

Once these misnomers are lodged in the public debate the propagandists will make good use of them and without trusted authoritative media scrutiny, a lie travels around the world while the truth withers on the vine. Almost every day now we see the repetition of a same handful of lies penned by those with prestigious titles with no regard to the facts. Depressingly the legacy media is still trusted and editors are now abusing that trust for political ends.

Unless this malfunction in the media can be addressed there is no possibility of a functioning democracy. A democracy cannot function if public debate is reduced to factionalism, trading manufactured narratives based on deliberate falsehoods. If professional liars are setting the agenda then the public become victims of their democracy rather than masters of it. 

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Brexiter disconnect


As this blog demonstrates I can ably articulate a case for leaving the EU. Or rather I can argue the case for sovereignty and democracy. That's the easy bit. Anyone can do that. If you want a generic expression of eurosceptic values there are plenty to choose from. I have occasionally read lucid arguments from Gisela Stuart and various contributors to the Daily Telegraph. Putting it into effect, though, is considerably more of a challenge. This is where I can very easily fall out with Brexiters.

The question of whether we should leave the EU is to my mind settled. We had a referendum where just over half the country thinks we should leave the EU and of those who voted remain, many of them think it would be better to be out of the EU but simply don't think we have what it takes to be an independent country. On present form they can be forgiven for thinking that.

The debate is now one of how we leave the EU where we have to confront certain realities. One such factor is that every post-Brexit decision we make has external consequences. We may be reclaiming the sovereignty to do something but the exercise of that sovereignty will cause the EU to react. Any measure we take to gain an unfair commercial advantage over the EU will result in retaliatory measures. Being that the EU is a superpower it can make life difficult for the UK.

Post-Brexit the EU will hold most of the cards. We have seen how the EU has managed to leverage incremental concessions from Switzerland in exchange for enhanced market access. It can use soft power or outright blackmail. Why? Because it can. Especially if the UK chooses to be confrontational.

All too often we hear Brexiters giddy with anticipation of a bonfire of regulation. Should we do this the EU has ways in which it can respond, not least by upping the rate of inspections on the borders. It can very easily thwart any commercial advantage we may get by cutting corners. This does not seem to factor in with Brexiter thinking. It is as though once we leave, the EU simply stops existing and we are free to exercise sovereignty in a vacuum.

Tory Brexiters especially now appear to reside in non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to global context, where government can pick and choose which international laws and regulations it deigns to adhere to without losing global influence. There has been no debate as to the practical applications of sovereignty or indeed the limitations of it.

This is why we have to think carefully about our post-Brexit strategy and the future relationship we have with the EU. Technical cooperation will always mean a degree of compromised sovereignty. All binding agreements place limits on regulatory freedom and divergence will naturally result in less preferential access to the European market.

We could, therefore, mishandle Brexit in such a way where we could have a glorious restoration of national sovereignty only to find we cannot usefully wield it. It is at this point we have to look at the available models and examine their respective trade-offs. Here we find that none are especially appealing. 

A WTO Brexit severs all formal relations with the EU and throws our regulatory systems into chaos. A Canada style FTA does not satisfactorily address any of the regulatory concerns meaning our trade in goods is damaged considerably and we are frozen out of lucrative services markets from airlines to intellectual property. We therefore arrive at the conclusion the EEA is the only framework comprehensive enough to ensure we maintain a decent standard of living and minimise the economic turmoil. 

This option has proven unpopular with Brexiters because of a sovereignty fetish where they'd rather starve than have common standards on the marketing of aubergines. There is no reasoning with that. We're dealing with people who cannot and will not accept there are functional limits to sovereignty.

On a more philosophical level I have a great deal of sympathy with hardliners and the EEA is considerably more regulatory integration than I would like and the mechanisms concerning the adoption of rules seem to be stacked in favour of EU hegemony. It is far from an ideal solution but then there simply is no such thing as ideal in this equation. If you are outside the EU then you have to contend with the EU as your neighbouring superpower and power calls the shots. 

This is where I get supremely irritated with Brexiters. I can bash out an article excoriating the EU, pandering to all the classic Brexiter tropes and it will get three times the likes and shares on social media than one of my more technical posts. The rest of the time they don't want to know, they don't want their narratives disturbed and they don't want their fanciful ideas shot down. 

Even people I thought had been keeping abreast of the issues will occasionally surprise me by saying "The USA trades with the EU on WTO terms". It tells me I've been wasting my breath for the better part of two years. I then see them sharing something asinine and childish from Spiked Online or the Spectator - and then I lose the will to live. 

