Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The no-deal grand delusion

There was a time when I would entertain a no deal Brexit as a last resort. Just recently though, I have taken the view that every effort must be made to avoid it even if that means further delay or even a confirmatory vote.

The arguments for trading on WTO terms have never been convincing. The Tory right and the Brexit blob have popularised some very deliberate distortions to cloud the debate and now the generally understood scenario is a work of political fiction.

We can debate til the cows come home what the initial impacts would be and while there have been wild exaggerations, the longer term damage in terms of trade and our political standing is a price too rich for my blood.

To go ahead with such an enterprise you would need a ruthlessly competent government with a plan and an exact idea of the policies it would execute on day one. The ERG likely believes they could sweep into power and do that job. They've been plotting for a while.

This has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The process of rolling over deals we have via the EU is stalling because some are wondering what levels of unilateral action the UK will take on tariffs. They're not about to offer us trade preferences if there's a chance they can get what they want for free.

As to contingency plan execution, you're dealing with people who deny the problems even exist even when they are clearly outlined in the EU's own Notices to Stakeholders. Pretty soon the government will be slapped with an avalanche of policy emergencies beyond the absorptive capacity of the cabinet meaning everyday governance is handed entirely to the civil service with virtually no political oversight.

Pretty soon you have a government mired in an omnishambles with zero political authority and wildly hated in the country. The next administration is then formed of either a LabLib or ConLib coalition after a hung parliament. Before we know it we're grovelling back to Brussels whereupon they demand pretty much everything now demanded in the current withdrawal agreement and quite a bit more... because they can.

There is no combination of new FTAs that can possibly offset the loss of the single market and the only thing halfway close is a US deal that requires massive asymmetric concessions. It's a net loss to trade and a substantial loss of face. It's also highly risky in that any deal has to get past a Democrat congress. Good luck with that.

I have previously argued that there can be no economic revival until there is a political realignment but from the looks of the habitual cycles our politics is falling into, this state of dysfunction could well become the new norm as it did for Italy and we never manage to recover politically or economically. Britain will become a further deluded basketcase with a legacy sense of self-importance that's even worse than it is now. A no deal Brexit as a tool of political reboot may very well have the opposite effect and further entrench all of our worst habits.

Put simply, pulling off something like a no deal Brexit requires a level of political talent that we just don't have. It would lack a majority government and a public mandate and in no time at all the only coherent movement in politics would be a coalition to rejoin the EU on worse terms than now. Taking back control? Methinks not.

Ultimately there is a deal on the table to get us out of the EU but if Brexiters MPs won't vote for it and campaign for it then they are passing up the opportunity to leave in an orderly amicable way in such a way that we maintain our international standing. If they prefer to chase "fwee twade" rainbows they are going to face a wall of opposition and ultimately lose the prize.  I'm not lifting a finger to dig them out of that hole. If they balls it up now it's entirely on them. Why should any of us have our lives tipped upside down for such a very obviously poor decision?

Spare a thought for Brexit Derangement Syndrome sufferers.

These days it is not uncommon to see formerly sane individuals losing the plot completely over Brexit. Brexit Derangement Syndrome has claimed its fair share of high profile victims from the sick and twisted AC Grayling through to Alastair Campbell. They actually deserve their self-imposed torment. Poisonous vindictive silly little men deserve what they get.

But then as someone who wants to see a successful managed departure, I'm somewhat prone to losing my shit too. For a long time we've had the likes of Spiked and The Spectator telling us "we have nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit" calling on some of the most wildly wrong interpretations of WTO rules and seriously misreading how the EU trading system works. As much as they are demonstrably wrong, they cannot be told anything.

Typically there's the dribble about EU tariffs, often failing to understand that EU tariff rates are the default for those nations with no formal preferential agreements and in terms of developed nations and the oft invoked "poor African nations", that amounts to very few. The narratives just don't stack up.

Then there's the guff about "mini deals" in place of a withdrawal agreement. What they refer to is a limited number of unilateral contingency measures taken by the EU on the condition they are reciprocated. This may well offset some of the worst predictions made early on, but with a whole tranche of authorisations ended, and a number of additional third country controls detailed in the Notices to Stakeholders, that's still a very serious impact on trade.

Then there's the general misapprehension of what trade means. Trade in services is not just a banking concern. This is a question of being able to support goods sold all over the continent where we need visa arrangements, recognition of certification and a number of other market freedoms where agreements on tariffs (assuming the could be rapidly sorted out under Article 24 WTO) are neither here nor there. You need a whole stack of treaty instruments for the free circulation of goods and services up to and including recognition of driving qualifications. They prattle on about tariffs when tariffs are less than a tenth of the issue, emphasising how tinkering with tariffs somehow offsets the damage of trashing a complex integrated market system like the one we are presently part of.

For the no deal devotees, there is no problem to which they do not have a pre-prepared nostrum or slogan which either ignores the issues or ducks the question entirely. But then after three years of intense public debate, it's getting harder for the likes of Tice and Farage to make these assertions without being humiliated. This is perhaps why there has been a subtle shift in rhetoric, and perhaps explains why they have brought the Spiked groupies into the fold who persistently bleat about democracy and sovereignty.

Now this blogger certainly does not discount those issues. It is fundamentally why I am a leaver. But then democracy and sovereignty as objectives are problematic. You can have absolute sovereignty and jealously guard it but in so doing lose all of the trade advantages of coordination, harmonisation and cooperation. And then if we are simply transferring cack handed decision making from Brussels to the London bubble then that is no improvement for democracy either. In respect of technical governance it could even get worse.

And then there is a general failure to recognise that the exercise of sovereignty is not inconsequential. For sure after Brexit, especially in the even of a no deal Brexit, we will have the sovereignty to do a great many things as suggested by lexiters. The problem here is that the EU does not stop existing after Brexit and as the regional trade and political superpower, it can and will respond to the UK unilaterally subsidising things. As much as we are likely to breach a number of international conventions upon which EU rules are based, others will react to any behaviour they see as anti-competitive. Pretty soon you have a tit for tat war of frustrating measures which the UK loses most of the time.

The lexiters reside in non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to 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 Government can pick and choose which international laws and regulations it deigns to adhere to without losing global influence in making those laws. Where the government can nationalise and subsidise industry at a whim without fear of reprisal or economic consequence. Like their ultra right bedfellows, they live in a world of their own.

Those of us who have factored in these realities recognised early on that much in the eurosceptic canon was obsolete baloney and that the march of globalisation means Brexit is only a partial remedy. For instance, it can be argues that the single market creates structures that favour corporates as only they can afford to the compliance. I have made that case myself somewhere on this blog, detailing how the EU has changed UK business culture in many subtle ways over the years - and not for the better. 

The problem here is that even in a WTO Brexit we are still signatories to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and still independent signatories to a number of environmental conventions which create many of the regulatory requirements in the contract bidding process. We can leave without a deal but the scope for deregulation is nowhere near what is believed without dismantling a number of global accords - which is not going to happen. All that would happen is that we could fiddle round the edges to make marginal improvements but the net result is a reciprocal response form the EU and the loss of access to EU markets.

Then there are certain facts of life the Brexit blob choose to ignore. The dilemma of regulatory and trade gravity where the larger customer usually dictates the regulatory conditions where there are often clashes with other systems. This is where it gets to a technical level that the flapping mouths of Spiked Online cannot cope with. 

If you are going to leave the EU you at least need to have a destination in mind and a comprehensive overview of the potential obstacles, but in the binary brains of the Brexit blob we are moving out of the EU regulatory sphere and into an unregulated wild west inhabited by buccaneering free traders. If that was ever the case then it was a very long time ago. In the modern world there are dilemmas to which there are are no satisfactory answers and to arrive at an optimal outcome will will have to engage on a number of multilateral platforms seeking a global consensus - which is not at all easy. 

Those of us who have done the thinking arrived at the conclusion that the Efta EEA system was the best balance of outcomes between trade and sovereignty - and though suboptimal, the UK would still be sufficiently influential to rebalance the Efta-EU equation. But this wouldn't do for the headbangers. Spiked called it a "third way non-Brexit". Only a total self-immolation can be considered the One True Brexit.

After some years of trying to explain these facts of life to their devotees, I am now bordering on Brexit Derangement Syndrome myself - driven to the brink of insanity and dismay as they invent any flimsy excuse not to plug into Sanity FM. So now we have to go over the cliff for the sake of their education at a major cost to the UK economy and our political standing in the world. And even then they will still make excuses for themselves.

