Thursday, 21 February 2019

Still missing the point on no deal


I keep tabs on Spiked Online because usually it's benchmark idiocy and that is the one function it serves. I still have some residual respect for Rob Lyons though. Finally Spiked is at least attempting to apply themselves to the issues albeit three years late. The piece is a little more sophisticated than BrexitCentral propaganda but then on recent form that is not saying very much.

Lyons argues that a no deal Brexit will not be Brexitageddon. "Most people seem to think that the UK is only just starting to plan for leaving with no deal and the EU really isn’t worrying about it at all. In reality, none of this is true. While flipping suddenly from ‘being in the EU’ on 29 March to ‘being completely out of the EU’ on 30 March would provide some headaches, there is good reason to think it won’t be an unmitigated disaster". He goes on to list the unilateral contingency measures taken by the EU.

The truth of the matter is that nobody is entirely certain how the system is going to work. We know that the UK has taken steps to offset problems with customs formalities but there is little confidence this system will work well because users of the system will be unprepared and unfamiliar with the process. 

In terms of what happens on the other side of the Channel, it helps to read properly what the EU has said. "In a no deal scenario, all relevant EU legislation on the importation and exportation of goods will apply to goods moving between the EU and the UK". The means the full array of official controls in respect of animal products and given that there is not presently a border inspection post at Calais, freight normally travelling through that route must make alternative arrangements.

On that basis we assume that the refrigerated trucks will not pass through Dover meaning that much of the anticipated logjam does not happen. Even so, that's not a bet I would make since there is a general complacency in industry and their own industry bodies are prone to getting it wrong. Assuming all went well in the event of no deal and we avoided chaos at the ports that would largely be to do with a significantly reduced volume of trade. 

As to air traffic, when concerns were first raised, few in government had even anticipated there would be problems since MPs are wholly ignorant of what the EU actually does. It was, therefore, reasonable to assume that if we walked out (as the ERG were advocating prior to the contingency instruments) then aeroplanes simply would not fly. Now that the EU is legislating for these contingency measures we can be assured of "basic connectivity" but that still cuts the industry out of the EU air services market which is a major blow to the UK sector.

It is conceivable that the initial headline impacts could be avoided. That, though, does not mean we are off the hook. There is no contingency provision for a number of regulated markets from farm animal waste to pharmaceuticals. Some of these will be affected immediately and others will run into problems in the following weeks and months. The problem is that this saturate the absorptive capacity of government, interrupting the normal functioning of the state.   

These are short to mid term issues, and Lyons correctly assumes business will adapt but gives no thought to what it is adapting to. It is adapting to a state where business has vastly inflated logistics costs, a mountain of red tape, and few participation right in the European market. Engineering and financial services especially take a hit. 

That is not the end of it though. In terminating all formal bilateral relations with the EU, much of the interagency cooperation stops dead, as do academic programmes, animal transport, maritime surveillance, anything to do with Galileo and litany of obscure and arcane issues that will require a rapid and effective response from government at a time when its capabilities are stretched to the maximum. There is then the matter of our third country agreements, only some of which can be rolled over and only on a temporary basis.

The cumulative effect of all this is unknowable. It is that exact uncertainty that will see an immediate halt to investment decisions - right about the time when we are already on the cusp of a global manufacturing recession. Investment remains on ice until a new normal is established. We not know, however, what the new normal will be, what new conditions will be demanded of us in restoring trade functionality with the EU and the rest of the world and what regulatory frameworks look like.

As much as this is going to cost business it is also going to hammer government finances putting a number of government functions on hold or scrapping them entirely. It might be more than a year before we have established even an interim normal where the UK still looks precarious due to heightened political instability.

The multinationals have already taken a number of steps to offset the impact - notably Rolls Royce moving its design approvals work to Germany and a number of Airbus functions and suppliers already switched over to continental facilities. These such corporates are unlikely to make bombshell announcements in the way that Honda has, rather they will quietly dismantle most of their peripheral business functions and abandon any future expansion plans.  

This then has a ripple effect through the economy. If you're not paying graduate engineers a decent salary then everyone from the local BMW garage to the mobile dog grooming parlour takes a hit. So does the sandwich shops, the local pubs and the wider high street. Not forgetting that many of these high skill jobs in Airbus and Rolls Royce are contingent on authorisations not covered by EU contingency measures so we will see job losses even in the first week since many of them are employed on a contractor basis - as is much of the defence/aerospace sector.

Unemployment tends to be a trailing indicator so it will be a while before we get the complete picture but the losses will snowball down the months. Pretty soon local authorities are screaming for cash as the housing benefit claims double and triple. That money has to come from somewhere. 

Now you could afford to take a punt on something as mindless as no deal if you at least had an idea of what you are going to replace those jobs with and an idea of how to offset the loss of a £270bn a year trade relationship. Being that we already have a number of FTAs via the EU with most of our relevant trade partners, the "fwee twade" delusions of Mr Rees-Mogg are not going to save us, nor are the crackpot theories of Professor Minford - which will more than likely destroy British agriculture and take a lot of tourism with it.

So when looked at as a whole, given the rapid drop in tax receipts, major devaluations, a downgrade of our credit rating, a wave of bankruptcies and major decline in living standards, even if we manage to keep the ports running smoothly, by most people's definition that is a catastrophe. But then Lyons gets around that by glibly redefining the word.
It makes one wonder if people have forgotten the meaning of the word ‘catastrophe’. What’s happening in Venezuela is a catastrophe; not being able to make ratatouille because there are no courgettes on the shelves is not a catastrophe. Maybe they have been watching the excellent Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, in which an American man and an Irish woman have a six-day fling in London, only for her to discover later on that she is pregnant. He moves over to the UK and marries her so they can raise the child together. A major hassle and a life-changing situation. The result is that they are generally happy, both end up in well-paid jobs, they have some more children and live in a nice house that most Londoners would sell their granny to own. If that’s a catastrophe, I’m looking forward to No Deal.
You have to hand it to Spiked. They always find a way to take boorish crassness to a new level. Certainly I do not anticipate foraging for scraps from a bin or eating the dog, but if, say, you're a design engineer with a large mortgage and car payments to make and a family to support, and you're told that morning that your job no longer exists and all the similar companies in the region are in the same boat, that's a major catastrophe for them. Generally these things lead to long term unemployment and family breakup.

If you're a farmer having to then dump your export stock on the local market for a fraction of price, knowing that the next batch of livestock is not commercially viable and you have to sell your land for less than it's currently mortgaged for, then that's a catastrophe too. If you run a feed mill and the local livestock sector is done for then so are you. If you run a farm services company then you're also pretty stuffed.

As to what happens in the banking sector, the City is optimistic that it is resilient but from what we have seen, there is a grave complacency and longer term, they are exposed to the wave of defaulting loans and mortgages. This is going to have serious ramifications for pensions and savings and car insurance, the latter then inhibiting individual mobility. 

Being that there are few areas of commerce and regulation that are not in some way influenced by or dependent on EU membership, the absence of a replacement relationship means that the secondary effects could be far greater than the disruption of Brexit day. We are likely to see major inflation which will in turn force rationing of some medicines and NHS services.

In respect of the scope and breadth of the problems, ensuring the ports do not fall into chaos is really only the bare minimum - and for all the noise made about it, even this government in its current state of dysfunction ought to be able to get a grip on it. That, though, is far from mission accomplished nor does it prove that the warnings were "project fear". The little that it does accomplish is essentially window dressing for a failure of government that will see the UK slide in every known league table. You are, of course, entitled to pick your own definition of a catastrophe, but by my reckoning, this qualifies with room to spare.  

The Brexit trench war is over


Predictably my inbox is full of irate Brexiters this morning. Leavers, it seems, are not meant to criticise Brexiter MPs. And I did rather a lot of that yesterday. One is not supposed to point out that Nadine Dorries is thick as a box of hammers or that Kate Hoey is light bendingly dense. One is not supposed to point out that Daniel Hannan is a liar and thief. One is not supposed to call Steve Baker a crook and one really shouldn't say that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a malicious worm.

As ye know, I am prone to grumbling about the minimal returns I get for my efforts on Twitter - and generally people tell me it's because I'm caustic and negative. That, though, is not the cause. I've seen plenty of long standing blogs give up over the course of the last year because the effort to reward ratio is too low. As it happens, I suspect the legacy media is having similar problems. People might retweet an article but they do not necessarily click on it.