When it comes down to it, people prefer to stay in their comfort zone and they couldn't be less interested in the mechanics of Brexit. They will conform to whatever view their nearest opinion gatekeeper says and not at any point will they apply their intellect. They revert to O'Neillian witless prattle about "the elites" betraying democracy. The practical concerns and the potential threats and liabilities simply do not exist. 

Brexiters very often complain that Brexit is being betrayed yet they take no interest in shaping the debate or understanding the issues, very often preferring BrexitCentral/IEA disinformation to primary sources. They have rigged the game so that any nod to reality is a "betrayal" and any consequence on the horizon is simply "project fear". 

You would think that people who had campaigned for years to bring about what is essentially a revolution would take some interest in the outcomes but really all Brexiters seem to want to do is churn over the referendum narratives as provided by Matthew Goodwin. 

Further afflicting the debate is an inability to separate the issues from the personalities. For instance it is perfectly possible to hate the burka and still think Boris Johnson is a sociopath. You can be pro-Brexit and hate the boorish, boastful Brexiters. You can be pro-markets and still despise the ineptitude and corruption of the IEA. You can be pro-free trade and still think the crackpot theories of Patrick Minford are dangerous nonsense. You can have conservative values and still think Jacob Rees-Mogg is a two-faced lying worm. 

All to often though, people will choose to believe sources on the basis of their Brexit credentials despite not one of them being able to summon a single verifiable fact. One people have decided where their loyalties lie and who they trust, there is no persuading them of anything. Reason falls on deaf ears and if one is not adhering to Brexit scripture then you're a remoaner by default. 

Since the average Brexit punter would rather indulge in trivia and surrender the agenda to the politicians, taking their cues from the media, they are vulnerable to exploitation and essentially useful idiots for the disaster capitalists on the right of the Tory party. They will not see reason until the consequences are upon is. 

So you want to remain in the EU...


Even now we have crossed the event horizon there are still those pushing to remain in the EU. There are certain convenient advantages to it. It means politicians are off the hook and don;t have to apply themselves to anything technical. We don't have to think abut having a trade policy or even a foreign policy. All the questions such as the structure of the energy market will be decided in Brussels, and it will tell us how to implement global climate accords.

Brussels will then take care of fishing and agriculture for us. We won't have to develop any policies. It will tell us what our transport strategy is along with our water policy and increasingly it will decide our public health policies. To an extent it already does. 

If we remain in the EU our MPs will celebrate. They can sweep all the nastiness under the carpet and pretend it never happened and go back to their usual habits of telling us what we can eat and drink and what we can say. They won't have to apply themselves to the real business of governing. 

Remainers will point out that this is a good thing since our lamentably stupid politicians couldn't run a bath. I have some sympathy with that view. Asking this pack of miscreants to do anything more complicated than open a packet of crisps and their tiny brains capsize. But in saying that we would effectivly be giving up on government from Westminster, where our own ministries, and indeed Number Ten are little more than the press office for the Brussels machine.

Just lately we have seen a number of ministers announcing new initiatives and Remainers take great delight in pointing out these are actually EU measures re-branded by the Tories. That, though, is nothing new. That was in fact a central theme of the eureferendum blog for the last decade - that very often the influence of the EU is concealed by national politics because it suits ministers to pass EU measures off as their own accomplishments and we've had a media which simply hasn't bothered to look any deeper.

This explains why leavers and remainers alike have no idea as to the extend of EU influence. Both sides cannot see the hypocrisy of their own positions. Remainers will say we have retained functional sovereignty yet they point out that on leaving it creates a multitude of major problems - and all the while Leavers have been telling us about the all consuming EU monster but then tell us we can simply walk away without a deal and it will have no real effect. 

Should we remain, though, we will revert to the norm of having EU measures reach our statute book automatically with no media coverage and virtually no parliamentary scrutiny. What little scrutiny is applied will be done in a foreign country by people we don't know. We will, therefore, have no real idea where policy comes from implementing laws the public had no say in. 

Eventually, by the back door of course, more powers will be handed over to Brussels or appropriated by ECJ rulings to the point where the levers of power in London are not actually attached to anything. Politics then becomes more akin with an inconsequential Love Island style reality TV show where we elect 650 morons to see what they get up to. Politics as we understand it will simply become part of the entertainment industry. 