Now you can credibly argue that a no deal Brexit has certain beneficial social impacts (which I won't go into) - if your objective is to wholly transform the UK into a less dynamic and more austere country. There's no shame in that. There are reasonable moral arguments for doing so, but that tends to come from the more dour CofE wing of conservatism and it's certainly not what the lexiters have in mind. I've made some of the arguments myself and have been suitably ridiculed for them. It requires people give up a lot of the perks they are currently used to and that is not something people like doing.

You can also argue that we don't get anywhere near a new economic settlement without first resolving the politics, and the so-called WTO option certainly does open a window for seismic political change, but there are certainly no guarantees it will resolve anything and could in fact send our politics into a state of permanent dysfunction until such a point where there is general agreement that grovelling back to Brussels is our only salvation. We may want to govern ourselves but it may transpire that such is beyond our abilities when faced with the avalanche of problems created by a no deal Brexit.

None of this though is what they promise us. What they offer is a buccaneering "fwee twade" future free of the shackles of the EU - and as a reasonably well respected trade commentator I can tell you it doesn't have even a passing relationship with reality. The extent to which the no deal headbangers dissemble and obfuscate would send any reasonable person round the bend.

Worse still is the cynical tactics they employ, doing the rounds of northern working men's clubs to drum up support for their ill conceived venture. There is nothing about a no deal Brexit that will improve the fortunes of the northern slum towns and dead end seaside resorts. When the mines shut, the ones with nous retrained and used their substantial redundancy money to invest and get out of dodge. The ones who squandered it in those very same clubs on card games and horse racing are still whining bitterly even today.

The Working Mens Clubs are not representative of the north or indeed the working class. They are the fag end of the 70's working class and no longer a cornerstone of northern culture, which these days is not a million miles away from culture in the south. Bradford has its own craft beer offerings and Saltaire village is almost hipster insofar as anywhere in Yorkshire can be. The north has moved on yet we are to believe beer bellied northern rugby nerds are northern lions and the authentic voice of working class Brexit voting Britain. Well, that can fuck off basically.

My family home was less than fifty yards from an infamous working mens club, often the subject of television poverty safaris. You have to hunt pretty hard to find one these days so it's not surprising TV producers always land on the obvious. I never went in the place and nor did my dad. We had a crap Vauxhall Astra and a Fiat Regatta estate which I still regard as the worst car ever made and even worse than anything made by British Leyland. Middle class we were not. 

My parents just found nothing particularly edifying about the slovenly local behaviour and educated me to aspire to more. I went to the same mediocre schools and worked the same local chemical plant. Nowhere, though, does it say by beginnings dictate my political leanings or that I should be a slave to them and I fail to see why complex and consequential decision making must take into account the issue illiterate grunts of ignorant northerners who get their information from the likes of Farage whenever he's on the telly. 

That is not to say they should have no voice at all, but we cannot allow a populist fever massaged by demagogues to shunt reality into the sidings. The lionsation of a tiny fragment of an increasingly diverse and increasingly affluent working class is little more than narrative manipulation. But then of course this makes me an elitist! See how this works? You're a snob if you don't bend to the ignorant grunting of Ukip 2.0.

But then we need a little history lesson here. Brexit was never specifically about the WTO option. The Tory Brexit machine didn't really go hot on that until after the referendum. They popularised it by way of having enormous influence over London prestige media. It's only because Farage, being idle, knowing little and having no ideas of his own, that he adopted no deal as a populist default. So then a narrative engineered by a band of powerful Tory donors is now being sold back to us as the authentic voice of the working man in the north. Well, is it bollocks!

The average northern working man has no concept of the WTO and has no well defined concept of trade governance and it is fair to say they have virtually no idea how the EU system works because Brexit has shown even the experts aren't exactly sure. So to say that this would be anything like an informed and authentic decision is a twist of the truth. The referendum win in 2016 does not give Brexiters a blank cheque either.

I confess to a little intellectual snobbery on this subject but then few can say they have examined Brexit through as many sides of the prism as this blogger, where different examinations have brought me to varied conclusions. At some point you just have to call it how you see it. A no deal Brexit is the worst outcome. People often say they are willing to endure the disruption and knuckle down and get on with it, but then how does that play out for those starting their careers and their families to be facing a ten year jobs drought? If that is a possibility then politics has an obligation to do all it can to avoid it.

There are high principles we can proudly nail to the mast as we leave without a deal, but as the predators close in and we find the useful exercise of sovereignty is not nearly as potent as was assumed, we might then wonder if there really was anything so bad in Mrs May's deal that was worse than the predicament we may soon face, when it won't just be the aggressive moves of the EU we are fending off. But the Brexit mob will never ask themselves these questions. The madness prevails. So if you find me succumbing to a bout of BDS, you'll have to cut me a bit of slack. At this point I've earned the right to go a little mad. 

Alive and kicking

I'm very probably the luckiest man alive. I've never been in a hospital in my adult life. Until now. Two nights ago I felt my throat swelling up to the point where I could no longer swallow and was gagging on my own saliva. The NHS 111 hotline was pretty useless with a long list of annoying questions and at the end of it the operative did not seem to get that I was suffering quite badly. I hung up. Some moments later my call was returned, this time by a chap who seemed to think it might be something serious and advised me to go to Southmead A&E.

Southmead is a new hospital in North Bristol. It's clean, extremely efficient and actually quite pleasant. I was seen in a timely way, first by a triage nurse who had a reasonable good guess what was happening. I was then directed to be examined by a doctor once I'd been fitted up to an IV or paracetamol. Instead of beds they had large leather arm chairs with motorised reclining and wide enough so you could curl up and sleep. I have to say the staff were brilliant. If all hospitals ran like that then you would say there simply isn't a problem with the NHS.

But my condition was a bit more serious and needed to be transferred by ambulance to Bristol Royal Infirmary in the city centre. That was an eyeopener and more in line with what I had imagined a hospital to look like. BRI is a bit of a cavern of despair, especially when delivered to the subterranean bunker like ENT ward, where there were some seriously poorly people from all walks of life. I actually felt like an imposter, thinking I should just go home. The nurse practitioner told me not to think like that and that I would be seen to.

My initial consultation was in the corridor as the ward had no beds. They were at capacity and there were others on trolley beds being treated in the somewhat grubby corridor. They had to activate their winter emergency procedure even though it's a warm mid May. It would seem they have problems adapting to unanticipated surges. When I was finally seen, I was seen by a very smart, very credible doctor of African origin and a trainee doctor. Diagnosis was quick, and was soon allocated a space for treatment albeit at the opposite end of the hospital in an unrelated ward. They put me wherever they could find room for me.

In fairness, once you move out of the emergency reception wards, the rest of BRI is tolerable and clean enough. It's true what they say about the NHS being dependent on immigrants. There were a lot of foreign nurses, mainly agency nurses from Hungary to Africa and beyond. The Hungarian nurse was great. Very jaded but very funny and very kind and turned a blind eye to my vaping. That really made a difference. They really did treat you like an adult human.

If I had any complaints, I'd say there were long waits with no information and I wasn't really being properly informed, and the nurses had only basic information. But then they were busy and had more urgent cases than me, so I waited my turn. I think perhaps some who complain about the NHS have over-inflated expectations and a belief that their own case is more important than anyone else's. I can understand that to a point. When you are in a hospital your first and main concern is to get treated and get out as soon as you can.

The sense you get is that a hospital is a universe of its own and its own ecosystem where it's only as good as the people in it and results will vary from hospital to hospital. I think Bristol is very lucky. I don't think it's the sort of thing that lends itself to miracle solutions where every customer has requirements that differ to the next. Politicians on all sides will tell us things are worse than they are because they have their own agendas. Some want it to be cheaper and more efficient but this business is by its very nature inefficient and very very expensive.

From the high tech snake camera they rammed up my nose to the multimode beds and monitors, you're looking at tens of thousands worth of equipment and man hours and that's before you get into the expensive treatments. Ensuring everyone gets the treatment they need, whoever they are, when they need it, on a a walk in basis is actually something to be in awe of. Whether or not the NHS is the only way to deliver this is another question, and though I had an entirely satisfactory experience, one can see how those with special requirements may fall between the cracks.

Casting my mind back to the Mid-Staffordshire scandal where we heard reports of patients drinking water from vases seems wholly plausible. There are times when all the staff are busy and even if you press the summon button you can be waiting a while to be seen for something even as basic as a glass of water. It could be argued that some wards are understaffed and could benefit from a few more gophers to deal with basic care needs. When you have no relatives nearby to call on the whole process can be quite frightening and when you're conscious you're taking up space, your instinct is just to wait your turn. There seems to be two extremes of patient. The overpolite and the totally impolite. Sometimes you need to be a bit of both to get what you need.