It's taken me a long time to fully understand it and it's so simple that it should have occurred to me sooner. what Twitter is, is ideological trench warfare. Content producers who succeed supply a demand. The demand is for ammunition. I've noticed how a generic anti-EU post will do the rounds when more analytical posts do not.

Twitter trench warfare is mainly about shoring up a narrative. It is no less tribal than Westminster politics. The Brexiter MPs and their propaganda vessels built their narratives and we as good little sheep are supposed to hold the line and tell the Emperor that his new threads are snazzy. They transmit, we receive.

But of course, this blog, and this blogger, is not in the business of propaganda. That is for Breitbart and BrexitCentral. My mission is to understand what is happening and why and to do that I have to be entirely up front about it and not allow myself to be deceived or comforted with what I want to hear. I stepped off the propaganda production line in 2016. Some would say I was never on it. They are probably right.

Here is ultimately where the problem is. The demand is generally for narrative reinforcement and comfort. If a factory closes down Brexiters want tract that proves why it is nothing to do with Brexit. If someone on our side is attacked, I'm supposed to defend them rather than stick the boot in. Since I don't do that, readers don't know which side of an issue I'll land on so they are wary of me. I don't do remainers or leavers any favours. The decision to keep me at arms length is pure cowardice.

This, in part, is why The Leave Alliance was marginalised from the beginning. We attacked Vote Leave because it was not competent and it did not tell the truth and we weren't prepared to ignore them and let them do it. The Brexit blob have since circled the wagons and written us out of the script. Since the media does not look outside of the bubble we may as well not have existed at all.

This, though, is all now somewhat redundant. The battle for Brexit is over. We won. I do not feel obliged to shore up the leave case and I certainly feel no obligation to back or support the London leave blob who have done more to undermine the case for leaving than I ever could by attacking them. I do not owe these people anything. My only obligation is to report things as I see it. Trench warfare is not a productive use of anyone's time.

I think probably the most important function of this blog is less to argue the case for Brexit, but to point out the manifest inadequacies of our politics and media, an in doing so I can show no favour to any particular side. I want people to realise how and why they are being used by forces who don't care about them. If you have a problem with that, you know where you can go.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

It's time to call out the Brexit zealots


A Brexit video blog in which I am somewhat pissed off.

No dog in the fight


Were the eight Labour defectors, now joined by Anna Soubry and two other nonentities, to be joined by Caroline Lucas and Yvette Cooper you would have a party that embodied pretty much everything I voted against in the referendum. We are loosely describing it as centrism for want of a better term, but these people represent the pinnacle of Westminster banality. Vapid, conformist. slippery careerists who jump on every passing politically correct bandwagon, always believing that their narcissistic worldview, echoed by the BBC, is the view of the majority.

As Paul Embrey remarks, though, "One of the joys of following politics over the coming months will be witnessing the reaction of the 11 defectors as it slowly dawns on them that, far from representing 'millions', they represent no-one". They are exactly what we are all sick of - politicians who are infinitely interchangeable and could just as easily serve on the front bench of either hollowed out shell of a party.

In many ways this new independent group is largely an excretion from the old parties which have now been colonised by their extremes - both of whom are equally unappealing. Not in a billion years would I vote for the Labour party which I generally find objectionable whoever is leading it, meaning that the Tories, as foul natured as they are, are still the default option. 

The Conservative Party, though, is nothing I especially recognise as conservative. The Tory right are jingoistic ignorant reactionary grunters who mistake knee-jerk right wing posturing for conservative values. But then the rest of the party are social democrat wets. We don't have a conservative party in the UK.

We are told that the tory party has drifted to the hard right - which it has if you only view it through the Brexit prism, but on everything else, it is largely businesses as usual. Whatever crosses their desks, they either ban it, subsidise it or tax it. There is nothing else in their toolbox. 

So then as far as Westminster politics goes, I no longer have a dog in the fight. For a time it looked like the EEA option was back on the table but has no been co-opted by the likes of Boles and mangled to the point where it is neither deliverable or desirable. It's no longer an argument worth having. My only political hope now is that we do not leave the EU without a deal - and if May's deal is what we have to put up with  then so be it. 

One would think that with most MPs being opposed to a no deal Brexit that May's deal would pass without much obstruction. Still, though, the parliamentary arithmetic at last examination, was not in its favour. Parliament remains atomised, incoherent and wholly inept. One simply hopes that the departure of Honda, though little to do with Brexit, is viewed as a portent. Until the penny drops, not a lot else matters.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Bigger problems than Honda

In case yesterday's post didn't depress you enough, it prompted some further discussion about the direction of travel for the UK and the West more generally. Basically, we are a nation living beyond our means, on the basis of an economic and social model that is completely outdated.

There are several crucial contradictions right at the core of our existence, and we are not going anywhere until you address them. The first thing is the fact that you only need a very small number of human beings to provide for the physical needs of the population as a whole. Thus, the world is split into producers (a tiny minority) and consumers.

The problem there is the economic model where, in order to be a consumer, you need access to an income which derives mainly from production. And as long as wealth (of a nation) is measured in the capacity for physical production, we will be striving to produce things which people either don't want or need (or should not have), simply to earn them an income.

At the same time, as long as people have to buy things in order to generate wealth, they have to be produced at a cost people can afford, which means that either they have to be produced by machines, or cheap labour in developing countries. We cannot afford to make the things we want at a price people can pay, in order to earn a living wage. Therefore, we end up with a small body of highly efficient producing people, supplemented by machines, in order to provide goods to an increasing number of unproductive people - who must then be given jobs so that they can "earn" the money to buy the goods to keep the productive people in work.

These "jobs" can't be producing jobs because we don't want or need the goods that they would produce, so they have to be in the service sector. The trouble is that there are either not enough "services" to keep the non-productive population occupied, the people are too expensive, or they are services which people don't want to provide (or any combination). This means it is "cheaper" in our economic model to bring in immigrants and keep an increasing sector of our economy unemployed or under-employed.

We do this in many ways - keeping children in full-time education for longer and longer, or the gig economy, longer retirement, relative to overall lifespan. The only trouble is that we can't afford those options either.

All this is against a background of individual expectations which are also unaffordable. The meanest of British citizens has material wealth beyond the wildest of imagining of my father's generation. Only the very richest of people could afford carpets, much less fitted carpets which were regarded as unimaginable luxury. There was only one radio in the house and no television. Nowadays, people have expectations of acquiring consumer goods which are simply unaffordable. The costs of these goods is deflated to well below the actual cost of production. A car used to be a multiple of annual earnings - now it is a fraction of them. That is unsustainable.

The trouble is that there is no politically sustainable answer. We once put up with impoverished lives because we didn't know any better, and many of the consumer goods that we now take for granted simply didn't exist and everyone was in the same boat. We once lived in cold, draughty houses because that was the norm. Not even rich people could afford central heating. Even a water heater was a luxury. For many people, having a hot bath meant heating the water over the fire, and sharing the water.

People simply won't tolerate this any more so we effectively have to make them poor by stealth, except that they then can't afford to buy the things we need them to buy, or to pay the taxes the state needs to keep functioning. The whole of society is built of false expectations that cannot be sustained. Hence, much of fiction today is of a dystopian future.

We know in our bones that our lives are unsupportable but we can't admit it. We can't disinvent human productivity, or abolish the industrial revolution and go out tilling the fields with hoes. We have developed into a cul-de-sac - and even global war is no longer an answer as the risks of nuclear war are too great.

We are, therefore, in a bit of a pickle. Government is wholly reluctant to destabilise the status quo because they don't have any answers and the ones who claim to have alternatives don't actually reside on this planet. We need some serious alternative thinking right about the time when very little thinking is done at all.

For whatever reason Honda is departing from the UK, it won't be the last and every town dependent on a large multinational is facing serious questions about its viability. The labour market does not have the absorptive capacity for simultaneous departures, but by leaving the single market that is a near certainty. If your sole concern was slowing the rate of migrant workers then your wish is about to be granted. There's no work for them.

It may not be Brexit that does it, but I think we have started something that could very well be the beginning of a cascade failure for society as we now know it. There are too many imbalances, far too much is overextended and it will take only a small shock to start the ball rolling.