At this point we will have abandoned any notion that votes can actually change things. We might register a protest vote at Euro elections but since the EU parliament has limited powers and the UK is structurally outnumbered, there is little point in engaging in EU politics, if indeed there ever was. 

Many have been shocked to see just how appallingly inadequate to the task our politicians have proved to be int he face of Brexit. We have politicians arguing to remain in the customs union without being able to give us an adequate definition of it or even describe what it does. These are the same people telling us we did not know what we voted for. 

This is essentially a consequence of removing politics from policy. The real business of governing is considered above their pay grade and matters of importance are decided by policy engineers deep within the European Commission.

Remainers actually have no problem with this. We can't have people with unfashionable opinions influencing policy can we? It's best if everything is left to the experts! Again, given the performance of our politics over the last two years, you can see why this is a popular point of view. The idea that trade decisions could end up in the hands of Boris Johnson is terrifying. 

What makes it more inconvenient for leavers is that the EU of late is doing quite well in the competence stakes. It doesn't handle a crisis particularly well but when it comes to the day to day minutia of technical governance the Commission does it better than anyone. 

The problem though, is that there are times when the EU gets it badly wrong. Not least the incremental attempts to regulate the internet. We get policy that nobody wants, doesn't achieve what it sets out to do and the unintended consequences are worse than the original problem. Individuals and businesses may complain, but that's really all they can do. You might get marginal reform some time within a decade but in the meantime all we can do is manage our response to bad policy. This dynamic is what sees us dumping over-quota catches into the sea.

The danger here is that people then become used to the idea that they have no power over what happens to them. The EU issues its instructions and we enforce it whether we want it or not - no matter how many people it puts out of business, no matter whose life it destroys. There is no point involving an MP because they have no influence in it. The same can be said of MEPs, most of whom are intellectually subnormal. 

The point here is that unless you have a fully engaged public you don't have a democracy. You have managerialism. We simply elect administrators who carry out instructions from EU officials. What we then have is totally unaccountable governance free to do as it pleases without pushback. Without public participation, individuals and organisations exerting their own influence, we become passengers of global events, where things start to happen and we have no idea why or how to stop it.

To a point, much of what I describe has already occurred. We have a largely demoralised electorate who in recent years do not make the effort to participate in elections, a parliament so badly atrophied that it barely functions and politics forever in a state of bicycle shed syndrome. Politics is ill-equipped to manage change because the EU stands in the way of change happening at all. Remaining will only see it get worse.

Right now there isn't much to be said for British democracy in that, of the choices we are presented with, none of the options look especially appetising. Soon we'll be lumbered with either a boorish sociopath or an antisemitic terrorist sympathiser. Unleashing politics doesn't seem particularly appealing when all it stands to do is make us poorer and less stable.

This is where the Brexiter argument for returning sovereignty to parliament was misconceived. All the criticisms directed at Brussels are just as true when applied to London. It's corrupt, bureaucratic, opaque, remote, out of touch and based on long obsolete ideas. As we step into the era of hyper-globalisation, Westminster is no more fit to govern than Brussels. 

As it stands our parties no longer reflect the divisions in the country or even reflect the breadth of ideas. Moreover with our regions having larger populations than a great many countries, we might wonder what business it is of London how Manchester governs itself? If Scotland has its own assembly, why not Yorkshire? Why not recognise that people are perfectly capable of self-government if allowed to do so? 

Government above all must be participatory. We no longer bother with local elections largely because we view local politics as inconsequential. When all the big decisions are made in London, it very much is. If we want responsive politics then we have to put power back in the hands of the people. That simply cannot happen while inside the EU and it certainly won't happen if we leave the power in London. 

There are no sunlit uplands from Brexit. It was a gross folly of Vote Leave to say there were. Vote Leave were very much the Johnny Come-Latelys who never understood that the core of the leave movement is primarily motivated by the desire for sovereignty and meaningful democracy. Brexit of itself does not give us that but it does give us a window of opportunity and the tools we need to set about building a better society. It won't come overnight and we will have to work at it - and things will probably have to get worse before they get better.

What Brexit does mean, though, is that there is space for new ideas and the potential for change. Brexit has already exposed the inadequacy of our politics and politicians and and recent events show how vulnerable our politics is to corruption being that the power is in the hands of a malevolent few. If we are to "take back control" then we must take it back not only from Brussels, but also from London. We must take back for ourselves the powers that should never have been taken away. Power cannot remain in the hands of Westminster - because they're the ones who did this to us in the first place. 

