Thursday, 31 January 2019

Brexit: the moral dimension to trade

I've always steered clear of global environmental issues because there is so much agenda driven disinformation and you'd have to be a full time specialist not to fall into the many traps. I did, however, become fascinated by the palm oil industry while in Malaysia last year.

Wanting to get out of the city to see some of the "countryside" we took a bus out to a tourist attraction where I was assaulted and mugged by various miniature apes. They probably took offence at my hat. I didn't get to see countryside though. The two hour bus journey was a long and straight road through miles of identical palm oil plantations, broken up only by stretches where the trees had been harvested. It looked like there'd been an artillery barrage.

On that score it's easy to see why environmentalists hate the palm oil industry. It rapes the land and encourages deforestation. there are local laws to prevent illegal deforestation but there are ways and means to corruptly get around it and though Malaysia, according to UN FAO statistics, shows no net deforestation, you'd have to be born yesterday to believe them.

Then, of course, the palm oil lobby would point out, quite correctly, that palm oil isn't the main driver of deforestation. In more recent years livestock production and urban development have taken the lion's share. It is, though, still a filthy business.

The problem here is that the EU has previously promoted the use of palm oil as a biofuel under its renewables policy which was a highly questionable decision even at the time, but now the eco-lobbyists have got their hooks in, the EU is seeking to reverse that trend.

But then are the eco-lobbyists really eco-lobbyists? You could be forgiven for thinking they were sock puppets for European oilseed producers which is less affected by the proposed changes to the rules. To ASEAN this reeks of protectionism which is why they're getting busy at the WTO to have these measures struck out. The sector is a major rural employer for Asia and it's not going down without a fight.

This is where we can expect a propaganda war to be waged through our media where UK think tanks, unsurprisingly in the free market Tory quarter, attempt to rebrand the palm oil industry as the good guys. This, presumably, is why they are so often reluctant to declare their funding.

This whole saga has been going on for donkeys years, and like many landmark WTO disputes it points to the slowness of the process, especially where evidence is scientifically contentious (see Argentine BSE dispute) which leads to a war of expert opinion on all sides. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

And you certainly pays your money. This is where a lot of the unregistered and unreported corruption in Brussels goes on. MEPs will generally side with the bunny huggers, but they are far from the innocent party and often funded in part by the EU which has its own agendas in play. On this particular issue I would never presume to take a side in that I don't feel remotely qualified to do so, but it really points out that trade is intensely political, slow to resolve and bent as bent gets.
This is the sort of business that has long been diverted from British politics. Consequently much of the politics of trade is off our radar and seldom reported in our media. You have to follow EU Observer or Euractiv to keep an eye on this sort of thing and the reporting, though quite good, is often superficial. We therefore, have little collective idea of what is done in our name or the process by which it happens.

This is why I view remainer activists such as Femi and EU supergirl with such disdain. They can easily rattle off the brochure version of how EU lawmaking is done, but are wholly ignorant of the grubby processes behind it. To their minds, says Sam Hooper, Brussels is a refulgent land exclusively populated by altruistic public servants workin’ and co-operatin’ across national borders for the Greater Good, while Britain is a parochial and benighted place, land of Gammons and the Evil Tor-ees.

But, of course, the point for us now is that if we repatriate trade policy then we also repatriate the corruption in a big way. London once again becomes a nest of lobbying - more so than it is now. Recent revelations about the Institute of Economic Affairs are only the tip of the iceberg. Here is where we can expect to see a revitalisation of investigative journalism. There are enough skeletons on the ERG closet to keep them in business for years.

The wider implications of Brexit, however, is that though we will operate our own trade policy, we will, to a large extent be passengers of events. Whatever is resolved in terms of EU palm oil rules, the EU can exert soft power to countermand any of our own measures.

This is where yesterday's trade select committee meeting was illustrative of the challenges ahead. Though the department of trade is in charge of rolling over our existing trade agreements, the FCO is in charge of rolling over the deals with soft components.

There may be more accurate terminology in the trade community but comprehensive trade treaties tend to be split into hard and soft components. The hard component being tariffs and monetary measures while the soft components relate to higher standards be they labour standards, human rights, environmental protections and development and investment. We can roll them over in principle but our hard needs may cause us to compromise on our soft principles.

This is where there will need to be a denazification process in our own government since our DfID and FCO officials are used to the EU as a soft power tool with which to wag the finger internationally. On more equal terms, if the UK wants to advance its soft trade objectives then it will either have to make hard trade concessions or pay through the nose. Our vote in international regulatory forums will be influenced by our export interests and conditional on what it buys us.

Through the Brexit process talk of trade thus far has been a rather clinical value free debate between technocrats largely because Brexit isn't really a negotiation. Or at least not yet. That comes later. When we have repatriated our trade policy, or should I say if, trade once more becomes a major preoccupation of the Westminster machine and intensely political internally and externally. Now it will become even more contentions because it has something EU trade does not. Public scrutiny.

In a lot of ways it will revitalise domestic politics. With the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn we once again see that the left cares about arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Not something we have seen since the early nineties. That is a sign of things to come. UK deals that threaten wildlife, cause deforestation or decimates African fishing grounds will once again be en vogue and there'll be a cottage industry in exposing the dirty dealings of politicians. Brexit very much returns the public to their supervisory role.

If there is a point to this post it is to point out that there are tiers of complexity not yet understood by leavers and remainers alike and the simplistic notion of "free trade" doesn't even begin to frame the debate adequately. There are political, geostrategic, commercial and moral dimensions to which there are no easy answers, plenty of compromise and no quick fix solutions. We also find that having a conscience costs money. Ok, so you want to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia - but that means closing an aircraft plant in Lancashire. Try getting people to vote for that.

Remaining in the EU, of course, is the easiest of answers. It makes all these thorny questions go away. The decisions over the compromises and trade-offs are simply delegated to trade wonks in Brussels in the naive belief that because we never read about the corruption it is less corrupt than our own dysfunctional quasi-democracy. We can graze comfortably on goods and services without asking the tough questions and have our thinking done for us. Who cares if our trade policy drives mass migration, rapes the seas, collapses African industrial development and causes black people to drown in the sea?

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

A failure of a generation

Writer James Ball (who he?) tweets "Around one in three people in the UK think no-deal is a good or tolerable Brexit outcome. If that doesn’t represent the biggest collective political and journalistic failure of our lifetimes, I don’t know what does". Well quite.

There are several factors behind this. First and foremost is the extremely effective Tory ERG propaganda. There is an unhealthy crossover between ERG MPs, the right wing media, think tanks and corporate interests. They have dedicated propaganda channels and allies working at Guido, The Telegraph, CrapX and the Spectator, all of which have published grotesquely inaccurate and dishonest articles on the so-called WTO option.

To this there has been little in the way of a counterweight. This dishonesty often goes unchallenged on television and radio news, not least by clueless presenters who neither learn or retain new information. Here there is little in the way of correction being that the experts speaking out against no deal can very easily be accused of partisan scaremongering. The media always presents the counterpoint as the voice of remain. 

But then the remain camp have done themselves no favours. It has marginalised itself by way of its own smug self-regard. They have a tendency to sex up any concern to the point of ridicule. Being that it comes from profoundly unserious politicians like Emily Thornberry, they lack the gravitas to persuade anybody. 

The other major issue is trust. With the BBC having been generally pro-EU over the course of the last twenty years it is viewed with deep suspicion. So too is the largely remain inclined House of Commons who would surrender more powers to Brussels in a heartbeat. Grassroots leavers have long suspected that any deal would likely be leaving in name only or a scam to ensure we end up rejoining the EU. Coupled with a well financed, highly organised legacy remain campaign with considerable support from high profile MPs, this is viewed as open defiance of democracy which has hardened resolve.

This is made worse by an an activist media abandoned its obligation to inform. Many media channels have abandoned any pretence of neutrality or even journalistic integrity. There is no reason to believe what they say and plenty of reason to doubt their ability to report on the issues accurately. Then, of course, there is a systemic ignorance as to how the EU functions in media, government and the wider political establishment. The process has never been fully understood and there is too much disinformation and noise in the system for there to be any coherence.

Being that the EU position is not well understood there are further trust issues, believing the EU has malicious intent, and from the unguarded remarks from many a senior EU official, the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the EU was out to humiliate and break the UK. 

