Tuesday 31 December 2019

Brexit trench warfare isn't over

Remainers still don't get Brexit. There are those beyond salvation who think Russian hypnotoads infiltrated our Twitter feeds and told us how to vote (they who are beyond help) and then there are the sceptical types who just don't see the point. They tend to be the ones who keep demanding "tangible" benefits of Brexit. They'll never get it. Not all that's worth having is tangible.

What leaves them feeling cheated is the fact that Vote Leave didn't believe that people would vote for intangible benefits and instead set out an implausible prospectus based on flimsy assertions and cheap populist talking points. They're being told to accept a major economic disruption for nonexistent or intangible benefits all of which are arguable.

This is further provoked by the chameleonic nature of Brexit where it started out as a tub-thumping cry for buccaneering free trade, but now as it transpires we are excluding ourselves (of our own volition) from the single market, causing the EU to once more police its own customs frontiers, it is turning toward a dismal economic nationalism.

As it happens, the latter has more of a plausible foundation than the ERG free trade agenda. Having opened our markets we have transformed our society into a wasteful consumerist society with no regard for anything beyond its next passing fancy.

Notionally liberalised trade means cheaper consumable goods at the cost of domestic production but freeing up money to be directed elsewhere in the economy. We now take cheap food, electronics and clothing for granted. This idea fuelled a decade of globalisation, where it was assumed that treating China as a market economy would see China opening up and liberalising.

That, predictably, didn't happen. Trade is very much an economic weapon for China whereby they've pummelled the global competition with cheap (often counterfeit) goods. Any easement we have extended to China is not reciprocated. Trump is right. The West has been taken for a ride.

For this there are consequences, not least the the pummelling the high street has taken. We know that consumer habits are changing thanks to the internet but we have done everything possible to exacerbate the decline. But it's not just trade in goods either. The same dynamic is true in services and government procurement where the UK is the second most open procurement market in the world. Through the EU and the OJEU system public projects are put to tender to be exploited by Siemens and Dassault and all companies in between where we see train builders in Derby lose out to German manufacturers. The same is true of government software procurement.

Notionally, thanks to the single market this is reciprocal between member states but in practice it isn't. Multinationals can perhaps exploit it but less so SMEs largely for the same reasons there isn't reciprocal utilisation of freedom of movement. The language barrier, though, is just the starter for ten. Navigating the internal bureaucracy of the Polish banking system (for example) and the corruption elsewhere in Eastern Europe, makes it less viable.

There is, therefore, the foundation of a credible case for protectionist policies, ensuring local firms get the first bite of the cherry for local government and quango procurement. That is not to say it can all be blamed on the EU. Both New Labour and the Tories have allow strategic national assets to fall into foreign hands, hollowing out our defence research and aerospace sector - mostly handing it over to the French of our own volition.

In effect, though, our membership of the EU means trade liberalisation is baked in and trade (a key strategic policy tool) is not open for debate. Any strategic decisions we make can be unilaterally overturned by the ECJ. In that regard there isn't much to separate the "fwee twade" ERG and the EU. They both believe the same things (ironically a consequence of Britain's EU membership), only the EU (notionally) negotiates mutual liberalisation while the ERG believes in unilateral trade defence disarmament. The choice is death by a thousand cuts or the Tory nuclear option.

The problem now, though, is that we'll get the populist economic nationalism rhetoric from Johnson while the other hand, guided by the ERG, will be executing an agenda of their own away from the media spotlight. It's not a secret agenda. It's just that the media is even less interested in reporting trade than it was the EU for the last forty years. We get superficial talking points if they touch on it at all. And who can blame them? Hits on this blog certainly reflect the lack of engagement on trade issues and still public understanding has not advanced since 2016.

Typically the debate (such that it is) will split into its binary extremes of protectionism versus trade liberalism where nuance falls through the cracks, failing to note that we need an integrated national trade strategy rather than broad brush ideology, taking into account the threats and opportunities. We won't get that though. The media will distract the public with trivia and parliament will drop the ball. It doesn't especially matter that we don't have much of an opposition since it would likely be of no value anyway. MPs are just as easily led astray, often fixating on the trivia as a point scoring opportunity.

Meanwhile, our policy class (the think tank bubble) is divided. On the one hand we have the Tory sycophants who will simply make excuses for whatever government policy is in fashion, while the remain inclined policy wonks (usually the favoured "moderate" experts in the media) are extremists of another kind, wedded to maximum liberalisation but only within the confines of the EU regulatory ecosystem. Their horizons do not extend beyond Brussels.

This I suspect is the product of deformation professionnelle, seeing the issue only in terms of economic metrics tilted toward the status quo, in isolation of all other concerns, indoctrinated in the globalist groupthinks on everything from trade through to climate. For them trade is a sterile apolitical technical discipline and they don't like intruders. Democracy is a messy and unpredictable fly in the ointment that complicates their little schemes.

That is not to say, though, that meaningful democracy will get a look in. With Brexit as it stands we are merely exchanging one technocratic unaccountable blob in Brussels (in services of both multinationals and global NGOs) for another less competent one in London that largely represents the interests of Tory donors. We are a long way from democracy so, as usual, in what is to be a dismal binary debate, we are all stuck in the middle where you either choose a trench or get mowed down by the crossfire.

In respect of that, Vote Leave never needed the Russian hypnotoads. Activists are more than capable of propagandising themselves and persuading themselves to believe virtually anything according to who it "triggers" on the opposite side. Everything is reduced to ammunition in a culture war.

On the front line of this will be fishing, where we'll see all the classic economic nationalist rhetoric but in the end, the dogma will have to give way to the intergovernmental political realities. If we want access to European services markets then fishing rights are very much on the table (with predictable domestic fallout). Anyone expecting a Grimsby-Lowestoft renaissance is in for a huge let down. Brexit will continue to shape and define our politics for a long time to come.

Therein, though, lies the true Brexit dividend. Though outwardly intangible, the consequences are not. All the while we have been EU members, where economic policy is concerned we have lived under a regime where "the science is settled". Free trade good, protectionism bad. Brexit upends all of that and forces a reappraisal issue by issue, and not before time since we are talking about policy and regulatory systems devised in (and for) the previous century. The next major question is how we truly democratise that process to ensure that this time around, the public has a meaningful say.

So much of what was done to us on the road to European integration was done without public debate and without public consent. There is a danger that whatever replaces that relationship will follow the same pattern in which the true lessons of Brexit are forgotten. Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Britain is at the mercy of Tory groupthink

Intellectually the Brexit debate is still firmly lodged in square one. It's still bogged down in tribal dogma and sycophancy. We may have had a national debate spanning three years around Brexit issues but the nuances of trade have yet to sink in, and for as long as there are editors willing to give houseroom to partisan propaganda designed to mislead the ignorant we are not going to advance our collective understanding of the issues.

The first tedious question is whether Boris Johnson can secure a deal inside a year. But that depends on what you're leaving out. A trade deal can be either be a simple agreement on tariffs or it can be an all encompassing trade and cooperation treaty. How long is a piece of string?

So how then do you measure if a deal is a good deal? Again that's entirely relative to requirements. Here we are (or should be) seeking to maintain a high level of continuity to ensure existing trade built up over thirty years can survive. Much of our trade exists only because of the single market by way of removing technical and regulatory barriers to trade.

But then there are political priorities as well as immediate commercial concerns. There was always a balance to be struck between sovereignty and trade. The greater the emphasis on sovereignty, the less cooperation we can expect. The EU cannot extend preferences to any country that would allow that country to unilaterally set the lowest bar of market entry. Not even member states can do that. The EU, therefore, is bound by its own rules ad well as the precedents already set.