Burkagate is a Brexit power game


Tories have convinced themselves that Theresa May's Chequers plan is a betrayal of Brexit. That's what they've told the Tory media, and that's what the Tory media has reported - and grassroots Tory tribalists now want rid of May.

This is a twin pronged attack because the Tory right wants a "no deal" Brexit and they will do virtually anything to get it. They continue to repeat the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal. The rump of the Tory party will go along with this. They have persuaded themselves that if the Chequers plan goes ahead they will lose votes to Ukip and consequently lose the next election.

This explains Boris Johnson's remarks about burkas. It has nothing to do with the oppression of Muslim women. Johnson does not care about that. It's just a dog whistle. It exposes May as weak and wins the backing of the "Torykip" culture warriors who will support anyone who "triggers" the left. It doesn't matter to them that Johnson is a pathological liar, a fraud, grossly incompetent and an international embarrassment. British politics has become a zero sum game. Thus the stage is set for a coup in the autumn.

This is absurd on two counts. Firstly, the Chequers plan has already been slapped down by Brussels and if there is to be a withdrawal agreement then it will be struck at the last minute, reverting to only a vague political statement is respect of the future relationship, kicking the issue down the road.

Secondly the electoral calculus is all wrong. It's difficult to say what will happen if a deal is concluded. It postpones the cliff edge for at least two years in which anything could happen. If, however, the Tories pull a coup and take us out without a deal then the Tories are finished. The electorate will not reward them for trashing the economy and severing all formal relations with the EU.

This, though, is the power of tribal narrative. The Tory propaganda machine has for many months spun the line that we need not fear the "WTO option". Being that the average Tory loyalist is thick as a box of hammers and always willing suspend their critical faculties, they will believe absolutely anything they are told. This is where we see a further polarisation. So far as the Tory zombies are concerned, if it gets remainers and the left squawking then a no deal Brexit can only be a good thing.

The order of priorities is the survival of the Tory party, Boris Johnson's career ambitions - and Brexit at any cost. Nowhere in the list comes the national interest. So far as the Tory establishment is concerned, even Brexit doesn't matter all that much. The Spectator will run puff pieces for Johnson and talk up the WTO option because Johnson is their man.

All the while, public debate will be preoccupied by the burka decoy, not least because there is considerable boredom with Brexit. The factions have fought each other to a standstill and there is nothing new or original to be said about it. The fate of the country, therefore, will not be decided by substantive Brexit issues or even points of principle. Rather it will be decided entirely by tribal power plays on the fringes over completely unrelated issues.

This is all bread and butter for the Westminster court eunuchs in the media who would rather report Johnson's bowel movements than examine any of the urgent issues - most of which are beyond their capacity to understand. Their job is to generate clicks. Informing the debate comes way down the list. The business model of most media outlets is to identify a particularly ignorant cross section of society and throw all their resources at ensuring they stay that way.

Politicians and journalists prefer to engage in culture wars rather than real politics because they don't have answers to the biggest political issues. Not least because they are not interested. As a nation we have zero collective attention span and incapable of breaking out of tribal habits. There is an inability to focus on matters of importance and we are easily distracted by trivia. We don't have the raw material for a functioning democracy. The public will learn the hard way that there is a price for self-indulgent tribal bickering.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Yes, Brexit IS worth it.


Brexit of itself should not be controversial. There is nothing outlandish or extreme in wanting to be able vote for a government that has the sovereignty to implement policies that the EU and its agencies (ECJ, Commission, etc) do not agree with. We leave so the UK can determine its laws, control its money and borders, independently of the EU and can diverge from EU policies where there is utility in doing so.

Nor is it especially outrageous to say that these things matter more than perpetual increments in GDP and that some economic turbulence is within tolerance. Economic growth is one thing but how we shape our culture and our environment still matters and having control over that is not an unreasonable demand. 

Remainers react in different ways to this. Some deny that we ever lost control, others say it is better in the hands of Brussels and some accept that what we leavers want is not unreasonable but demand a list of quantifiable advantages. That latter one is especially irritating since lofty principles such as sovereignty and democracy cannot be reduced to a single metric. Of themselves they are desirable.

Take for example trade. Trade is one of those things that can shape a country and its character. In recent years we have become a much more frivolous society thanks to an endless supply of conveniences where we place little premium on the things around us. We have an influx of cheap Chinese goods we are all to happy to consume - but then we complain about the demise of the high street and the decline in domestic production. 