The seeds of this were sown long ago by way of taking us deeper into the EU without consultation or consent. Our further involvement in the EU is the result of establishment connivance. The mistrust has snowballed from there and when you have powerful forces manipulating public opinion, we should have anticipated this ugly predicament. 

But then it's a little late for that. And it's a little rich of the likes of James Ball to complain. Twas only a few days ago he tweeted "(Whisper it, but: a Norway-style Brexit is a polished turd. For leavers it delivers nothing they want: less sovereignty than now, free movement continues, no new trade deals. For remainers: it’s fine, but worse than status quo as makes us rule-takers.)". 

It takes a special talent to pack that much ignorance into a single tweet but Ball manages to do so effortlessly. I'm not going to go over the issues again as readers of this blog will now be well versed in the arguments, but here is the central problem. Ignorance fits nearly into a single tweet. The rebuttal does not. And when you have journalists claiming to know more than they do, published under prestige titles such as The Guardian, we cannot be surprised if the debate is then skewed.

Ultimately if those who are paid to find out what's going on take no interest in the details and instead prefer to retail received wisdom with no intellectual enquiry, all they succeed in doing is adding their ignorance to the mountain that already exists. This careless reporting has tainted the known alternatives to "no deal" while criminally irresponsible reporting from others adds undue weight to obviously incorrect opinions. Our media is incapable of self reflection so this has become a constant. 

Now though, as EUreferendum notes, we are passed the point where anyone can any longer give a damn. This has gone on far too long and the ongoing debate isn't going anywhere and nothing is ever resolved. We have expressed our intention to junk the backstop in favour of nebulous "alternative arrangements" with nobody able to specify what they would be - which then dredges up all of the same tired arguments about the functioning of the Swiss border. We have been over this countless times but this zombie argument refuses to die.

There is now no appetite for further torment. Doubtlessly that same attitude prevails in Brussels as they tire of watching this carnival of incompetence. Allowing it to continue would not lead to any resolution. If the EU does grant an extension it will do so only to buy extra time to prepare in anticipation of a crash out Brexit.

As it stands, there is now only a fifty fifty chance of avoiding a crash out. Either Mrs May's deal will pass or it won't. Should we crash out, that will indeed be the defining media and political failure of our generation. The one hope I have is that it will be a moment of realisation that something fundamental has to change. If that doesn't happen then there is no chance of ever arresting the decline. They will fiddle until we are standing among the cold ashes. 

What they're not telling you about no-deal

For more than two years now we've seen a torrent of warnings over what will happen if there's no deal. Most of it is easily written off as "project fear". There are too reasons for this. Firstly, media trivialisation. Interruptions to medicines supply chains taken to their mire extreme conclusions results in an outbreak of "super-gonorrhoea". This then allows propagandists on the leave side to exploit the trivialisation and the warning becomes more useful to the leave side than remain.

The second problem, which is perhaps more serious, is that industry bodies reeling off these dire warnings have little idea how the system presently works so from a position of ignorance are unable to say with any accuracy what will happen if it is changed.

This is especially the case over warnings of food shortages which have been wildly misunderstood. The government has announced that it will not change the inspection regime for incoming goods. The government, therefore, does not anticipate too many problems. The problem though, which is why we've resorted to stockpiling, is that nobody can say exactly what happens to outgoing freight. The EU most certainly will uphold its third country controls. It is, therefore, a certainty that there will be some disruption to port operations and some freight will have to be diverted.

The extent to which that becomes a problem is not known. On Brexit day the media will congregate on the M20 in anticipation of reporting on the queues, but many production lines have already factored in the possibility of disruption this have stocked up on parts and supplies. Outwardly, Brexit day could be a complete non-event. Haulage companies, not being clear on what may transpire will have already scheduled in anticipation of disruption so may stay clear of the ports until they know the lay of the land.

The problem then is that if you don't have outgoing truck then you have a fleet capacity problem for incoming trucks. That's where the danger of shortages arisis. In anticipation of this, supermarkets have stockpiled so far as they can (being that there is limited warehousing thanks to the JIT nature of their business), which means that UK hauliers will instead be going back and forth from those warehouses.

Course, that's a real problem for the remoaners. If it "port chaos" doesn't happen then Brexiters can claim it as a propaganda victory. It could take weeks or even months for the problems to become apparent. Chances are it won't see the shelves stripped bare save for a little last minute panic buying, but what we will see is reduced availability of some items that will simply look like a stocking problem.

A lot has happened since it first dawned on government that port disruption was a possibility and though we are not blessed with an abundance of competence, in government the civil service have people on standby to manage the problems and the private sector will have made its own contingency plans. More to the point, with the imposition of tariffs and costs from route diversion, some businesses may immediately conclude there is no profit in exporting at all. That sees an instant reduction in traffic as some goods simply cannot compete.

The impact may also be mitigated by way of phased implementation of Calais side controls. It could be some months before their system of controls is fully up and running and won't seek to stop freight until they have the capacity to do so. It is entirely possible that all of the headline warnings do not come to pass. With Brexit day being on a Friday, the ports are less busy anyway.

Meanwhile there are plenty of ways the headlines effects could be masked. Domestic food producers having lost their export market will seek to dump their surpluses on the UK market which could see an almost immediate collapse in prices - especially for fresh produce. This again is bad news for remainers because the likes of Guido will exploit the price drop as evidence of Brexit being an overnight success. It won't be until some months later when the economies of scale correct themselves and prices start to climb.

More inconveniently, the effects won't necessarily be detected for a while. The instant recession promised by all won't happen - which again will be taken as good news but this fails to note that GDP is not a useful indicator. It tells us lots of things are happening in the economy but gives us no direction as to the trends in trade.  Much of the activity will come from businesses restructuring and adapting to change.

It is highly likely that the adverse effects will not manifest for some months - but by then we will start to see a major drop off in values of trade. Job losses are trailing indicator which won't be fully realised until a while after. At first it will be drops of bad news from various independent sectoral analyses followed by a flood. It could be up to eight months before we get an idea of what's happening by which time we see the pound sliding and the beginnings of rampant inflation.

This is when we are most likely to see rationing of essentials. It won't be a supply problem. It will be a price problem. Obviously we can't ration life saving medicines so the cuts will have to come from elsewhere. To a large extent the effects of no deal Brexit have been woefully misreported, partly because we have a wholly inadequate media but much of what has been predicted may come to pass though in much more subtle ways - possibly not even reported immediately by the media and not always obviously attributable to Brexit.

The Brexiters will be able to hold the propaganda line for at least six months, putting the headline effects down to temporary blips and they can save their own skin if things hold together for a year - but by the second year we will have a far fuller picture as the issues start to snowball. The regulatory inconveniences and the exclusion from services markets will become a lot more apparent and the trade imbalance will widen significantly. It could take some time for this to be registered in terms of GDP.

This is not to say there will not be mitigating trends. If road haulage viability drops off we could very easily see increased volumes in air freight. The private sector is good at finding ways around obstacles and there are levers the UK government could pull that it couldn't pull as an EU member but over all the prognosis is grim for the intermediate term. The longer term all depends on correcting the political dysfunction within Westminster.

Remainers pegging their hopes on an overnight armageddon to prove to Brexiters they were foolish might every well end up with egg on their faces. The Brexiters will strut around as though they were right all along and reassert on to their predictions of sunlit uplands but no-deal is far more likely to be an exponential hollowing out of export activity - depriving government of the income it budgeted for - leading to a swathe of cuts and increased borrowing.

There is much we don't know about how a no deal Brexit will play out. The government has thrown all of its energies into mitigating the port issues but there is no possible way it can account for the full spectrum of problems largely because they are not known. You can't plan for chaos. You can only hope to survive it. This sees government redirecting civil service resources thus interrupting the normal functioning of government which in turn creates its own problems. Spending plans are frozen and infrastructure projects are cancelled.

Should the UK leave without a deal the government will have to act fast. The EU has set upon a number of contingency measures and will be prepared to grant some concessions to the EU but only on a reciprocal basis. It will do only the bare minimum in its own immediate self-interest. It will be some time before there is a renewed negotiation processes and a while longer before there is any formal trade accord in place. We could even be waiting a decade - and we will have already have surrendered what leverage we have through reciprocal contingency measures.

