Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bicycle shed syndrome

Today the Brexit negotiations focus on the legal draft of the withdrawal agreement whereupon there is some consternation over the shape of the settlement for Northern Ireland. Firstly we must note that this only comes into force in absentia of a trade agreement to be concluded after formal exit. It is a backstop clause.

The disagreement stems from the EU effectively retaining NI as part of its customs territory, thereby creating a sea border in the event of no deal, whereupon we would find ourselves compelled to broadly align with the EU even without a formal agreement.

This has been described as an attempt to annexe Northern Ireland. It isn't. It is protecting its own territorial and systems integrity by laying down the conditions required for it to relax border controls on its frontier. It will use means most convenient to the EU in the absence of a coherent proposal.

You may not like that fact and you may not like those conditions but the UK is the one petitioning for an unprecedented exemption and having failed to produce a deliverable strategy the EU is sticking to its own legal defaults. These are May's chickens coming home to roost.

May has already said she will not agree to this proposal in which case, without an alternative, we are back to the default assumption that no deal necessarily means a hard border in Ireland.

Given that a future trade agreement is a near certainty should the withdrawal agreement be concluded, this is something of a red herring but it should be noted that this precise dilemma will resurface during those trade talks whereupon we will once again see demands for a whole UK solution which does not compromise the territorial integrity of the UK.

As to what form this takes, there is really only one answer and that is full conformity to the EEA acquis on goods, which for now the EU is saying would amount to cherrypicking - so it really looks on the face of it that the entire single market aqcuis will have to apply, leaving only the question of what institutions with service the relationship, be it Efta or some other instrument.

The fastest way to resolve the current impasse would simply be to trust that a trade agreement will follow the withdrawal agreement and delete the backstop proposal entirely. That though, would not fly politically. The UK will probably have to accept it with a few tweaks here and there. In other words, a fudge. Barnier has already said "We will delete the 'backstop' if an agreement is made and it becomes unnecessary". It's barely worth the energy invested in it. Bicycle shed syndrome as usual.

Monday, 26 February 2018

A cacophony of noise

A speech today by Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit could be viewed as pivotal. By whom and for what reason I do not know since it is actually of zero importance. Labour has doubled down on cementing the notion that a customs union is in some way a solution to anything, offering us a mixed bag on intangibles all of which have previously been dismissed by Brussels and by the end of the week will be formally rejected. We are nowhere.

Though this should be a gift to the government, the Tories fare little better and labour under equally twisted misapprehensions. Though I have in recent months expended some considerable effort in attempting to correct the respective narratives, the national broadcaster has seen fit to misinform its audience thus ensuring there is no chance of coherence anywhere in the public domain. The BBC conflates product standard checks (the single market) with the customs union and equates the single market with immigration and nothing else.

We are, therefore, in a position where neither party knows what it wants or how to get it and continues to act in abstract to what has been said by Barnier and various other EU functionaries. Being that the clock is ticking it now looks like it will be Brussels deciding for us on the basis of our stated red lines and we will be given a deal to sign with little room for manoeuvre.

What is easily forgotten is that we have not as yet had a reckoning over the sequence of events. The government was skilfully able to gloss over the fact that a trade agreement will not be concluded in the Article 50 process and that realisation has yet to go mainstream. It would appear, though, that we are rapidly approaching the pile of tin cans kicked down the road and a battle royal is imminent.

If there is any positive development it is that there is such incoherence that the noise of the Tory right is temporarily drowned out. With an absolutely atomised debate and with no power blocs in parliament, the uncertainty is preferable to any one group having a decisive influence over events. This means that anything is possible and in the absence of an intelligible way forward the obvious may yet present itself. If I didn't believe there was some hope I would have packed in and moved on by now.

In this I am drawing on my experience as an amateur music producer. With all the tools now available, producing electronic music has never been easier, but to make the commercial grade (something I never quite managed) you have to master the production for maximum punch and volume. To do this you employ a technique called subtractive equalisation. Subtractive EQ is an equalization technique where you cut frequencies instead of boost to let specific sound or sounds to stand out better in the mix.