As far as Honda goes, the reality is that the car industry is going through a shitstorm at the moment. Many will say it is a much needed industry contraction. Unfortunately, it coincides with Brexit but, from the look of this, it was going to happen anyway. Current production levels are a bubble and can't be sustained. The Honda factory is only running at 60 percent of capacity.

One of the main factors seems to be the rapid expansion of car leasing, which has artificially inflated demand for new cars on the back of cheap credit. Everyone wants a nice shiny car that's nicer then they can really afford and the banksters have contrived to let them have what they want. Which is something of a problem.

That demand bubble, though, has run its course and the market is now saturated with good quality second-hand cars which are going to be a drag on the market for some years. All car manufacturers are looking to a contracting market and increased costs, with limited opportunity for business expansion and something has to give. Brexit may have had a role in pricking the bubble but this was going to happen anyway. There is massive oversupply in the market and there are too many damn cars on the road.

This blog has long maintained that the UK is a zombie economy and the problems are structural. Remaining in the EU would have allowed us to continue ignoring them and allow us to keep our illusions rolling for a few more years - very probably worsening the problem. We were always going to need a full scale market correction on everything from houses to cars. This house of ours was built on a foundation of sand.

Monday, 18 February 2019

The problem is us.


I absolutely detest Kate Hoey. Watch the video and you'll see why. She is the personification of the Dunning Kruger effect. She has absolutely no idea how thick she is. She has no comprehension of why she evokes such strong feeling against her. She goes through life thinking that the problem is other people.

But then I suppose she's probably right. The problem is us. We put her where she is. One of the things I hate about politics is that my fellow leavers will support this creature because she is a Brexiter. The reason we have shitty MPs is because we set the bar so low. We are basically fine with morons so long as they agree with us.

Why Lexiters support this drongo beats the hell out of me. She gave out copies of Liam Halligan's "Clean Brexit" book to her friends at Christmas. It's an ultra Tory libertarian tract based on the dribble of Gerard Lyons and his wildly askew misunderstanding of the WTO. There is no inquiry or scrutiny of an individual so long as they're on side.

This in a big way is the whole problem with Brexit. It cannot be resolved by binary positions. The basic constitutional question of who governs us is binary and the easiest question of all to answer. How we deliver it and what comes next is open to a world of debate and disagreement. Yet, without examination of the issues, people will pick a side on the basis of where gatekeepers stand on the issue. There's a digital feudalism at work.

I suppose that is only to be expected. People generally look to people they identify with. Superficially Kate Hoey is a run of the mill Brexiter and if you didn't know what a nasty piece of work she is you could very easily mistake her for a nice lady. People will generally outsource their thinking and do very little of their own. What people want is to have their own opinions tidied up and spoonfed back to them. 

I could grumble about this but that much is never going to be fixed. It's human nature and propaganda will always work. What we need from our politicians, though, is a higher standard. We need them to recognise they have an obligation to be properly informed. They have no excuses not to be informed. They have the time and the resources.

What we find, though, is that MPs all too often rely almost entirely on British media. Yesterday an MP tweeted a Daily Mail article which reported remarks made to The Sun by Dominic Raab. Says The Sun:
BREXIT scaremongers were exposed as hoaxers last night after their warnings of No Deal chaos were finally demolished. EU chiefs have secretly agreed measures to ensure transport links with Britain are maintained, The Sun on Sunday can reveal.
Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said: "It is welcome that the EU wants to agree reciprocal arrangements for a No Deal. This pierces the Project Fear myths and shows that the UK and EU can work sensibly together".

The actual source of this is the EU's own contingency measures announced in a press release in mid December. I cannot see that there is anything new or newsworthy about it yet neither the Daily Mail or The Sun picked up on it, or properly stressed that these are limited temporary measures where only basic connectivity is maintained - and though this brings some remedy to the customs concerns, full regulatory controls will apply in respect of conformity to standards.

It wouldn't wouldn't actually matter if either newspaper had emphasised this because generally the headline is all that people will read. One thing I note from running this blog is that the number of retweets has no relationship to the number of click-throughs. Again that is human nature and I'm sometimes guilty of that myself. I will retweet something without reading it.

This is why the tabloids are actually grossly irresponsible. They know better than anyone how this works yet they take no responsibility for the damage they do. They knowingly mislead their audiences. They are every bit as culpable for "fake news" as any Russian bot farm.

This then opens us the murky question of press regulation. Instinctively I oppose the sort of measures proposed since they tend to point the finger at social media and place obligations on them to filter content. That then demotes independent sources such as this blog and gives preference to mainstream media which is more culpable than orchestrated black propaganda.

There is, though, a case for the legacy media to answer. All too often they produce content which does not support the headline, or in this case allow themselves to be used. The Sun's editor should have known full well it was reporting on old news.

As it happens, Twitter wasn't buying it. Any MP who did retweet the article will have seen angry corrections in the replies. Being that they are in transmit mode only, though, they will continue to assert that a lie is the truth. Of itself that should be a news story - that the Brexiter MPs are engaging in a systematic campaign of lying. Certainly there is no propaganda Kate Hoey won't gleefully retweet. 

So with MPs failing to inform themselves and a media which knowingly misinforms its readers, and with readers only too happy to allow themselves to be misinformed, very often cheering on a fraud like Rees-Mogg purely on the basis of who he "triggers", there is no basis for informed debate. 

It once was the purpose of media to hold politicians to account as an essential pillar of our democracy. I think probably that was always a conceit and our media is no better or worse than it has ever been. The emergence of blogs and Twitter allows the public to step in and perform that role. The problem, though, is that for all there are some excellent investigative tweeters and bloggers, none of them have institutional prestige or media recognition thus are condemned to toil in obscurity. The public still prefers trusted brands despite the overwhelming evidence that our media is universally malevolent.

Probably the only thing we can really do is teach media literacy from an early age and encourage media scepticism. We're not going to get better politicians and the media is not going to improve because we, the public, give them licence. Even those who think they are free thinkers are susceptible to manipulation. It is a constant source of amusement to me that Brexiters rail against "the establishment" then in the same breath will retweet an article in The Spectator.

I have written a great deal lately about the merging of politics, think tankery and media and its manifest inadequacies. This toxic self-regarding bubble has a total monopoly on the narratives and with it being centred in London, it is increasingly estranged from normal standards of decency. This is how the Owen Joneses and the Dunning Krugers of this world reach positions of mass influence. The whole jamboree is repellent to anyone with a shred of integrity which is why our politics is so devoid of it. Until we break up the Westminster grip on power, we will continue to be victims of its poison.

Britain's potemkin village economy is collapsing


I do not wish to preempt any official statement from Honda but the news they intend to close their Swindon plant by 2022 can't be entirely divorced from Brexit, though many will go to extended lengths to claim that it is. As with FlyBMI, no one single factor causes a business decision but there's always that one final straw. Over the coming week I expect we will see plenty of speculation as to what those other factors are but Brexit remains the elephant in the room.

Either way, though, the loss of 3500 jobs is serious. Deadly serious. It could easily climb to three times that number when we factor in the secondary industries it supports locally. For Swindon it's a major blow.

This isn't the first news of its kind and probably won't be the last. Just last week we heard that Airbus is to cease production of the A380 at a cost of hundreds of jobs in the UK. Again, Brexit is not the main culprit but I can't see how it wasn't influential in the decision. The real impact on Airbus, though, has probably already started and it will already have switch suppliers and sought service provision elsewhere. The worst effects of Brexit won't be headline news like the Honda story. This is likely to have a devastating cumulative effect.

The point for me is that this was always on the cards. As much as there is a general trend toward economic nationalism and a retrenchment of global supply chains there is no way the UK can compete on wages. One notices that when a multinational manufacturer pulls out of the UK they don't tend to move somewhere inside the EU. I happen to know Airbus has been pushing out a lot of technical and IT work out to India.

Of what work we do retain, much of it comes down to tax sweetheart deals, government bungs and creative eco-subsidies. Nissan is famous for it. What we find up and down the country is entire regions propped up by centrally planned production. This is partly by design as the single market and EU regional development policy has encouraged interdependency and distribution of production. We cannot, therefore, be surprised that it all comes crashing in as we leave the single market.

The short of it is that without these regional development policies, subsidies, bungs and interest free "loans", the regions would have collapsed economies twenty five years ago. To a large extent that was already the case by 1990 and all we've really bought ourselves is a sticking plaster. A temporary one at that. This current model was never sustainable.