For anyone who voted for an extreme makeover of the UK, their wish is about to be granted. We cannot account for the ways in which it may unleash the more intangible potential of Britain nor indeed can we discount the "human capital" we have in terms of an educated and newly motivated public. We had simply better hope that we are more capable than our politicians. What we can say with certainty is that we will need every advantage we have - because Britain is never going to be a the same again - for better or for worse.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Another day of dithering

So they had some non-binding votes about something or other. You probably know more about it than I do. I worked out that the withdrawal agreement was a non-amendable document - which was easy to do because that's what senior Brussels figures have been saying all week and they couldn't have been more explicit. Consequently it doesn't matter what was in any of those amendments because Article 50 is non-amendable too.

So as I understand it there is a meaningless sentiment to take no deal off the table and an instruction to go back to Brussels with a yet another cockameme the EU wouldn't accept in a billion years. The  proposal has the backing of the ERG and Steve Baker which tells you it's a total non starter and again, Brussels has been explicit.

So where we are is where we were. The threat of crashing out without a deal looms and the only deal on the table is the deal on the table. Some seem to think Brussels will cave in at the last minute which is why they are so insistent that no deal should never be taken off the table. I do not think so.

As much as the EU does not want to compromise its own system, there are few ways of doing it and nothing that's an improvement on what's already in the agreement. They're making a big show of Irish solidarity and there are no diplomatic signals that suggest the EU will fold. Certainly none worth paying attention to. Moreover, there is now too much bad blood. If we look like we're going over the cliff, they will let us.

So if you want my best guess, it's pretty much the same as yours; May has to go to Brussels and come back with something - which can only be a face saving exercise - and then she has to put the deal back to parliament where MPs will  have to decide once and for all whether it be no deal or May's deal. My hunch is that it will scrape over the line. Rune readers looking at the votes from last can probably triangulate which way it goes. A lot of it depends on what Labour does. Politics could very well trump good sense.

Aside from that, catatonic with boredom as I am, there is little more to be said save to remark on the state of parliament. Sam Hooper remarks that "When I was at Warwick University, the Students’ Union held a virtue-signalling vote condemning President Bush’s state visit to Britain. This vote by Parliament to “stop no-deal Brexit” is actually even less rooted in reality, and far worse because those involved are well-paid adults".

I happened to catch some of the debates earlier in the day. The same issue illiteracy that existed right at the beginning is there to be seen in spades. They have learned nothing and they are still not listening to anything from outside the bubble. Their understanding has not developed. The future of the country now rests on the toss of a coin. The problem in Westminster right now is various shades of denial. Opponents of Brexit can't admit they're beaten and the Brexiters can't admit they've been beaten by Brussels... and reality.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Be careful what you wish for

As younger man I would often complain that our bland identikit politicians were devoid of any driving philosophy. I would still make that complaint even today as politicians so lacking ideology of their own are far too easily sucked into someone else's, albeit unwittingly - which is how we ended up this deep in the EU. But now we've gone dangerously in the other direction.

For a decade we had to put up with Blair's paternalistic authoritarianism followed by Tory wets led by Cameron who, apart from tinkering with the welfare system, did little to discontinue the Blair regime. The closest thing we've seen to a radical policy for decades was the decision to hold a referendum on the EU - and such was not done willingly.

Now that we have voted to leave, the managerialist consensus is pretty much dying on its arse, and as each day passes and the centrists look ever more elitist and out of touch, and real politics is coming back with a vengeance. I don't remember anything quite like it since the mid eighties.

And the thing about this kind of politics is that it brings out the worst in us. Real politics is an ugly business. Behind the veneer of professional politics we've lived under is the same old squirming bag of bigotries on both sides and is none too pleasant to behold. Worse still, it's proving pretty popular.

From the Tories we are increasingly seeing crass jingoism and nationalism of the belligerent kind, while the left continues its descent into depravity and virulent antisemitism. I don't find common cause with either and look upon the whole mess with dismay. (Not that I had anything to vote for before all this).

The problem for me, though, is that my political wish has been granted. All that time when I was saying "politics doesn't listen to people like us", since about 2012 I have gradually stopped being "people like us". Somewhere along the line I ditched my headbanger libertarianism and the more I've learned about trade and international development over the years the more pig ignorant "people like us" really seem. 

On that score it's interesting that one James Delingpole should have reappeared on my radar after being an irrelevance to me for so long. I stopped paying attention to anything he wrote the moment he threw his lot in with Breitbart. I don't mind robust right wing commentary as readers of this blog well know, but there has to be some standards. I was, though, generally in the same political ballpark and used to enjoy a good Gerald Warner rant as much as the next guy. 

This latest offering, though, telling us how we have nothing to fear from no deal, as issue illiterate as it is, is a reminder of where I was politically and were it not for the steep learning curve I've traversed, I would probably be making all the same arguments from a similar position or superior ignorance. As shockingly ignorant as it is, it makes me uncomfortable to think that I too was every bit as moronic.

In a lot of ways I'm not the same person I was five years ago. The process of blogging here and elsewhere with a view to understanding the issues has been a major growing experience. It makes me wonder then, why people like Delingpole and Brendan O'Neill have stood still in all this time. But then I know the answer to that. These people are peddlers of narrative. They are propagandists; - an artform where details don't matter, truth is wholly subjective and the aim is simply to please the audience. 

As professional space fillers on the media circuit their role is simply to turn their minuscule intellects to any passing talking point and trot out the party line - peppered with the popular canards of their respective axe grinding. There is no actual need to delve into the complexities. Anyone who does is obviously engaged in smokescreen tactics to confuddle the masses and subvert the popular will!

At some point in their lives men like Delingpole decided they knew enough and need not trouble themselves with further learning. As EUreferendum describes, the Tory set have lower orders to bail them out when things get complicated. 

All they need do is have someone else do the donkey work and bone up on the central points at the last minute if they can be bothered. And that's pretty much the nature of our political class. The bone idleness and bluff on display is no different to that of politicians like Paterson and Redwood. Where they come unstuck is their propensity to leave out anything that happens to be inconvenient or anything that might make them unpopular with their followers and donors. 

The consequence of this is a political class that simply doesn't entertain detail and does no learning of its own. They construct their own alternate reality and have stooges like Delingpole to do their PR work for them. In place of bland functionaries with now have ideologues who fall back on trite notions such as "free trade" entirely oblivious to the world as it actually is by way of having their exposure to it prefiltered.

For as long as we've had the backstop of the EU the damage these people can do has been contained. Now we have removed that backstop the witless prattle of these buffers and chancers has real world consequences - especially so at this pivotal moment that will decide the UK's economic and geostrategic standing for the next fifty years or more. With a privileged know-nothing ruling class, joined at the hip with an indolent and shallow media, there is scant chance we can hope to survive them being in charge.

The coming weeks will decide which way this goes. Theresa May's deal will probably come back for a second vote and MPs will have to decide whether they see it through or whether they let the clock expire. The ultras were never going to vote for a deal of any kind so our fate rests in the hands of the remainers and the opposition benches. The ERG are not the kingmakers here. Should we slide over the cliff it won't be on the strength of no deal argument. 

To that extent the noise generated by Breitbart and BrexitCentral really is little more than noise. Should we leave without a deal, though, Delingpole's name will be somewhere at the bottom of a long list of liars, blaggers, chancers and self-servers who told every lie under the sun. Being that the internet never forgets, this will be the last time anybody takes this manchild seriously - save for the last remnants of his intellectually subnormal readership - for whom he will be penning creative excuses while the adults clean up after them.

ERG: the cancer on the right

This is less an attack on Brexiters as it is British political culture. At least I hope it's British political culture because if it's just natural human behaviour then we really are stuffed and there's no point engaging in politics. You can only hope to survive it. What disturbs me about the Brexit debate is the willingness to believe absolutely anything if it comes from a tribally appointed source.

I'm routinely told that I must be a remainer because I spend most of my time attacking Brexiters. But there's a reason for that. I am a person who is generally offended by people who say things that are not true. That is primarily why I am a Brexiter. I spent the whole of the referendum calling out the remainers on their lies which were very bit as bad as those put out by Vote Leave if not worse. But I'm no longer fighting the referendum. Leave won. And to me, the function of bloggers, being that the media has vacated to the field, is challenge the narratives of politicians. 