All the negotiating prowess in the world does not change the fundamental realities and constraints we now face. A deal of a sort is feasible inside a year but the question is whether it will be sufficiently comprehensive in scope. There is nothing wrong with prioritising sovereignty over trade as long as you are prepared to take the hit to exports, or at least have a direction in mind to mitigate those losses. As yet there is no coherent mitigation strategy.

The immediate concern, though, is that we don't even have a year under the current arrangements. The first year of Article 50 talks were consumed by unproductive bickering over the sequencing of talks, with each side talking past each other, with the UK having failed utterly to understand the structure of the talks and the power dynamics in play. With Boris Johnson playing to the gallery there is every reason to expect more of the same procrastination.

In normal circumstances at least a year is given over to scoping talks to define the parameters of any trade relationship to provide a framework for ongoing negotiations. This has to be mutually agreed. No doubt some preparatory work has been done, but much of it based on the misapprehension that the EU can and will make special concessions for the UK. The EU certainly does have wriggle room and can creatively interpret its own rules, but the general principles of its own systems will be upheld. For them it is an existential question.

This is not to say a comprehensive deal is not possible. It should be noted that the EU has a great deal of experience and all of their flagship FTAs share common components and boilerplate tracts where there is nothing to be gained in contesting them. The level playing field provisions are a low bar designed to prevent more egregious exploitation, and where technical standards come into it there is nothing to be gained by deviating from the global norms we are committed to through the EU and WTO.

Further to this, pre-existing templates for mutual recognition of conformity assessment mean that even a basic deal can go far beyond current low expectations. The EU managed to put together a comprehensive system to address the Northern Ireland issues in under a year and there is every reason to believe they have already built the foundations of any wider future relationship.

Here we can expect more or less the same pattern as before, with a last minute row over a manufactured point of contention (ie the backstop), diverting media attention away from the volumes of mechanisms we don't even contest. We'll see some impotent grumbling from special interest groups such as fishing but without the luxury of time they will be steamrollered when the political impetus is to get a deal done.

This time around we probably won't see the same sort of high drama we saw over the withdrawal agreement now that Johnson has a comfortable majority. If an extension is needed it will be a short technical extension to finalise the details and make space for ratification. No doubt there will be a spell of biff-bam theatricals where the media will, as usual, miss the point of it, but a deal is not outside the realms of possibility.

The measure of whether it is a good deal is to a large extent in the eye of the beholder. What matters is is not so much what is in the deal, as what is not. If we are determined to break out of the EU regulatory ecosystem then we'll find ourselves confronted with a good deal more export red tape on anything from chemicals to cosmetics through to aerospace and airline services. There is not much in between being a single market member and a third country. We may well escape new tariffs but our goods and services will struggle to remain competitive in European markets.

The crucial thing to note, however, is that the more contentious element of any comprehensive trade treaty is less to do with the sectors it covers as the dispute resolution system where if the UK does commit to any regulatory cooperation there will be a heated discussion over the role of the ECJ. The more comprehensive the agreement, the more contentious that becomes, where the sovereignty gains start to crumble one by one.

That is when the Johnson administration comes under particular scrutiny from all sides including the Brexiters where any major concession to the EU is a serious loss of face. That is why Johnson will inflict serious damage on UK trade. It's better to be hailed as the hero of the hour who brought home a deal when his opponents said it couldn't be done and kick the economic consequences into the long grass, so that by the time they begin to bite they can blame it on just about anything but Brexit. Or rather his wholly inadequate deal. The people always pay for the vanity of politicians. That is a feature of our model of short termist democracy.

By opting for a shallow deal with only rudimentary cooperation on standards and regulations, the most contentious part of any negotiations (governance mechanisms and institutions) can be evaded. That may secure Johnson's fortunes in the interim but but does not resolve the matter of our future relationship with the EU. A shallow deal provides only a foundation which will then lead to a decade of further negotiations resulting in either a future treaty resembling associate membership or something comparable with the messy compromise Switzerland has.

Like Switzerland we will find that negotiations are a long continuum that confronts us with a number of uncomfortable dilemmas years after we have declared "mission accomplished". It will take some years to build the kind of comprehensive relationship we need ultimately ending up with what we could have had by way of rejoining Efta and retaining the EEA agreement. All the while UK exports will be left out in the cold.

Of course nothing I'm saying here is at all new and this was all anticipated well in advance of the referendum - as detailed in Flexcit. Attempting to lodge these basic points in the debate has proven impossible and all attempts have been futile. When up against powerful agents of propaganda feeding audiences what they want to hear, deliberately oversimplifying the issues and distorting the narrative, we can only sit back and let them discover it for themselves. Tory arrogance is unshakable. They're living in their own tightly sealed ideological bubble and nothing, not even the primary source Notices to Stakeholders can make a dent in it.

Ultimately the Tory tribe will adopt whatever narrative it is spoonfed, and will defer to the anointed gatekeepers in order to keep the faith. Even when pushing Steiner's nonexistent divisions around on the map, they'll keep the flame burning. Even after we've moved ourselves outside of the EU regulatory ecosystem and our aerospace sector gradually implodes they'll still be blaming the EU. That moment of realisation will never come. Groupthink means you're never wrong.

For a while to come the Tory alternate reality will hold firm. With a deal in the bag the headline consequences of Brexit are muted and staggered buying the Tories a grace period to firm up their excuses. That may see them through the next election with the opposition still in the wilderness, but at the end of the day even a good excuse is still an excuse - and you can't pay the mortgage with excuses. 

Tuesday 24 December 2019

The Brexit bubble will eventually burst

In many respects the coming year is a blank page. We have rehearsed all the arguments but now we are to see how all the theory translates into practise. If there is one thing we have learned it is that nothing is going to go the way we expect it to. There are those who always said we would end up with Boris Johnson running the show, pushing us toward a hard Brexit, but I don't think even they anticipated the road we have travelled. In another universe there were sufficient Labour MPs to pass Theresa May's deal, there would be no Boris Johnson and we'd be out of the EU already, working toward a softer Brexit than the one we are faced with now.

In acquiescing to a general election it would seem parliament has surrendered the considerable power it had and now we have an unopposed Tory government which seemingly is going for the full monty Brexit. But then things are not exactly as they appear.

What we are seeing is a rather cack-handed approach, with the Tories still believing this is some sort of game where if they set out their stall so as to sufficiently worry the EU, then the EU will fold and come running after us. Hence they speak of "putting no deal back on the table". On Tory street they still think Johnson was able to reopen the withdrawal agreement against all odds when all the experts said it could not be done. They think it worked last time and they think that is the basis on which to proceed.

But then the EU didn't fold on any of its red lines. We simply reverted to an earlier version of what is essentially the same deal, fudged so as to appear sufficiently different so that the hardliner Brexiteers could climb down from their opposition to any deal. If anyone folded, it was the ERG. That, though, won't stop the Tories seeking to repeat the tactic as their opening gambit, claiming that there will be no alignment with EU rules.

It would appear this is taking a leaf from Trump's book, having secured significant tariff reductions from China by way of playing hardball. This sort of makes sense were the default position the status quo, but it isn't. That's been the whole flaw in Tory understanding from the get go. We are not talking about equal powers at a standoff and no deal (or any deal where the UK crashes out of the single market) leaves us excluded from a number of lucrative markets.

But with Tories being Tories there is nothing to dissuade them from this approach. We have to see it played out in real time. A lot here is contingent on how far the EU can flex on its own system of rules where we can expect some movement largely because a no deal outcome is in nobody's interests. The EU is not isolated from the effects of a UK in deep recession and the EU has existential concerns in its back yard that could be exacerbated.