Typically one might take the low frequencies away from a hi-hat and boost the bass on a kick drum, thus giving the mix space to breathe. Through a time consuming process of deleting the unnecessary noise from the signal you arrive at something that sounds coherent and makes the best use of the frequency spectrum.

The same can be applied to Brexit. Right now the signal is nothing but white noise, but as Brussels removes unnecessary elements, our choices narrow whereupon our options become binary. We either accept what is given with its inevitable sacrifices or we take the default option. Gradually we are boxed in by reality.

Hitherto now, the debate has drifted in isolation of what is said on the continent, while the UK has indulged itself in arguably a necessary internal debate. Being that the debate is going nowhere, Brussels now has to put its foot down and respond officially to what is put forth. From there we delete certain assumptions and see what we are left with. It is then down to the government to choose from what is left.

Being that we can rule out "managed divergence" and a Swiss army knife variant of a customs union (all things to all men) we are left with the inescapable fact that only the EEA acquis solves the Irish border question, reducing the entire Brexit trade question to one of whether we do or do not want a hard border. When that decision is made, everything else will fall into place. Until then, all we have is incoherent noise with the EQ ticking into the red and gradually ruining the speakers.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Brexit: Failure to launch

Today could be viewed as a turning point in Brexit affairs with a formal request, written in bureacratese, to extend the "implementation period" or vassal state status. The Telegraph reports that the Cabinet did not agree to it but for the moment it stands as a Brexit artefact.

Whether or not it survives the next day or so remains to be seen but if somehow Mrs May is forced to retract it then yet again we are kicking the the can down the road. The simple truth of the matter is that two years is not close to enough time to develop and deploy the systems necessary to implement an as yet unknown agreement. There will need to be considerably overlap and the rules of the system will dictate the restraints.

The subtext of this is that we remain a member of the EU in all but name for as long as it takes for the government to get its act together - which will be a number of years by anyone's reckoning. This was, of course, the estimation that underpinned the thinking behind Flexcit which is why the EEA presented itself as the obvious and most expedient road out of the EU. Yep. We told you so.

Instead we are to embark on a bespoke process, mired with complications and unobtainable aspirations which will lead to exactly the sort of long, detailed and protracted trade talks we sought to avoid. There is no possible way to predict the outcome of this. Things are as uncertain as ever they were. The ultras could still derail the process or things could linger on long enough for the opposition to make their move.

Meanwhile we are to be subjected to yet more incoherent noise from what is now the Brexit bubble. Interest in the issue appears to have tailed off whereby even significant turning points in Brexit are greeted with lethargy and despair. Only something seismic and consequential will reawaken wider public interest now. The majority have reverted to routine political discourse with Brexit featuring only as a proxy in the increasingly polarised tribal bickering. If you haven't picked a side and you don't conform to the narrative then you don't exist. Brexit is as uninteresting to them as the latest noise about Corbyn is to me.

As to the the broader picture, there have been moves this week on both sides of the divide to keep the pilot light of public interest alight, but these are largely parasitic London initiatives given their five minutes of fame on Sky News who will shortly vanish into obscurity have had nothing new to say. Nobody is getting any traction simply because an institutional boredom has set in. I discovered this morning that there is a state of Brexit fatigue that even two weeks on the other side of the planet cannot cure. The question is now one of whether any of us will be suitably alert if and when something of consequence does happen and whether any of us will still care.

This is ultimately the failure of the eurosceptic aristocracy. Had they run a successful campaign they would have found ways to unite all the disparate groups under a common banner, able to coordinate their efforts to push forth a coherent agenda for Brexit and beyond. Instead the efforts of the London led campaign (or rather the dregs of it) are so bad that nobody serious could possibly get behind them. The economic case put forth by the leave camp is so flimsy that it's an actual chore to debunk it. Perhaps this is their strategy?

