Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Media: Better off without

It has been a very very long time since I received any television channels. I don't feel I'm missing out on anything. It's certainly not useful for news or analysis and from what I see vomited on to Twitter, it gets worse all the times. I think the rot started when newsreaders exchanged their desks for sofas, losing any sense of seriousness or formality.

Particularly loathsome is the rise of the anchor person, spawning a new breed of A-lister lobby hacks and pundits who continually try to make themselves the centre of the story. They're smug, smarmy, condescending, out of touch and their output is inane.

There has long been a debate about media bias. I was once part of the anti-BBC crowd complaining of pro-EU bias. Undoubtedly there is an institutional pro-EU bias but that is born of its more serious metropolitan bias. As it happens I'm not that bothered by it anymore. You can take or leave it and I choose to leave it - and encourage others to do the same.

Where the media is most problematic is its inanity. I can tolerate the bias because I, like most, have my own system of critical faculties and my own opinions derived independently from book learning through to lived experience. What bothers me is the low quality. Instead of informed debate we get uninformed debate between the two polar extremes of any given issue where usually both sides are parroting carefully crafted slogans and factoids without challenge, largely because the interviewers tend to be empty vessels who have never worked outside of London and have never worked outside of media.

As much as the make up of the media is wrong, being largely Londoncentric, it wouldn't actually matter if you moved them all out to Manchester. They still exist within a bubble of their own making. The fundamental problem is their arrogance believing that viewers are incapable of grasping nuanced debates, and don't have the attention span to absorb in depth exploration of issues. Everything is fighting for a sliver of air time where we get only surface level discussion where they even manage to get the basics wrong.

What pisses me off the most, though, is that our A-list hacks are complete wastrels. By way of having privileged access to politicians they have repeated opportunities to ask intelligent, probing questions that could easily show the politicians up as being out of their depth, lacking a clue, and dishonest. Instead they play their own inane little "gotcha" games that the public are sick of, failing to add anything of value and leaving people no better informed for it.

We saw this during Brexit where the media was more interested in the soap opera than the actual issues. Journos didn't have the first idea what the difference between a customs union and the single market was, but had they even half a clue, they would have understood the implications of what they were being told which would have generated more and better questions that could have steered us to a viable, sustainable outcome.

With Corona we see more of the same, with the focus on PPE and human interest stories, unable to interrogate vents intelligently - when they could have asked why Corona was being allowed into hospitals when we had Nightingale hospitals up and running and ready to take patients. Effective media has the power to change government policy yet here we are some weeks into the lockdown and the government is only just getting to grips with the basics with the media lagging behind.

As it happens I don't think the media can be reformed. It cannot reclaim the seriousness it once had. With media now being an internet driven partisan battleground, and with a media unable to bring any depth to the issues, the media itself has become a participant in our politics but one that is largely concerned with its own brand prominence. It's not going to improve until news consumers vote with their feet.

But here we have a problem. There is presently some public pushback. It has not gone unnoticed that the media is dire over the course of Corona. But I don't think it's genuine. They'd be happy with a fawning and subservient media that told them what they like to hear. The right on Twitter seem to regard it impudent to question government at all. They are no more interested in an effective media than the media themselves.

I don't know if it's the lockdown that has changed my habits but lately I'm not even interested in Twitter news. Good analysis is rare as hen's teeth and the questions I have remain unanswered. If I want answers I'm going to have to get them myself. I certainly have no interest in the opinions of Twitter denizens and I'm not interested in playing by their rules in what is essentially a sordid popularity contest among insular tribes who are barely even aware of each other.

The only news yesterday of any particular interest to me was the release of a new set of Notices to Stakeholders, which I will revisit over the next week, but that came to me by way of a mailshot from the EU Commission. It seems I just don't need the media and I suspect a great many more don't either. We are better off without them. Whatever function it serves, it isn't news.

Further down the drain

If you've debated Brexit at any point, you will have ended up crossing swords with a populist grunter who insists on trading on "WTO rules" who will most likely not have heard of the EU's Notices to Stakeholders, much less read them. Up to now they were a series of official legal positions on the standing of a third country in the event of no withdrawal agreement. They detail which markets the UK will be excluded from or will encounter regulatory barriers to participation. 