Arguably, with China very often exporting low quality produce which would fail even cursory regulatory compliance assessment, evading taxes in the process, often using stolen intellectual property. At the first sign of this form of economic warfare (for that is what it is) we should have erected some form of trade defences. But that is no longer within our gift. 

Free trade fetishists will argue that this ultimately costs the consumer more and reduces their choices. But that really all depends on the externalities of that trade. If we are importing goods from China produced by low wage labour, cutting corners on pollution and using stolen intellectual property then our own producers cannot compete on a level playing field. The result then is an overall decline in available quality - and quality costs more. 

Similarly with agriculture. Some advocate a total withdrawal of subsidy and unilaterally dropping all trade defences so that UK farms have no hope of competing and landscapes are turned over to industrial development or giant solar farms. As someone who happens to think our landscapes are priceless and irreplaceable, along with placing a premium on a populated countryside, I am willing to tolerate an inefficient agriculture sector. 

What drives trade economists is the singular desire to make markets as efficient as possible. This is what I call spreadsheet sociopathy. Humans by their very nature are not efficient creatures. Hardly anything we do is efficient and if it were life would be dreadful. We are whimsical animals and our oddities define us. 

So the question of trade is really one of how do we wish to shape our surroundings and what we value. What should we seek to conserve and protect from the ravages of globalisation? Being that the UK has a sizeable tourist industry because of our landscapes it stands to reason that we should seek to maintain farming and countryside culture. 

This we cannot do if we do not have control of our own trade policy. Moreover, while some things may seem technocratic and apolitical, food and beverage labelling, for example, is more political than one might imagine. One recalls the feud between the EU and Norway as Norway sought to ban alcopops aimed at children. The measures they took we seen to be protectionist by the EU and the EU challenged them successfully. That has since become a totem case as to how the elimination of trade barriers attacks democratic control over social issues. 

Similarly I need not make much mention of the Tobacco Products Directive which has to be among the most unpopular measures from the EU in quite comes time. With little or no warning fundamental decisions affecting consumers are made at a level where they cannot be challenged or reformed and that's the end of the debate.

All of these points here above are arguable. You may have a different value system to mine. You may have different priorities which may lead you to conclude that the free trade fetishists are right and I am wrong. But that debate largely doesn't matter if that public debate stops dead without conclusions being actionable through our institutions.

Now this is all good in theory, but where it gets murky. Taking back control is a lot harder to do than giving it away. There are limitations to sovereignty. If we are not willing to cooperate with nearby countries we lose out on economies of scale over some commodities and we add overheads to the cost of commerce by adding controls and UK only specifications to imports. In many cases it is in our financial interests to cooperate. That is why we do want a deal with the EU.

What is unacceptable about the EU is that all of the negotiation and all of the rule-making is outsourced to Brussels and happens in a technocratic realm, devoid of politics and without necessary safeguards to ensure that the public does have a say in what can be bought and sold inside their own country.

Here we find that some free market liberals particularly love the EU because it prevents politics from interfering with consumer choices. But that turns us into passive consumers who simply graze on what is available on the basis of what is supplied. We are robbed of any kind of control.

We also have to look at this from a national security perspective. As this blog has pointed out, should we leave without a deal then the UK faces a number of acute supply problems. To have all of our external trade relations tied up in a single treaty system is quite obviously very risky. Unbundling such relations is a strategic necessity for an island which is absolutely dependent on imports.  

When we've left the EU we will seek to correct this by having our own bilaterals with third countries. Because we are a smaller market we can expect that these deals will not have the same advantages nor will we have the same leverage as the EU. But this is the trade-off for more control. 

As parliament takes a greater role in shaping our trade relations we will see a resurgence of lobbying from industry associations to ensure that UK producers are protected. Some will call this protectionism - or special pleading, and in some cases that will be true. It will be down to our elected individuals to make that call and they will be held accountable. Once we have those deals we will be able to modify them or trigger safeguard mechanisms if and when we find there is a problem.

Here we can combine aid, trade and foreign policy to pursue our own agendas according to our national strengths allowing our strongest sector to thrive. So long as we have a comprehensive trade relationship with the EU there is no reason why we should be substantially poorer for having left the political union. Over time the worst effects can be mitigated. 

The point to Brexit is to have the decision-making where we can see it where it responds to the impetus of public debate and input from civil society. Where this does happen in the EU, it tends to favour corporate lobbying in Brussels and diluted by the interests of twenty-seven other members. There is no possible way that can ever be democratic however many voting rituals they have.