I therefore arrive at the conclusion that the NHS question is one much like Brexit, where anyone offering up simplistic and pleasing solutions is one who hasn't really understood the issues and is probably not even interested in them. Improvements happen with multiple intelligent policies from HR to care policy. In many ways the NHS makes life harder for itself by having incredible high care standards. They follow process to the letter and though this could be interpreted as unnecessary bureaucracy, very often it preempts the sort of errors that could be made otherwise and is a life saving influence. A well functioning administrative system makes all the difference and there is always room for improvement.

Of course, one stay in an NHS hospital does not make me an expert on the NHS, nor indeed is this post meant to influence the debate one way or the other. All I'll say is that the system worked when I needed it and all this experience cost me was £16.50 in parking and I'm not now having to fill in a stack of forms and guessing what will or won't be covered. The NHS most certainly needs its critics and the cult like devotion to it is politically unhealthy, but a system with those outcomes has intrinsic social and economic merit which is perhaps not factored in by beancounting Tory economists. Either way, I'm alive and on the mend. And I am thankful for that.

Why I'm saying no to the Brexit Party

As a leaver you'd expect me to back the Brexit Party but I've concluded that these people aren't interested in Brexit at all. For sure they want a Brexit event to happen but largely for its own sake. Once it happens they'll lose interest and and blame the fallout on whatever the next government does. They're not actually going to own up to their shit when it goes wrong.

To demand that we leave without a deal is the demand to terminate all formal relations with a peacetime ally. As damaging as that is, it is also not a viable destination for Brexit. At this point we have to confront the reality that after Brexit the EU still exists as a regional economic and political power. It can and will flex its muscles and when the UK realises it wants mutual access to markets, the EU is in a position to set the rules and make demands where we as the junior, and not a global standard setter, end up doing as we're told.

Since we'll have flushed a trade package worth £270bn down the toilet and are then racing to rollover deals with others on the same or inferior terms, we will end up signing whatever is put in front of us without much parliamentary or public debate which to me is counter to the whole spirit of Brexit. Taking back control it is not. Though Boris Johnson promised "bumper deals", my lengthy discussions with our trade ambassadors suggests the contrary.

The Brexit Party have proven adept at propaganda and sloganeering but all of it is geared toward one objective; being out of the EU as fast as possible irrespective of whether that puts us in a better or even recoverable position. It is a single minded crusade by the self-hypnotised who believe the world will bend to their overly optimistic imaginings. They're operating a scorched earth policy which explains their alliance with the nihilistic revolutionary cult known as Spiked.

Many think that there must be a strong showing in favour of leaving at the euro-elections but I think the low turnout tells its own story about EU legitimacy. I wouldn't be voting anyway but I certainly couldn't vote for a pack of sloganeering demagogues with zero subject knowledge and zero idea what comes next.

The short of it is that there is an exit deal on the table, and though it's not what I'd hoped for, I can see how many of our global level commitments would lock in policy in much the same way so there is nothing to be gained by a petulant walkout. It can always be refined over time. Brexit was always going to be a lengthy, detailed process.

The Brexit Party are spoiled children demanding the adults suspend their adult faculties because "democracy", but here we must remind them that the mandate was to leave the EU. The question of how we leave was always a matter for Parliament and if Farage and his newfound communist bedfellows wanted to influence that then they should have had a plan and a set of coherent demands. They refused. They actively worked to suppress any kind of deliverable Brexit policy because they'd have to admit that the real world means Brexit can never deliver all that they promised.

I will be disappointed if we remain in the EU but I will not lend my support to this pack of know-nothing con-artists and if they lose the prize at the end of all this then I won't be blaming remainers. Plenty of remain voters would have reconciled themselves to Brexit were there a plan and a credible destination but they are right not to gamble the future standing of the country on flights of fantasy from the like of Tice, Farage, Redwood, Mogg and the latter day Brexit carpetbaggers. Preventing these psychopaths from wrecking the country is the first duty of any serious politician regardless of the EU issue.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Village idiots

Gavin Esler, former BBC journo, is in hot water with leavers for saying "TV news must stop giving airtime to the 'village idiots' of Brexit - the dubious right wing supposed "think tanks" and pseudo-experts among ERG MPs who simply haven't a clue what the implications of Brexit truly are".

He remarks “Brexit is not only not just about left and right. Brexit is about expertise. You cannot and should not have someone who really knows what they are talking about balanced by someone who is essentially the village idiot".

I can't actually see anything controversial in what he says. All too often the case for Brexit is defended by the likes of Chloe Westley and Kate Andrews, both court prostitutes from the Tufton Street end of the bubble who have minimal knowledge of the issues. They occupy TV slots not because of their actual expertise but because of their brand prestige, low cost and high availability.

Any time I happen to catch a political television clip on Twitter, the Brexit advocate will always be a twentysomething telegenic know-nothing reciting scripture, offering up empty slogans in place of credible answers. It's either that or the bluster and bluff of John Redwood and Mark Francois. These people make me embarrassed to be a leaver.

But then if the media really did strike out those inside the Westminster bubble on account of their total ignorance we would be looking at a lot of dead airtime. After all, Remain has its own share of village idiots, not least Femi Oluwole, and as it happens, Esler himself has a minimal grasp of the issues - yet is afforded ample airtime on account of his public profile.

The problem now is that the entire Brexit debate has become a propaganda war where the actual outcomes are less important than ensuring the other side loses. Take Anna Soubry, for example. She wants to put the issue back to the people. We could do that but any referendum would likely end up splitting the leave vote, creating an inherent advantage for remain.

Soubry has no problem with this. She thinks it would be a walk in the park for remain and she might very well be right. But then what does that solve? Such a vote would always be seen a connivance (rightly) and would be a shot in the arm for a new UK populist movement. It would make more sense to constructively engage to ensure a viable Brexit outcome. But these are people who insist there is no such thing thus are not prepared to engage in the process.

I'm of the view that May's deal, though suboptimal, is just the withdrawal agreement. What follows is the real business of establishing the future relationship which will necessarily be the most comprehensive bilateral relationship in existence going well beyond an FTA, and over time could mature into something that balances the need for British political independence with our need for economic cooperation. Is that really so terrible?

When it comes down to it, neither side of the Brexit debate is interested in engaging with the issues. Labour has gone to painful lengths to avoid confronting the issues. They speak of a customs union as a proxy for the single market because they dare not take a coherent position on freedom of movement. Everything they do is electoral triangulation.

The central problem is denial on all sides. With the ink dry on a withdrawal agreement, if ratified, remainers know the game is up. The last thing they want to come to terms with. Similarly leavers don't want to ratify it because it means they also have some uncomfortable truths to swallow, chiefly that the fiction they have weaved from the beginning does not translate into reality. They instead retreat to the comfort zone of crying betrayal. At this point expertise becomes redundant since nobody is is willing to concentrate on the matter at hand.

But then Esler forgets that Brexit is not strictly a matter for experts. This is fundamentally a question of who governs us and where the the real power lies. The more power taken by Brussels, the less power citizens have over their own affairs locally and nationally. Sector experts might well be able to tell us what is in the best interests of business, but governance of a country must take into account the bigger questions.

Meanwhile, with a subject as complex as Brexit, very often the experts are just as likely to introduce critical errors into the debate and every bit as prone to their own personal biases. Being that many of them are dependent on the EU for their fame and prestige, they are the least trustworthy people to give us an honest appraisal of the alternatives. Many of the misapprehensions in respect of the Norway option came from supposed experts, which have on closer and fairer assessment have turned out to be less than honest. This is partly why we are where we are. This is what influenced May's red lines.

The faultline in British politics seems to be that we are run by the "village idiots". Anybody with any sense would have nothing to do with British politics. There are days when I wish I could tell my younger self to choose a different set of interests. I once assumed that acquiring a level of expertise would be an asset in political writing but with politics conducted through media as it exists now, expertise is an exclusionary factor.

Generally the media does not recognise expertise. It trades almost exclusively in prestige. So long as you have superficially impressive credentials or borrowed prestige by way of belonging to a high profile organisation, actual subject knowledge is neither here nor there. We're now at a state where they might as well drag people in off the street - and some networks pretty much do.

Supposing, though, that Esler got his way and that the "village idiots" were excluded from the debate, it would largely be a narrow band of remain functionaries talking among themselves, and while they can comfortably pick apart the risible "fwee twade" fantasies of the Tory right, they still cannot speak to the urgent questions of identity, democracy and sovereignty, which, while only partly addressed by Brexit, are central to the deep malaise in the country. These are issues that remainers routinely dismiss as trivial and archaic. Such supreme arrogance must be tempered by the voice of laymen even if they cannot speak to the intricacies of trade and economics.