Yesterday these were updated to spell out the position in the event of an FTA or no FTA post-transition. As before they are split into sectors from air travel to medicinal products. If acknowledged they would likely dispel a great many of the misapprehension of Tory Brexiteers. Every notice carries the same health warning:
In particular, a free trade agreement does not provide for internal market concepts (in the area of goods and services) such as mutual recognition, the ‘country of origin principle’, and harmonisation. Nor does a free trade agreement remove customs formalities and controls, including those concerning the origin of goods and their input, as well as prohibitions and restrictions for imports and exports.
Were that anybody were actually interested in the details there's enough set out in these notices to do a detailed impact analysis just on the basis of what happens in law, but with Corona absorbing the entire runtime of the media and the public, the only people still with their heads in the game are the headbangers and the policy wonks who have nothing at all new to say - and in many instances have regressed. 

The upshot of that particular health warning is that the mish mash of misunderstood concepts the Tories believe are possible inside an FTA are, in fact, not possible. This is nothing at all new to anyone who was paying attention but it's good to have it spelled out in black and white. The functioning of the EU system is not up for negotiation - and certainly not to accommodate the UK. Corona has no bearing on it.

In more practical terms, so far as supply chains go, there is not a lot of functional difference between an FTA and no deal at all, and thus, if we are resigned to leaving the single market the "no deal" debate loses some of its urgency. There is also that small matter of the global pandemic. With Airbus facing a grave and possibly existential crisis, and Ford reporting slumping revenues, Brexit is looking like a sideshow. Corona's disruptive impact on supply chains is a global concern.

As regards to extending the transition, I have argued that it makes more sense to defer, but to a point, Michael Gove is quite correct. It is entirely possible to conclude a threadbare FTA in a short time, and if this government doesn't see the need for a comprehensive deal, and is determined to inflict the maximum possible disruption, then it scarcely matters. Politically it is easier to mask the effects while Corona is running hot. 

This to me is an absolutely foolish move that actually makes this Brexit worse than the original no deal in that we have a dog's dinner of a withdrawal agreement to contend with where Johnson has practically handed Northern Ireland to the EU. If there was a point in a withdrawal agreement it was to buy time to develop a working relationship with the EU but since we're rushing it through and the government has no intention of working toward a viable outcome, we might as well not have bothered at all. 

What follows will be a torrent of propaganda, probably from the IEA shop on how Corona underscored the need for absolute regulatory sovereignty, glossing over the derogations the EU has already made, largely using Corona as a smokescreen to deregulate the way they have always wanted to - still misunderstanding the utility and value of regulation. They're still caught up in their decades old "red tape" narrative. 

With so much else going on I don't see there being much in the way of political resistance. The Brexit saga was already exhausted with new twists providing only morsels of entertainment for the media whose audiences are bored stiff of it all after four years of intense and ill-natured bickering. The continuity remain campaign have even pivoted to become an anti-Boris movement, more concerned with the mismanagement of Corona - but as usual getting distracted by the trivia and having no sense of proportion. 

Beyond Corona, it is difficult to imagine what the trade landscape then looks like. The price of oil provides some easement, but trade is sure to be more political than it has been in recent years with food and biosecurity taking centre stage and economic nationalism surging back. Corona will have brought about a number of changes in consumer behaviour, some of which will be here to stay. Buying locally produced goods may just become a necessity since shipping lines are on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, we are going to miss a lucrative export market place in our own backyard.

As it happens, there is every reason to believe we won't strike a deal with the EU. They UK red lines are too out of kilter with the EU's trade methodology. The UK is resistant to level playing field instruments, failing to comprehend that as far as the EU is concerned, a level playing field is a the whole point of FTAs which are their principal instrument of regulatory hegemony and soft power. Between that and the gulf that exists on fishing, the Tories have the pretext for a walkout that will be hugely popular. The European question, therefore, will remain unresolved. No deal cannot stay no deal. 

I would like to think that sooner or later the criminal negligence in their handling of Corona, and the botched exit from the EU will cost them later down the line. For the moment, the unpopularity of the media is giving the Tories a free ride, which they have skilfully weaponised by picking fights with A-list lobby hacks. It works for Trump and it will work here. The media is not doing itself any favours.

As regards to anything like coherent opposition, Keir Starmer brings no remedy to Labour's woes. Aside from being wooden and having all the charisma of septic tank, Labour still has an irreconcilable identity crisis to fathom while its factional infighting prevents Starmer from doing anything useful. He's no Blair and he's not even a Kinnock. But then, there is a deeper crisis in that they've forgotten how to effectively oppose. They take their agenda from the media and have no idea how to usefully exploit the mistakes made by Johnson. 