That, however, is a lot to bet the farm on. The EU can make concessions but not to the extent of threatening its own territorial and customs integrity and never as far as giving preferences member states do not enjoy. There are also those MFN clauses in EU FTAs that third countries will be looking at closely. There is a limit to how far the EU can go. There can be no special status for the UK in respect of exceptions to the rules being that the system simply doesn't work if a third country unilaterally sets the lowest bar of market entry.

We can see how this will play out though. History will repeat. There will be a manufactured point of contention (a decoy for the media) where they believe the EU can and will fold, we'll see some movement from the EU and a deal will be agreed, and the Tory press will hail Johnson as a new Churchill despite the fact we'll be leaving with a threadbare deal excluding us from major services markets, trashing our aerospace and services sector, and the true extent of its impact will not be felt for some months, perhaps even a year, which allows them to blame it on just about anything but Brexit.

In the meantime we are to suffer all the Brexiteer cliches about "seeing the whites of their eyes"as though we were haggling for a carpet, all the while those Notices to Stakeholders remain the elephant in the room. Though economic modelling is wholly unreliable, the EU Notices read like a system of market permissions which are binary. You either have preferences or you don't. You either conform or you don't. If you don't then you don't get to participate in EU markets. It's that simple.

Hitherto now, all the predictive models focused on four possible options - Norway, Canada, Switzerland and no deal. On present trajectory we're looking at something in between no deal and a not-even-Canada FTA which may save UK goods from tariffs but will lead to the full imposition of regulatory controls at the border along with all the regulatory barriers to services ie. GDPR.

In case you need it spelling out, that's bad news. It's bad news for trade with the EU (our largest single trading partner) but it's also bad news in terms of rolling over and finalising existing deals with the rest of the world being that they are waiting to see what level of market participation we retain with the EU. A radical pivot away from the EU regulatory ecosystem makes us a less viable base of operations. As poorly thought out as our departure policy is we appear not to have a coherent trade strategy for the wider world.

I don't know how or when, but in due course I can see this blowing up in the faces of the Tories. It won't take a full parliamentary term before we see the inadequacy of whatever comes out of EU negotiations and then we are set for a decade or more of further negotiations to patch up the relationship on all the peripheral issues not given cover by the Brexit deal. Not forgetting that all the nasties in the Northern Ireland chapter will come into sharp focus.

This is perhaps the only lifeline the Labour party currently has. Were it not for the Brexit party they'd be all but wiped out. If Labour is serious about ever becoming an electable party it has to show that it is competent in opposition. If they still can't score goals with the goalposts left wide open then there's no hope for them. Much of what is about to transpire is wholly predictable just on the basis of the Notices to stakeholders. When it hits the fan the only people who'll be surprised are the Tories who think this is all one big game of poker.

Brexit day will not be the final day of reckoning. The Remainers will get what they surely deserve, but the true day of reckoning will be when the Tories are confronted with their hubris and profound ignorance. Only when both sides of this are stripped of their delusions will the bubble burst, and then, maybe, we have a basis from which to rebuild the country and its politics.

Saturday 21 December 2019

The Tories won't be spared from the cleansing fire of Brexit

Brexit thus far has revealed several fault lines in British politics, particularly how much the metropolitan remainer set actively despises their fellow citizens and holds the country in contempt for not being the place they imagined it was from inside their cosy self-satisfied bubble. I have taken some considerable pleasure in watching them face defeat after defeat of their own making. They could have leveraged a softer Brexit but instead dug their heels in, played double or quits, and now they walk away with nothing having put Johnson in Number Ten.

This to me, though, is only half the job. What will be perhaps more delicious is the fallout when Johnson's mishandling of Brexit blows up in the face of Tories. The Tories have always had one fatal weakness and that's a galactic arrogance. When they're convinced they're right they can't be told anything. There is no creature on earth less teachable than a Tory drunk on their own self-regard. They have swept aside any and all expertise in favour of cranks who sing their favourite tunes. They are pathologically incapable of treating Brexit with the seriousness it deserves because they've got high on their own supply of propaganda.

The short of it is that regulatory harmonisation is a massive facilitator of commerce, as are the multiple tiers of intergovernmental cooperation built into the treaties. The cut and run "trade deal" the Tories have in mind comes nowhere close to replacing the single market, and still they can't assimilate the idea that there is a galaxy of trade instruments expanding far beyond matters of tariffs and quotas. As much as the Tories are about to blunder into an ambush they have no serious contingency ideas as to how to mitigate the loss of trade because they don't understand why there will be a loss of trade. They have no idea how approach the issues either with the EU or anyone else.

Because this is a tribal disease and they listen to no one outside their clan, branding any dissenting voices as disloyal, there is no means of self correction. Warnings fall on deaf ears. The product of this is a party of sycophants led by an oaf with the attention span of a hamster let loose with single most important trade relationship we have, capable of wrecking thirty years of progress in trade liberalisation. There is no way this ends well for the British economy.

So far Brexit has destroyed pretty much it has touched, and not before time. It has burned through two parliaments now, shattering the Labour party and tipping the metropolitan luvvie class over the edge. As wonderful as that is, there is no reason to believe the Tories are immune from its deathly touch. In a year or so that galactic Tory arrogance will be repaid in spades. The Tory party may look united now but when the depth of Johnson's ineptitude becomes impossible to avoid and the consequences visited on ordinary people, it won't take very long for them to start fighting like rats in a sack. Johnson's superficial charms will wear thin when the bottom falls out of the Tory Brexit delusion.

I had hoped for an amicable reasoned departure from the EU but if Brexit just end up being a nihilistic arson attack on British politics then that's fine too since there's nothing about it worth saving. When Brexit immolates the empty husk of the Tory party that's when I'll be celebrating. Then we can get to work on salvaging something from the mess.

Northern towns will attend to themselves. It's the cities who are left behind.

This week we're seeing searching questions from the left asking how they reconnect with left behind communities in the north - the working classes who've abandoned Labour. They'll have a job because they're chasing a phantom. There is no such thing as a "working class community" anymore. We live and work independently, commuting far and wide where most of our interactions are now online. Centres of mass employment barely exist now.

Throughout Brexit, though, we've seen no end of poverty safaris from the Guardian and FT venturing up into the north to see the post industrial slums for themselves, usually concluding that more money must be splurged on the poor benighted northerners. The subtext being that the urchins wouldn't have voted to leave the EU had there not been a lack of investment and they'd still be voting Labour.

Consequently we will now see Labourists falling over themselves to patronise northerners and talk up the need for infrastructure spending, totally missing the point that the politics is changing because the composition of these places is changing.

Here we can easily paint a picture of dead end towns and villages but such a picture is obsolete. Maybe in the last decade and through the nineties this would have been a useful picture to paint, but we are now at least two decades on from deindustrialisation and many of these places have found a new purpose as dormitory towns. Aspiring younger families lengthen their commutes in search of affordable homes and decent schools away from the cities. Places that were once "former mining towns" are shrugging off that identity, an increasingly meaningless identity to younger people who couldn't even point to where the local pit used to be.

This is not just a northern phenomenon either. To a large extent this is happening because transport infrastructure has improved, enabling longer commutes so we're seeing the London commuter belt extending as far north as Peterborough, with sleepy fenland agri-towns now seeing new housing pop up all around.

You can still paint a picture of abandoned places though. The poster boy for Brexiteers is Lowestoft, not least because of the loss of the fishing industry. Unlike the towns surrounding Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, now undergoing a process of gentrification, Lowestoft is nowhere near anywhere useful. It's two hours from anywhere remotely civilised. Longer if you've rightly concluded that Cambridge isn't civilisation. Leaving the EU won't fix that.