Early on the Tory leave blob decided it would cooperate with no-one from outside the bubble. They took ownership and the only people sanctioned to speak on behalf of leave are leaver MPs, their journo mates and junior wonks from within right wing think tankery. They may occasionally throw a bone to the likes of Spiked Online but the official rag of Brexiter record is The Spectator and Telegraph through which their narrative is promoted.

Since I am not on the inside and unwilling to be spoonfed, and they are driving the agenda, these people are not on my side. They are just the winning faction who happen to be the media resource because of their pre-existing presence in London. I owe them nothing. Certainly not my loyalty. 

When it comes down to it, I voted for one of two options on a ballot paper. There was no option that said "Leave the EU then surrender any further scrutiny over decision making and let the Tory right do as they please". If we are to leave the EU it throws up any number of complex questions with grave consequences and we need good answers. 

What we find, though, is that we're dealing with woefully clueless lords and MPs. Andrea Jenkyns, Kate Hoey, Marcus Fysh, John Redwood, Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Peter Lilley, Owen Paterson and Steve Baker are all winging it, making things up as they go along and forever reaching into the magic Brexit tombla of half baked and half understood ideas to produce superficially plausible technobabble that bimbette TV presenters like Sophy Ridge won't challenge them on.

Here we should at least thank James Delingpole for admitting he's a bone idle chancer who doesn't have a handle on the issues. He basically came unstuck because he's not particularly nimble in front of a TV camera. The only difference between him and the ERG politicians is that they're not nearly as incompetent at media appearances and don't have the basic decency to admit that they're full of shit. Why, though, James Delingpole is now praised for his frank admission escapes me. Admitting you raped a donkey still makes you a donkey rapist.

Disturbingly, though, this whole debate is not about who is right. Hardly anybody is interested learning the truth of the matter. If a port boss with a posh title says everything will be fine then the ERG brigade will adopt that into their canon and there is no further investigation. The Telegraph will report on a CEO saying the channel tunnel is ready for action while Sky News retails any prestige opinion as gospel. Once such prestige opinions are lodged with sponsorship from a gatekeeper within the Brexit blob, no primary source is ever likely to persuade them of anything.

I used to think that the internet would smash the grip of of old media, and though traditional news sources have taken pasting and midranking outlets like Buzzfeed can't turn a profit, there still exists the same tribal hierarchies and the willingness to believe any source so long as it has prestige still plagues the national debate. It may be true that Youtube is stealing television audiences but many of the video bloggers are little more than self-reinforcing mouthpieces of the tribe. 

Remainers would be the first to point out that leave voters have been led astray by snake oil salesman and charlatans. I've written defensive blogs as to why that is not the case, but among the hard core activists, that much certainly is the case. This I suspect comes down to a more basic human need to belong to something and to be engaged in a struggle of some kind which produces its own social dynamics where the scriptures of the tribe are social bonds as much as they are arguments.

The same is also true of remainers though. In fact the remain arguments have even less sophistication because they don't have to solve any problems. They can simply wax lyrical about perks, benefits and entitlements of membership. They are every bit as credulous as the leave headbangers.

One wonders is this has a lot to do with how media has abandoned any obligation to inform. The Independent and Channel 4 have become unhinged leftist activist media while the Telegraph and Spectator have become the instruments of US lobbyists and deranged right wingers. But then the central problem here is consumers of media. If there was any profit in supplying readers with information then they would still be doing it. They've all sussed between them that the clicks come from telling people what they want to hear. 

Part of the problem is that we have politicians only too willing to engage in this deliberate manipulation. No lie is too big and any lie will do. We are supposed to have a media that won't let them get away with it, which has been one of the more frightening revelations of Brexit. If democracy is reduced to agenda driven propaganda wars without restraint and no system to uphold standards then politics becomes a free for all. 

There was a time where politicians taking large lump sums of cash from corporate sponsors would bring down governments. These days it arely stays in the news cycle more than twenty four hours. Corruption has become the norm. We don't even bat an eyelid. We see calls for more transparency at a time when it couldn't be more transparent. But what use is transparency when there are no consequences for political misconduct?

Though many lament the "chaos" unleashed by Brexiters, it is hardly an original sentiment to say that Brexit has shone a torch on the dysfunction and decay within our politics - but it is with some considerable irony that the Brexiters themselves should be among the worst offenders. The grassroots Brexiters rapidly adopted the American slogan of "drain the swamp" - a view I have some sympathy with, but if we are going to do any such thing, they should start with those they adopt as their idols.

There has never been a credible argument for leaving the EU without a deal, but if there is one highly tempting argument, it is that it would expose the Tory right frauds for what they are. It would be most interesting watching Owen Paterson explaining to his farming constituency why their EU exports collapsed. As a prominent remainer put it to me recently "I'm tempted to go for no deal just to prove to these bastards how wrong they are". 

I suspect, mind you, that patience is wearing thing among the wider public. The ERG lie machine has been running full pelt for two years but then so has Twitter which ruthlessly shreds each and every one of their assertions. Though Twitter may well be their means of dissemination it may also be our best line of defence. The BrexitCentral brigade may well have overplayed their hand by insulting our intelligence. They may yet win the Brexit battle, but there will be a reckoning. On that day, it will not be a good day to be a Tory. 

Saturday, 26 January 2019

How to be a prize twat

It has not gone unnoticed that James Delingpole has made a massive twat of himself on national television. It was going to happen sooner or later. That's what happens when you're bone idle. Two years ago a right wing libertarian could have gone on the telly and spouted bollocks about the WTO and get away with it, but now we're lingering on the precipice of an Armageddon Brexit, even our Westminster miscreants have (by osmosis) worked out one or two of the basics when Dellers has not.

The problem for our Dellers is that he assumed everyone else's understand had stayed as static as his own. The second problem being, by his own admission, he hadn't even bothered to brush up on the tribal scripture. "Car crash moments" he says "are an inevitable consequence of appearing in the public eye — especially if like me you’re one of those chancers who prefers to leave everything to the last minute in the hope you can wing it using a mixture of charm, impish humour, and nuggets of vaguely relevant info snatched on the hoof from the recesses of your memory".

As excuses go you can at least respect the honesty. He admits to being a crass, know-nothing bubble dweller bluffing his way through life. That's the choice he made when he decided to become a full time propagandist. When your main audience doesn't like information to conflict with scripture, there is actually zero commercial value in knowing what you're talking about - and as I've found, the more you do learn about the art of international trade the more estranged from the Breitbart crowd you become.

Where Dellers comes unstuck is when challenged on the WTO MFN principle should we leave without a deal which holds that, were we to drop tariffs to goods coming in from the EU we would have to extend that same preference to the whole world. He is then asked what incentive there would be for the USA to do a deal with us if they already had the trade preferences they wanted.

There are two possible answers to that question. You can point out that the WTO has no power of compulsion and we could simply operate in defiance of the WTO MFN principle and wait for the complaints to roll in. The WTO process takes time and a complaint has to go through the process. The UK could seek a series of waivers lodging the intention to secure an agreement on tariffs with the EU. The WTO system is as much politics as it is law. The success of that, however, is contingent on a number of factors. We would need to secure a formal indication from the EU - which would likely have a price tag on it. I think you can guess the number.

Alternatively he could have downplayed the significance of tariffs and pointed out how future deals could improve access to our markets in respect of non-tariff issues - but that would require a basic awareness that non-tariff barriers exist which is all a bit too complex for a Toryboy.

But Dellers wouldn't have done that. No, you see, according to Delingpole, his main crime here is a failure to revise for the exam. He remarks that "Indeed, I remember a small voice in my head warning me not to be complacent. “Read a piece by Patrick Minford so you’ve got your economics right. Remind yourself of the exact tariff rate WTO rules impose on goods. Oh and have another glance at the piece that Ross Clark did on No Deal Brexit in the Spectator a couple of weeks ago,” the small voice urged".

Had he done his revision from his prestige sources within the bubble he'd have been up on the latest tribal scripture, whereupon he'd have launched into a long spiel about how dropping all our trade defences unilaterally heralds a new dawn of fwee twade and how trashing our major manufacturing centres is actually a good thing. This is where his libertarian bluff would have kicked in and he could have waxed lyrical about the liberating power of markets and all that.