Just about every major regional employer is in some way propped up by Keynesian stimulus. Hull has been reinvented as a centre of renewable energy technology. Science parks inexplicably pop up in the middle of the Welsh Valleys. Aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce got £250m of government money in 2001. Low emission plug-in vehicle grants come to £3,500 per car.

Meanwhile nobody thought we were getting a good deal on the Hinkley Point power station but it;s jobs for the region so we went ahead with it anyway. This is also why the Severn tidal lagoon is an idea that refuses to die and it's why the government seems determined to piss away billions on HS2 even though nobody sees real value in it. I even wonder if we'd actually bother renewing Trident were it not for the 15,000 jobs it is said to support. Meanwhile Channel 4's decision to site a new cultural hub in Bristol comes with a healthy bung from Bristol City Council.

This is notionally what we call investment but all of this contributes to the overall cost of doing business. By prioritising boondoggles in the energy sector we are hammering our own competitiveness as well as putting added tax stress on ordinary people. Moreover, we're borrowing to keep it ticking over. Borrowing in the financial year ending March 2018 was £41.9 billion. This is when we're spending £24bn on housing benefit alone.

Politicians will call this spending "investment" but politicians won't ever question if there's a genuine return on such investment just so long as it props up the middle classes in the regions. Our entire system of retail politics is designed to placate rebellion in much the same way the CAP was devised. Productivity this is not. And, of course, there's a natural termination point to this in that any of this labour intensive spending is generally reliant of cheap imported labour when all the while we are sitting on a social timebomb of economic exclusion.

A recent report The Telegraph has it that the number of "silver renters" in England is set to treble to a million, analysis of official data shows, as more people are leaving it too late to buy their first home. According to analysis carried out by campaign group Generation Rent, the number of private renter households in England headed by someone aged 65 or older is set to increase from 370,000 in 2015-16 to 995,000 by 2035-36. The rise will come as the result of more people reaching their forties without having made their first step onto the housing ladder, at which point it becomes increasingly difficult to get a mortgage, the report said.

Meanwhile, other reports indicate that about 15 million people have no pension savings and face a bleak future in retirement. The Financial Lives survey of 13,000 consumers by the FCA, the biggest of its kind, found that 31% of UK adults have no private pension provision and will have to rely entirely on the state in their retirement. The full state pension is £159.55 per week, but that is only available to individuals who have a complete record of national insurance contributions.

Of particular worry is the group of people aged over 50 who are not paying into a pension and have few years left to build one up before they reach their 60s. When the FCA asked why they had made no provision, 32% said it was too late to set one up, 26% said they could not afford it and 12% said they were relying on their partner’s pension.

Auto-enrolment has brought millions of people into pension saving for the first time, but millions of self-employed and part-time workers are not in the scheme. Then turning to another report in The Guardian we see that British workers can expect among the worst pensions in the developed world. This is as councils are set to spend more than 40% of their budgets on adult social care.

We are now at a point where wages are generally stagnating and we are paying all the tax we can and it's still not going to be enough to prop it all up. We're already dismantling the fundamentals of civic governance just to pay for our elaborate set of entitlements, all of which has to be paid for somehow and business is slowly concluding that it can clear off elsewhere.

Right now business is looking at the writing on the wall. The next political political party to win by a landslide will be a socially conservative but economically left wing party. This spells an increase in the minimum wage, heavier taxes on business and more entitlements we can't afford. This is already why call centres have decamped to India and I see that process accelerating to cover more complex and high skill work. Honda can probably adapt to tariffs but not our wage and welfare demands.  

Without a major remodelling of our economy, politicians are going to seek to maintain the status quo and they will seek to borrow to keep bringing voters and propping up the regions. They won't try anything radical or necessary precisely because it will lose them votes. They were always going to keep doing this until there was a national emergency. Even now, as we drift toward a no deal Brexit, they still think in these exact same terms.

This is all against a global backdrop of an epoch change that none of us fully understands yet. Everything is changing. Britain is especially vulnerable because in tying up all of our trade and external relations into a single treaty construct, we have put all of our eggs in one basket. Leaving the EU even with a deal throws a great deal into doubt. As much as it has shone a torch on the dysfunction of our politics it is also revealing just how flimsy our Potemkin village economy really is.

Now I don't claim to have a master plan. All I do know is that government cannot provide the answers. this system of centrally planned distributed spending is not working but in a world where we are increasingly making work as we know it redundant, we are going to have to find a new way of living and a new way of doing things. Before we can even begin to do that we need to stop doing all of the wrong things - which is the central function of Brexit. 

This is where we can think about a new approach. The way we live is completely obsolete and unsustainable. Every day, millions of people get in their cars every morning to sit in a traffic jam for at least an hour. I can't think of a more depressing waste of time and money. Much of this could be eliminated by public transport but public transport in most cities just isn't good enough because there isn't the economy of scale.

So what we need is bigger cities. We need to encourage agglomeration by way of benign neglect. I don't think we should be propping up the regions anymore. We can never again give purpose to places like Huddersfield. These are dead towns. The only reason Bradford has improved is because it has grown in population. What we need to do is to encourage more city living and get people to move back into the city centres to eliminate the need for cars. Cars are a massive waste of money and infrastructure spending for cars costs too much.

If towns are to be regenerated then it is with private capital. It cannot be done by our system of quangos and councils. As working class people move to the cities to improve their chances, middle classes will move out with their money to regenerate the regions in ways that centrally planned spending cannot. We can then delondonise the economy. London is now becoming its own deterrent through price but more can be can be done to accelerate the exodus by way of giving other cities control over their corporate tax rates.

Presently politicians are only capable of two dimensional thinking. Their answer to everything is to either tax it, subsidise it or ban it. After decades of this paradigm there is a morass of complex subsidy and tax along with bizarre entitlements which (if Shamima Begum and the Grenfell fraudsters is anything to go by) has a perverse effect on social attitudes in the UK. Generally if we see a problem we attempt to spend our way out of it. We no longer do intelligent policy, not least since big handouts equals big headlines.

It has long perplexed me why we are forking our £24bn a year on housing benefit. I'm not sure why I'm paying council tax on what I earn to pay £700pcm for someone else's home when it goes directly to a private landlord. Housing benefit sets the floor price which is why landlords feel they can charge £550pcm for a one bedroom flat. This we could easily deflate but we don't. Instead it keeps pace with inflation and then we wonder why we are running out of money for public services and swelling the ranks of economically excluded citizens.

Brexit is a problem we are going to have to think our way out of and the beautiful thing about it is it deprives government of its one and only tool. Money. Frankly I couldn't care less about the UK's standing in GDP rankings when so much of that relates to the City of London and never goes anywhere near ordinary people. We can be a poorer country and live better than we presently do.

As it happens I'm not at all sure that being a wealthy country is doing us any good. We have one of the worst teenage literacy rates in the OECD which again is another symptom of our big spend mentality. Since the 90's we have "invested" in schools, where most secondary schools now have modernised facilities and decent enough IT, but British education for all the cash we've firehosed at it is not getting results. It's not about cuts either. Mud huts in Ghana can churn out doctors for the NHS, so why can't a Bradford comprehensive? We can't keep on with the NHS in this way either. We need a wholly new approach.

For as long as we have the Hondas and the Nissans as part of our house of cards ponzi economy, we can just about hold the country together, but only until our social timebomb hits in which case those jobs will be the reserve of the well to do and just a job becomes a symbol of class and status. Since it's all going to explode anyway, I don't see that a controlled demolition is such a bad thing. Brexit might well be fixing the roof while the sun is shining - in ways our politicians never would.

One way or another, making our towns hopelessly reliant on disloyal, crooked, tax-dodging, subsidy sucking multinationals was not a good idea. Locking our economy into the EU political structure was an equally stupid idea. Undoing that is going to cost us considerably. Since we're evidently going for a hard Brexit, it looks like it's going to hurt more than it ever needed to. But being that we are the first in the West to be addressing these issues at a time when the whole world is in flux, I'm quite pleased that we're getting a head start - and if we get political renewal into the bargain then it's still worth it.

The remainers are ultimately the head-in-sand conceited ones. They will no doubt make the most of all the bad news and turn it to their political advantage, but none of them have any solutions to the deep set economic and social decay and certainly no answers outside of the command and control spending paradigm. If what they propose worked then there's a good chance we wouldn't even have voted for Brexit. Everything they propose we are doing already.