This is key to understanding the new working class (if such a thing even exists). If asked what would improve their lives, the cost of commuting comes somewhere at the top of the list. Even a decent middle income puts you in the "just about managing" bracket when you discount income tax, NI and the weekly tank of petrol. Also, the time spent commuting is creeping up to three and four hours in the day, worsened by incompetent eco-inspired traffic calming measures.

Labour perhaps understood this when promising cuts to rail fares and the four day working week, but it just wasn't convincing. Somebody has to pay for it and raids on billionaires isn't going to do it. The left succumbed to unsophisticated populist ideas but the public aren't so easily taken for fools. If there are solutions then, much like immigration, they are smaller strategic interventions rather than headline policies and big ticket gestures.

In any case the narrative is all wrong. The question should not be why isn't Rotherham voting Labour. These towns will regenerate themselves as they become more middle class. The urgent crisis is that the cities are voting Labour. There's a reason people are leaving the cities in search of a better life - and if the aspirational classes are moving out, what's left but a crime ridden dirty, crowded, noisy slum. That the regions are gradually shaking off their "working class identity" (ie no longer dilapidated shitholes) is indicative of a larger problem.

It's all very well calling for more transport infrastructure, further enabling this trend, but commuting is a massive waste of time, a dreadful way to live, and massively wasteful in terms of individual and national resources. Families are pissing money away through their petrol tanks while we're blowing vast sums on roads that will reach their capacity within months of being upgraded. The question is how we prevent the exodus and how we end the misery of commuter slavery.

In respect of that, there is an immigration angle to this. It's no sin for people to want to live among their own kind with mutually accepted social norms which are near impossible in multicultural suburbs - and it's not controversial to say that multicultural inner suburbs tend to be shitholes, making it too expensive to live in the outer suburbs as house prices skyrocket. This has been characterised as "white flight" but it's not just white people who don't want to live in crime ridden dirty slums.

This then goes some way to explaining Labour's problem. We talk about "working class communities" but this is a euphemism for white English people living anywhere north or west of Peterborough. Labour panders to minorities because the real Labour strongholds are the city slums - and in so doing, Labour has nothing to say to white people, who (unlike Labour) think something has to be done about immigration and that it's not ok for Pakistani men to rape underage girls.

Fundamentally, though, Labour's problems run deeper. Labour is not a Labour movement. The Labour movement of old was comprised of actual workers who lived and worked together, went to war together, went to the seaside on holiday together. Working class solidarity once meant something and its politics set out to achieve something for those it represented. But that politics doesn't exist anymore because those mass employment industries no longer exist. Consequently Labour is just a brand name for a political company based in London trading on its legacy identity as a workers movement. But now the workers have different ideas and other aspirations.

Being that it is just a brand name, rather than setting out an agenda based on their values and selling it with a view to accomplishing something, they see politics as a marketing game, and will change their politics to suit, retailing whatever policies they think will reach their target audience in the swing seats. This is indicative of a wider debasement of politics and the Tories are just as bad. They're just better at marketing. Elections are retail, not politics.

This time around Labour lost the election because of its dinosaur attitudes. And by that I don't just mean Jeremy Corbyn. Even the Blairite/progressive wing of Labour is still fixed on the idea that the northern working classes are a huddled mass waiting to be rescued by the metropolitan betters. Even now, Labour's thinkers are chasing the same phantom, with James Bloodworth (by no means a Corbynista) falling for the "left behind" narrative.

Ultimately they're deluding themselves. You can travel anywhere in the country and find an armpit of a town with an unemployable welfare underclass and paint a picture of a deprived and poverty stricken country but the rest of the country doesn't recognise that picture and won't buy into a policy agenda based on that set of assumptions.

While everyone in politics is in a rush to display their working class credentials, the truth is that as a country we are not badly off, we moan too much and life doesn't suck that hard. It would be better if we had a bit more money to spend and more free time, and government could easily make that happen, and we'll vote for anyone who can make that happen. We don't give a toss who owns the trains just so long as they turn up.

Beyond that we Brits just want a safe and quiet life to live, according to our own values, without being lectured and coerced. That's why nobody is in a hurry to vote for a party who thinks women have dicks, immigration control is fascist, and anyone who thinks differently is basically Reinhard Heydrich. It's really not rocket science.

Friday 20 December 2019

The end of the beginning

The Brexit bill has passed without molestation from parliament. Amendments were struck down without mercy. There was no point. Johnson is unstoppable for now. Unstoppable and unopposed. It's a grim day for the remainers not only watching the bill pass but also reflecting on what they could have leveraged had they voted for May's deal. Both sides were playing all or nothing and now remain walks away with nothing - and we are on course for a dog's dinner of a Brexit.

For leavers this is a day of celebration, but again I'm not celebrating. Brexit was not an end in itself. Though it has destroyed the remain movement, the Labour party and much else, it has yet to claim the scalp of the Tory party and this is an unfinished revolution until it does. This swaggering Tory party drunk on its own self-regard has its own appointment with the crash barrier.

I can, though, see why today is a day for celebration. Only a couple of weeks ago some errant polls suggested a hung parliament was entirely possible, and with everything turning inside the margin of error, Brexit itself hung in the balance. But after three long years of bickering and trench warfare, the forces of remain have been vanquished, we have a decisive parliament and the left have been swept to the sides. It's difficult to see anything salvageable about the Labour party. They're going to have to rethink and reinvent but they'll be in the wilderness for a long time to come. We'll have to wait and see what crawls out of the primordial soup.

That then gives Johnson the better part of a decade to inflict his reckless Brexit upon us, assuming he doesn't get bored and offload his responsibilities. This much will keep the grunters happy for the time being, but anybody serious now needs to be thinking about a recovery operation and a strategic direction for Britain after the wreckers have finished. They'll cheer Johnson to the rafters when he gets a new deal, but there are trade deals and then there's the comprehensive relationship we need. Thanks to the Tories we'll spend the decade following the Johnson regime rebuilding what we could have had by joining Efta. Today the Tories have their day of vindication. I'll have to wait a while longer for mine.

Ultimately the Tories are gambling that the EU will cut corners on its own system of rules and adherence to WTO conventions will melt away when it faces pressure from member states on everything from automotive to fishing. It's not entirely without merit in that the UK is still an important market and it's not in the EU's interests to have a UK on its doorstep sliding into the abyss. The EU will hold firm during trade talks in order to exact a penance but in the future it will need to show pragmatism for its own political survival. The Tories will then see what they can get without having to give.

As a strategy it would be sound were the interim consequences not so destructive, but we're dealing with a pack of fanatics who genuinely do believe we have the upper hand. They're about to find out just how important our services exports are by way of watching them disappear down the drain.

In respect of that, Boris Johnson's remarks today about the labels leave and remain being redundant terms, I'm actually inclined to agree. I've done my bit for the leave cause and while I am pleased to be leaving the dysfunctional EU that does not disqualify me from being a Brexit critic either in the way it's delivered or the direction this or any government takes us from here on it. My desire to see us leave the EU does not require my loyalty to Brexiters nor do I owe them anything.

Having explored just about ever dimension of Brexit on this blog over the yeyars I'm sure if I read back on this blog I will have at some point gone along with the fashionable notion of deprived northern places ravaged by globalisation, and while there are some worthwhile themes to explore, it's difficult to see how Brexit brings any remedy, and certainly the Tory insistence on the most disruptive Brexit available to them is more likely to harm the manufacturing and services sectors that replaced the steel mills and coal mines in the north. Those "working class communities" who "lent" their vote to Johnson are going to be sorely disappointed if they were expecting anything different to that which they have become accustomed.

The fact is that Britain is a radically different country to the one I grew up in, and the notion of "working class communities" is antiquated and as redundant as the industries they were built around. They're dead and not coming back. That, though, does not stop the Tories and Labour entering a space race to court an imaginary cohort of monolithic northerners. Johnson's landslide doesn't make the Tory party any less of a rudderless husk and when Brexit turns sour they'll be facing the same existential questions as Labour.