For the time being government is just something that is done to us where public consent doesn't really come into it. There is a public debate of a sort but it doesn't influence anything. We simply have to endure a feral government with no means of correction until the next general election, where, as ever, the options will be unpalatable, unedifying and fatally uninspiring. Meanwhile the media gets worse so the government remains more popular than it has any right to be.

I've been writing solidly about politics for five years now. I got into it with the hope that we could change things, arrest the decline and give government the overhaul it desperately needs. I'm starting to think it may not be possible. We are ebbing further away from democracy all the time. It;s nothing to do with Corona either. Public debate focuses on the leader and all power gravitates to the centre. The media reinforces it by making the Prime Minister the central focus - the prism through which all events must be viewed. Politics has died a death and not even Brexit managed to resurrect it while Corona just makes it more tribal than ever. 

Since Margaret Thatcher, each government has been more banal than the last as they choose to engage the public via the media. Politicians become bland sloganeers - evasive, dishonest and incurious. We have become so accustomed to manufactured scandal that real scandal no longer rates so conduct in politics declines. There is no price to pay for failure and no consequence for malfeasance. Since the public have been politically castrated they no longer care. Politics is now entertainment and they wouldn't have it any other way.

I've long felt that the public would have to feel tangible consequences for political indifference before they got angry. We were at least close to that with Brexit but with Corona being a cover all smokescreen we are even robbed of that. Government can continue to evade responsibility and people are all to happy to make excuses for it. I don't know how bad it has to get but it seems the answer is "worse than this". As if it wasn't depressing enough already. 

Monday, 27 April 2020

Corona: behind the learning curve

Very early on in the Corona epidemic it was known that the virus was more than likely airborne. A new study confirms this. You didn't need to be an epidemiologist to see that cramming people on underground trains was going to spread the virus - but they carried on doing it.

Anyone with practical experience in outbreak control said we needed to treat this as several outbreaks rather than a single epidemic - which needed local coordination rather than the West Wing soap opera we have seen in recent weeks. The very basics of outbreak control says test and trace procedures are our best bet. This government didn't think so and stopped doing it early on. Only on Wednesday, some weeks behind other countries, did it decide to recruit a test and trace task force.

Meanwhile some of us have been saying for weeks that the Nightingale hospitals should be used as primary treatment centres to keep the virus out of hospitals to prevent the re-seeding the virus. This they did not do, killing thousands of people in the process. Only now does the government consider a change of policy. This is all a bit like that saying about American foreign policy. They will always do the right thing - but only after they've tried everything else.

This is not a matter of 20:20 hindsight. This is the fundamentals of outbreak control where the government has abandoned all good practice in favour of its own hapless blundering - much like its handling of Brexit. Its Corona track record is a litany of failures. The decision to infect care homes ought to be something of a national scandal - and it would be were the media capable of concentrating on anything instead of producing valueless noise.

It would seem the current policy reversals are in preparation for an easement of the lockdown - which is about right. The public don't have the stamina for it, the economy cannot afford it, and politically it is unsustainable. If the government can get its act together with test and trace, and can shift the workflow away from hospitals and care homes then it is feasible to ease up. Some seem to think the issue is binary, but every policy has to be look at in conjunction with whatever other measures are in play.

There does, though, seem to be a unfounded air of optimism. Twitter is mostly useless but it does have moods and yesterday morning the mood was one of expectation in the belief that it was almost over. Between unused Nightingale hospitals and misleading statistics, there is a sense that this is all just a massive overreaction and we can return to the normal we knew. Even a government as crass as this one doesn't believe that. If there a plateau it's because the lockdown is working and a sudden end to the lockdown would see a flurry of activity that would set off a second wave. This is going to have to be managed over the long haul and it will take some time before easement measures are in place.

Though country to country comparisons are to be met with scepticism and suspicion, It seems that New Zealand did get it right in the early days. It brought in some of the toughest restrictions in the world when it only had a few dozen cases and closed its borders while enforcing quarantine of all arrivals. It brought in a stringent lockdown and an extensive test and trace regime. It is now presently Corona free.

