Thursday 11 October 2018

None so blind as James O'Brien.

I am generally regarded as someone with a lot to say. Except for when I have anything to say. Which is right about now. For what is creeping up on three weeks now, I've been in a zen like mute state where not a single situational thought has crossed a synapse. I feel quite guilty about it because I am supposedly a dedicated blogger but these mute states are part of my make up. Every now and then I simply observe.

As it happens I shouldn't be feeling at all guilty. If you watch the above clip from James O'Brien, he gives an adequate sketch of the state of play. Anything could could happen, nobody knows what is going on and everything is contingent on political imponderables with no one faction having the numbers to call it.

The only real development is that the Ultras have pivoted to a Canada style FTA from their previous full steam for no deal campaign. I think their fox has been shot and it is now generally accepted as fact that no deal is a very bad thing and attracts the support of only cranks, bigots and liars. I think it's safe to say that the tide is going out on the Ultras. The only way they are going to get their way is if Brexit talks collapse entirely.

There is still a lot to be said in respect of Brexit. The big questions as to what comes next have yet to be answer, but there is much we do not know about our starting point which makes such discussions especially difficult. Especially where trade is concerned and especially if we end up in a customs union. The debate is very much on pause until we know what is happening.

Hitherto now I would check the Brexit hashtag on Twitter religiously but of late that has become saturated with tedious manufactured "people's vote" fodder and yet more irrelevances from z-list celebrities. Remainers certainly haven't learned a thing from their 2016 defeat.

Meanwhile it's a poor old show if you are a remainer in that the window for another referendum is closing fast and the slender chance that there was ever going to be one is vanishing. They are also staring at an obsolescence of argument.

For a while it was just a few of us sounding the alarm over no deal for many months with the media failing to grasp the seriousness and urgency. Eventually though, the message did get through. Remain campaigners are now reasonably well versed in the issues and are all keyed up for having a debate that is pretty much settled except among the lunatic fringe of the leave movement. They have all the ammunition they could want for rehashing old arguments but it's a lot more difficult to engage in respect of what a deal could actually look like.

There is something of a more dishonest game going on, though, in which remainers share some of the responsibility. James O'Brien, for instance makes hay over the current chaos even though he is in a powerful position to remedy it. His audience is not insubstantial yet nowhere do we hear him using that platform to advance the EEA option. It would not suit his remain agenda to admit that there was indeed a viable way forward.

This is the recurrent lie by omission that has plagued the debate from the early stages. The option has considerable support and there is a widespread expert consensus that it is viable and it is an outcome that non-obsessive remain bores could live with. Moderates can support it yet it still delivers on the 2016 vote and it achieves most of what sane Brexiters wanted while preserving much of what remainers claim to value. It also has the merit of being more likely than remaining int he EU.

Yet, for all of that, O'Brien still uses his platform to preach the gospel that there is no alternative to the EU. Anything that isn't the status quo is simply dead space to the likes of O'Brien. His perceptions cannot extend further. The man claims to be a seeker of clarity yet continues to no-platform options that could deliver the UK from a disaster.

What's more, the EEA is actually the most sensible option for both sides of the divide. Britain has never been an enthusiast of the le grand project. Even Ivan Rogers noted that there was a certain inevitability to Brexit the moment it be came clear that we were never going to join the Euro. Now the inevitable has happened.

Though the UK has a number of opt outs and as close to a tailored EU status as you can get without actually leaving remaining makes little sense for the UK. Arguably that which can and probably should be integrated successfully has already been integrated but there comes a point where the integration of technical governance is pushed for its own sake for no practical purpose.

For the mainland which shares a number systems, roads and watercourses, transboundary integration is sensible and desirable. The UK, though, does not share a land border with central EU and there is no value in further integrating which can only serve to widen the distance between the public and the decisions made in their name.

We are nearly all agreed that there is something about British politics that no longer functions and to a large extent that is to do with the shift in the culture of governance over the last two decades - which is very much a consequence of EU managerialism - bureaucratising civic administration to the point of absurdity and demolishing local democracy in the process. The dead hand of Europe is often obscured from view.

Here Brexit marks an opportunity as central government is tied up with things that should concern central governments. For the first time in a very long time I am hearing debates about the shape of our trade and agriculture policy. Energy will be next. All of these things be open to innovation once freed of the EU.

Much of what is described as "neoliberalism" or crony capitalism is a consequence of EU measures governing market structures on everything from the national grid to government procurement. The gradual transformation of local councils into grasping corporate scale monstrosities and EU membership is no coincidence.

Though the EEA does not completely free us from these such controls and restraints it puts us in a better position to diverge in the future. Just the move from the EU to EEA draws a line in the sand. This far and (not much) further. It's an entirely pragmatic thing to do and one which better allows the UK to utilise its considerable administrative talents to pursue its wider international goals - as indeed Norway does - a global leader in energy, aquaculture and maritime regulatory affairs.