Essentially Esler thinks his own brand of idiocy shoud have the monopoly over the debate. What he fails to recognise (or perhaps does) is that he's had it his way for the better part of forty years and this is all what happens when ordinary people don't have a voice and nobody to represent them. Successive governments, guided by our expert class have taken us deeper into the EU project knowing full well that if consent were sought it would not be given. Esler's brand of hubris is why we are here to begin with.

You'll get no argument from me that the Brexit debate is overrun by know-nothing gobshites, and the closer we get to D-day the worse it gets. Anyone treating the issues with the seriousness they deserve does not look to the noisemakers in the media. They are either looking elsewhere or tuning out entirely. The television debate is little more than displacement activity and airtime filler. The central issue remains the withdrawal agreement and whether or not MPs ratify it. The euro-elections are a noisy distraction.

Methinks, though, that Esler should be careful what he wishes for. Were one to eliminate the "village idiots" and move beyond the tedious talking points, we might actually get somewhere near an adult debate about Brexit, whereby he might find that his case for remaining is not the slam dunker he believes it to be. Remain should thank thier lucky stars that the "Brexidiots" are doing their work for them.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

False promises

Over the weekend I went to have a look at the excellent Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton. Well worth a visit. Out of curiosity we travelled on to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth just to see what's there. Turns out there's not much. Lowestoft is bleak. There's a sizable harbour but there's nothign in it and most of the utility buildings on the docks are derelict. Much the same can be said of Great Yarmouth where you can still spot Ukip posters in shop windows. Great Yarmouth voted to leave in 2016 by a majority of 71.5% and it's easy to see why.

For sure it's had regeneration cash thrown at it. There are some new facilities along the sea front, though the pavillion pictured above is semi-derelict. It doesn't look like the picture now. None of it does. As for jobs and industry, there are five wind turbine service boats in the harbour and an offshore wind farm that dominates the horizon. The sort of periodic "green deal" regeneration that politicians just love to announce but seldom enquire what actual value it has. At best it's a sticking plaster. Nothing can replace the lost industries and there isn't much commercial potential in the ports that I can see. We're replacing genuine industry with political window dressing - usually with EU funding.

This, of course, is fertile ground for the likes of Farage promising a return to glory for British fishing. With so little to lose, Brexit is worth a punt. We have nothing to lose but our wind farms. But then with fishing having been radically transformed and modernised, there is no winding the clock back as with much of our former industries. There is no return to shipbuilding on the Tyne and the mines are gone for good.

We are told that Brexit presents us with a golden opportunity to rejuventate coastal communities but I don't see that it does. Crap towns with long expired purpose will remain so unless they're within commuting distance of an economic centre. The East Coast is out of luck on that score. It's not even especially attractive coastline unlike Dorset and Devon. A rainy weekend in static caravan has only limited vacation appeal.

But then while we can chastise the likes of Ukip and the Brexit fantasists for selling their own brand of snake oil, that's pretty much all these places get. Promises of regeneration amount to little of value. It's empty promise after empty promise. The real anger will likely follow when it becomes apparent that Brexit is no remedy and Tory trade policy will likely exacerbate the problems. Ending freedom of movement may well eliminate competition for jobs but there will be fewer jobs for the traditional blue collar workers.

We have seen countless articles on how Labour has abandoned its working class base, turning their back on them by not delivering "the full Brexit" but which is the greater betrayal? Chasing after a pipedream of reindustrialisation that cannot possibly succeed, leaving everyone worse off is hardly the way to serve working class communities. The only thing in Brexit's favour in this regard is that it may create the political impetus to invest in the regions, breaking the current model, but places like Great Yarmouth will be way down the list.

At the heart of British politics is a fundamental clash of values but also an ideas drought. Various big ticket schemes cooked up by London think tanks cycle through the Westminster-centric debate, but over sell their potential while seeking to solve problems that really cannot be solved. We are in a new age of unknowns and we are still thinking in old terms.

It's easy to see why the culture chasm is growing wider. Traditionally you could expect to find a job and a home in your home town. Modernity now demands that if you have ambitions you move south, you join the rat race, do long congested commutes paying eyewatering rents and maybe, just maybe, you can get a foothold. For many that's neither practical, affordable or even desirable. The real investment needs to go in housing, public transport connections and infrastructure which is already failing to keep pace and is reinforcing an unsustainable model. It's hard to see how Brexit offers any remedy to this. I don't see it impacting immigration in the way that is hoped.

Though I am still very much in the leave camp, I see Brexit more as a necessary political re-ordering, and the removal of an obstacle that has long kept our politics off balance. I am not, though, remotely taken in my the snake oil of demagogues and pretenders. The day will come in the near future when Brexiters will have to account for the failure to launch. If there is a solution to what ails Britain, it comes from a series of well thought out ideas working to a particular vision. Something our politics is no longer capable of.

For four decades now, strategic direction and development has largely followed a Brussels blueprint, working toward the European vision. This has absolved politicians of presenting their own ideas instead becoming well pampered administrators. We can remove Brussels from the equation but that does not mean the void will be filled automatically. The ideas and the momentum will have to come from somewhere and it seems unlikely to come from within the Westminster bubble.

But then as per my earlier post, the ideas and the vision is not going to come from the Brexiters either. They are little more than wreckers playing dangerous propaganda games and playing with fire. Many have spoken about how Brexit has re-energised politics but unless that energy is well directed and with a purpose then it serves only to further destabilise the country.

The danger being that tribal trench warfare becomes the new normal, where politics fiddles while the country spirals into perpetual decline. Our political culture has proven adept at absorbing or neutralising threats and Westminster culture ensures that voices from the outside are rendered inert. For as long as politics remains a self-sealed, self-regarding bubble (of which the Brexit blob is a part) it would seem that there is no reason to be optimistic about the future. It was always going to take more than Brexit could deliver. The failure of leavers to craft a credible vision of their own will see Brexit turned into a wasted opportunity.

The Brexit Party is fanciful escapism

If there is one theme on this blog of late it is generally how the Brexit debate has stalled, preferring instead to indulge in any and all displacement activity with some corners of the debate regressing, never resolving anything while the propagandists continue to pollute the debate with their wilful misrepresentation of the issues. Being that this is the new normal in politics there is nothing to take seriously until such a time as politicians get serious. That, it would appear, is not going to happen any time soon.

With the announcement that Euro-elections must now go ahead, politics is now consumed with the sideshow of Nigel Farage and his disciples whereupon the chattering classes will dust off their respective pet theories about populism and protest, recycling the usual array of hackneyed talking points about the state of the mainstream parties. It adds nothing.

But then what is interesting is that the populists in the Farage party are no longer making an intelligible case for Brexit. As a movement it is there to hold the government's feet to the fire, but has no objective other than leaving the EU for its own sake. It has fallen back on simplistic crowdpleasing mantras but has no intention of constructively engaging in the process.

Back in the real world, there are are complex and intractable dilemmas none of which return any wholly satisfactory answers. A great many have to come away from this process disappointed and there is no solution that will please everyone. The Brexit Party can massage the betrayal narrative but "the establishment" is no closer to ratifying the withdrawal agreement - which the Brexiters don't want anyway.

That works out well for Farage and his fellow travellers. Their careers would be dead and buried if we were actually on our way toward leaving the EU. One could be forgiven for suspecting these people do not actually want to leave at all. Even if Mrs May's deal were ideal they would invent a reason to oppose it. The goalposts will always shift.

This shows up the Brexiters as the cynical manipulators they are. Say what you like about the quality of the current crop of MPs and their woeful command of the issues, they are at least attempting to reconcile the demands of Brexit with the harsh realities of modern trade. There is no way for them to win when the benchmark for what constitutes "full Brexit" is defined by populists who skilfully edit the complexities out of the script. Since they don't have answers to the problems they simply deny the problems exist.

This is where we bump into the central contradiction of Brexitism, whereby eurosceptics have insisted that the EU is an all pervasive system of government with tentacles in every area of public life, yet somehow our departure is so inconsequential we do not need alternative arrangements to address the multiplicity of concerns.

There is also another dishonesty at work here. Or rather a conceit. They don't want to admit that the Brexit they promised is undeliverable. It was always fanciful to expect that a deal would be mutually palatable. The EU has agendas of its own and as the regional trade superpower with an economy a magnitude larger than our own, it was always going to be calling the shots on the terms of departure. This comes as a mortal shock to those who thought we held all the cards and that a deal could be hammered out in an afternoon over beer and sandwiches.

The problem for the Brexiters is that the game has changed in recent years. The Brexit they demand may well have been feasible twenty years ago (the last time they updated their scriptures) but in the modern age of global regulation and the expansion of global institutions and treaty frameworks, the mirage of sovereignty as envisaged by leavers is no longer attainable. We can certainly repatriate political authority but the exercise of it comes with consequences. You don't get to have your cake and eat it. Actions have consequences.