In so doing we reignite politics and jump start participation which has long been dormant under EU rule. Agriculture and energy once again becomes political and part of the national discourse rather than managerial topics hived off to Brussels. There really is nothing reactionary or unreasonable about wanting to assert a level of control over things that directly influence our lives. 

What makes Brexit controversial is not the act in itself, rather it is is our hamfisted approach to it where we have oversold Brexit (or rather Vote Leave did) and underestimated the difficulty in unravelling forty years of technical integration. That alone is difficult enough but it's made worse by the exertion of political pressure from the Tory right who are obsessed with a very narrow definition of free trade where their approach actually exacerbates the many issues we experienced as EU members.

Through skilful manipulation of the agenda through their various sockpuppets and media outlets they have turned the Brexit question into a choice between the suboptimal status quo and a harebrained experiment in "free trade" with irreversible consequences touching every part of our lives. For all they accuse remainers of not respecting the result, they have taken the referendum verdict as a mandate for their own agenda which would lose hands down were it on any manifesto. 

This is why being a defender of Brexit is no fun these days. The Brexit camp can loosely be divided into two categories. The devious manipulators and the gullible followers. There is now a growing army of EEA Brexiters and we are gradually winning the argument against no deal, but the core of Tory influenced Brexit is still setting the agenda. 

In this I find there are no mainstream journalists commentators or politicians I support or respect and I've been shocked and saddened to see how some individuals I formerly admired have tragically fallen into the Tory trap. Consequently I spend more time attacking Brexiters than I do making the case for Brexit.

What's more, there is a core misapprehension at the heart of Brexit and it seems to affect both side of the debate. Brexit has been sold as a solution in itself rather than a means to an end. I cannot say how things will change for the better in that all Brexit really accomplishes is to give us the means to change. 

That, though, doesn't mean we will have a government any time soon with the wit, courage and imagination to go down a different path. The Brexiters have no credible vision but through their own shortsightedness have left it to the establishment to fill the policy void. We cannot, therefore, expect them to deliver change we will approve of. 

Being that opinion is atomised six different ways and good answers to difficult questions are in short supply, there is no negotiated Brexit that will satisfy everyone or even appease Brexiters. Brexit, therefore, is drowning under the weight of its inherent contradictions while those left to defend it are tainted and not up to the task. Since many of the miraculous converts to the cause never have no track record of even wanting Brexit we cannot expect them to put up a credible defence. 

This means it is left to grassroots activists to continue making the case for it - and there's only so much we can do in the face of a torrent of negative press - most of which is a consequence of Tory arrogance and profound ignorance. I then have leavers attacking me and calling me a remainer while actual remainers point out that the Brexit I argue for is increasingly not on the cards and the whole thing is likely to go south. 

The latter point I cannot argue. Skilfully negotiating our exit is simply beyond the ken of our political class and in the absence of intelligent media there is no guiding light. Much of the media coverage fixates on the leadership manoeuvres and Chequers plan without reference to anything Barnier has said about it. Meanwhile the remainer press indulge themselves in their second referendum fantasies Since there is no stopping this runaway train we simply have to wait for it to crash into the buffers and then see what can be salvaged.

I console myself with the fact that politics is a continuum and that there is no end point to this. The European question will remain central to our politics for a long time to come and once the Tory position stands as an abject failure and the Tory right are marginalised, we can then have an honest debate about how to repair this mess and bring the country back together. Even if we crash out, no deal cannot stay no deal. We will have to rebuild some form of formal relations with the EU. 

Back in 2015 when we started The Leave Alliance we always knew Brexit would be a question of how rather than whether. To date the Remain campaign have yet to offer a compelling reason to remain. They can only cry foul about shenanigans of Vote Leave, the loss of "rights" the remain voting middle class enjoy and the inherent dangers of mishandling the exit process. None of this can persuade me or any dedicated Brexiter that we wish to remain a bit part of le grand project.

The prize at the end of this road is a self-governing country where the public are better able to shape the decisions made in their name. Anyone who voted with that in mind knew there would be a long road to travel and that we would have to make sacrifices. There is nothing in the Remainer arsenal of arguments that can compete with the idea of self-determination. That is what they never truly understood and that is why they lost. We took a long hard look at our politics and decided that this must change. Nothing happened since to shake that view. We cannot go on like this.