There's no actual chance the man is going to take an interest in the subject. Trade, you see, turns on detail. When you really dig into the subject it becomes abundantly clear that leaving the single market (from a trade perspective) is a damn fool thing to do. It's the many facilitating instruments of the single market that allows for seamless trade in services and removes the red tape that clogs up supply chains. We already have a number of FTAs via the EU so there is no known combination of deals that could ever offset the blow of leaving the single market.

Trade wise the best we could ever hope for was to keep what we have but return political authority over what we have. We could have taken the Efta route and then for the interim have operated a shadow customs union to allow us to roll over existing deals and then spent the next ten years configuring and optimising them. There'd be some gains and some losses but overall it but be a cost neutral exercise in the longer term and something of an improvement democratically since we'd have greater freedom to operate internationally.

Of course this then raises a number of very valid questions. Chiefly, the one of what's the point? It is at that point you get to pivot the whole debate away from ground remainers win on, and on to firmer territory. It comes back to the original purpose of Brexit which was to leave the political entity for all the familiar and well rehearsed reasons.

The problem for Brexiters is that they have allowed the leave movement to be hijacked by a band of ideologue Tories holding some deeply obsolete notions of how trade works. They've persuaded themselves that Brexit is the economic remedy we've all been waiting for and Britain's future as a buccaneering and nimble free trade emissary is only weeks away. Being that it falls flat on its face with even the most cursory cross examination, the Brexit tribe have gone into overdrive to shore up this flagging enterprise.

The problem for Dellers and his merry band of Breitbart grunters is that for them Brexit was always more of a culture war. They never put any thought into how it might be done if they got the opportunity to do it. They now find the cupboard is bare when searching for an economic rationale so they hitch their wagon to the Tory right who at least have an idea of what they want even if their plan is total bollocks. One suspects Dellers knows it stands on a foundation of intellectual sand but they've now chosen their hill to die on and will fight to the last man with the feeble weapons they have.

What they have on their side is a well oiled propaganda machine and an audience willing to believe practically anything they say and will fill in the gaps with their own bluster and bluff. That is the one function Delingpole serves.

Having legacy prestige from his time at the Telegraph and Speccie, he provides a veneer of respectability for a rag that would otherwise be buried as a hate rag only marginally less disgusting than some of the BNP circulars. The problem for the grunters, though, is that he's shit at it. He's just another self-serving bubble dwelling bluffer parasite with nothing of value to add. Why else would he be on the Andrew Neil show?

Friday, 25 January 2019

Brexiters need to get real

If you asked someone in the street what their reason for leaving the EU is, many will tell you "Well it's all these rules and regulations". Most people have no concept of what these rules and regulations are for and when challenged, as remainers take great glee in pointing out, struggle to point out which ones they want to get rid of.

But as the nation is gradually waking up to the prospect of no deal, it turns out that much of this regulation exists for the facilitation of trade. Without it you don't have free exchange of goods. And that's a bit of a problem. Those businesses which depend on regulatory certainty don't know which way to jump and have insufficient information to adequately prepare. The messages coming from government are contradictory and much of what we're told is based on assumption and downright lies.

That, though, does not invalidate the wider concern that we are adopting vast tranches of rules via the EU with virtually zero domestic scrutiny. Were it that the EU were just a trade bloc concerning itself with the movement of goods and services then we could afford to be a little more relaxed about it. But it isn't.

As the world becomes more complicated, the issues covered under the remit of trade are ever expanding into other areas from labour rights through to intellectual property. Trade governance then becomes a full spectrum endeavour. Were it that there were constitutional constraints on what the EU can do then perhaps it wouldn't matter so much, but what we see is an entity able to afford itself more control over more areas of life, weakening the influence of national parliaments and diluting the potency of democracy. National politics then becomes an appendage.

Worse still, the integrationist nature of the EU means that the regulation for the governance of trade also comes with social and political agendas which are not openly spoken of. The modus operandi of the EU is to integrate to a level where it is no longer possible for member states to function independently. To a large extent that process is complete. Withdrawing from the EU is set to cause enormous damage precisely because our respective industries have been made dependent on the EU legal ecosystem. Our RO-RO trade only exists to the extent it does because of the single market.

The fly in the ointment for Brexiters, however, is that this is very much an all or nothing proposition. The political agenda is inseparable from the trade agenda. This is the one objection to the EEA that stands. Even the so-called Norway  option comes with appendages not remotely related to trade that require members to align with the EU. If the aim was to "take back control" then for most leavers, EEA is nowhere near Brexity enough.

I could sympathise with that view were we not dealing with people for whom any deal is not brexity enough. For them, only no deal satisfies their definition and failing to appreciate the function of regulation or the nature of modern trade, they are convince trade will carry on as before and there's a whole world of fwee twade just waiting for us come Brexit day.

Nothing I say will disabuse them of this notion. I can patiently explain how the system works but they're not going to take it from me or anyone with a level of expertise. Anyone who doesn't subscribe to the BrexitCentral canon is a heretic.

The grim reality of Brexit is that the EU really does have us by the balls. If we leave without a deal then we become a third country with zero trade preferences - and then we're putting out brush fires all over the shop, bumping into those WTO rules as we go. We then find that we need a level of cooperation from the EU only to find it has demands of its own that Brexiters are not going to like.

The alternative is Mrs May's deal which basically means Northern Ireland stays in the single market unless we can come up with an alternate solution - and the Brexiters know full well what that alternate solution is. Staying in the single market.

Ideally we want to find a way to balance trade and regulatory cooperation but firewall those concerns we view as the sole domain of national democracy. This is not possible. The EU does not allow for national democracy. The very reason it exists is to destroy it. So how then can we resolve this unhappy conundrum? The simple answer... we can't. The ultimatum in front of us is that we can either have national sovereignty or we can have trade. We can't have both.

The best we can really hope for is to restore the political authority over the rules we do adopt. This is roughly what Switzerland and Norway has. Norway has a better system of defences as the EEA framework allows for involvement in the regulatory process and a means of adjustment and if needs be, a veto and safeguard measures. The system recognises the basic reality that regulatory harmonisation is a fact of modern trade.

The Brexiters refusal to acknowledge any of these realities, instead clinging to the liferaft of ERG fantasies is what drives the clamour for no deal. This is why the Brexiters are in for multiple shocks when it becomes apparent that trade does not function normally on Brexit day and the world is not chomping at the bit to do "free trade deals" with us. at best we'll be patching up the bilateral agreements we already had via the EU with suboptimal terms.

This is ultimately the folly of the more prominent Brexit campaigns. Trade was a particularly foolish hill to die on. If we are looking at Brexit purely in terms of trade then there is scant reason for leaving and the only way to have an independent trade policy while maintaining EU trade is to emulate Norway.

Of course, as this blog would be the first to point out, this is not all all just about trade and GDP. The Brexit question encompasses the full spectrum of economic, social and diplomatic issues. There is no right answer. It's largely a matter of priorities relative to the individual. What is missing, though, is honesty. I have no problem with those who want to take a principled stance but those taking that view tend to be the ones deluding themselves in respect of trade. Trade may very well be a secondary concern but it is not something we can afford to neglect.

By taking the hardline view we are essentially saying, as Boris Johnson has said, "fuck business". To a point  have a great deal of sympathy with that view. I don't see why political decisions should defer to footloose multinationals with no loyalty to any country. But then at the same time, the price for having such principles is the loss of thousands of jobs in every city.

The mistake here is to believe that all of the Brexiter objectives are possible, practical or even desirable. The deregulation fantasies of Brexiters carry no weight in the real world and are not especially popular in the country. There is an assumption that breaking free of the EU sets us lose in an unregulated wild west, when the reality is one of globalised regulation, where much of the regulation we already operate, coming to us via the EU, is in fact part of the global nexus of rules.

While Brexiters have fixated on the European question for all these years, every country on earth is on some level having to reconcile domestic concerns with the need for global convergence. This is the central talking point of any globalisation debate and Brexit brings little remedy to it. Remainers suffer from the same affliction in believing Brussels is the centre of the regulatory universe.