Obviously the UK and NZ are massively different countries with different topography, demographics and climate, and NZ is not host to a global city like London. The chances of containing it outright were slim. But had we gone back to first principles we might well have contained it outside of the capital and lockdown measures outside of cities may not have been necessary. This government has made every avoidable mistake in the book. We now prepare for the second act when the first was treated as a dress rehearsal. There's no question about it. This government is incompetent.

As explored previously this is the culmination of decades of maladministration, but cucually there is a talent drought at the top of government and no institutional knowledge of how to meet a biosecurity threat of this magnitude. It is now playing catch up, weeks behind the learning curve, and needlessly killing people as it goes. 

This government has enjoyed a certain immunity in the polls thanks to the self-immolation of the opposition, and with the public largely not informed about the mechanics of trade, Johnson's Brexit bloviation has gone largely unpunished. The rap sheet on Corona, though, is growing longer by the day. The right has it that the media has misread the mood of the nation, and perhaps it did initially, but this is like driving through plague of locusts. Eventually the windscreen is covered, the wipers jammed, and the radiator gets gummed up. Tory drones can deflect and defuse, but the sheer ineptitude of Johnson's administration will soon overwhelm even their capacity for self-deception. There has to be a political price - and I suspect we shall not have to wait long to see it. 

A model for the future?

I have been otherwise occupied. This F4 Phantom is my latest and, without a doubt, my best ever effort. It has now taken pride of place on the mantelpiece. I'm now working on a Canberra PR.9.

It's interesting, though, that when I look at my full shelf line up, I note that every jet I grew up with is now retired. Aviation geekery used to be an interest in the present and the future. Now it's nostalgia. The major advances in aerospace are in the civil domain and it no longer captures the public's imagination. I think with the passing of the Tornado from RAF service last year, we really did see the end of the cold war technologies. We are in more than one way in a whole new era. Between Brexit and Corona, the world I knew is gone.

There is, however, nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia. The political history of Britain's aviation industry is one worthy of study. Every post-war aircraft in RAF service was as much a political decision (or a consequence of one) as it was one of capability. The Jaguar was a stopgap, as was the Buccaneer and Phantom, as Britain was torn between the US and Europe, while trying to sustain its own aerospace exports.

As I understand it, while many get misty eyed about the VC10 and what could have been, and what a superbly capable aircraft it was (allegedly), the RAF had it foisted upon them in order to make the production line viable. For every supposedly world beating aircraft we had a half dozen failures while propping up a massively inefficient industry - not having a the first idea how people were to be otherwise employed. The only reason the Canberra bomber had a plywood fin was to give the craftsmen at De Havilland something to so when the writing on the wall for wooden aircraft was already faded.

To a point the remainers are quite right. Britain's self-image as pioneering player is somewhat trumped up. The one that really gets plane spotters misty-eyed is the TSR-2, which for its time probably was as good as they said, but there's a shed full of flops to get us to that point and it wasn't much over and above the North American A-5 Vigilante.

It didn't even improve when we went in on European collaboration to produce the Panavia Tornado. It took twenty years of concurrent development before it was a capable aircraft and the fighter variant, unfairly described as useless, wasn't nearly as capable as the F16/18 and in the end a good deal more expensive. We latterly repeated that mistake by going all in on the Eurofighter.

The Eurofighter, or Typhoon as we now call it, is undeniably an amazing machine for something that looks like Finger Mouse, but offers little over and above a later model F16 at a third of the price. It doesn't even represent European cooperation since the French went off and did their own thing with the Rafale. With the F35 we have probably seen the last European venture for some time. The atlantic pendulum swings again.

Where Corona makes things interesting is that it finally kills off the big four engined passenger jets. The ill-fated white elephant Airbus A380 will soon be making its way to the scrappers with no real interest in developing a feight version, bringing an end to another politically motivated project. Another era comes to a close - and with Brexit, very possibly the beginning of the end for aerospace manufacturing and in-service support at Filton.

In the tradition of obsolete and expensive ventures to keep people in the regions in decent jobs we now wait to see if the Tempest fighter programme comes to fruition, but Corona may see that hitting the buffers before the artists impressions are finalised. Once again the UK will have to choose between Europe and the USA is we can even afford to be in the game. Since any manned fighter is practically a museum piece at inception, and with Corona related defence cuts a near certainty, the UK has to think about whether it can even sustain an air force in the classic sense.