Gone is the momentum from Brexit and the promise of political renewal and revolution. Instead we are to limp through negotiations to accomplish a lame duck Brexit whereupon British politics will turn in on itself as the UK's interests abroad wither and die.

In this I can't help feeling we are watching the end of good government in the UK. With the agenda largely dictated by the television media - which cannot muster a single informed, inquisitive journalist, the debate limps from one misapprehension to the next and back again. The process for gathering and understanding information is no longer there. Gone too are the means of channelling good information into the executive. The government does not know which way to jump, having no read on the public mood.

Then there is the electorate themselves who, when polled, cannot adequately define the concepts about which they are asked. Every poll returns a muddled verdict not least because the pollsters themselves are incapable of asking informed questions. Nobody knows what they want or how to get it. Perhaps the only thing that will bring any coherence to this entire episode is a total collapse of talks.

Later today ministers are said to be meeting at Chequers for a lock-in to determine once and for all what the UK's trade objectives are. With so little institutional knowledge and so many warped ideological agendas and internal resistance there is no possibility the government can get it right. There are too many inherent contradictions and little chance of agreement. All we can expect is yet another vague proposition to be submitted to Brussels whereupon Mr Barnier will go to work on it with a red pen. What we are left with is what we will have to accept. Without a plan and without a credible set of objectives it will be Brussels who decides what Brexit looks like.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Back at the coalface - reflections from Malaysia

For those interested in the reasons from my absence from blogging, I've been away in Malaysia. A working holiday of sorts. Though I've not been able to keep up with blogging I've kept up with events on Twitter and can see that I have missed little. I picked up on yet another tedious and inaccurate debate about the customs union, a Boris Johnson speech (eviscerated within minutes of delivery) and a further ideological entrenchment on the Tory right. Nothing out of the ordinary.

In recent weeks and months it has been hard to maintain the momentum for blogging as the situation remains the same with nothing changing our immediate circumstances. There have been attempts to steer the debate but until Tory delusions are shattered once and for all there will be no new substance to speak of. It seemed as good a time as any to seize the opportunity of a lifetime and get the hell out of Dodge. 

That said, I cannot say that I was off duty. When you have a Brexit education and see virtually everything through the prism of governance, a new place opens up whole new conversations about regulation and standards. They say you can tell a lot about a man from his shoes - and if that is true then you can tell a lot about a country from the state of its drains and its pavements. It gives you an insight into the nature of the regulatory regime and the legal culture. 

Kuala Lumpur is a young city. Most of its development has happened in the last forty years and it has seen rapid growth since the nineties. It's a place where planning and standards as we know them do not exist. Moreover, those that do are applied retroactively as the city attempts good governance after the fact. The city was not built on a foundation of good governance and it shows.

A while back we were exploring the reasons for the Somerset floods where some suggested a contributory factor was run-off from fields causing sediment to choke many of the rhynes and drains. KL experiences the urban equivalent more acutely with topsoil from building developments choking the drains and gutters, combined with years of neglect. This becomes especially evident after a major rainstorm where standing pools of water stay on the roads - leading to floods and road traffic accidents.

It is also evident that there is no concept of common property as private developments encroach on to city property. Concrete vehicle ramps carve up public drainage channels. Pavements are considered parking spaces and civic enforcement is entirely absent. Similarly the governance of taxis is only marginally better than if no system existed at all. 

Once you get a read on the landscape you are then not surprised by what you find in recent news media. With building standards an optional extra we see that residential blocks are built with every corner cut leading to construction accidents and fatal crane and bridge collapses. It would also appear that Grenfell like events are far from uncommon. Fire safety and building standards are an afterthought

What can be said is that Malaysian authorities are at least attempting to grasp many of the issues but the sheer scale of the task of installing good governance is beyond their immediate ability. Too much is happening outside of their authority and is not helped by widespread corruption. We see illegal land clearances, bulldozing rainforest to make way for urban Developments (routinely unsuitable and unfit for purpose) or palm oil plantations, leading to main drainage channels being frequently overwhelmed and causing fatal mudslides.