All of our metrics show that the UK model of welfare is totally unsustainable and in a globalised economy other countries are more than happy to take business off us and highly mobile corporates don't feel they owe us anything. Our establishment, though, resides in a non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to the global context, where increasing tax on upwardly mobile corporates and high earners inevitably leads to increased revenues without risk of relocation, where the City's hegemony is inevitable and can be squeezed for new revenues as though other nations are incapable of competing for business.

If Britain is to compete (or even survive) we need to lose our legacy sense of collective entitlement. As Brexiters keep pointing out, the rest of the world is catching up to the west. India and China both have aggressive trade policies, increasingly cutting the USA and the EU out of the loop. Trade conditionality and western finger-wagging is increasingly unwelcome. Though Tory exceptionalism and superiority is taking centre stage in the UK, globally, the EU is perceived in much the same way. More to the point, it's time we stopped propping up these flabby corporate monopolies.

Of course, all of this goes down like a lead balloon with left wing progressives. Like all stripes of the left, they are children who don't like to be told what they can't have. The endless wailing about Brexit is symptomatic of a political class who've had it all their own way for decades at the expense of everyone else. They most certainly do not want to be told that the free ride is over. Their lofty position of squandering other people's money to feather their own nests and bribe their own electoral cohort has served them well. They are struggling to come to terms with the idea that the jig is up. But the show is coming to an end whether they like it or not. Tell the fat lady... she's on in five!

Very very important things


Seven MPs from a party that isn't in power and has nothing useful to say for itself have resigned. Generally they are known as centrists if they are known at all. Chuka Umunna is one of them. He's a hardcore remainer. Shallow, widely despised, and last time I bothered to check he was facing deselection.

Then there's Luciana Berger. She is not known for accomplishing anything. She has suffered appalling antisemitic abuse but has maximised the offence taking for all that it's worth as a stick with which to beat Corbyn. Berger says she has come to "sickening conclusion" that Labour is "institutionally anti-Semitic". Which it pretty much is. I once thought antisemitism barely existed in the UK until Corbyn came along and now I see it quite often.

As to Gavin Shuker, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey, I am only dimly aware they even exist. I think Smith may have registered on my radar as saying something sensible once but I can't remember what it was and I may even be mistaken.

We do not, as yet, know what they stand for specifically but then that is also true of Labour. We know they want an enquiry over the 1984 Battle of Orgreave and we know they want to put transvestite rapists into women's prisons for reasons best known to them, and they have a bizarre fixation on the Israeli-Palestine conflict which most normal people don't really care about anymore. And yes, it really bothers them that the state does not own the railways. They don't talk about any problems I actually have.

Course, there is that small matter of Brexit, where Labour does have an official policy but it varies according to who you speak with and the particular day of the week. They want a customs union because they think it has something to do with border cooperation. Presumably this new group of avowed remainers will have something different, but equally useless to say. 

One assumes these individuals were hoping that some of their colleagues who aren't facing deselection would follow them out of the party. Being though, that none of them are there on merit and they represent constituencies which would elect a hatstand if it wore a red rosette, they are not going to pass up on a £70k a year job - not least because they lack the talent to earn that in the real world.

It has been suggested that perhaps Sarah Wollaston, Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry may leave the Tory benches and join them. This also would have zero bearing on Brexit negotiations and make no change to the parliamentary arithmetic and nobody will particularly care. It has also been suggested that this new group may merge with the all but extinct Liberal Democrat party echoing the SDP in the 80's, which, should it happen, won't particularly matter either. We'd just be back to two and a half party politics which has been the norm of my lifetime. Notwithstanding those robust Scottish folk.

Being that this is very very very important we can now expect the media to give it full saturation coverage not least because it raises the non question of Labour's leadership where Corbyn won't resign. That will be super interesting and totally worth the nine pages each newspaper devotes to it. I eagerly await Brendan O'Neill's hot take in the Spectator on how Brexit is destroying the old establishment parties. Giddy with anticipation even. 

Meanwhile, I don't know if it has been mentioned, but on the 29th of March this year, Britain is leaving the European Union, possibly with a deal but very possibly without. Mrs May is doing the rounds of member state premiers to drum up support for any kind of concession, which she will not get. MPs, whichever side of the house they sit on, will then have to decide whether to vote for the deal or not. Whether they back Jeremy Corbyn or not will be a matter of supreme indifference. 

The Labour party split, however, is considerably more important than perhaps finding out how and why Brexit will affect business at the beginning of April. MPs are important doncha know? They're on the telly and everything. They obviously think they are very clever and very important people so we should think so as well - and keeping our media entertained is far more important than informing people. 

We could not, for instance, use a well paid class of people to report that Dominic Raab is lying about ports and aviation functioning as normal on Brexit day. That sort of information is not at all useful to anyone. What a waste of time and resources that would be. It's really us plebs who are out of touch. 

Sunday, 17 February 2019

After Brexit


Once we've left the EU we will no longer be the recipient of EU economic direction. Britain will have to come up with a design of its own. Here's where we'll see all the classic waffle from the left about an industrial strategy. The fad of the hour is a "green new deal".

Course, we have been here before. The 2008 Energy Act was more a Keynesian stimulus package than an actual energy policy. More than a billion pounds was sunk into the renewable energy sector in Hull alone.

The problem being that it doesn't work. Hull has had no shortage of regeneration funding and in a lot of ways it looks better now than it ever has, but still it languishes. Liverpool and Newcastle have many of the same economic and social problems. Similarly they've had their fair share of regeneration cash but still underperform.

Ultimately the thinking on the left is faulty. They always seek power making promises of getting the masses back into reliable well paid jobs. Populists of every stripe offer hope of a restoration of some kind. With Labour it's a romanticized idea of boosting manufacturing and moving away from London based finance and services jobs.

I suppose it is progress that the regional disparity is now a recognised problem and politics in London knows that their grip on power depends on coming up with solutions but fixing the problem is easier said than done. The uncomfortable truth is that we could spend four and five times what we do on regeneration and it wouldn't make a dent. Globalisation is a genie that isn't going back in the bottle and Brexit is little remedy.

In terms of our economic woes, the trends are far from unique to Britain. It stems from having more people than we know what to usefully do with and ageing populations that we have to care for. We struggle to create an organic demand for labour so we prop up our economies with centrally planned white elephants. This we call investment, but it all comes crashing in the moment it has to function without subsidy. Similarly, perpetual immigration is not sustainable.

This sort of sloppy thinking is in part a goodly reason why we are where we are. The current crunch is caused by a failing paradigm where the Potemkin industries in the regions simply aren't productive enough. All of them rely on tax sweetheart deals and stealth subsidy. Worse still, we are at a crunch point where they are becoming expensive luxuries we cannot afford.

Much of our economic policy since the financial crash of 2008 has been a sticking plaster to tide us over until things pick up again but if the signals from around Europe are anything to go by, they are not going to pick up any time soon and this current paradigm will not outlive the political dissatisfaction that goes with it. Moreover, it's going to get worse. We can't afford any more tax but tax is going up once again.

This kind of command and control thinking is generally flawed but the left have failed to factor in Brexit into any of their estimations. One way or another we are going to take a major hit to our exports and already we are seeing a number of government schemes on the chopping block. Meanwhile, though changes in the aviation sector most certainly spelt the death of the A380, Brexit was most likely the final nail in its coffin. All the while there are major money movements that haven't yet registered with the media. Sooner or later tax receipts are going to nosedive as is investment.

Part of the reason I'm somewhat ambivalent to the dire warnings in respect of Brexit is because I have always anticipated living to see this whole system caving in on itself. Voting for Brexit was just a vote to give it a little shove. Some of the first casualties of Brexit will be household names which have been in and out of the news for years having financial difficulties. I'm of the view that the longer we prop it all up the worse it will get.

That, though, is exactly what this and the next government would attempt to do for the simple reason that they don't know what else to do. Generally speaking they have no ideas of their own and the sort of manifesto fodder they subject us to is lifted from progressive think tanks like IPPR. They market it as original thinking when in reality it's exactly the same thing we've been doing since at least 1992. The left will, of course, say that the Tories have subjected us to a decade of harsh austerity but it amounts to little more than bookkeeping.