Between Brexit and Corona, bearing in mind that air travel demand has gone off the cliff, aerospace and defence is turning a corner. It may be that plastic aeroplanes out of a shipping container from Japan will become Britain's main aerospace interest. Not that I have a problem with that.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

A milestone on the long road of British political decline

Now that Brexit is over the line I'm considerably less emotionally invested in defending it which gives me a certain clarity I didn't have before. Or rather I don't feel the same obligation to defend it. There was a battle for ownership of Brexit and the hardliners won. I think probably that battle was lost early on, and though there were opportunities to reclaim it from the headbangers, Theresa May wasn't up to the job.

Being that in the eyes of Brexiteers I am not even worthy of the name leaver, despite having stood for UKIP in the early days (and having campaigned full time to leave, being a co-founder of an independent leave group, I am happy to concede the ground to them. I had long argued that Brexit wasn't a populist coup, wasn't isolationist, wasn't "europhobic" or "right wing". Or at least there's no reason why it should be, but ultimately that message couldn't cut through the noise of Johnny-come-lately leavers who saw Brexit as a vehicle for a wider culture war.

Since they have now cemented their victory not only over remain, but also any moderate voices, it is now theirs to defend. I am now at liberty to ask all the questions that demand answers. I keep asking and will ask again; with only a rushed threadbare EU FTA or no deal at all, and UK-US talks postponed indefinitely, what genius moves does this government have in mind to get us out of the Corona slump, bearing in mind the public wants shorter supply chains?

I know how I would go about it being that I have taken the time to explore trade and trade treaties in depth, but these questions are not for me to answer. I can't speak for Brexiteers because they would vehemently disagree with anything I proposed. They need to answer these questions and be judged on their answers (or the absence thereof). 

Very occasionally a Brexiteer, usually with a poorly photoshopped campaign avatar, will take a stab at it, but it only goes to demonstrate that the average Brexit grunter doesn't have the first concept of what a modern FTA is, is not interested in finding out, and prefers the alternate reality constructed by the Daily Telegraph/Express to the one we live in.

At no point are we going to get coherent answers. It might be good to know from Richard Tice how we are to become "self-sufficient" in agriculture while unilaterally trashing our trade defences. How does the "buy British" shtick live side by side with being a "global free trade champion"? If we are abandoning EU state aid rules, what about those WTO state aid rules? And on that subject, how do they square calling for the abolition of the World Health Organisation when it is integral to the functioning of the four main WTO agreements?

Course we know the answer to all this. There is no consistency or coherence to be gleaned from their issue illiterate ranting, and the way in which they have so effortlessly turned from no-dealers to Coronavirus "it's just the flu" truthers tells you all you need to know. This is pure populism at work that pays no regard to facts. It's a malcontent movement of wreckers all too happy to destroy but offer nothing n terms of vision or what comes after.

The great pity of all this is that Brexit could have been a pivot point for British politics; an opportunity to convert the Brexit momentum into real and lasting democratic change. But in the end, they weren't interested in that. They are entirely happy with the elected dictatorship system just so long as it's their dictator and Boris Johnson is enough to placate them. That's the height of their limited ambition. They don't care what this government actually does just so long as it keeps grunting the right noises. The only outcome it will be measured by is if Brexit is Brexity enough for them. And, of course, no Brexit short of no deal will ever be enough.

There's no getting round it. Brexiteers are pretty shitty people and the leaders they have chosen to speak for them are thick as they come. They not even aware of their own inconsistencies let alone capable of intellectually addressing them. They've turned it into a giant popularity contest (something they can win with ease) and by way of having influence over the agenda, but no actual power, they never have to take responsibility for what happens, so they feel no real obligation to supply credible answers. Ultimately the Tories will have to carry the can.

But with Brexit now eclipsed by Corona, there is no day of vindication for anyone, least of all me. Any layoffs at Airbus or Rolls Royce will be put squarely at the feet of Corona. The industry will gradually rebuild but not with the UK in the picture. Brits will become poorer than before without ever realising what was done to them.

Brexiteers will argue that Corona has weakened the EU's trade clout, which to a point is true. The same cohesive bloc will not reassert itself for some time, if ever, but for as long as the EU does exist (and in my view it will survive) it calls the shots for the continent and is a power with which we must contend. Looking at it in the wider context, we are sure to see a pivot away from China, accelerating the near-shoring trend, meaning that our regional markets become all the more important.