As you travel out of the city it gradually becomes more derelict where the poor quality of the roads leads to lethal public transport accidents. Buses are frequently overcrowded and overloaded and it only takes one pothole to sent a bus careering into a ditch. 

One might have expected the scenery to improve as one travelled further out but instead it becomes clear that everything takes second place to palm oil plantations - a lucrative but destructive export. Dotted among them are massive ghost towns and unfinished and abandoned towerblocks. 

KL is reputedly a global city but actually it's a sprawling conurbation with low population density. The picture postcard of KL is only really a few blocks with a central business district barely the size of Leeds. Its impressive skyscrapers serve as a distraction from the decay on the street level. Notably the city caters mainly for tourists with nearly every stall selling virtually identical counterfeit goods punctuated by unregulated street vendors

As you can imagine I was the worst possible company for a trip like this, pointing out every flaw while seemingly unmoved by the awesome spectacle the skyline and the sheer excitement of being immersed in an alien culture. Instead of marvelling at the Petronas Towers in the early evening light I was poking at a drain clogged by palm leaves to see how deep the obstruction was. I can now see why my dad was a good environmental health officer and why my mother has been driven to the brink of insanity.

But this is the very essence of politics. This is the "invisible government" which is absolutely essential to the functioning of a first world country and paramount to everything built above it. This is the domain of technical governance over which the EU has extensive influence, clashing with may of our own systems to their detriment

As much as there was an EU dimension to the Grenfell disaster, there are countless other examples where the basics are neglected. As EUreferendum notes, to represent them as "failures" does not do justice to the phenomenon. "What we have seen over term is a slow, insidious degradation of multifarious, often informal systems of government, the nature of which most people are entirely unaware. And because so few people even know of them, or understand why they were there, or what they were there for, they have been allowed to decay to the point where the system no longer works any more".

Now to say that they don't work, when contrasted with Kuala Lumpur may sound like something of a an exaggeration but the Somerset floods (an EU regulated domain) and Grenfell are symptoms of this decline and and if these events happen, freak though they may be for the UK, if they happen at all then the system is not working. 

The contrast being that these systems of governance in Kuala Lumpur are in their infancy with a slow but notable momentum to correct them. The UK, however is starting to regress as a consequence of a warped political culture which has only inherited good governance - built over the generations and built into the physical fabric of society.

Having abnegated responsibility for technical governance to the technocrats who regulate without specialist local knowledge or institutional knowledge of the distinct character of regulation in member states we have taken to automatic adoption of regulatory systems for trade and political goals rather than serving their function in the common good.

Reading around the edges, authorities in Kuala Lumpur are making slow and determined progress on a number of critical issues. Not least food safety and disease control. What is needed first and foremost are massive public education campaigns as to why blocking drains and antisocial parking (among other things) cannot be tolerated, combined with draconian enforcement of the basics. Particularly where building controls are concerned. 

I get the impression this is coming since the population will not tolerate these avoidable disasters forever. On present trajectory, however, it may be that the UK has to get used to the idea that freak accidents like Grenfell will become routine.

If there is one thing clear about Brexit then it is that our political and media culture is not equipped to handle change. It is more or less able to blunder from one crisis to the next taking adequate corrective action when necessary but has acquired an institutional lethargy combined with a lethal disengagement from the tedious minutia it prefers to offshore to Brussels. If you want a justification for Brexit then that is it. Brexit (in part) puts the responsibility and accountability for technical governance where it should be. That they are incapable of handling such responsibility is a consequence of EU membership and we will have to re-learn the art of governance. 

It has been a refreshing contrast to see a country with real world political problems. The lack of these material concerns in the UK is perhaps an indicator of why our own politics is so banal and lacking in substance. That is not to say that we do not have real problems. Our drains and gutters may function within tolerance but many of our problems lie within the structure of government and its relationship with the media. 

That is what is opening up societal divisions leading to a resurgent tribalism where governing in the common good comes second to doling out the rewards of power to their respective voter bases. This is essentially the political dysfunction that underpins Malaysia's decay which is showing signs of worsening. That more than anything explains the state of the drains. 