The renewed sense of optimism is is a temporary delusion - like a band of bank robbers celebrating their haul, blissfully unaware that the oil leak from the getaway van is leading the police right to their hideout. Now that the formal departure from the EU is out of the way and the Tories have a majority of their own to pursue any agenda they so wish, they alone are accountable for whatever follows, and as we know from the EU's Notices to Stakeholders, it won't be a pretty sight.

But then with Christmas creeping up on us, who am I to pour cold water on what is at least an emphatic decision from parliament? It's the first in a long while and a brief respite from the tedious horse trading we have seen through this year. The new year brings new battles where we shall see surprising new alliances, and if the remainers can get over their collective grief, they can perhaps contribute something of value for a change.  It's no longer remainers versus leavers. This is now a battle between those of us who want good, responsive accountable government, and those who make excuses for government. Which, ironically, will be the Brexiters themselves. Funny old world. 

A failure of media

As remarked earlier in the week there is a dangerous complacency in government. The sort of quick and dirty deal Johnson will in no way be adequate for our needs given the scope and complexity of modern trade. If a deal is limited to tariffs, quotas and rudimentary agreement on standards and level playing field provisions then much of what is detailed in the Notices to Stakeholders remains true - as though we were leaving with no deal at all. Goods will face new regulatory barriers while services exports grind to a steady halt.

This appears to be a rather large elephant in the room yet the media has nothing at all to say about it. All they can bring themselves to do is echo the achingly weak talking point put about from what's left of Labour regarding workers rights. Without taking into account the hammer blow of a rushed Brexit, as EUreferendum notes, all other spending plans and policy developments cannot be regarded as credible.

There is then that other small matter of trade with the rest of the world where continuity of existing deals with third countries is contingent on the sort of deal we strike with the EU. We do not as yet know what this government intends to do but we cannot rule out the sort of unilateralism the Brexiteers have been pushing since 2016. It doesn't look like the media is in any hurry to find out.

But then does anyone even care? Emily Maitlis of the BBC tweets "We were told last night that Brexit would not be mentioned by No10 come the new year - 'people don’t want to have to listen to complicated trade deals'".

Historically this is true. Five years ago ardent eurosceptics didn't know what TTIP was, and trade wasn't really a feature of the referendum campaign. Ever since then the debate has been pitiful. Political talking points take precedence over important detail. People couldn't care less about it. But they will. When it's too late.

It seems as though we've drifted into yet another pocket of unreality where Tories believe we're now going to put Brexit behind us and set sail for that "golden age" with no complication or setback. This is typical Johnson shtick and very typically lacking substance - yet the Notices to Stakeholders sit there ignored like a bad pierogi on the plate. It's all there for anyone who wants to piece it together but so long as nobody acknowledges it, we can continue to skirt around it.

This we might expect of the Tories, and even from the opposition in their enfeebled state, but not the media. The media should be on top of this but instead have resumed their familiar post-match reporting style, hungrily chasing after every bone thrown to them by Johnson. It's back to business as usual for the lobby hacks. It is this negligence that allows Johnson to disband DExEU and pretend all is well in toytown, enabling him to paper over the gaping cracks. He's setting up another big lie and it looks like our media will give him another free pass.

Thursday 19 December 2019

Drop the "working class" baloney

The narrative has it that Labour has lost the working class to the Tories. I'm not sure that holds. It's more the case that Labour was pitching policies to a working class that no longer exists. This is something EUreferendum.com picked up on last week. The composition of Labour heartlands has evolved considerably, with former mining towns now having fairly decent affordable housing stock within an hour commute of Leeds or Sheffield - making them viable prospects for young first time buyers from elsewhere who do not follow in the working class tradition.

That tradition is long dead. I recall a while back I ventured into the former mining village of Cwm in the Welsh Valleys. It was a ghost town. The primary school and church both boarded up along with rows of dilapidated terraced houses. Some of these places can be found in the outer reaches of South Yorkshire but for the most part, the world has moved on. At one time you would work in the village you were born in, go to off on holiday or go off to war with your neighbours. Not now. The classic notion of the working class and its traditions is dead.

In terms of association we continue to assume that working class means poor, but there are a great many working class families who did pretty well since the 80's, now having paid off mortgages, not least thanks to redundancy payouts from the mines etc. They have assets they wish to pass on to their children. And when they die, the working class as we perceive it won't even be a living memory.

That is at the core of Labour's electoral problems. They don't know who their own base are. They made a series of assumptions based on vox pops of Northern pensioners filmed on a rainy Wednesday morning in Rotherham when everyone else was at work. As such the Labour party is not a labour movement, rather it is a brand name in London and elections are little more than marketing campaigns. This is not politics by the people for the people.

Ultimately Corbyn and the gang were dinosaurs. John McDonnell spoke of general strikes, imagining factory workers downing tools and going on the march, but we're not shipbuilders, steel workers and coal miners now. We're customer service managers, computer programmers and mid level bureaucrats as much as we are factory and warehouse workers. Over the last three years the term "working class" has become a euphemism for something else (and I'm just as guilty) but if politics is to understand the electorate, we need to ditch this increasingly meaningless expression.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

A dangerous complacency

Labour has a problem. Strip away the far left elements that voters find so repellent and you still have nothing much to work with. Of the contenders lining up to replace Corbyn, there isn't much in it. Labour has to go through a long process of introspection and reformation; a time in which the factions will be at each others throats, guaranteeing them a decade in the wilderness. Nobody serious would even want the job. It's better to pick up and run with whatever is salvaged from the wreckage.

That, though, is bad news for all of us. I've never voted Labour and I never will but as ghastly as Labour is, coming a close second is an uncontested Tory party high on its own self-regard. Right now there is a dangerous complacency as Johnson cements his position. The Brexiters think they have won the day - and to a point they have, but only to a point. They are not out of the woods yet. We have not yet left the EU and even on the formal Brexit day we still face months of transition in which we'll be living in a state of false security. The Brexiteers seem to believe that a stocking Tory win insulates us against the economic realities of leaving the single market. They're in for a shock - as are we all.

Much has been written about the dangers of a no deal Brexit, and we will see a pastiche of that debate as trade talks pick up with the threat of another cliff edge looming. The problem, though, is that if Johnson is as serious as he looks about a full blooded rapid departure from the single market then even if there is a deal covering the basics on tariffs and quotas, the effect will be almost as bad as if there were no deal at all. The danger of jammed ports and grounded aircraft may have passed and we've had enough time to forge a half way functioning contingency operation, but many of those issues as detailed in the Notices to Stakeholders remain just as much a concern with a deal as without.

The problem there, I suspect, is that the consequences will be masked by a flurry of surge activity as the economy adapts to the new realities, meaning the slow motion trainwreck will go undetected for some months, perhaps even more than a year. But there will be consequences. Business will have to spend a lot of money adapting, and we may even seen a recruitment boom as they reorder their affairs, but this is reactive unproductive work in preparing for a more hostile trading environment. We could be looking at an off ramp rather than a cliff edge, but either way that wake up call is coming.

That is when this government finds itself far out of its depth, being that their spending and development plans are predicated on the the status quo (as were Labour's) with no one taking into account that we're about to torpedo our European services exports with nothing in the offing as an alternative. The Tories appear to be betting the farm on a deal with the USA, relying on the wholly unreliable Trump whose presidency looks to be circling the drain. We then have internal stresses caused by the Northern Ireland settlement to deal with an a twitchy politics north of the border. If the Tory shine lasts more than a year I'll be surprised.