Typically the left does not care about governing or seeking out ideas that will work. The agenda is always the same - to create a command and control socialist economy based on high taxes and borrowing. The only thing that changes is the pretext. Despite all the historical precedents nothing deters them from their fanatical devotion to this goal.

The Labour party in its current form resides in a non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to the global context, where increasing tax on upwardly mobile corporates and high earners inevitably leads to increased revenues without risk of relocation, where the City's hegemony is inevitable and can be squeezed for new revenues as though other nations are incapable of competing for business. Where the government can nationalise and subsidise industry at a whim without fear of reprisal or economic consequence.

In normal times Corbyn wouldn't have a hope of winning power, but the Tories are not faring any better. Since any version of Brexit is likely hit the economy hard, and with the Tory right wedded to equally bankrupt ideas, it would seem that the next election could go either way. The first thing to go out of the window, though, will be grandiose schemes from think tank spivs.

The ugly truth about to land on our doorstep is that britain has lived beyond its means for decades and there are unpopular choices ahead that will redefine British society. Any borrowing we do will be to put our Brexit brushfires rather than chasing left wing flights of fancy. The worst of the damage done by Brexit will in truth be a consequence of propping up a zombie economy without allowing for a societal correction.

Ultimately new ideas as to how we go forward after Brexit are not going to come from the Westminster bubble not least because they are not capable of original thinking - but also because they have yet to internalise the fact that Brexit will force them to change their ways. It puts government on a wholly different footing. We have come to the end of the road and now we face a pile of tin cans kicked down the decades. Now we have to reform all those things that politicians have shied away from reforming and make the cuts we will really notice.

In a lot of ways we won't be able to design a new future until the chips have landed. If we leave without a deal then central government will be limping from crisis to crisis which will keep the civil service occupied. It will then fall to local authorities and individuals to pick up the slack. What we need is a new political structure that enables people to address their own problems.

This may prove to the be the ultimate Brexit dividend. If central government was going to come up with solutions then it would have by now - even just by accident. I take the view that only a radical change of circumstance can dislodge the ossified paradigm which currently governs our politics. Many of the embedded structures of bureaucracy are likely to collapse, forcing us to improvise and innovate in public policy.

Most of all I expect to see a reversal of Blair's public sector reforms - reverting to a time where local charities actually performed real world functions rather than retreating to business parks to fill in grant application forms. We will see a return of the voluntary ethos. Much of what has gone wrong since 1997 is government assuming roles that it cannot and should not do, bureaucratising them and them wondering why cost of provision skyrockets. We then wonder why these services are then cut back. Britain's economic and social revival is going to have to be people led rather than state directed.

I'm often told off for my "hair shirt" Brexit ideas, usually by centrists and statists who cannot envisage a Britain where we actually do things for ourselves without being prompted - where things happen without government funding and motivated people find ways around problems. A Britain where people are not warehoused in non-jobs where we are no subject to the ideological conditioning of the left. Those are the people who wail most profusely about leaving the EU. They will never be convinced.

If there's one thing I've taken from many of the follow investigations by journalists as to why people voted for Brexit, there doesn't seem to be an overall coherent reason. All the vox pops might mention something about immigration when prompted and some express their general dissatisfaction with the status quo - when all the economic metrics tell us that materially we've never been better off and Britain is a wealthy place. I would venture a guess that there is something more fundamental missing from British society.

Everywhere you look social and creative spaces are being erased and with it a lot of cultural distinctiveness. Venues close and with them go the places where people congregate. Social media and general atomisation leads to more insular lives. Communal workplaces have vanished and towns robbed of their reason for being. In many ways as the state has taken over the social function of society it has made people redundant. Our malaise is as much spiritual and social as it is economic. This can only worse as the EU gradually erodes the vitality of local democracy.

The problem with remaining in the EU is that it ensures nothing changes. It locks in the current paradigm and maintains the direction of travel. Even if you disagree with me that it will all eventually cave in on itself the fact remains that the ossified political paradigm is no longer delivering and the longer it survives the more it locks in privilege while condemning ever more people to economic exclusion. When hard work is no longer a path to prosperity you can't be surprised if productivity collapses.

Nobody can argue that Brexit is presently well executed, and it will surely take its toll. We are already seeing the beginnings of the implosion caused by uncertainty. It's a lot of upheaval that could have been avoided. For that I do not blame Brexit, rather I blame the incompetence of our politicians who have collectively failed us. That failure though is endemic to the system. We cannot, therefore, trust in the status quo to remedy Britain's malaise. We are looking in the wrong place if we are looking to Westminster for solutions. As much as Brexit frees us from Brussels, it frees us from a failed paradigm. That alone gives me hope for the future. 

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Brexit: reclaiming democracy


Yesterday I directed your attention to this article from Corporate Europe Observatory.
Opposition is growing over the European Commission’s proposed Services Notification Procedure. This directive threatens to undermine local democratic decisions, and constrain public interest policy-making in a wide range of sectors, including city planning, education, affordable housing, water supply, energy supply, waste management, and many others. The proposed directive is part of a wider Services Package (a follow-up to the 2006 Services Directive, also known as the Bolkestein Directive which provoked mass protests in several EU countries due to concerns about its social impacts and was only approved after being scaled down).
Many, from city councils to trade unions, have expressed alarm at the sweeping new powers the draft directive will give the Commission. It will be able to annul new laws and regulations developed by national parliaments, regional assemblies, and local governments across Europe, or impose significant delays in order to change proposals. Those authorities will have to submit their regulations to the Commission three months in advance, in order to receive prior approval; a far-reaching tightening of existing rules, which only allows the Commission to object after the approval, and as a last resort to take the matter to the European Court of Justice. And the scope is overwhelming: according to recent information from the Commission, 79 different sectors – including child care, energy, water supply and 76 more – were covered by notifications between 2010 and 2015. New documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory now confirm that, in drafting the proposal, the Commission has taken its cues from the corporate lobby groups who will benefit most, whilst largely ignoring concerns raised by other interests.
What's notable about this is there isn't a peep from the British press. There is no comment from any of the British think tank set. There is no public debate about it in the Twittersphere. If it's mentioned at all then it comes from Eurowonk land. British polity is simply not engaged and not remotely interested.

You would think with this being a blatant power grab with major ramifications for sovereignty that one of the eurosceptic groups would have picked up on it, but British politics as a whole is narrow and insular. Eurosceptic groups devote zero resources to monitoring the EU - which is rather a shame because they would have better arguments if they did.

But this is why UK membership of the EU can never be democratic. A curious and alter media is a vital pillar of any democracy. Notionally we have MEPs who could vote against this measure (ignoring for a moment they are structurally outnumbered) but without a media early warning system there is no lobbying from civil society and the wider public. None of our major unions are on top of this nor is there any protest from UK local authorities.

Only occasionally do we see any uproar over what Brussels is up to. There was the outcry over Article 13 of the Copyright Directive which only really got traction due to its overlap with Youtube content creators which makes it a talking point in the culture war, but generally speaking, technical governance is completely ignored and there is no Westminster debate or scrutiny.

More generally there is a disconnect between MPs and MEPs, where one would have though that national parties would take a greater role in directing MEPs based on the outcome of Westminster debates, but the EU parliamentary system is largely ignored. The fullest extent of public engagement is the occasional Euro election which is generally low turnout and the outcome is decided by those who are actually interested. For all that there has been an outpouring of grief since 2016 from remainers who tell us how vitally important the EU is to them, all the evidence suggests otherwise.

As a rule scrutiny of the EU is a somewhat niche pursuit. If there is a corruption scandal, generally news of it reaches me via EUobserver or Euractiv, and EU trade news comes to me via bilaterals.org. The most active civil society groups are nearly always from mainland Europe and anything said by Brussels tends not to register in the British press - as has been abundantly evident through the Article 50 process.

When Brexiters complain that the EU is not democratic they tend to point to "unelected commissioners" but this always overlooks the fact that it wouldn't be democratic even if they were elected. For there to be a democracy you need a demos, and civil society involvement. No such thing exists in the EU. That which passes for civil society engagement is our NGOcracy, much of which is, in a roundabout way, dependent on the EU for funding and is little more than astroturfing.

If the European Parliament served a democratic function it should be as a goalkeeper - our last line of defence against the EU executive. But like any defence system it's only as good as the early warning radar. We have none at all. Through our efforts running eureferendum.com for more than a decade, we have long observed that British media is often years late in bumping into things that they should have been on top of.