We are told that Brexit is an expensive distraction from the normal business of government, but when the normal business of government is meddling in trivia - indulging in politics but neglecting policy, it is high time we had a far reaching national conversation about the basics and who is responsible for what. 

I doubt this will be the last time I make reference to my experiences in Malaysia. There is a lot to be said about the UK finding a new role in the world and the recent Oxfam scandal while I was away, encompassing many other NGOs, will bring about a number of questions for the UK about its foreign and aid policy - and this may be the opportunity to open up the debate about how we invest overseas.

If Malaysia is anything to go by then the whole region is in need of development aid and technical assistance to make the leap from being third world derelict places to having modern, habitable, healthy global cities. The UK as an exporter of governance systems, engineering and technology can help their development along while opening up countless opportunities for trade. Even amidst our own dysfunction, Britain still has intellectual assets to export and with civics in our DNA, we still have a lot to teach the world. The far east has proven it can build but has shown little talent for maintaining. 

Some Brexiters see this enterprise as an opportunity to deregulate and reform ourselves in the image of Singapore. There are policies we can certainly emulate but Kuala Lumpur shows us that our wealth and longevity is built on maintaining high standards. There is nothing to be gained by entering a regulatory race to the bottom. 

Our high standards were always our best exports and the reason why British engineering was (and still is) in the major leagues. I am not at all convinced we want to go the way of Singapore, and I won't be convinced until I've had a look at the drains in a Singaporean suburb and seen how well the taxis are regulated. Unregulated markets seem good in theory but not so nice when you experience them on a street level. If you want a cheap knock-off Ted Baker handbag they've got it sussed - but good living and good government takes a whole lot more. 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

An Englishman in Kuala Lumpur

On short notice, not entirely for leisure, I find myself in Malaysia and without reliable internet hence the lack of blogging.

It is a welcome antidote to the tedium of the Brexit debate but at the same time an opportunity to look at the rest of the world through the prism of standards and regulations which will no doubt be a rich seam of blogging upon my return. This dispatch is a little bit random but I will elaborate in future posts why these such observations are highly relevant.

Kuala Lumpur faces a major political battle as it races to licence and regulate street vendors. Aside from the peripheral street level issues their presence poses a headache for public health authorities as they attempt to gauge the scale of the problem. Malaysia has an ineffectual food safety surveillance system which hampers disease control efforts and frequently leads to embargoes on exports.

There are a number of priorities but among them are controlling the reputational damage to tourism in the era of TripAdvisor. A bad headline can lead to a collapse of revenue for an entire season.

Traceability is also a major issue as very often street vendor food is prepared in the home making food poisoning investigations more difficult.

Many assume it's the food and the general conditions of the outlets that lead to food poisoning, however an incident some years ago, leading to over a thousand reported cases of Cholera, was traced to an ice factory and a seaweed jelly distributor in Penang. Consequently street vendors are advised not to put ice in drinks.

When the top concern for the UN is presently antimicrobial resistance stopping antibiotics from working, disease prevention runs deep into UN sustainable development goals which requires systemic reform to food hygiene and city infrastructure.

Street vendors, however, are none too cooperative and prohibition attempts have proven impossible. Kuala Lumpur has instead embarked upon a regime of registration and training along with better public information but it's fighting a losing battle, not least since they are part of the attraction for more adventurous tourists.

It should also be noted that street vendors should not be unjustly targeted since school kitchens are routinely responsible for food poisoning with just one kitchen responsible for an outbreak of e.coli affecting nine hundred students.

Throughout Kuala Lumpur it is clear that street food is a major part of the culture and is intensely political. Its very existence is at odds with a number of public health goals where once again we see a conflict between necessary technocracy over democracy, where well meaning authorities with science based long term aims for sustainability are met with objections from ordinary people just trying to make a living with the little they have. It's not just a debate confined to the ever dismal Brexit bickering.