Though the northern working classes may have pivoted to the Tories (so the narrative goes), much is contingent on Westminster making credible gestures to the north. But since the money men have moved in to take control of Brexit, our trade policy is being driven by an agenda to break the city out of the EU regulatory sphere at the expense of trade in goods and non-financial services. Johnson will then find there's no money in the kitty to splurge on the northern regions. He won't be ending austerity any time soon, unless he borrows like mad, which he probably will, so the net effect will be only marginally less dreadful than Corbyn - and when it comes to trade policy, Tories are every bit as arrogant and illiterate as Labour. This is not going to be pretty.

Sunday 15 December 2019

The battle for Britain is only just beginning.

When Tony Blair won his landslide in 1997 it was clear a new era was upon us. The long reign of the Tories had left them a shattered party. They were morally and politically spent. Like Labour now, they faced a long road to reconnect and rebuilt; a long process over four leaders before they became anything close to electable - and even then couldn't win an election in their own right.

Since then the Conservative party has done nothing to cement is position. They won in 2015 on the back of a promise to hold a referendum, and only scraped the right to govern in 2017. Fast forward to now and things still look precarious. There has been no intellectual renaissance in the Conservative party, no reinvention, and there is no sense of purpose beyond simply delivering a version of Brexit.

This is certainly not 1997. Johnson is no Blair. Blair had his own mandate built from the ground up, with a renewed party barely recognisable from what came before, with fresh energy with a sense of moral purpose. Not so this time. The Tory party is still the same soulless, rudderless husk elected on the back of a national revulsion at the prospect of a Corbyn government. 

Johnson, therefore, is a functionary PM; to get Brexit over the line and to stop Corbyn. He'll have served his primary and secondary purpose in a matter of weeks, after which there is no "Teflon Tony" honeymoon. We know what the man is and it was all priced in at the election. It won't take long for the wheels to start falling off. 

Johnson is a man whose temperament is simply not suited to long and detailed negotiation. He has neither the intellectual stamina or the attention span, and doesn't care enough about Brexit objectives just so long as the theatricals play well. The real work will be delegated to the Brexit and trade obsessives on the right of the party where the talent pool is more of a puddle.  

Their red lines and idiotic misconceptions will very rapidly bump into the EU's political and technical red lines and the problems thrown up by his dog's dinner of a withdrawal agreement. At that point Johnson is well out of his depth and we'll see all the usual pompous incompetent bravado that sees us ejected from a number of important EU markets while having nothing of a contingency plan to speak of. 

If by then the opposition can get their act together and appoint a leader who isn't a congenital cretin then they can hoover up votes as Johnson destroys his own majority. Right now Tories are drunk on their own success, but the gaping gulf of ignorance on technical matters of trade will soon expose them as the chancers and frauds they are. Everything up to now they could bluff their way through but now they're going up against hard nosed professionals in the EU Commission who have every intention of nailing Johnson's balls to the table. It won't be pretty.

But of course, it's too much to hope that the opposition will get their act together. There is a long and protracted war to reshape Labour and decontaminate it. They can expunge Corbyn's influence but it doesn't seem like there's anything salvageable glistening in the smouldering wreckage. We could be waiting beyond the next general election for there to be anything like a functioning opposition. For the interim the main political opposition to Johnson is likely to be the European Commission.

But then there's the question of which Johnson we're getting. Are we getting the Ukip courting populist or the "one nation liberal" (whatever that means). Either way, an unopposed Tory party is a most obnoxious thing, and will face public opposition from several quarters. This week the continuity remain campaign is shutting up shop, accepting finally that we are leaving the EU. But they are still a force in politics. We will now see a battle to shape Brexit with remain off the table.

The sad part is that the continuity remainers had a better chance of steering the process during May's tenuous regime. They had every chance of securing a softer Brexit. Now, though, they are outside the tent, with their main pieces swept off the board and lacking the numbers to make a dent in Johnson's plans. If they had just accepted the result in 2016 they would not now be out in the wilderness.

Ultimately the Tories will do the opposition's work for them. Their Achilles heel has always been their arrogance. You can't tell the Tories anything because they're certain they already know it all. Consequently they will walk into every ambush just as Theresa May did and we will all pay the price.

We have seen this week a more emollient tone from EU quarters, with its functionaries extending the hand of friendship in the hope of a closer relationship. I fear that hand will be slapped away as a boorish Tory party with a head full of defective "free trade" ideas will run rampant. It will then fall to whoever comes after to rebuild trade and cooperation with the EU, that could see a resurgent Labour party taking us into a customs union and regulatory union, and face little opposition in doing so having endured possibly two terms of witless free trade zealotry.

But then if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity. Five years ago nobody saw any of this coming, and much is contingent on forces and events far outside of our control. With the election over and the nation getting back to business, relieved by a temporary political settlement, the real business of politics resumes free of the part-timers and out of the media spotlight. Now the real work begins. The battle for Britain is only just beginning.  

Friday 13 December 2019

And the nation roared... "Never Corbyn"

Here we are then. A Tory landslide. I should have seen that coming but I didn't. I think I stopped caring, largely assuming Johnson would win anyway. I think, probably, that when remainers started to realise that Labour was their only hope of a second referendum, drifting away from the Lib Dems, the good people of this land realised there was a realistic prospect of a Corbyn government. Up with that they would not put. And who can blame them?

I will spare you the detailed post mortem because everyone's at it. We all know the score. Put simply, there are no redeeming qualities about any wing of the contemporary left save for the fact they lose elections. Their policies tend to be either morally debased or issue illiterate. Cobyn managed both. There was zero chance that working class people were going to elect a far left zealot. This is a good thing. The British electorate are usually right and they did what was necessary yesterday.

As it happens, this was the first election in a very long time where I didn't stay up to watch the results come in. I saw the exit poll and that was enough for me. The people I wanted gone were sure to be sent packing. I didn't need it in real time. Sadly Yvette Cooper managed to cling on thanks to Farage, but I'm delighted to see that Mary Creagh is out on her ear.

If there is any stand out story of this election it's that the Labour tradition is dead. Hatstand territory is no longer happy to rubber stamp any red candidate with a pulse. Britain is no longer the same. Labour can no longer taker northern working class voters for granted. Without them, you don't win elections. As much as they won't put up with the gender bending nonsense of the new left, they don't like progressives trying to overturn their votes either.

Consequently social media is a wailfest on the left and a gloatfest on the right, and yes, though I did not vote this time around, I took some small pleasure in it. I'm allowed a little political schadenfreude now and then. The remain/metro left side have taken a much deserved shellacking. But there's always a catch.

Though we have binned Corbyn we're still lumbered with Johnson - a boorish lout and pathological liar who is in no way fit to lead the nation at a time when it needs coherent leadership more than ever. Being that the next phase of Brexit hinges on detail, we're up a certain creek. Our PM does not do detail and the details of any future trade talks will be outsourced to Johnson's cronies linked to the IEA. This is not good news. I'm not celebrating anything save for the fact the election is over. Now we just have to put up with annoying Christmas songs for the rest of the month.

If there is one thing to celebrate it is now that the remain movement is dead. Leaving the EU is now a certainty. The sad part, though, is that the "People's Vote" crowd have shut up shop to instead focus on campaigning for a "fair deal". If only they'd done that three years ago we might be looking at a more reasoned exit process.

There are those who believe that a Johnson win of this magnitude may soften his Brexit approach but that doesn't seem likely. What we face, therefore, is an overnight ejection from the single market which for many exporters and services companies is almost as bad as leaving without a deal. Within a year or so the shine will have worn off the Johnson administration and it will soon be apparent that this administration has bitten off more than it can chew while drunk on victory.

