Friday, 27 April 2018

Respecting the vote

There are plenty of fringe arguments about the conduct of the referendum about who lied and who spent what. That debate will go on until the end of time or until nobody cares. The fact of the matter is that there was a free vote and more people voted to leave than remain. That remains a political artefact. The general sentiment is that Britain should take back control.

That is actually a difficult thing to reconcile in a world full of rules and conventions developed over the last seventy years. It is not, however, impossible. You might think it was from all the fuss made by remainers but the fact is that there are those who have the independence we seek and they fiercely defend it.

Central to this is deciding who and what comes into the country and what terms. It need not be restated that trade deals come with come compromise on control, but the key concern is where the authority lies. As members of the EU we not only cede control but also authority. That is what is intolerable.

Though Norway and Switzerland have both ceded a great deal of control, outside of the treaty system they are at liberty to refuse if in the balance of trade-offs they view a measure to be intolerable. The decision making rests with the people - especially so for Switzerland with its consultative direct democracy.

We are told that Switzerland's relationship is mired with robust disagreement with the EU as though that is a bad thing. That to me is precisely how it should be instead of having a supine administration which allows the automatic adoption of rules. That democratic firewall is what the UK lacks.

Now that we are leaving we can expect a similarly frosty relationship where we will see far more scrutiny of EU affairs than we ever did as members. For the first time our media will be attuned to reporting on these such issues and will serve as an early warning system.

I also expect that we will see far more public engagement on trade issues. As a subject matter it barely features in the UK debate. There were some mutterings about TTIP but few could tell you what it actually was and even less about the ISDS system. Brexit has been a major national education.

This does seem to be a peculiarly British attitude though. We have never properly engaged with trade as a topic under EU rule. It has largely gone under the radar with virtually zero civil society engagement. This is not true of Germany where several development organisations have appealed to the new federal government to suspend the forcible opening of African markets through the European Union's economic partnership agreements with Africa.

Long have I objected to the EU's murderous trade policy but as an issue in the UK it gets little traction even among our NGOs who are supposed to care about such things. Unlike continental NGOs we find ours to be a hive of virtue signalling europhillia - an ecosystem for social climbers and the do-gooder set. They who cannot make the distinction between intent and outcome. 

This to me is part of the problem which only Brexit can bring remedy to. Very often in our foreign affairs it is difficult to see where Oxfam ends and DfID begins. We have an unaccountable monster coiled around the throat of Whitehall and extending all the way to Brussels. With so little public scrutiny and political scrutiny largely coming from crank organisations like the IEA, they are free to come and go as they please. Worse still are MPs who genuinely don't see a problem. 

For the better part of three decades our NGOcracy, acting in the service of Brussels, has been calling the shots on anything from agriculture to energy policy - and with MPs ever keen to display their right-on credentials they can often be found supporting these same organisations - even when their aid workers are found balls deep in a Haitian rent boy. 

The politics of Brexit has forced the government to rethink both trade and aid, where aid can no longer be a do-gooder slush fund to reinforce our collective self-image. That should hopefully put the likes of Oxfam out on their ears.

What we can also expect is for trade to become highly politicised. We have already been bored to tears with talk of chlorine washed poultry, fluoridated ocelot and steroid laced pork. These are the sorts of consumer issues that will reinvigorate lobbying, particularly by the agriculture sector which is so poorly served by the NFU.

We can also expect to see consumer groups sharpening their elbows and once again the left might start taking an interest in the consequences of trade - as they once did. We might then see moves to demand referendums on all comprehensive trade agreements. If ever there was a process that needed democratisation then it is trade. 

The simple fact is that the EU has never been a central consideration in our politics and we pay little attention to it. We barely turn out at Euro-elections and we have next to no idea who is in charge of the EU or how it even works. Genuine civil society engagement is virtually non-existent. Consequently we have no business being in the EU because any competences delegated to the EU cease to exist altogether so far as our domestic politics is concerned. this is how we became so self-absorbed and insular.

Trade as a discipline has increasingly become the domain of nerds and technocrats, who have a vested interest in depoliticising it, building up a firewall of impenetrable nomenclature deliberately to exclude it from wider scrutiny. This is the source of my current irritation. We seem to have forgotten that trade is politics - where even marginal tinkering with standards has major ramifications for UK industry. 

We are often told that Brexit was a populist revolt against experts - and indeed it is. Wonderfully so. A healthy democracy depends on questioning authority and examining the motives of experts. Very often we find our expert class is financially dependent on the EU or shares the EU's general view that the plebs are a nuisance who continually frustrate their noble goals.

What we find is that technocrat and politician alike are in thrall to what Catherine Colebrook, writing in The Guardian, calls "The cult of GDP" as discussed many times on this blog and wonderfully illustrated by MP Chris Leslie here...

We haven't even entered a recession and we are talking about 0.1% of GDP - which by the technocrat's estimation is enough to jettison all other concerns about sovereignty, identity, democracy and accountability. Colebrook describes the total inadequacy of GDP as a metric in that it doesn't really tell us what is happening in the wider economy and whether policies are working. This may be news to economists but it is not news to leave voters in Stoke on Trent.

Not by any measure would I deny the impact of Brexit, and though economists are often completely wrong, voluntarily excluding ourselves from a number of lucrative markets is sure to have a negative impact on business but voters have been warned and decided to take a punt - taking into account all the voluminous warnings of the referendum campaign.

Were this solely an economic argument then I have no doubts that remain would have won hands down - but just about every voter is acutely aware that British politics is in terminal decline and without a surge in political engagement we are not likely to revive it. That is why Brexit is the cure. Without a radical shake up then our economic future is entirely in the hands of Brussels - out of sight and out of mind. That is dangerous.

As the EU enters a new phase we can't be far away from moves to bring about a single market in services - removing the technical barriers. Very often these are local issues or complications brought about by differences in culture and language. Erasing those barriers will likely prove invasive and asymmetrical - and without an engaged electorate we will simply allow it to be done to us. Yet again the public will be viewed as mere collateral damage in bringing about the wet dream of eurocrats.

Having left the EU the process of further trade liberalisation will be a political battle. Each legislative act we adopt will be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny. Never again will the European Scrutiny Committee be a toothless talking shop for the mouth-foamers of the Tory right. It will be expected to do its job.

Hither to now our political battles over Europe only ever arise when there is a treaty on the horizon. Our government rams through the treaties granting ever more authority to the EU and that then opens the door for yet more automatic adoption of diktat. Those days are over.

This is why the battle over the Customs Union is pivotal. As much as it is totally unnecessary for the facilitation of moving goods around it speaks to the fundamental sentiment behind the referendum. Remaining in a customs union would mean the EU retains authority over a core aspect of trade and consequently foreign policy - with even less input than previously. By no measure is this acceptable. Voters were clear that they placed values over GDP. MPs would be unwise to second guess us.  

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