To get anywhere close to a satisfactory Brexit we have to start off with the basic recognition that we won't get everything we want and to recognise that Brexit is really only the beginning of a long process. The entire process thus far has been dogged by a determination to get it all done in one go which was never realistic and the more we try the more damaging Brexit becomes.

This is why I'm none too concerned by Mrs May's deal. Some would call it Brexit in name only, which I do not think is a fair assessment. For sure it does leave the EU with a great deal of residual control over legacy matters - which was only to be expected having been a member for four decades. Eventually, though, these legacy concerns will fade in their direct relevance. But even "BRINO" is not to be sniffed at.

Zooming out on the deal we have to look in more basic terms of what it actually is. It's a withdrawal agreement and once ratified we are no longer in the EU. Our legal status goes from being member to non member. As far as international law goes, that is the new reality. It is therefore an artefact in international relations.

As time goes on we will increasingly bump into the constraints of any deal in terms of the limitations it places on us. Politically that will not stand and any future government will have to use the mechanisms and institutions created by our departure to evolve and modify the relationship. No bilateral relationship with the EU is ever static. The smart thing to do would be to use the existing framework of the EEA but for now that debate is kicked into the long grass.

From the way Brexiters talk, you would think Brexit also means the EU stops existing. If only that were true. One way or another it will be able to exert its soft power over us and will have an influence over our decision making. It is a trade superpower and one with a great deal of political power globally. In any head to head contest, the UK loses. That's what it means to be a smaller fry and the junior in any trade relationship.

The priority, therefore, is for the UK to manage its departure while seeking to minimise the economic impact. The greater the blow now, the weaker our starting position as an independent country. That then forces us into unpalatable compromises we would not otherwise make. The temptation to rip ourselves out of the EU's orbit may well be strong, but the pain of doing so will be deep and long lasting.

I am of the view that it pays to take a longer term strategy with one certainty in mind. that certainty being that the EU is little more than a historical blip. It may last a while longer - possibly even another three decades, but sooner or later it will integrate itself into oblivion and the whole construct comes crashing in on itself. Since we've waited this long to get free and clear of the EU, I don't see the galloping hurry. What matters is that we are making steps in the right direction.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

A lighthouse in the fog: In praise of Theresa May

When David Cameron resigned, the Tory party broke. Cameron, for all his faults, was the veneer of competence. On his departure it became fightingly obvious that there was no credible successor. Certainly no-one of the calibre and gravitas necessary to push through Brexit.

As someone who has fought long and hard for Brexit, in any other circumstances, I might have demanded a Brexiter be in charge of it. But when faced with the grim prospect of Andrea Loathsome, Gove or the odious Johnson, Theresa May was a no-brainer. May was the closest we could get to adult supervision.

For me it was a leap of faith. Though she had been on the remain side of the argument, she could hardly have been said to be visible. For the most part she'd kept well out of it so she wasn't tainted by the referendum. She was worth a punt.

Though many leavers suspected she would sell out Brexit, she's the main reason we've got this far. For all that the headbangers think she's a remain plant, Theresa May is the one who triggered Article 50, did what she could to fend off the various legal challenges, and faced down the House of Lords. She passed all the relevant legislation and got the ball rolling.

There have been times when I've been downright furious at Theresa May. She has made some remarkably bad choices, not least in who she chose as advisers. She has made all of the avoidable errors. But for all that, for now, we are still in the game. We might very well have cause to question her competence but it goes back to that original question; would any of the alternatives have done a better job?

Much of our predicament is to do with the fact that this government never really understood the sequencing of Brexit nor how the EU machine works. They never understood that this wasn't really a negotiation. Our job was simply to choose from a list of limited options and firm up the details. It's taken Theresa May nearly two years to get it, but now it looks very much like she's the only one who gets it. It's been a long hard road for her but she got there while parliament is still at sixes and sevens and the opposition still doesn't know what a customs union is.

For what it's worth, Theresa May has done everything she was supposed to do. She has rammed Brexit through a generally hostile parliament, facing challenges to her authority from all sides. She has persevered to deliver a withdrawal agreement which is now ready to sign.

The deal itself is suboptimal and is largely a piece of triangulation but she has at least attempted to reconcile the demands of Brexit with the realities of international and EU trade - which is more than her Brexier backbenchers ever did. Most of her messes are messes of her own making but with politics being what it is it was unrealistic to expect competence. Theresa May's mediocrity is a lighthouse in the fog.

To my mind the job of delivering Brexit called for a bland functionary. I can't think of a person more suited to it. Brexiters penning their dismal screeds in the Spectator may have called for boldness and vision but by that they mean a delusional jingoistic prat waffling about global Britain and free trade which we can well do without. Half a clue as to our destination might have been helpful but I've long since lowered my expectations.

When the history of Brexit is written it will paint a fairly accurate portrait of Theresa May; the ambitious steady careerist whose rise to the highest office was little more than an accident of circumstances. Though wholly ill-equipped for the job and hopelessly out of her depth, she carried out her obligation to the country with as much honour as you can ever expect from a politician.

There is now a deal on the table. I don't especially like it, Brexiters hate it and parliament is not expecially keen either. But the deal is really only a product of our own political dysfunction. Intransigence and ignorance on all sides could not have produced anything different. The road to Brexit was heavily mined and with ambushes every step of the way this is about as good as it gets. May has done her bit. It's now up to parliament to do theirs.

Whether or not Theresa May is the right person to lead the tories into the next election and to negotiate the future relationship with the EU is the next major debate the Tory party faces. I suspect the same dilemma still remains. For all that we all might prefer a more capable, better advised leader, does a viable alternative present itself? It might then simply come down to one question. Can she beat Jeremy Corbyn? I reckon she could, albeit by a whisker.

May has managed to come through a long and arduous process with a great deal of dignity, reserving her own misgivings about Brexit, while keeping both extremes of her party at bay. She has done so with stamina and surprising resilience. For whatever else we might say about the lady, she has been a loyal public servant who did as she was instructed by the people - which is more than you can say of our Parliament.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

What the hell is Ed Conway playing at?

Ed Conway, economics editor of Sky News has in the past proven to be a bit more switched on than most economics commentators. He has a long track record of writing insightful pieces - or at least that's what I thought when I was younger - knowing substantially less than I do now. But in much the same way Westminster has imploded, Brexit is a bridge too far for our media. Reporting from Davos, Conway tells us:
The head of one of the world's leading economic organisations has cast doubt on claims that a "no-deal" Brexit would be an economic catastrophe, pledging that the international community would "roll with it". Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said that even the worst case scenario in Brexit would nonetheless prove manageable.
A no-deal Brexit refers to a situation where the UK will leave the EU with no agreements in place for what the future relationship will look like. It means the UK will fall back to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on global trade. Talking to Sky News at the World Economic Forum meetings at Davos, Mr Gurria said: "A no-deal, WTO rules…the whole world is running by WTO rules these days.
This is yet another failure of media where the only piece of information that gives credence to this otherwise worthless opinion is the fact that it comes from the secretary general of the OECD. For sure, Angel Gurria has had an accomplished career, but there is nothing to indicate a comprehensive knowledge of EU trade (which accounts for half of the UK's trade) nor is he especially equipped to comment on the vagaries of Brexit.

But then it wouldn't matter were that not the case. With or without further context his assertion is wrong. It is not a credible or useful addition to the debate. Given that Conway has previously demonstrated some knowledge of the complexity of trade it cannot be the case that he does not know this and is not equipped to challenge this assertion. But he does not. He instead makes a feature of it.

This has obvious consequences. As much as people sadly believe what they read in newspapers and see on television, they especially believe it if the source carries prestige. And in this instance that particular job title is all the prestige you can get. Here my friend Tim Sennett ably illustrates this phenomenon. 

Mr Pemberton here is totally taken in by the prestige of title thus accepts the assertion as gospel without further inquiry and is rewarded with 23 likes for parading his ignorance. Conway, therefore, has knowingly taken an editorial decision to reinforce a bogus narrative on a matter of crucial national importance thus has elected to abandon his obligation to inform.

It is now well established what the legal position of the EU is on Brexit day should we leave without a deal. This is not something that is subject to opinion. The EU's own Notices to Stakeholders outline the official legal status of the UK and there is a more explicit press release explaining how all of the official controls will come into play in the event of no deal. For a professional hack, it should not be too difficult to triangulate and extrapolate a meaningful understanding of the immediate consequences.