For that, I will never forgive the Labour party. Ultimately they delivered a Johnson victory. Not just the Corbynistas either. Had the centrists accepted the result of the referendum and passed Theresa May's deal, things would look very different. Now we have an untouchable Tory government at a pivotal time without an effective opposition. That's never a good thing even if you are a Conservative.

The markets may have rallied today on the news that the wheels have fallen off the Corbyn clown car, but these such estimations are always short term. The real shock has yet to be felt and won't be felt until a while after Brexit day. We may not see ground zero traffic jams at the ports and grounded airlines, but we are in for a slow burn recession that can only be cushioned by abandoning the moderately sensible fiscal stewardship the Tories are supposed to uphold. Johnson may have won the day today, but those who held their nose to vote for him will gladly look elsewhere next time if anyone can offer a tolerable alternative. Johnson's legacy has yet to be written.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Brexit: Hell on wheels

Yesterday the A14 Huntingdon bypass opened a year ahead of schedule. Or rather, I suspect, they planned a year longer than was necessary for PR purposes. It promised to cut journey times by up to twenty minutes. This it has not done. Last night my home commute took forty minutes longer and this morning it took a full hour and a half longer.

Now I could be quite cross about this but there were bound to be teething problems and things will soon settle down into a new routine. I'm told it has made things better for through traffic but for us locals it's something of a nightmare.

Much of the problem stems from people having not read the new map, not knowing where the new on and off ramps are, which is partly to do with poor signage, but also to do with a lack of personal planning by commuters. It will take a few days for commuters to get to grips with the new system and by the next year we shall know whether the new road delivers what it promised. There is still much to do further down toward Cambridge so for the time being, it just shunts the traffic jam about eight miles down the road. Doing the trip in winter darkness both ways certainly doesn't help.

The point, though, is that it only took this relatively minor change for the whole road network in the region to grind to a halt. As commuters seek alternative routes to avoid traffic, even the feeder roads were choked this morning, and the usual jam through Madingley took twice as long. I haven't seen a jam on the M11 like that since Duxford famously cocked up its planning for the first ever mass formation Spitfire flypast.

This to me underscores the point about a no deal Brexit. Systems work through gradually established routines and though they can adapt to change, and tolerate minor disturbances, they simply cannot cope with major change overnight. The cost of this particular change on the A14 has cost countless man hours and cost businesses hours of productivity (and major overheads and delays for hauliers), with some deciding the commute wasn't even worth risking.

Though we have had plenty of warning and time to prepare for Brexit, be it with a deal or without, leaving the single market brings about a whole new regime where even the best preparation will be stretched to its limits. As much as it has ramifications for ports it has ripple effects running into just about every regulated sector, to an extent impossible to predict. Though we can expect to adapt to whatever the new regime is, it won't be fast and it won't be without serious implications for commerce. At least with the A14 the eventual planned objective will lead to a less arduous commute, but with Brexit, and the absence of a credible plan, traffic jams are going to be the least of our problems.

Sunday 8 December 2019

British politics has become an ideas desert

This week the nightmare is over. After months of uncertainty and delay, the A14 Huntingdon bypass is finally going to open. The roadworks over the last few months have forced me to listen to more Radio 4 than any normal person could tolerate  - which is bad at at the best of times but excruciatingly awful during an election. They seem to think that sending a sound van out to Warrington to get vox pops from the regionals constitutes getting out of their bubble, but wherever they go, they seem to take it with them.

Happily though, the election is also coming to a conclusion. An election I couldn't have been less interested in. I shall be glad to see the back of it. Normally everything goes on pause to do politics during an election whereas this time real politics seems to have gone on hold to indulge in the standard fare that goes with any election, ie blether about austerity and the NHS. Yawn-a-rama.

That is not to say that such issues are not important, but I don't have the energy in the day to engage with the sort of deranged histrionics we see on Twitter. We have NHS privatisation scares at every election and if it was going to work for Labour then it would have done by now.

What's been missing, as eureferendum.com complains, is a comprehensive debate about the next phase of Brexit, but the bottom line is we're all sick of it. There's nothing much new to be said and nothing that is likely to change anyone's mind about anything. This election you do have a choice. You can either vote Tory to ensure we leave the EU or vote Labour for months more fannying around, presumably followed by a wearisome kangarendum and years more wailing. Other issues will not come into play until the election is over. 

It is not a happy choice though. We have to choose between the antiquated socialist dogma of Corbyn or the incompetent zealotry of the Tories so whoever gets in, we're looking at turbulent times and no sign of good governance any time soon. It might actually be better if we have another hung parliament to clip the wings of the Tories, ensuring they don't have a free run at whatever it is they are planning on doing.

This prompts fellow leavers to ask if I actually want to leave or not. The simple answer is yes, I do want to leave, and if I really was forced to pick a side I would have to vote Tory, but seeing as though I live in one of the safest Tory seats in the land I don't have to give my consent to this mob who have certainly done me no favours over the last five years.

Then, this week, we saw a minor Brexit civil war break out on Twitter between the Tories and the Brexit party (the one thing eurosceptics do well) yet I found myself with no dog in the fight. So often do I utter the words "beneath contempt" but seldom is that actually true. I seem to find the time and energy to hold a great many in the deepest contempt, but when it comes to the Brexit Party, braindead drongos that they are, I simply don't care what they do. The public were smart enough to vote leave so they are smart enough not to vote Farage where it matters. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

But my indifference to the Brexit Party does not put me in the Tory camp. If Johnson wins the election, the withdrawal agreement will make it through and then there's a whole new battle over what comes next - at which point I cease to be a leaver (as indeed we all do) in that we will have formally left the treaties of the EU. From that point I have virtually nothing in common with the leave blob.

The last three years have seen leaver attitudes harden where Brexiters compete to hold the most macho Brexit position possible, and though they didn't get their no deal Brexit in the last round, they're still going push for a minimalistic future relationship that in no way is going to be adequate for cooperation between the EU and the UK. Again parliament will have to rise to the occasion and assert whatever authority is has. After the technical Brexit day, Brexit is not owned by those who voted for it. This is a shared endeavour.

In that, I have no time for the free trade delusions of the Tory right any more than I buy into the threadbare "lexit" prospectus. Any action the UK takes domestically or externally does not happen in a vacuum and other nations will craft their own responses. Unilateralism has its penalties. We may reclaim our sovereignty but we have to have a sensible idea of what we intend to do with it and a destination in mind. 

This is where there is no functional difference between the Tories and the Brexit party. They've been chasing the Brexit holy grail for so long that they'll have no idea what to do with it when they get it. Leaving the EU for the most part has become an end in itself rather than a necessary step on a road to something better. Consequently post-Brexit politics will be yet another ideas free vacuum, where we'll see the Brexit blob grasping at any and all misapprehension and folly to give Brexit a purpose, be it banning live exports or propping up failing industries - half of which was probably never prohibited by the EU.

It has been suggested by remainers that if I'm so convince Brexit will be a damp squib then surely it's best to abandon ship and maybe try again some time in the future. But it is what it is. If we remain, the powers that be will make damn sure we never get another shot at it, and there is no reason to believe there is a point in the future where politicians are any more capable than they are now. We let our institutional knowledge of statecraft trickle away and the only way to rebuild it is by doing, albeit terribly. It's going to be a huge shit sandwich and we are all expected to take a bite.

As it happens, it looks like Johnson's Tories will probably win, primarily due to the intellectual and moral collapse of the left, shored up only by a desperate bid by remainers to blunten Johnson's majority. The respective tribes wail about Johnson's absent moral compass while the Tories beat the drum over Labour antisemitism. It's all pointless. It's all priced in and a great many who do bother to vote will be holding their nose while they do it.

What comes next is entirely contingent on what happens at the margins in just a handful of seats, which could still defy all the polls, but more detailed analysis still shows a comfortable win for Johnson. From that day the whole equation changes, where old alliances are broken and new ones begin to shape the final outcome. 