As it stands we import much of our cultural politics from the USA and we have a more up to date understanding of US politics than anything happening on the continent. Political union is more feasible with the USA. Not that we should want such a thing. Instead we have transferred political authority over our trade and overseas policy to the EU and our own parliament has zero comprehension of what it does, how it works and what it's up to.

What's particularly toxic about this latest powergrab from Brussels is that it cuts Westminster out of the loop entirely with local authorities then becoming directly accountable to the EU and the lobbyists pulling the strings without parliament being aware the coup has even happened and they will carry on oblivious to the fact that the EU, without a treaty, can keep absorbing political authority over domestic affairs by stealth rendering local and national democracy inert.

Arguably remainers could easily say this is a consequence of British disengagement and to a large extent they are right. But culturally we have never been engaged with the EU and I don't see that we ever will be. EU membership just isn't right for the UK. For as long as we are members, outsourcing gall the policy of importance, we become ever more self-absorbed and insular, and our politics continues to atrophy. Only by repatriating political authority and putting the process back where we can see it will we change the culture of our politics.

It ought to be a national emergency to realise that so much of our decision making is now done behind closed doors (or might as well be for all the attention our media gives it). That Brexit is being handled so badly is down to a systemic ignorance of the EU in our media and political class. Little did they realise that they'd handed over competence over just about everything that is regulated. So much damage has already been done. The cost of Brexit, therefore, is simply the price for correcting their error.

I am often asked by remainers what the advantages to Brexit are. They wail about the loss of entitlements and perks and point to the obvious fact that from a trade perspective, Brexit is hardly an enhancement. The truth is that there are no economic benefits to Brexit for the foreseeable future. It comes down to one estimation as to whether you think we can allow the further privatisation of lawmaking and the marginalisation of our own powers to influence the laws we live by.

If your only concern is the convenience of going on holiday and rights you already had, there is little I can do to persuade you that Brexit is worth it. If, on the other hand, democracy matters to you, it should be abundantly clear that EU membership is intolerable. Our political revival depends on leaving it.

Friday, 15 February 2019

The castration of democracy


On occasion I'm accused of flip-flopping over Brexit and at other times accused of being a "secret remainer". The latter accusation is risible. I'm not very secret about anything. If I have an opinion you will surely know about it. As to the flip-flopping, I admit to having a number of reservations about every mode of exit. That's bound to be the case if you've interrogated the subject honestly.

I'm under no illusions about Brexit. I'm certain that if we leave without a deal then it will be a major blow for trade even though I'm still hedging my bets on what sort of mess Brexit day is going to be. The point for me is that I am in no rush to experience the economic turmoil that goes with Brexit. My best friend is currently on the dole looking for work and he's a talented guy - yet he's having all sorts of problems. I've been in that unhappy position before and I'm in no hurry to go through it all again. No deal is a nuclear option and something to be avoided if at all possible. I do not, though, rule it out.

I have an order of preference. At one point I was firmly in the EEA Efta camp but no longer think that is viable. I think we missed the window and if we go in that direction now they will tack on a customs union and over time it will simply be parked as a proxy version of membership where we end up same as before, adopting rules with no real Westminster input. Though Efta would give us the necessary instruments to oppose new directives, the chances are we wouldn't. Our politicians still don't get Brexit. 

Being that my hope for the end point of this process is The Harrogate Agenda, I don't really see how such a relationship would be compatible. The Flexcit approach to leaving would have dispelled the uncertainty and prevented much of the damage but that ship has already sailed. 

More to the point I can certainly see why Brexiters don't think the EEA is brexity enough. Committing to a longer divergence process carries its own risks and as Parliament is reluctant to leave it is probably they would maintain current levels of alignment indefinitely. Parliament is rightly not trusted and that's entirely a mess of their own making.

So it now looks like the plan B is Mrs May's withdrawal agreement followed by whatever trade relationship we can cobble together be it shadow EEA or an FTA with enhanced customs cooperation. If it be the latter then there is a strong chance the backstop will be activated thus curtailing a number of key freedoms we expected to achieve by leaving. Either way there is a bitter pill to swallow. 

There are days when I really do wonder if any of this is worth the hassle, particularly when we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Current parliamentary arithmetic would suggest that May's deal will not limp over the finish line and we are odds on for an "accidental Brexit" with little time to prepare. This is the last thing I wanted to happen but ultimately if it is the only way to leave then that is how it must be. A reminder of why crossed my path this morning with this article from Corporate Europe.
Opposition is growing over the European Commission’s proposed Services Notification Procedure. This directive threatens to undermine local democratic decisions, and constrain public interest policy-making in a wide range of sectors, including city planning, education, affordable housing, water supply, energy supply, waste management, and many others. The proposed directive is part of a wider Services Package (a follow-up to the 2006 Services Directive, also known as the Bolkestein Directive which provoked mass protests in several EU countries due to concerns about its social impacts and was only approved after being scaled down).
Many, from city councils to trade unions, have expressed alarm at the sweeping new powers the draft directive will give the Commission. It will be able to annul new laws and regulations developed by national parliaments, regional assemblies, and local governments across Europe, or impose significant delays in order to change proposals. Those authorities will have to submit their regulations to the Commission three months in advance, in order to receive prior approval; a far-reaching tightening of existing rules, which only allows the Commission to object after the approval, and as a last resort to take the matter to the European Court of Justice. And the scope is overwhelming: according to recent information from the Commission, 79 different sectors – including child care, energy, water supply and 76 more – were covered by notifications between 2010 and 2015. New documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory now confirm that, in drafting the proposal, the Commission has taken its cues from the corporate lobby groups who will benefit most, whilst largely ignoring concerns raised by other interests.
This is pretty much the whole argument for Brexit in a nutshell. The concern that it "would constrain democratic decision-making in member states on everything from housing, to water and local planning" ignored the fact that it already does in many subtle ways. You can have EU membership but not democracy. There are plenty of ways in which the EU system of governance dictates the shape and culture of our domestic governance in such a way that democratic inputs are rendered inert.

We were told by David Cameron that the EU could be reformed and we were to a large extent exempt from ever closer union - not least because of the referendum lock, but integration very often happens by stealth and happens with every law the EU passes. Much of it never appears on the public radar until it's far too late. I'm an EU watcher and this latest proposal is news to me. I've seen no mention of it in our media. As far as I can see not even the Guardian has covered it.

Then, of course, we are told that with greater participation we have a shot at vetoing such measures, but the thing about the EU is that defeated regulatory initiatives never die. They just go into process and resurface later on. To remain in the EU would would be to resign ourselves to the further encroachment of corporate influenced technical governance which increasingly subordinates democracy and puts the power over our authorities into the hands of foreign lobbyists. TTIP 2.0.

In respect of this, I don't think there is a price I would not pay to stop this happening. I could certainly do without a no deal Brexit and I'm not looking forward to the inflation and job shedding that goes with it, but the direction of travel for the EU and wider global governance is to subordinate public authority to the needs of corporate capital and for me that is a bridge too far.

At the beginning of this process I came to understand that regulatory harmonisation was the WD40 of trade and that it is a facet of modern global governance. What I never fully understood was the scale and pace of it - and while we are in the EU, the political authority ultimately rests with the commission and the ECJ - and if it wants more powers it can find ways to acquire them without a new treaty and there are no safeguard measures.

This is a dynamic our politicians are barely aware of. They don't really care. They take no interest in technical governance and they like that the difficult stuff is handled elsewhere so they can preen about the NHS and poverty. Our grandstanding virtue signalling politics is very much symptomatic of an abdication from grown up statecraft. To them Brexiter demands for democracy and sovereignty are little more than irrational pleas for the intangible thus valueless in the face of the trade we stand to lose.

Being that the Overton Window is largely dictated by our utterly debased media, many of the themes discussed on this blog in respect of trade will be utterly alien to MPs. I recall last year an MP reading out some tract out in parliament that I'd written on international organisations. She later remarked that she'd never heard of any of them let alone understood their significance. Though technical, arcane and obscure, the substance is highly political and massively consequential, yet the so-called mother of all parliaments is found nowhere near it. Brexit has put it back front and centre where it should be. 