Instead Conway has used the words of Angel Gurria as though they were meaningful reassurance that the UK is able to absorb a body blow to its European trade as well as losing access to all of the current bilateral relations the EU has with the rest of the world be they FTAs, MRAs, MoUs or interagency/academic cooperation programmes. This creates further propaganda fodder for the likes of EuroGuido, which then goes viral within a matter of minutes.

Even a cursory fiddle with the EU's Treaties Office Database would disabuse any enquiring hack of the validity of Gurria's comments. The only real news here is that the secretary general of the OECD is really that ignorant. One would have thought that would be a more alarming headline.

Conway is certainly not alone in this journalistic malpractice. All of the major networks have abandoned any obligation to verify the veracity of sources and instead accept lazy assertions as the basis for news. It may be cheap and easy for Conway, but for the rest of us it will be quite painful indeed.

Our Hiroshima moment

MPs will do virtually anything they can to stop no deal except the one thing that will work. They need to sign off on a withdrawal agreement. At some point the deal will come up for a vote again and our fate largely rests on whether they are smart enough to realise that voting for the deal pretty much as is, is the only option they have.

The problem here, though, is that MPs have come full circle. With the deal a wash out, they seem to think this resets the clock to zero for them to chase after their own misapprehensions as though Article 50 were only triggered yesterday and nothing has happened in the last two years. 

More dangerously they are still muddled on the sequencing of exit, still believing the future relationship is defined within the scope of Article 50. This is a near universal misapprehension. Though it took Mrs May a long time to catch on, it now seems like she's the only one who gets it. We are, therefore, drifting toward an accidental no-deal Brexit.

Should that happen, it won't be May's fault or even that of the ERG. All the ERG will have succeeded in doing is convincing ordinary Brexit voters that no deal will be far less harmful than it actually is. The fault will lie squarely with a uniformly moronic parliament which never managed to get to grips with the issues or treat it with the seriousness it deserved.

Sharing the blame, mind you, will be the media which sees fit to repeat virtually any assertion so long as it carries prestige and give houseroom to widely discredited liars. Even The Guardian is at it. The remain side have gone to extended lengths to rubbish the most sensible option while the ERG have been given a free pass to promote the most extraordinary lies.

Here I remind myself that politics and media have been on a downward spiral for years. This is just its inevitable destination. There are larger forces at work and this is far beyond anyone's ability to control it. It took on a life of its own the moment we triggered article 50. What still astonishes is how little interest anyone has in assessing what will actually happen. Mainly the debate is divided into the extremes each pushing their respective propaganda.

But then it shouldn't astonish. One forgets that this has long since been little to do with the EU or the shape of our future relationship. This is a political civil war and just like a real civil war it pays no regard to who is right, and the fighting does not spare the economy or anyone's livelihood. This is an all out war and in metaphorical terms, the British economy will in a few months look much like Damascus. 

Most people cannot conceptualise the damage. Trade is so very often spoken of in terms of simple logistics, failing to understand the legal frameworks that facilitate trade in services and the cooperation that allows for maximum market mobility. We're dealing with people who don't understand - and they don't want to. Brexit is now a fight to the death. 

To a large extent I can understand it. It is a battle of wills between leavers and the establishment - whose leading figures trigger a wave of public revulsion. Remainers do tend to live up to their reputation for arrogance, condescension, snobbery and priggishness. It is they who have owned politics at least since 1997. Brexit is a revolution against the liberal progressives and it is taking no prisoners. 

The collateral damage of this however is extensive. Today we get yet another boilerplate speech from Sir Ivan Rogers which tells us nothing we didn't know but is in agreement with my own view that the EU will not come chasing after us waving an FTA in the event of no deal. It will leave us to rot until we decide what we need and will then present us with pretty much the same set of demands in respect of a backstop, citizens rights and whatever compensation they feel inclined to extract - which at that point could exceed £39bn. It's going to get quite ugly.

Should we leave without a deal the Brexit revolutionaries will have won, but it will be a shortlived victory as the next administration caves into the reality that we do need a deal. We are then left to count the cost. It will be a scorched earth victory. 

In many ways it will be just deserts for both sides. Remainers will have all their worst nightmares come true which I shall enjoy immensely, but then I'm also going to enjoy watching the Brexiters squirm as all of their lies repeat on them. I will be the least surprised biped in the northern hemisphere when the buccaneering free trade sunlit uplands fails to manifest.

Previously this blog has previously postulated that a "Dunkirk moment" may very well be what it takes to focus minds, but on present trajectory it looks more like Hiroshima moment. A blinding explosion of ignorance followed by decades of toxic fallout. Unlike 1945, though, it will not end the war. 

Monday, 21 January 2019

To whom are they accountable?

Yesterday, the EU and ASEAN agreed in principle to upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership. EU and ASEAN foreign ministers discussed cooperation on regional and international issues, including global challenges such as climate change and strengthening the rule-based multilateral system. Ministers addressed priority areas for 2019 such as enhanced security cooperation, including counterterrorism, transnational crime, maritime security and cybersecurity. They also discussed how to strengthen EU-ASEAN cooperation on connectivity.

This is trade at its highest level where it begins to merge with wider policy. This is far beyond tariffs on tins of beans. This is giants in a playground. Agreements will be made and there will be binding commitments for both sides affecting millions of people.

I look at these high level EU trade meetings and my first question is; how do ordinary people meaningfully influence this process? On the EU scale I just don't see that it's possible and I'm certain there aren't the necessary democratic safeguards. Will any of this ever make it as far as the UK parliament for debate? Will our media even report on it? Does the average MP even know what ASEAN is? Will we ever know what is done in our name? Will this process be carried out in the open? Who are the lobbyists involved? Will MEPs even know what they are voting for?

But actually, of all the questions we could ask, that first question is the single most important one. The basics answer is that there is zero chance of UK public engagement influencing this process. Moreover I don't see Federica Mogherini paying much attention to a lowly MEP. She is not accountable to anyone in a meaningful sense. Here the Commission is a rogue non-state actor. We have seen from the Brexit process how member states tend to have minimal involvement, largely because politicians are only too happy to delegate.

This is primarily what Brexit seeks to address. As much as EU membership takes technical governance out of the public domain and puts it into the hands of anonymous officials, elected and unelected, these competences, by extension, are merged with the ever encroaching global network of intra-bloc trade. This is global technocracy. The privatisation of governance.

With Britain's largely europhile centre-left this is of no importance. This frees them up to indulge in their managerialism; turning our national debate into little more that retail politics where the main function of national government is to put out brush fires in the regions by doling out grant money for town centre regeneration. It's the new welfare feudalism that suits our paternalistic politicians down to the ground. Governing our external affairs in the national interest is all just far too much like work - and as far as liberal progressives are concerned, delegating it all to Federica Mogherini is embodiment of national interest.

That Britain is no longer to be a part of the EU, where our politicians no longer get to strut around in the "world stage" is a grievous loss to progressive liberals. They no longer get to parade their virtue to the world. They mock Theresa May as she stands "isolated" and alone - the international billy-no-mates parariah.  

Such analysis, as Sam Hooper noted just recently, is uniformly simplistic – "former colonial power having an identity crisis, mid-sized country trying and failing to punch above its weight, lots of schadenfreude about loss of empire, lots of gloating over the humiliation of a country ranked by the intelligentsia alongside only America and Israel as uniquely evil and benighted, polished off with a smarmy, waggish lecture about chickens coming home to roost".

Says Hooper, "Wherever self-described intellectuals of a center-left persuasion are gathered together, you can read exactly the same cookie-cutter take on Brexit, perfectly crafted to enable them to nod and stroke their beards while having all of their prejudices neatly confirmed". This is the sole trick of one trick ponies like Fintan O'Toole.

Hooper concludes that "Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response".

Of course Brexit of itself is no automatic remedy - especially when our institutional knowledge of trade and international affairs has long since atrophied. This is abundantly evident as Tory Brexiters demonstrate on a daily basis. But even now it has but trade concerns front and centre. Though only baby steps, the debate around "hormone beef" and "chlorinated chicken" has generated an awareness of trade issues and the subject is once again fashionable. Brexit has once again politicised what is ordinarily the domain of officials.