It is telling that Brexiters continually refer to an ages old Peter Shore speech at the Oxford Union where Shore confidently tells us that neither the Australians nor the Japanese would allow a foreign entity to decide their laws. As it happens, both are subscribed to many of the same international conventions and regulatory frameworks up to and including the Paris climate accords which influence a vast amount of even EU law.

The face of the matter is that the Brexiter vision is one that has stagnated. Long ago they decided they did not want to be a member of the EU and that has become their sole obsession while events have overtaken them. Independence as envisioned by leavers does not exist, the model is obsolete and there is no scenario where the UK has a fully autonomous trade policy. Every decision has economic and political ramifications for existing relationships and we will always have to coordinate our efforts with the nearest and largest trade superpower. Not only because the big economies call the shots, but also because it is in our interests to collaborate.

Here we find that divergence from the regional EU norms results in more of our goods being queried at the borders to the point where there is little or no commercial utility in divergence. We also find there is little scope for noticeable optimisation of third party trade agreements. The free trade ideologues have never fully understood the utility of regulatory harmonisation and have massaged the decoy of tariffs, not least because it provides the basis of a wealth of simplistic arguments for the consumption of leavers.

When the realities of global trade are taken into account the case for Brexit looks ever thinner. I'm still very much in the leave camp largely because the EU is an accumulator of political authority where power travels further away from the people without the necessary checks and balances to ensure such processes are democratic. I do not believe it can be reformed and it will resist all such attempts. But if we are going to leave then we will need to hit the ground running, and you can't do that when you exist in a state of denial about the basic facts of trade.

This is where the Brexiters do us a disservice. Not only are they in denial, they are actively promoting ideas they know to be false in order to achieve short term political objectives without taking into account the longer term consequences where a failure to acknowledge realities now will see us putting out brushfires from a far weaker position internationally.

Worryingly there is no line of defence against this kind of deception. When the media is incapable of adequately reporting the issues and has squandered its credibility through activism, and when rebutting the various misapprehensions requires first explaining a few facts of life beforehand, it becomes impossible to combat the populist canards that spread like a virus. We are, therefore, set to become victims of several institutional failings. Were Westminster politics in better health it should have no problem fending off these demagogues with ease. Sadly, though, the talent pool is exhausted and even those who do grasp the arguments are tainted by their previous loyalties to Brussels.

What is desperately needed is a longer term vision for Britain and Brexit, but it must be one informed by reality, taking into account that the UK outside the EU is only a midranking power and in broader terms, a trade irrelevance. The world will not stand to attention and come to the table on the whim of British politicians. Especially not this bunch. Our path out of the EU must recognise that the EU is still a power and can still weild considerable soft power over the UK in any event. We must therefore ensure the relationship is collaborate rather than confrontational. In any direct confrontation the UK will lose.

What Brexiters don't want to admit is that there is no optimal deal free of binding ties to the EU. Recognition of this fact in the early stages could have resulted in a better deal but the intransigence and wilful ignorance of Brexiters (making petulant and unrealisable demands) has taken us down this path. They have had every opportunity to engage in the process and shape it but instead have clung on to their obsolete notions from 1992. Now the window for a better deal is closed so it's now the deal on the table now or an even worse one further down the line when the fiction weaved by the no dealers is exposed to the cold light of day.

It is perhaps that harsh lesson that Britain needs in order to progress but one is left wondering at what cost and whether the UK is politically equipped to ever recover. For all that leavers presently wail about the relative chump change of £39bn, the costs could end up astronomically more; the true price we will pay for the institutional collapse of our politics that left us vulnerable to chancers and frauds like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

But then, of course, one is reminded that the Euro-elections are indeed a sideshow. It is MPs, not MEPs who need to make the call. The result of the euro-election may well send a message but reality is also sending messages of its own that politicians would do well to heed. This is about more than the transient whims of protest politics. This is about the UK's international standing for decades to come. If the Brexiters are not prepared to treat this process with the due sense of seriousness, then Westminster is well within its rights to tell Farage and Co where to shove it. Farage is using the euro-elections as a jamboree for his own self-gratification. He and his followers are owed nothing.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Pissing into the wind

I'm not the first or last to say it, but the betrayal narrative is a useful political tool to the likes of Farage and his new personality cult. It's like catnip to his supporters who would rather rage over Brexit than actually commit to doing something as radical as leaving the EU. This is where I start to lose patience.

Few want to leave the EU more than I do. I'm intellectually and emotionally invested in it. But I am also acutely aware of the enormous risks in doing so and especially if we leave without a deal. As much as the economic impact concerns me, I am more concerned that in the longer term, as we seek to rebuild formal relations with the EU, we will end up with a "vassal state" arrangement concocted by the Labour party who have no ideological attachment to Brexit and no real interest in governing the UK as an independent state.

The Labour party isn't actually interested in governing. It sees the arms of the state as a tool of redistribution and keeping things running is a secondary consideration. So long as it can tax and spend and maintain its clientbase, they are none too bothered who is doing the work on technical governance. They have no interest in it nor the intellectual curiosity. To date they still don't know what a customs union accomplishes but they will ask for one anyway.

Today on Twitter I have warned that if we leave without a deal there is a strong probability that we could end up with a deal worse than the one presently on the table. Naturally the Faragistas tell me that the deal couldn't possibly be worse but I'm quite certain it could and if anyone can make it worse and it's Jeremy Corbyn and his no-talent entourage.

This then leaves us with the uncomfortable truth that, give or take a few tweaks to the political declaration, the deal on offer is as good as it is ever going to get. This is a reality that the Brexiters don't wish to confront and will instead stamp their feet and demand we drop the backstop - which is not going to happen.

The chief complaint is that the deal locks us into a customs union with no exit mechanism and it's a near certainty that the backstop will be activated to become the basis of the whole future relationship. There' a few things to unpack here. Firstly it isn't a customs union. It goes a long way to having a similar effect where we will still have to coordinate our trade activities with Brussels but that really is the price of frictionless trade. As the junior in an asymmetric relationship, Brussels holds most of the cards and this is just a fact of life.

Secondly, the lack of an exit mechanism overlooks the political declaration. We have to look at the package as a whole and take into account the stated ambitions of both sides. The political declaration seeks to replace the backstop and since all bilateral relationships evolve over time, employing new methodologie and technologies as they emerge, if we hold the EU to their word then eventually we can bash it into shape. Short of an outbreak of hostilities, it is difficult to see why we would wish to unilaterally end that process.

But this betrays the fundamental misapprehension in Brexiter thinking in that they view Brexit as an event concluding in a static deal that dictates the terms of trade for eternity thereafter. That's not how bilateral relationships work. Moreover, Brexit is a process, not an event, and the withdrawal agreement is really only the first step in what is to be at least a twenty year long process of refinement. We can, therefore, afford to let a few things slide. We don't need an optimal Brexit. We just need to get the ball rolling.

This, though, is all a bit too much for Brexiters to take on board. Grunting populist slogans is much more lucrative than applying yourself to the issues and whipping up the rabble will always attract more media attention. There is next to no mileage in constructively engaging as this blogger continually laments. If leavers actually agree to a withdrawal agreement and move past the better adversarial referendum era politics the demagogues lose their reservoir of outrage.

This, dear reader, is where I have to get off the bus. The Brexit blob, ie the ERG, the Faragistas and leaver radio pundits, have shifted the goalposts and changed the original proposition. They have taken ownership of the narrative and turned the process into a revolutionary crusade. They will tell you they would rather have a deal but will only agree to a deal without a backstop, knowing this is not going to happen thus are not at all honest about it. That makes the proposition one of leaving without a deal.

Now they would have it that this is what we all voted for in 2016, presuming to speak on my behalf a a leave voter. We have gone from a relatively mundane proposal to a full blown economic experiment that never appeared on any manifesto based on the flimsiest of suppositions and rejecting all known norms of international trade. A suicide cult.

What one immediately notices is that all those pundits and self-promoting activists pushing this proposition are nicely ensconced in the politico-media bubble and largely insulated from the consequences of such an enterprise. Some will have EU parliamentary pensions to fall back on. the rest of us, though, still have to find ways to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads. People need a degree of certainty in order to plan their lives.

Ah but!, they say, none of the predictions from before the referendum came true so why should we believe them this time? Well, as it happens, it's actually quite difficult to tell what is happening in that a lot of money is being moved around in anticipation of Brexit which goes toward GDP. Many multinationals are positioning themselves for bargain acquisitions. But then we should also note that if we do leave without a deal then we face the full array of third country controls and restrictions on goods and services while losing most of our FTAs with other countries. We can argue the toss as to how severe the impact of that may be, but it's safe to say the consequences will be seismic.