James O'Brien scoffs at the notion of taking back control but the EU is a gateway to the privatisation of regulation. Being that the EU is not equipped technically or intellectually without massive expansion of designing its own standards it will often passively adopt agreed standards and codify them into law with minimal scrutiny. As the EU builds up ever more intellectual property legislation - largely favouring multinationals we will public law cleaved off to become private property. We are halfway there already. Standards are not free to access and use commercially.

Though regulation is increasingly for the facilitation of trade and to create larger markets, national regulation is also design with protecting the public good - balancing the externalities of commerce with the freedoms of the individual. The more remote the decison-making the less likely it is to respond to public inputs. this is especially so of global regulation and especially true for EU member states whose own influence within the EU is subordinate to the agenda of the Commission.

The consequence of this centralisation being globally harmonised regulations - which may well be sensible for vehicle safety but not so for those things that can and should be decided locally for the benefit of communities. With the EU there is no line of delineation and everything is up for grabs and is subsequently a tradeable rule in the international domain.

In recent days and weeks we have seen a number of flaps in regard to things said by Fox and Gove in respect of relaxing rules. That uproar, though not always rational, is real democracy at work. There is a connection between what the public is alarmed at (because the alarm is raised) and what politicians then have the scope to do. This dynamic does not exist in the EU precisely because it is a remote technocracy that bores the media. It can therefore get away with mass murder.

Free of the EU the UK is able to defend its own interests internationally in ways it cannot as an EU member, but it can also devolve powers in a meaningful way where local authorities are genuinely free to innovate on everything from water to bin collections.

The one benefit of Brexit so far is that we are seeing unprecedented engagement in issues normally regarded as too boring to even think about. Normally our politics is perpetually deadlocked in bickering over the NHS, schools and social care - much of which ought to be entirely locally managed. Meanwhile the real business of government carries on in Brussels unremarked with no alarms raised until it's too late. This is how we ended up with abortive copyright laws.

Britain must maintain a close relationship with the EU because we are part of the European family of nations and barring a seismic geographic event, that much is not going to change - nor are the basic rules of trade. The internet may well distort the rules according to the sector but in terms of regular trade flows, the EU is going to be our largest single customer. It therefore stands to reason that we need the most advanced trade relationship available. The EEA.

It has already become apparent that the well meaning and encouraging rhetoric from US diplomats do match the USA's aggressive trade tactics and is proving to be no ally of the UK in the WTO. The creative writings of the Institute for Economic Affairs do not make the realities of international trade disappear and the sovereignty ambitions of Ukipper wingnuts are not realisable anywhere on the planet. We have to face these basic truths. That, though, does not mean the UK cannot function as an independent country.

There is an opportunity here to reform "Europe" in ways we never could as members. By moving into Efta, thereby making it the fourth largest trade bloc, Efta can serve as a counterwieght to the EU not least by forging sectoral alliances of it s own in the international regulatory forums Very often it is market penetration and sectoral expertise that sets the agenda rather than domestic market size. A point often lost on remainers.

Being that the EU, through the implementation of the WTO agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, agrees to implement international standards and conventions, increasingly Geneva is becoming the centre of the regulatory universe, not least with China converging on UNECE standards, regulations and classifications. Already Efta makes its voice heard and there is every reason to believe this would be enhanced by the accession of the UK. The notion that Norway has "no say in the rules" is a grotesque distortion of the facts.

The EU is only a "better deal" (as James O'Brien puts it) if your only real concern is going back into the perpetual slumber of EU membership where governments may continue to shed their obligations and responsibilities to an offshore entity that might as well work in secret for all that anybody pays attention to what it does. It dispenses with the messy and often chaotic excesses of democracy and allows radio presenters to revert to empty chatter about billboards on the underground. We can return to our inward-looking normative state and let the grey men of Brussels attend to the details.

That, though, marks the death of local and national democracy where democracy is reduced to voting rituals to decide which quarterwit social climber is going to stick their noses into our business and tell us what we can eat, think and say while Britain slides into international obscurity and erased by the EU as an independent actor.

These are the sorts of conversations we could be having about the nature of our future trade and how we cut away the dead hand of Brussels to revitalise our democracy. Instead though the debate is sharply divided between two camps each offering unrealistic and undesirable visions, none of which could ever satisfy a majority. Meanwhile the EEA option sits there like a bad pierogi on the plate. Afraid to be touched by anyone.

Remainers are all too happy in their comfortable little groove blethering on about the dangers of no deal - equating no deal consequences with Brexit as a whole. That cottage industry is turning into a nice little earner for some and O'Brien will lavish endless air time on anyone who knows which form to fill in to send a widget to Switzerland. It's all grist to the mill for the remain-o-trons. What they can't admit to is that there is a realisable Brexit that need not be a hammer blow to jobs and British trade and one that renders most of their concerns inert. Even if it means letting the Ultras win.

The sad part is that were there any public pragmatists willing to engage in these such issues they could very easily take ownership of Brexit away from the mad hatters and force Theresa May down a more intelligent path. Instead the remainers waste their time and vast sums of money on the cul-de-sac of an ill-defined second referendum campaign. All for the wont of failing to accept that Britain has voted to leave the EU - and was always going to one way or another.

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