In respect of this, Britain may certainly not have the "clout" as is on display in the above video, but the crucial question is in whose name is that clout wielded? Very often the Commission and the ECJ will take grubby shortcuts to ram through trade accords opening us up to sweeping changes in our own markets with no safeguard measures at our disposal. Ultimately the political authority over our own markets does not reside in Britain. This is why we must "take back control" and this is why attempts to keep us in a customs union are alarming.

The future for Britain is one of a midranking trade power but one in charge of its own external relations. We need to evolve to a state where external matters of such pivotal importance consume the lion's share of Westminster concern, and consequently the relative trivia that presently occupies parliament will be devolved to its rightful place. 

The assertion that outside of the EU the UK will be forced to adopt US food standards is part of the remain canon - which holds that Britain is too weak and feeble to defend its own interests and is therefore a passive victim of beggar-thy-neighbour trade policies. It's certainly true that there will at times be uncomfortable trade offs, but the central issues is where the decisions are made, our capacity to reverse such decisions and our ability to remove those who made the decision. No such instruments are available to EU members and certainly nothing their electorates have direct influence over.

Nobody can dispute that the EU is a trade superpower capable of exerting extraordinary influence, but it works largely in the service of a single globalising agenda where democracy is an inefficient and unwelcome intrusion. Human factors as swept aside in service of GDP and trade expansion. National sovereignty presents barriers to the completion of their grand utopian designs. The more power it has the more power it thinks it needs - and the more it has the more it can take, demoting our own government to the status of super lobbyist.

It is ironic that europhile opponents of the so-called Norway option complain that we would be a lobbyist and rule taker in that this is already the case in the EU on a far more profound scale. That there are top level voting rituals among our own disconnected elites is neither here or there. Nor is the presence of a Potemkin parliament. The ultimate test is whether the people themselves have final authority over who and what comes into the country. For as long as we remain an EU member, the model we live under fails that most basic test.  

Britain's choice paralysis

I do not think leaving without a deal is a good idea. We will very rapidly slide in the economic rankings, we will lose all of our formal trade relations including those with non-EU countries and it will take the better part of a decade to restore them. The WTO is not a basis for trade continuity and facing the full brunt of third country controls with lead to a major drop off in exports as exporters are hit with delays, red tape and tariffs. This is unarguable.

We cannot say with any accuracy the full extent of the damage but we cannot expect to pull out of forty years of technical and legal cooperation, fundamentally changing the existing business model without major and lasting consequences. There are then two basic avenues open to us both of which require that we sign the withdrawal agreement as is. It's either going to be EEA or an FTA.

Since the EU is not going to drop the backstop our only avenue to prevent it is to ensure the future relationship provides adequate cover to ensure it doesn't. An FTA with various add ons with maximum facilitation is unlikely to satisfy the EU. We therefore need to be looking in the EEA Efta ballpark.

But then there's a problem with this. The EEA option is massively unpopular among Brexiters, and the ultra remainers won't wear it at this stage. Their opposition may soften when remaining is entirely off the table so the question of the future relationship as laid down in the political declaration is one best kicked into the long grass. That is why the political declaration is vague.

Should we sign the withdrawal agreement we then pass go and enter into the transition where we must have that argument before proceeding. Those who then argue against the EEA are pretty much arguing for the backstop which then brings in a massively suboptimal customs arrangement for the whole of the UK. The further problem in is that if we do decide to go down the EEA path then this parliament will probably ensnare us in a full customs union too. Brexiters are going to hate it either way.

Being that both destinations are unpalatable, Brexiters have now convinced themselves that it's worth taking the hit or tell us that there is no cliff edge at all. Should we end up leaving without a deal they are in for a big shock.

Being that parliament cannot agree on a way forward and with only the political declaration being open for renegotiation, the no dealers have a strong chance of having it their way. What we could see, though, is a last minute face saving fudge on the political declaration and with the threat of no deal hanging over their heads, MPs might very well cave in and ratify it.

Here it comes down to your personal bent as to the right way forward. I accepted early on that any deal was going to be suboptimal. I have over the course of this blog convinced myself that the EEA is a good working arrangement but I can still see why to many it is not Brexity enough. It still basically underpins the current economic model and if you wanted radical economic and societal change then there are good reasons to oppose it. And there is certainly a strong argument for radical economic and social change.

The problem, though, is that while Brexiters work themselves into a lather over the fact that EEA still entails adopting EU directives, they ignore the fact that most of them in some way enact global conventions and rules we would be signatories to in our own right. That they come to us via the EU is to a large extent neither here nor there. We can wail about EU directives on renewable energy targets but much of them come from international agreements and a directive is just a common approach to implementation. This is the "double coffin lid" that the whole Brexit debate has failed to acknowledge.

In respect of that we actually need a government that will shelve their own eco-narcissism and stop ratifying these global accords - which I don't see happening any time soon. What we actually need is a great deal more direct democracy to ensure these binding global treaties are put to a referendum and to ensure that we never sign multilateral agreements unless they have safeguard measures and waivers.

Here we come back to the same old point that Brexit of itself doesn't actually accomplish much on its own. In terms of the reforms we need, Brexit is only a starter for ten. Then, assuming we were to leave the single market, the freedoms we gain in terms of what and how we can regulate domestic affairs are only as good as the government we have - which is not going to improve any time soon.

Then we must remember that our future relationship with the EU is going to be a continuum so whatever is agreed during the transition is going to change over time. What matters is our long term strategy for evolving it. This is where Efta makes the most sense since we can work with Efta to strengthen it thereby weakening the dominance of the EU over the EEA.

Though leaving the single market would certainly create a number of opportunities to overhaul domestic governance in a way soft Brexit would not, the economic costs of doing so are not easily compensated for. From a trade perspective, hard Brexit simply isn't a winning proposition. The value comes from having sole political authority over our trade but the decision to take full control over it means suboptimal trade for a long time to come.

The conflicts here are a matter of principles versus pragmatism. Here we find that principles are bloody expensive whereas pragmatism is to some extent self-defeating. There were never any easy answers. My heart says give Brussels the two-fingered salute while my head says sign the bloody deal.

The appeal of the so-called WTO option is its simplicity. Overnight we are no longer enmeshed in the machinery of the EU, but we create a tangled mess of our own and create a political crisis on just about every front and souring relations with our nearest allies. It may be the factory reset that some are hankering after but it is by far from a "clean Brexit". We will be dealing with the fallout for years and we will somehow have to rebuilt trade relations with the EU which will undoubted come with binding commitments on less favourable terms.

I suppose the folly here on the part of leavers was to ever expect a remain establishment to have the necessary vision and ambition to make a good go of Brexit. But then at the same time, the leave movement allowed itself to be co-opted by similarly visionless Tory drongos. A well executed Brexit was never on the cards.

Ultimately we need a principled vision but one informed by all of the technical and political realities which is far beyond the ken of our politics. Our politics is at the fag end of its useful life, and there is no sense of national purpose which is why our politicians prefer to simply resign ourselves to EU membership. Moreover, the electorate have been gradually demoralised to the point where national self-hatred is all too common.

Ultimately we either leave with a deal or we don't. With a deal we have a chance of salvaging the mess we have made. We will still have some leverage to reform the relationship over time and and the economic damage is sufficiently contained to ensure that at some point we can recoup the losses of Brexit. Should we leave without a deal with we are looking at long term economic and political instability, and a slide in living standards.

Part of me suspects this might well be necessary since our politics is too broken to limp on, and such a period of turmoil might very well go some way toward repairing the cultural malaise Britain has experience over the last thirty years. That, though, is a massive gamble. It would be the ultimate revolutionary act - and there is nothing at all predictable about revolutions of that magnitude.

If we're absolutely honest with ourselves nobody has a clue. We have set in motion a chain of events which are impossible to predict and forces beyond our control. We either choose to play it safe or go all in on the flip of a coin. All we can guarantee is major change. We cannot promise it is change for the better, but ultimately the majority did vote for change. From the chaos will emerge opportunities and threats in equal measure.

The real opportunity either way is the opportunity for meaningful political change and a window for democratic reforms. That is not an automatic benefit of Brexit but it does create demand for new ideas and new approaches. If we want a new democracy then the people themselves will have to build it.