At that point there agenda is there for the taking for anyone with a remotely tangible prospectus. The week after next begins a new space race to define the next decade - which is a wholly welcome development, but it seems for a time we'll be crawling through and ideas desert as politics degrades further still. Maybe that's what it takes, but if there are sunlit uplands I shall likely not see them in my lifetime.   

Sunday 1 December 2019

Shifting battlegrounds

Insofar as there is a trade debate in this election it doesn't extend beyond the familiar themes, defaulting to the tired panic over a US trade deal. The self-appointed trade experts on Twitter churn over the same four or five basic points, preening as though this were original and hard won insight and, as usual, bring nothing new to the table.

They're wasting their time, though, because nobody cares. Chlorine washed chicken and NHS privatisation are just a stick to beat the Tories with but there is no serious conversation about trade and there isn't going to be. But then as much as I've lambasted Brexiters for their obsolete ideas about trade, it seems that the dogmas of trade wonks are also drifting toward obsolescence.

There was a time when producing goods to meet different regulatory specifications required two production lines and different print runs for country specific labelling. That was a serious problem before the advent of cheap industrial laser printing and advanced bespoke manufacturing techniques. It's even less of an issue now that technical standards have gone global. These days producing to a different standard just means selecting a different mode on the operating software.

Similarly UK businesses are getting ahead of the game where leaving the single market is concerned. Companies are now setting up paper companies in Germany and France, obtaining local phone numbers that redirect to UK call centres manned by French and German speaking operators. With voice over IP systems this has never been easier and if you're a re-seller you just have goods imported directly to the destination. This has been going on for some time which in many respects distorts trade statistics.

Recently I've spoken to a few local companies, some already experienced in exporting outside of the EU, and their view seems to be that new barriers may require an up front investment to adapt to but nothing is insurmountable. What's making this possible is the march of technology and open data services that make navigating country specific red tape easier to navigate and mitigate.

This is not to say that Brexit won't have a serious impact, particularly in services trade, but businesses always have to look for ways to stay competitive. Where customs formalities have proven too complicated and time consuming businesses have looked elsewhere to make savings.

This is where the private sector is light years ahead of the game. Even before the trade debate was fashionable I was keeping tabs on Maersk's ventures into trade facilitation, streamlining and joining up dataflows. Of course intergovernmental trade treaties can facilitate this kind of progress but with agreements taking years to complete, business can't wait around to exploit the technology and is heading them off at the pass.

Throughout the Brexit debate we have seen trade wonks and smug remainers scoff at Blockchain, but as a technology for managing transactions and customs documentation, it's taken seriously enough for IBM and Walmart to go all in on it. Though we are told "the technology doesn't exist", there are already examples of it working in practice as a way to track food through the supply chain to ensure the quality of pork in China.

One of the major areas of concern for food producers is food adulteration and food fraud where tightening up the administrative processes could, according to new research, save the food industry a staggering $31 billion. And if it works for the food sector then there's no good reason why it isn't infinitely expandable. The EU certainly thinks so having funded a major new UNECE research project.

They note that value chains have at least 15 nodes between the production of raw materials to the end-user product so improving transparency is a complex issue. Most of the data collected refer to immediate suppliers and purchasers without information about “the suppliers of a supplier” or the clients of a buyer. They see Blockchain as serious platform. 
 "Advanced technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and internet of things, provide an opportunity to increase traceability and sustainability through the creation of a common source of verifiable information on transactions, accessible to all supply chains parties, regardless of their location, so long as they have access to Internet. A well-designed blockchain-based application has the potential to allow brand retailers to access the blockchain (via a user interface program) and to verify the origin of each input used in manufacturing. Industry regulators will be able to check the data and examine the entire lifecycle process using the blockchain’s digital ledger (including registered inspections made by authorities to identify, for instance, occupational health and safety violations, unauthorised subcontracting or child labour practices). Consumers will be able to view a product’s full journey and its certification from field to shelf via QR codes or apps. So, this will help them to make an informed decision before purchasing a product".
This is doing what a million trade deal can't - digitising the entire export/import process from cradle to grave, on a single platform. A sort of amazon.com of international trade. This is especially valuable for major brands who lose billions to counterfeiting worldwide. The Central Market in downtown Kuala Lumpur is wall to wall counterfeit goods, where tourists go to get anything from knock of Prada handbags to Manchester United shirts.

Though deals eliminating tariffs between nations are certainly welcome, those who want to stay in the game and stay ahead of global trends are investing in supply chain data technologies, hooking them in with software that calculates the best formulas to evade cumbersome rules of origin. With such technologies increasingly available it is no longer restricted to big players. SMEs have no real trouble utilising trade preferences through such software.

As much as the Brexiteers became dinosaurs over the course of their twenty year long campaign, the trade wonkocracy, resistant to any ideas they didn't invent, will similarly find themselves clinging on to obsolete mantras as the world of commerce bypasses them completely. Formal trade accords between nations will be playing catch up with technologies light years ahead of the game, which they don't understand and don't anticipate for another decade - when much of it is already here and beyond the experimental stage.

In respect of that, the EU is the laggard, only just coming round to the potential of integrated supply chain technologies which could very will render customs unions and certain aspects of trade deals obsolete. Maersk and IBM are developing and setting the standards but not at the EU level. UNECE and the IMO is where it's all happening.

To a large extent, with the emergence of global standards, some nearly half a century old, trade in goods can look after itself. The focus should now be looking toward digital barriers to trade which is a far more complex and difficult nut to crack where in some regards we are going backwards. We started out with a world wide web, but with regional and national regulators now imposing their own agendas on to internet governance, mindful of intellectual property concerns and security threats, we are increasingly seeing the regionalisation of the internet - where (combined with the re-emergence of near shoring), globalisation, as we have known it, is going into reverse. The next battles around protectionism will be rules on data transfers and consumer data protection.

Being that the media can't cope with anything more sophisticated than party political talking points in respect of trade, and with a Tory party in the grip of archaic IEA dogma, believing we can do a quick and dirty trade deal with the EU, we are suffering from bicycle shed syndrome on a massive scale. Ten years from now we'll still be bickering about "hormone beef", no closer to a comprehensive US trade deal, while the major advances bypass us entirely.

As detailed elsewhere on this blog, there is no reason why the UK should be a down and out after Brexit. We may lose clout but we gain agility, and by way of coordinating ad hoc alliances in global regulatory forums we can be ahead of the game, and if we gang up on the EU we have more chance of reforming onerous GDPR rules than we ever did as a member. Outside of the EU, GDPR is viewed as an expensive nuisance. Tackling that on an international level should be a trade priority for the UK but that requires us to wake up to the games in play and recognise there is more going on than the same old tired arguments about food standards - many of which are decades old and no closer to a resolution.

This is where the debate has been boxed in by way of our obsession with FTAs, believing them to be the only instrument by which we advance our agendas and exert our influence. In this game, first mover advantage and ownership of IP puts you in pole position, and there is no reason why, if the UK overhauls its obese and lethargic academic research sector, the UK cannot be a leader and a player. Instead of sucking on the EU teat, Brexit presents an opportunity for UK research to think globally in the national interest rather than advancing EU political agendas. We can get our heads back in the game.

As it looks right now, though, with only a shallow collective understanding of trade, the UK is in for a serious shock to the system. It won't take very long to realise that a quick and dirty deal with the EU doesn't cut it and that tariffs are only a bit part of the issue. Only then do I see the UK getting its skates on. I have often remarked how the UK would have to re-learn the art of statecraft but we're going to have to learn the hard way. Our ignorance will make Brexit cost more than it ever needed to.