Thursday, 13 December 2018

Braindead Brendan strikes again

I wish I didn't know a damn thing about trade and international relations. If I knew absolutely nothing about how the world works behind the scenes I could churn out issue illiterate toss just like Brendan O'Neill. I would be a lot more popular. That is not to say he doesn't serve a function. If ever I need to know what morons are thinking I can always consult Spiked Online which appears to be doubling as the National Database of Stupid Opinions.
May survives because the Conservative Party lives in dread of what might happen post-May. It is not faith in May that drives them; it is fear of life after May, of the debates and tensions that would ensue and the decisions that would have to be made. This is a party opting for stasis over a shake-up; for bad, uninspiring leadership over change; for the safe, deadening rule of the technocratic May over the political endeavour of choosing a new leader and a new direction. It is telling that May played precisely on those fears in her address outside Downing Street earlier today. Ousting her would be a ‘risk’, she said, and would unleash ‘uncertainty’. She knows her party. She knows its cowardice. She fed off her MPs’ preference for the semi-stability of an indecisive PM over the unpredictability of having to think and act to change things.
Superficially it checks out which is what makes O'Neill such a successful populist, but when you inject a dose of Planet Earth it starts to fall apart. Here you have to look at the pieces on the board. On the one hand you have a pack of foaming remainers who would undo Brexit in a heartbeat - unleashing a chaos of its own - or she could turn the whole show over to her lunatic backbenchers.

O'Neill is absolutely right. It is a dread of what would happen next. Had May lost, none of the alternate options are good. No doubt the oaf Johnson would throw his hat in the ring, which is presumably why he has a haircut last week, or one of the ERG brigade which isn't a very good idea. The problem though, says O'Neill, is this:
"at precisely a time when Britain needs courageous, ideal-driven politicians, we have cowardly technocratic ones. In the wake of a mass democratic vote that requires confident leaders to see it though, we have leaders who rule by default and compromise on command. It is hard to remember a time when the disparity between the public’s political energy and the political class’s moral lethargy has been so pronounced. We vote for radical political and national change and they can’t even even bring themselves to change party leader. The political elite is not up to the momentous task of Brexit".
It's hard to dispute that our elites are not up to the task of Brexit and the deal on the table is indeed a cynical piece of triangulation but ideal-driven politicians in this context are even worse. We have no shortage of MPs who bleat the usual platitudes about sovereignty who would pull the plug on Brexit talks and happily sever all formal relations with the EU.

However confidently and courageously they do it, they still have to reconcile the fact that our nearest and largest trade partner still exists and still wields power as a regulatory superpower. Trade and international cooperation is all about rules and the UK still has to find its way in the world as a mid ranking trade power.

The crucial difference between May and the ERG loons is that Mrs May is actually tasked with doing the job. Some months ago she gave a speech to the world outlining how we would be leaving the single market and the customs union. That was principled and sincere. She then bumped into the reality that the EU does not do equivalence deals on regulation in order to keep lorries rolling.

She then bumps into the Northern Ireland conundrum where we find that the EU will not relax its frontier controls without a number of assurances. She then realises that regulatory harmonisation is the WD40 of modern commerce. It becomes abundantly clear that that there are compromises to be made and difficult dilemmas.

She has to keep in mind that irrespective of our decision to leave the EU, we are dependent on food imports and we need to maintain our exports in goods and services and if we want to pay for the functioning of government then we need a trade deal. We can be as bold and courageous as we like but that fact does not go away.

It's all very well saying we will take control of our fish but unless the EU has approved our fisheries plan on sustainability grounds there's nothing at all that compels them to allow the sale of UK fish in their market. So what practical application does that sovereignty have? No point taking fish out of the sea if nobody gets to buy them.

O'Neill, though, does not recognise this reality - much like the ERG brigade. His is a world where the tiers of intricate controls to keep out disease, pollution and adulterated food simply happen by accident. Inside that belief is the further belief that the EU can and will make one off exceptions for the UK so the UK can do as it pleases. Bold and imaginative it may be. Realistic it is not.

It;s one thing to have bold ambitions - and Brexit certainly is that - but without a plan and a clue as to how to get there then it's just a pipedream. Moreover, if you're going to do something upon which the international standing of the country rest on for the next half century, it's a pretty good idea to check if those ambitions are realistic and deliverable. This they have not done.

What our Tory Brexiters have in mind is a unilateral free trade agenda to make us a Singapore on Thames. It sounds rather attractive on paper, but this is all based on the suppositions of Tory think tankers who, up until 2016, had no earthly concept of non-tariff barriers. Suddenly we are to believe they are trade experts and such piffling details are minutia and not the primary preoccupation of the entire trade discipline.

We may well have voted for radical change but not all radical change is good. Driving a bulldozer through my house would be a radical change but there isn't much to recommend it. There is nothing at all that gives credence to the crackpot theories of the Tory right and no responsible government should even contemplate them.

What's more is that we are dealing with a singular dishonesty here. When we factor in all the complications and dilemmas, the choices become far less attractive and difficult to reconcile with the sentiment of 2016. Anyone approaching this with any honesty finds themselves deeply conflicted. I know I do. O'Neill's solution is to join in with the liars and pretend that none of it exists and is merely an invention of bureaucrats looking to justify their existence.

Worse still, there is not a lot else Mrs May could have done for the simple reason that O'Neill and his acolytes would call any deal BRINO and cry betrayal without once acknowledging the constraints of our predicament. You cannot expect an honest Prime Minister when the Brexiters themselves are playing a dishonest game.

When you play this game it is easy to denounce politicians as unimaginative treacherous technocrats but the reality is that Mrs May is taking it seriously while the Brexiters are not. I think she has been badly advised and made avoidable mistakes but this is as much to do with having the ERG breathing down her neck threatening to topple her if she attempts a workable compromise.

The further dishonesty is the repeated assertion that the narrowly won 2016 referendum was a mandate for the most extreme Brexit possible. Here O'Neill plays the classic Brexit blob card that any Brexit that isn't self-immolation is just not Brexit. Who the hell does he think he is? Not he or any of his office juniors speak for me.

I'm not enthused by Theresa May or the deal on the table. It depresses the hell out of me to think that this is the best we can accomplish but having ruled out all of the viable alternatives this is what we are lumbered with. O'Neill's clan have called Efta a BRINO, toadied up to the IEA and the Civitas and taken the Koch brothers shilling. Spiked has never shown the remotest interest in getting the best deal for Britain - instead preferring to sing their populist marching songs about the establishment elites.

We can all play that game. It's easy to do, takes no real talent and it's a damn sight more popular than explaining to people why international rules on shipping ballast water contamination matter. It requires no personal development, no grappling with dilemmas and brings the adulation of the herd. It's cynical, dishonest and it's parasitic.

Brexit could certainly do with an injection of vision and passion - but it must be tempered by intellect and pragmatism. This is beyond the capability of politics as we know it. More depressingly, it is likely to stay that way when the bubble is populated by men such as O'Neill. He may be appalled by the narrowness of vision and the cowardice but it's really just a mirror reflection.

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