Being that the process could very well drift to October without resolution, unless there is a change of leadership, we could be looking at a further extension. I would imagine the only grounds for a further extension would be if there were to be a second referendum, which I would no longer oppose. Parliament has had a year in which to get its act together and yet still cannot reach a consensus. There is an exit path available to the Brexiteers but they decline to take it. I cannot, therefore, see any alternative to another referendum.

This in my view would have to be a binary referendum separating the question of how from the whether. We have already had an in/out referendum, so the purpose of any public consultation should be between the withdrawal agreement and the actual Brexiter proposal, which is now essentially the WTO option - something I do not wish to see and (probably) wouldn't have voted for in 2016. We are no longer just talking about leaving the EU. We are now talking about a full blown termination of comprehensive EU relations and something of that magnitude must have a clear mandate.

This, though, may already been a forlorn hope. With what looks to be a local election wipeout for the Tories and with hammering defeat on the cards in any euro-elections, Theresa May's position looks increasingly untenable. It could go either way though. She could be gone in days or she could linger on until October. If she is replaced by a Brexiter then no deal is a near certainty. The EU's patience will be at an end as will that of the UK electorate.

If that is how it is to be then that is ultimately part and parcel of the risks I took into account when I voted to leave. That, though, will not be the end of it. The Brexiters are deeply mistaken if they think no deal Brexit is the conclusion. Very rapidly their suppositions will hit the rocks of reality and then we need further consultations on how to proceed. The one small mercy is that the Brexit zealots will have been taken seriously for the very last time. If the consolation prize is the death of the Conservative Party as we know it, it won't all have been for naught.

Brexit's credibility gap

I'm on a loser trying to make the case for the Withdrawal Agreement on the table not least because the betrayal narrative is too useful to Brexit demagogues to actually do something pragmatic like taking the first tentative steps toward leaving the EU. Instead they reassert the usual mantras but at no point seek to acknowledge the real world implications of what they demand.

For starters the usual four mantras of controlling our money, laws, borders and trade hits the rocks with any serious examination. Since we know they do not want May's deal and no deal other than "no deal" is on offer we have to assume that is what they are gunning for. It doesn't pan out.

For sure, this would end payments to the EU but the subsequent collapse in trade would result in a corresponding collapse in tax receipts. But of course, according to the Brexit blob, trade carries on as normal and there are all kinds of magical devices that ensure continuity. In their universe the EU's Notices to Stakeholders simply do not exist.

Taking control of our laws is no so straightforward either. There is some regulatory red tape that we could prune away but here we encounter the "double coffin lid" problem where we find much of the regulatory impositions that come to us via Brussels begin life in Geneva or are obligations under international treaties such as the Paris climate accords. If you really wanted to "take back control" to ensure we really do have democratic control over our laws then Brexit is really only a starter for ten. We'd have to withdraw from a number of flagship global accords which would be unprecedented and politically difficult. 

Then of course, there is the classic dilemma that the more we diverge from the EU, the more border and customs formalities we must endure, adding layers of overheads to transactions which harms UK competitiveness. Harmonisation and integration of systems is part and parcel of modern trade. It is the global direction of travel and the regional trade superpowers tend to call the shots. 

As to taking control of our trade, the fact is the EU as our nearest and largest trade superpower has enormous leverage over its neighbours as we have seen in the way it imposes on Switzerland. If the UK wishes to maintain exports to the EU then it will be on EU terms and there is no scenario where we won't have to coordinate with the EU. Every FTA we sign has implications for our primary relationship and unilateral action has trade offs and consequences. The global fabric of trade deals is deeply interconnected and governed by a global set of rules and nobody operates entirely independently. 

Then, as far as taking control of borders is concerned, we can end freedom of movement, but it's only a bit part of a solution. Immigration control is multifaceted and requires joined up local enforcement and effective systems for tackling the negative symptoms. Here we find there are a number of impediments from stretched council budgets through to human rights legislation that are nothing at all to do with the EU.

From a puritan perspective, the only way to take control is not only to withdraw from the EU but also a number of other international bodies to the point where we might even question our membership of the WTO and its legitimacy. These issues are far from clear cut. 

But then reality intrudes. Post-Brexit the UK still has to make its way in the world, it still has to have formal trade accords with the EU and as the junior in what is always going to be an asymmetric relationship, we will have some bitter pills to swallow. We can leave without a deal but that is no basis for operating in the longer term and our relations will have to be rebuilt sooner rather than later.

This is point I tire of repeating. Leaving without a deal means the UK is subject to the full array of third country controls and even if the headline impacts can be avoided we are still excluded from a number of lucrative markets simply because we are not legally connected with EU regulatory systems. Trade is more than trucks shifting tins of beans through Dover. Much of it depends on peripheral instruments such as visas and recognition of accreditation and qualification.

In the immediate aftermath of leaving without a deal, there is a strong change that the government's absorptive capacity will be overwhelmed and anything broken will likely stay broken if it is not an existential priority. This is where business starts to bleed away in search of a more stable regulatory environment. It will take some months for it to become clear as to what exactly is happening with services exports. By then we will be looking at the fag end of a Tory government with a looming election and there is then a strong chance of a Labour government led by Corbyn. 

Being that Labour is not ideologically wedded to Brexit and shows no real interest in running an independent trade policy it will more than likely concede to whatever the EU demands and will probably agree to a customs union largely because they think it does more than it actually does. I strongly suspect the EU will not be of a mind to tolerate the legal holes in its frontier and will demand something akin with the backstop in order to open talks on a more comprehensive FTA.

So as much as no deal is incredibly damaging to the UK's standing, it is difficult to see where it gets us. The stated objectives of Brexiters will be defeated and there is no way to deliver a sustainable Brexit that actually delivers on the promises they made. A Brexit of a sort is deliverable but it requires taking on board all of the harsh realities and prioritising our red lines. 

This is something the Brexiters have failed to do. We are still in unicorn territory and nothing is likely to persuade them that the WTO does not provide any realistic answers to the multiplicity of critical problems created by Brexit. Worse still when you have a political movement behaving like toddlers, there is no possibility of constructive dialogue. 

Even worse is that all of the windows for alternatives are now closed. There have been opportunities along the way where constructive engagement by the Brexiteers could have guided May's hand, but all we got from Johnson and Davis was bluff, bluster and frivolity and the ERG are profoundly unserious people, still rejecting everything they are told, preferring instead to indulge in their own private fantasies.

Depressingly, we are still nowhere close to a solution. The Brexit movement appears to have galvanised around political chancers promoting their no deal fantasies, steadfastly refusing to accept the withdrawal agreement on the table, blaming May for the state of it rather than their own intransigence and lack of adult engagement. This brings us to a political impasse where the deal is practically deliverable but politically a non-starter.

Being that the deal is non amendable and the EU is not going to back away from its flagship position on the backstop (being far too politically invested) it is for the UK to reach an internal consensus which looks no more likely now than it did some weeks ago. It seems that we are destined to fanny around with yet more tedious soap opera until the final weeks before the October deadline only to have nothing to show for it. 

By that point, much will depend on the feeling in the Brussels. Barnier implored the UK not to waste this time but waste it we will and at no point will there be a coherent proposal from any wing of UK politics. We will have yet more pointless arguments about the Swiss border and another resurrection of the Malthouse Compromise, and the usual self-deception but nobody will look at the facts in the cold light of day. 

The fact of the matter is that the UK, by way of its own lack of direction, its issue illiteracy and lack of leadership, has been completely outgunned and outplayed by the EU and though the withdrawal agreement is a bit of a stinker, it's the only way we get to leave with our hide intact. Some call it a capitulation and a humiliation but it's a greater gamble to leave without a deal only to go grovelling to Brussels some months later to sign whatever is put in front of us as the wheels fall off the ERG's "fwee twade" dogma.

Meanwhile, there are some who suspect that we may yet enter a further extension of Article 50 come October. Your guess is as good as mine. Were that to happen there would need to be a reset and this perpetual limbo is unsustainable for both sides, but if that is how it plays out then we are still looking at a number of complex questions requiring comprehensive answers and any deal will ultimately attract the ire of Brexiters who simply refuse to engage in reality. It could drift on to the point where there is really then no choice but to put it back to the people and at that point, I would not be at all surprised if it returned a decisive win for remain.