Since Britain is a complex services based economy, much of our economy depends on regulatory harmonisation and cooperation, so this is not something we can retreat from, but it ought to be offensive to anyone calling themselves a democrat that our key interests are not debated or understood by our so-called representatives and that what little defence we have against such measures consists of a pack of quarterwit MEPs, themselves the plaything of lobbyists.

There is no denying that we stand to lose a staggering amount of trade by leaving the EU, especially so should we leave without a deal, but when that trade is facilitated by removing essential democratic controls in collusion with corporates in closed door sessions with no early warning system then we simply have to call time on it. 

We are routinely told that membership of the EU means we have a seat at the table where the UK is able to defend its interests. That is a view I hear regularly from British EU functionaries and diplomats. This is echoed in a recent Guardian piece. More than 40 former British ambassadors and high commissioners have written to Theresa May warning her that Brexit has turned into a “national crisis” and urging her to delay proceedings until the government has greater clarity about Britain’s likely future relationship with Europe.
They write: “Our country’s national interest must always be paramount. The Brexit fiasco has already weakened the UK’s standing in the world. We strongly advocate a change of direction before it is too late. It is clear that Brexit has turned into a national crisis.
There is no possible deal that will be a sensible alternative to the privileged one we have today as members of the EU with a seat at the table, inside the single market and customs union but outside the Euro[zone] and Schengen[area].
The problem here is that our diplomatic corps have to a large extent gone native. Their perception of how we are viewed internationally trumps all the petty domestic concerns like sovereignty and democracy. In their high stakes world they are building complex market frameworks to advance the UK's commercial interests - which to a large extent is what they are paid to do, but are all too used to the idea of doing it without the meddlesome supervision that goes with it being coupled to democracy. 

The question, though, is who decides what the national interest is. Commercially it may well be in our interests to complete the single market in services, but when those corporates best placed to exploit such markets tend to be tax dodging multinationals it's worth asking who exactly do these people serve? I do not see that it is in our interests to have our local and national bylaws revoked at the behest of of global consultancy firms. For as long as the trend is toward globalisaton then the trend is toward the further castration of democracy.

Remainers will point  out that Britain will face many dilemmas in the future as we resume an independent trade policy. The USA will no doubt make demands of our food safety rules and Japan will seek to exact the maximum advantage possible. What they don't mention is that we are not obliged to ratify any such agreements and parliament is well within its rights to assert itself. That very well may mean that much vaunted FTAs are scuppered, but safeguarding our democracy is what are MPs are fundamentally there to do. That we are in this Brexit mess to begin with is because they were negligent.

To quote Sam Hooper once again, "Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response".

Of course Brexit of itself is no automatic remedy - especially when our institutional knowledge of trade and international affairs has long since atrophied. This is abundantly evident as Tory Brexiters demonstrate on a daily basis. But even now it has put trade concerns front and centre. Though only baby steps, the debate around "hormone beef" and "chlorinated chicken" has generated an awareness of trade issues and the subject is once again fashionable. Brexit has once again politicised what is ordinarily the domain of officials and diplomats.

The 2016 referendum was a statement. Throughout the course of our relationship with the EU, successive prime ministers have taken us deeper into the project without consultation or consent. they then proceed to lie about it. David Cameron then asserted that we could reform it and indeed that he had reformed it. There is simply no basis on which to trust our establishment in respect of the EU,and part of the reason Brexiters have become progressively more hardline is because there have been several attempts to derail and reverse Brexit.

The statement made in 2016 was that our establishment is no longer trusted. It has repeatedly shown contempt for the democratic will and without the democratic tools at our disposal to stop them, there is simply no way we can further consent to what is done by them in our name. The more overt policies of the EU have had their own costs, but now we see the full extent of what has been done to us and what is yet to come. They have set us down a path that was always designed to be irreversible so it comes as no surprise that reversing it comes with a great deal of political and economic pain.

That, though, is not an argument for not doing it. As I cast my mind to the mid term, in the full knowledge that already tough economic conditions will worsen, a large part of me is not looking forward to Brexit at all. This is the price we will pay to correct the errors of previous generations of politicians. And pay we will. 

Still, though, I see no compelling reason to remain. The future holds only more salami slicing of democracy which has already had a subtle but profound impact on our politics. If we allow it to continue unabated then we shall find that we are no longer citizens, rather we will be demoted to the status of corporate serfs - to be managed like cattle - where nothing happens unless Brussels gives us permission. Whatever the EU may be offering, the price is simply too high. 

The slow death of British media


Last night's vote in parliament couldn't be more inconsequential so I've sat for nearly two hours staring blankly at this page trying to think of something halfway original about Brexit. It's easy to see why the media creates its own parallel universe in politics. Unlike me, they can't take the day off on a slow news day. This causes them to create dramas that simply do not exist, very often seeking to manufacture a story from nothing. 

This, though, is what adds to the overall noise where much of what the media produces is actually a pollutant making it harder to decipher what is actually happening. Much of what the media produces is written by younglings with no subject knowledge and very little real world experience in order to contextualise events. Being that adult supervision is an expensive overhead we have seen it cut out of the process to the point where legacy media can no longer be relied upon to inform the debate. The prospect, then, of having informed public discourse are somewhere around nil.  

This goes double for Brexit. It's a difficult topic, it's easy to get wrong and what little expertise that does exist is highly partisan. The media has its go-to experts but many of them our far out of their lane speaking on subjects their expertise doesn't stretch to and wouldn't tell the truth even if they knew it. Being that the media has no expertise of its own they've lost the knack of spotting a bullshit artist.

Being that they haven't the budget to retain expertise they very often outsource it to free sources - taking whatever they can get on short notice. This is why every think tank now has its own well groomed media girlie. There was one on BBC Question Time last night; Grace Blakeley, yet another all purpose groomed-for-TV PR spiv with no business experience, no life experience or expertise and no political memory - spouting achingly unoriginal ideas. Hipster communism and Keynesianism peppered with run of the mill eco-dogma.

What worsens this dynamic is a peculiarly British demand that media should attempt neutrality. This leaves both Sky and ITN open to constant accusations of bias spurring them to seek a balance of chair fillers. This is not at all helped by diversity quotas. This is what creates the market for think tank spokesmen.

Part of the problem is that media has no real ability to spot expertise. As a society we are conditioned to believe that titles such as doctor, QC or professor imply a level of learned wisdom. Thankfully Brexit has driven a horse and cart through that, but still media is infatuated with prestige and title. This is partly why they get things so badly wrong. 

This is a common dynamic between media and politics. I've now sat through dozens of select committee meetings where the witnesses tend to be senior bods with no more idea of what's going on that the politicians themselves. Usually if you want to know how a system works you need to talk to a mid ranking official or practitioner - especially when regulation and administration is concerned.

What has been acutely apparent over the course of Brexit is how interchangable the political-media bubble is. Columnists and "researchers" rotate through the same handful of organisations, often crossing over into politics. This creates a political monoculture centred around London.

This is in part why politics is falling apart. The product of this monoculture is a class of arrogant know-nothing ambitious politicos with values that in no way resemble those of ordinary people. They rely almost entirely on opinion polls as a measure of what ordinary people think. The rest of the time they're deeply ensconced in their own parallel universe - much of which is informed by our non-informing media, excitedly carried away by whatever fiction they've managed to create between them.

What makes it all the more toxic is the massive sense of self-regard and belief in its own superiority. Bubble dwellers never look outside the bubble simply because it doesn't occur to them that there are answers to be found there. These supreme beings have no use for the lower orders except to serve them coffee. This is what contributes to their spectacular lack of self-awareness. Our media blob has no inclination of how utterly ignorant it is. It cannot be told anything and its errors become gospel.

When the story of Brexit is written it will be the story of Britain's institutional collapse. Academia, politics and media all failed. Central to this is a media establishment with zero attention span and no capacity to retain knowledge. Every branch of media failed to hold politics to account. What we needed was a capable and inquisitive media. What we have is a collection of propagandists and attention seekers degrading public discourse and eroding our trust.

Ultimately our politics will not improve until our media improves - which it won't. Ever. This corruption is the new normal. Our media gravitates toward power and prestige and for as long as the power is centred in London, our media culture will remain a Londoncentric bubble which fiercely guards its monopoly over the narrative. Only by breaking up politics and redistributing powers will we see a revitalisation of media. For as long as we are ruled by London we sustain this nest of parasites.