It seems to me that if we are serious about leaving then we have to hold our nose and sign May's deal, taking into account the political declaration and the joint ambitions for phasing out the backstop. Brexiters, though, have convinced themselves that the deal is a trap designed to ensnare the UK permanently with no way out with a view to the UK rejoining. That may certainly be a risk but one that is overstated. The likelihood of rejoining is greater from a botched no deal Brexit than an orderly departure.

There are two fundamental errors in the thinking of the Brexiters. Firstly that their fantasy construct of what constitutes Brexit ever was deliverable - and that Brexit is an event rather than an intricate long term process. It was always going to have to be done in stages and the withdrawal agreement is on the first step in a process that is sure to last two decades at least. What matters to me, as a leaver, is that we are not part of the political EU construct. The rest of the extraction process will have to be done over time with great care and patience.

This ignorance, though, cannot be corrected. the Brexit movement in the public domain lis largely comprised of self-promoting chancers treating the whole process as a popularity contest, churning out pleasing slogans to bolster their own standing within the Brexit blob. To seriously engage in the process would require telling the hard liners a few things they don't want to hear and and cynical manipulators are not going to do that. Consequently the Brexit Party is the dregs of Ukip and former Revolutionary Communist Party activists - none of whom have the first idea what they are even saying.

At this point I no longer know for certain if we will leave the EU. A strong showing at the euro-election for Brexit favouring entities will be long forgotten by October, and for as long as key players keep working to prevent no deal then we could be in this Brexit limbo for a long time yet. All the while the mandate for Brexit drains away while its leaders hemorrhage credibility. The nation may yet conclude that if leavers are not prepared to take Brexit seriously, why should anyone else? 

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Nu-kip: the same old ignorance

It's hard to look at the Brexit Party (Nu-kip) any differently to its predecessor. While the old vessel has been appropriated by the internet cranks the new one looks much the same as the old one. One that is hell bent on leaving the EU for its own sake with no real idea of destination. There is a giant empty space where a deliverable vision ought to be.

When put on the spot for any kind of details, any one of the new candidates will fall back on bluster and borderline jingoistic optimism but cannot identify a national purpose. They've (still) never really given it that much thought. The Ukippy case for leaving the EU is a litany of whinges (many only partly to do with the EU) but never have they been able to articulate what they would do instead.

This appears to be a consistent feature of British politics where you can always find someone willing to opine but not actually do any thinking. Consequently the justifications offered for leaving tend to be the tired old canards that largely have nothing to do with the UK's relationship with the EU. When it comes to the mechanics of leaving the EU the cupboard is completely bare.

This is where I wish we had a remotely competent media. I would love to see any one of them seriously cross examined. Were that to happen we would very rapidly see how far out of their depth they are. This is where they would copy the homework of the Tory right and the Brexit blob, citing free trade with the rest of the world. There exists a body of work designed to bolster the Brexiter argument but it all traces back to the same handful of usual suspects centred around the Institute of Economic Affairs and the ERG.

Those who depend on this derivative work to help them bluff their way through an interview have no real idea what any of it means and take it entirely on trust being that it comes from kosher sources within the Brexit blob. It's fine if they want to persuade themselves of something but at some point this tribal dogma hits the rocks of reality.

The central problem is they have never checked what they want to achieve against what is actually deliverable. This pits the deregulatory instincts of the libertarian right against the real world. The Tory view has it at regulation is an expensive overhead that excludes new players from markets. This is where it helps to have been a long time eurosceptic, knowing the origin story of this particular misapprehension.

This all goes back to the nineties when the wheels started seriously turning on installing the legal software of the single market. Most certainly it did place major investment obligations on business equipping and training for a new regulatory regime. Some did not survive. Moreover the UK implementation was swift and ruthless with a bureaucratic zeal that only the British could muster. This provided ample fodder for the tabloids to run their "crazy EU regulation" stories.

What was not understood at the time, and seldom explained, was that this process was the foundation of a Europe wide regulatory union which would in time massively enhance the export potential of British goods if they made the grade. Though there may have been good arguments for not embarking on such an enterprise, the fact is that we did.

Fast forward to today and we have mature regulatory systems governing everything from farm waste to intellectual property - lucrative markets which are now well established and forms the foundation of the current UK business model. Eurosceptics warned that this would lead to an irreversible process whereby critical economic decision making would drift toward Brussels. That much is no longer in dispute.

The problem being that what is done is not so easily undone - and though we could set a course for deregulation and divergence, we'd be looking at a disruptive and expensive process much like the nineties, only this time it would be an exercise in reducing export potential and adding an array of non tariff overheads to supply chains and services. The commercial utility of regulation has never been fully appreciated by eurosceptics nor its complexity and certainly not its role in reducing border formalities. This is why the leave camp have such a hard time recognising the need for a comprehensive solution to the Northern Ireland conundrum.

None of these issues are particularly difficult to understand, unless of course you are mired in ideological dogma and don't really understand the nature of the single market. It is oft assumed that goods crossing borders is entirely organic and happens largely without government intervention. Except that the intergovernmental process of harmonising standards is what makes it possible to do at a profit the world over.

Without understanding that regulation is the WD40 of cross border trade, the EU's approach to Article 50 talks will always seem alien. It is assumed that if both sides have the political will to open their frontiers to goods without checks then it is simply a matter of dismantling border facilities. Frictionless trade, however, is the product of market integration based on uniform rules. It does not happen by accident.

Over the last three years much of this has been discussed and understood in many corners of the debate and much written here is repetition. None of this, though, ever seems to permeate the Brexit bubble where the realities of modern trade have taken a long vacation. The Brexiters continue to insist that we take back control of our money. laws and borders, but still seem to think this is without consequence and that free and open trade to the extent they imagine is still within the realms of possibility.

Here we have Nu-kip's Claire Fox blethering about sovereignty while utterly failing to appreciate not only the European state of play but also the universe of global regulation and the interconnectedness upon which most modern commerce functions. This is the classic dilemma between sovereignty and free trade that has been central to trade discussion for nearly three decades. As much as it was irreconcilable thirty years ago, as global regulatory systems have matured much has escaped from the realms of politics and drifted into the hands of technocrats.

This would all be far easier to resolve if this drift toward technocracy had no intrinsic value but as it happens we find that business does not want to go through the pain of regulatory upheaval for diminished functionality especially when it leads to larger overheads. This is why anyone serious recognises the need for a comprehensive relationship with the EU.

Had these basic facts of life been acknowledge by the leave movement then these dilemmas would have been anticipated leading to a preferred destination that adequately balances the ambitions of Brexit with the realities. Having failed utterly to understand the issues, making impossible demands based on misapprehension and jingoistic self-delusion, the Brexiter blob have largely written themselves out of the script, while they jeer from the sidelines waving their issue illiterate "solutions" such as the Malthouse Compromise.

Essentially it has all been left for the adults in the room to provide the direction and substance where the UK government has tried and failed to reconcile the irreconcilable. When the undeliverable and unrealistic is taken off the table, taking into account the UK's self-imposed red lines, the deal on the table is pretty much the only thing left. Naturally Nu-kip throws a tantrum because reality intruded on their fantasies, calling it a betrayal of Brexit.

Having persuaded themselves that no deal is viable, continuing to work from a position of supreme ignorance they will use all at their disposal to push us over that cliff. The problem, though, is that none of these realities go away and one way or another there has to be formal arrangements between the UK and the EU and with the EU being the economic and trade superpower, it will call the shots.

Eventually the penny will drop. The Brexiters will not know what hit them. If we leave without a deal we are looking at a major hit to exports and a major humiliation a we sign virtually any deal to get our trade back on track. This is precisely where we did not want to be but is ultimately the destination for this enterprise when the Brexit blob have a strictly enforced policy of maintaining its own ignorance.

This is why this leaver is largely resigned to supporting May's deal. Suboptimal though it may be, it can be revisited down the line and it at least breaks us out of this present deadlock. That the deal has been mangled to this extent, placing obligations on the UK that Brexiters find unacceptable is ultimately the consequence of Brexiters failing to anticipate these events  - which they could have were they willing to face the facts.

Brexiters will say that the deal looks the way it does because we have an establishment that doesn't want to leave the EU. That may well be a factor, but ultimately this has been an exercise in damage limitation seeking to tick the Brexit boxes while doing whatever can be done to preserve our existing trade.

This may infuriate Brexiters but this is done in the absence of a credible vision and an alternative destination. Uncoupling from the single market is no small undertaking and something that should only be done where we can identify alternative mitigating avenues. Given the general rule of regulatory gravity the options are few and nothing in the Brexiter cupboard comes anywhere close to replacing a lucrative £270bn a year regulatory relationship.

The bluster and bluff of Farage and Co may well be sufficient to sweep the boards in euro-elections which are little more than an opinion poll on domestic politics but it is not a serious proposal for the future of a leading world economy.

It is right to say that the mandate of 2016 must be upheld but the Brexit blob are not the sole arbiters of what constitutes the One True Brexit and having little more than a ragbag of flimsy theories to go on, most of which they themselves did not originate, they have no right to be taken seriously. Not at any point have they constructively engaged in the process or done that which is necessary to deserve a place in the debate.

There are, of course, answers to these complex questions, many of them outlined on this blog, but often it means coming to terms with some uncomfortable truths about our predicament. Something the Brexit blob is unwilling to do. They've decided that Brexit is something they alone own, excluding alternative voices and choosing to remain ignorant. Since they control the Brexit narrative I find myself more a detractor than supporter, right about the time when the leave movement ought to be doing all it can to hang on to the slim mandfate it had. If Brexit is stolen from them, they alone must bear the responsibility.

Friday, 26 April 2019

March of the noisemakers

I don't have much to say about the euro-elections. I don't see it as terribly important. If we are leaving the EU then it's just a proxy opinion poll and if not then we have a pack of grunting Faragists with their nose in the trough as usual, producing nothing and wasting everyone's time.

Of the remain efforts that I can see, it's split between Lib Dems, the Change UK group and the Greens, and they can't seem to organise a coherent platform. They're pretty much self-ridiculing archetypal remainers and I can't see them making any difference at all. The whole thing is a sideshow. The central issue is how and when we leave the EU and that decision is ultimately a Westminster concern.

Here we have to zoom out and remind ourselves of the facts. There is a deal on the table and parliament doesn't want it. Brussels says the deal is non-amendable and there is every reason to believe them. They don't want to risk unravelling the whole thing and certainly wouldn't consider renegotiation without a coherent plan from the UK with the full backing of parliament. Such a proposal would have to respect the EU's territorial integrity so the options are limited. It is unlikely that any renegotiation would produce different results given the nature of the technical concerns. In other words, parliament can either like it or lump it.

If parliament persists in rejecting the deal then it comes down to one of two options. Revoke or leave without a deal. Parliament has thus far sought to rule out no deal but no deal remains the legal default. If it then comes to crunch point, with little possibility of extending, a decision has to be made.

This prompts questions as to whether parliament could exert its own authority to revoke Article 50. Generally it is assumed that it lacks that power, but these are strange times indeed and with the government enjoying a wafer thin majority anything could happen.

Leaving aside the fallout of such a decision, I'm now somewhat ambivalent. If Article 50 is revoked it will be as an emergency measure to avoid no deal and MPs taking the view that it cannot be allowed is a respectable position. Leave won by a narrow margin with a false prospectus and no plan, Brexiters don't want the treaty that formally takes us out of the EU and at no time during the proceedings have the ever ventured constructive alternatives that take reality into account.

We now know a good deal about the effects of no deal and even long before the referendum The Leave Alliance said that no responsible government should allow it. It's too damaging. Brexiters have hypnotised themselves in to a state of complacency using the EU's stated unilateral contingency measures as evidence that trade will function as normal. We should not humour them.

If you have grasped anything at all about the functioning of EU trade then it should be that there is considerably more to it than tariffs and regulatory harmonisation. There is a universe of peripheral instruments that facilitate commerce and trade, and contingency measures don't come anywhere close to resolving the multiplicity of problems. Brexiters have dismissed these issues as "project fear" quite successfully by ridiculing media reports which have either trivialised or misrepresented the issues or simply not understood them.

We are then left to triangulate with our best guesses. It won't be the day one armageddon as predicted by many but it would leave us with a decades worth of legacy problems which may never be fully resolved. The question, therefore, is whether our own contingency actions are sufficient. Which they aren't. The rollover of existing trade deals is a long and complex process and without any transition and with massively inferior trade relations with the single market, we are looking at full renegotiation of third party deals rather than technical rollovers.

Brexiters are generally cavalier about this. What they all share in common is a deeply flawed understanding of international trade and rely on a narrow set of agenda driven prestige sources who are manipulating the debate for their own ends. Realists, however, see this as a serious concern which will have unknowable secondary effects rippling out in ways that are impossible to anticipate. It then relies on the public and the private sector to adapt, but with only limited information from the government and no real idea when we expect to see anything like normality.

Being that the Brexiteers repeatedly assert that devices such as WTO Article 24 can act as a substitute for a formal trade agreement and that unilateral regulatory alignment can mitigate some of the issues, we can say in all fairness that the Brexiters pushing for no deal simply do not have the first concept of what they are talking about.

Were it that no deal were the central proposition during the referendum - which it demonstrably wasn't, we could fairly say that MPs were being obstructive simply because they do not like the result. But that is not the case. The Brexiteers have shifted the goalposts and manipulated the narrative so that it has (only in recent times) evolved to become The One True Brexit. This is the power of propaganda.

So here Brexiters are demanding of MPs that they simply roll over and suspend all of their concerns to clear the way for a Tory right inspired economic experiment that no serious trade professional thinks is viable - a theory which frequently asserts things that are counter to every known and commonly understood trade reality.

If I were a Brexit agnostic or a remainer, I certainly wouldn't roll over because what they want does not translate into trade gains and in fact exacerbates many of the complaints oft recited by lexiters. Why the left wing Brexiters have subscribed int totality to Tory free trade dogma escapes me completely. Probably, again, successful propaganda at work.

As a backup tactic, now that most of the crackpot trade theories and central claims made by Vote Leave are exposed, the Brexiters can fall back on the "betrayal" narrative, making this a more fundamental constitutional issue rather than the mundane act of extricating ourselves from the EU. It's powerful and persuasive rhetoric. Or at least it would be were they not accusing anyone of constructively engaging in the process of being a saboteur.

But then the Brexiter are right here. Stopping no deal and thereby stopping Brexit does deliver a constitutional crisis. Remaining in the EU certainly isn't the end of it. But then one can just as easily argue that if MPs have successfully thwarted a plot by the economic far right to take control of trade policy without it ever appearing in a manifesto while masquerading as democrats, then arguably they have done what is necessary in defence of the nation.

If that happens then Brexiters will indeed feel cheated but the ones most responsible are the ERG types who hijacked the Brexit mandate to chase "fwee twade" rainbows - and though my preference is to leave the EU I shall have very little sympathy. The bloviating Brexit blob now forming the new Brexit party appear to be media bubble pundits and activists like Claire Fox, none of whom have livelihoods depending on EU regulatory mechanisms. They are quite nicely insulated from that which they advocate.

Were we to revoke Article 50 then we would essentially have rewound the clock to 2014 when Ukip swept the boards at the Euro elections and was able to put existential pressure on the Tories. The Brexit movement would then spend some time in opposition to either become the replacement Tory party of external pressure to the point of them becoming a Brexit party. That is largely dependent on them securing the trust of leave voters after the fact which doesn't seem likely.

One way or another, we'd be back where we started either looking to elect a Brexit party with leave as a manifesto commitment or facing a referendum to end the uncertainty. If then the UK is still on an exit trajectory then we will go through this all over again. If not, the issue goes into dormancy until the next EU treaty process.

If Brexit is somehow defeated and then put to bed by a referendum that leavers lose, it won't be Brexit per se that will have been defeated, rather it will be the establishment putting down a revolutionary coup with pseudo democratic methods. It would still leave the "left behind" largely without a vice and with nothing politically resolved while the establishment gets worse. One can almost respect the no deal point of view that simply says we need to get it over and done with.

But with bilateral relations being a continuum, a no deal Brexit is far from the end of it. It won't be too long before we are grovelling to Brussels in need of a deal - and then we go through the mill once more where the condustions will be much the same as they are now, ie the Withdrawal Agreement.

If politics were functioning as it should this would now be fully understood and the futility of either extreme of the debate would become apparent. Being that politics has failed us, not least due to the failure of the media, one side has to win out and we must pick up the pieces when their certainties fall apart. Being though, that revoking Article 50 gives the economy a stay of execution, and with the arguments of Brexiters being so threadbare, you cannot be at all surprised if the leavers lose their prize. It will be a failure of their own making.

Now that Article 50 has been extended we are once again kicking the can down the road where if you ignore the soap opera and the noise created by the euro elections, we are still in the same old limbo. There is talk of reaching a new consensus on a way forward but to a large extend it is no longer within the gift of parliament. Like most things in life, if you do not make a choice then the choice will be made for you by circumstance. We have squandered every window to shape the process and now we are left with an unpalatable deal or a decade of political turmoil either way. MPs may not like the choice they have in front of them, but it looks like May's deal is the only to escape this toxic feedback loop. They have until October to realise this. Until then, the turf belongs to the noisemakers.