But then, as this blog has long argued, it won't be the Tories who define the longer term relationship with the EU. Any FTA is just an empty bucket to be filled at a later date. With Tories may get their empty bucket but it is for others to fill it, and fill it they will full of obligations and commitments. This government will be judged on its performance during the Corona crisis (and public opinion gradually is turning against them), and it will be for others to decide how we climb out of the Corona slump and the shape of our relationship with the EU. The grunters will have had their day and squandered their opportunities.

With the Tories presiding over a Corona shambles, having infected care homes directly from hospitals, and with questions still to answer over their inaction in the early days, if the opposition gets their act together, there is no end of material to smack the government with at a time when events have surpassed the minuscule abilities of the prime minister. Add to that a bungled Brexit that sees us cut off from our most important export market, and a serious talent drought at the top of government, Johnson will fall in disgrace.

For all that, I still see nothing in the EU that persuades me we should wish to be members, Its lacklustre response to Corona reveals it to be the creaking and dysfunctional mess we always said it was, but Brexit is no longer a turning point. It's just another milestone on the long road of British political decline. Statecraft is dead - and having squandered the opportunities Brexit afforded us, we are likely looking at a slow plod toward associate membership with little opposition in the country thanks to the populists. They are not as popular as they think.

Much in the future now depends on the grim daily increment of Corona fatalities. There is an emerging public mood that we have seen the end of the beginning and can look forward to resuming a mode of normality in the not too distant future. With the official body count having surpassed the 20k benchmark of a "good outcome" with possibly as many more outside the hospital system and more to come, with another possible surge should there be an easement of restrictions, by the time we are done we could be looking at unthinkable numbers. At that point, the "it's just the flu" Brexit brigade will have to account for themselves. They can perhaps hide from the trade impacts but the body count is one statistic they can't walk away from. 

Thursday, 23 April 2020

The rule of groupthink

The populist grunters on Twitter are trotting out the line that lockdowns don't work, should be lifted as soon as possible and herd immunity is the only way to get through this. As ever they are not thinking. Before the government officially announced a series of measures over a number of days, a number of large venues were cancelling events while universities were already taking unilateral decisions to draw down face to face teaching.

At this point we didn't know much about the virus: how deadly or how infectious and had no reliable data and to a large extent we still don't. Had there not been a lockdown the media would have been screaming while employees would be bombarded with requests for leave as individuals took their own precautions. Any company choosing to remain open would have major PR problems and possibly even face vigilante attacks. No British government could be seen to be sitting on its hands as the death toll shot up which was always going to be severe in a city like London. Even the suggestion of herd immunity caused a wave of revulsion as people largely took it to mean what the government meant, ie let everyone catch it.

Within a couple of weeks we'd be seeing mass panic, especially since the government had elected not to do contact tracing. This mass panic would see a sizable proportion of the public going into voluntary lockdown, which of itself whacks profit margins. Then you'd have a rapidly overrun NHS adding to that panic where schools would close of their own volition, taking parents out of the workplace, and pretty soon you have half the country in self-isolation.

Anyone still defying the public mood would then be facing accusations of putting profit before safety, which would have the unions up in arms while the opposition has a field day. Not putting some form of lockdown in place is not politically viable. The government had to do it just to bring a sense of uniformity and coherence, slowing the spread somewhat, buying time to collect data, understand the issues and formulate a longer term strategy. Without that coherence it becomes as much a public order issue as it is a health issue.

As regards to herd immunity without a vaccine, with a virus we still don't fully understand, with all manner of lasting after effects, such a policy is highly reckless.

So what about Sweden? As explored previously,  country comparisons is comparing apples and oranges. Every country needs its own approach befitting its culture. I can't speak about Sweden  but the UK national debate is highly polarised, stoked by the media, and culturally we are risk averse. We have to look at how people behave in each set of circumstances. In any case, demographics, population density and topography make direct statistical comparisons meaningless and even inside the UK the figures are distorted by way of the huge cultural and economic disparities between London and the regions. As regards to the more liberal approach in Sweden, the jury is still out, but they are leaving it to chance. Sweden is likely to be the beneficiary of measures taken by its immediate neighbours.

As to lifting the lockdown as soon as possible, that will likely see a second surge requiring further lockdowns, unless we get good at containment by way of contact tracing and selective quarantines. This lockdown needs to last as long as it takes to deploy and refine a test and trace regime that has never before been attempted.

On the matter of the economy, there seems to be the belief that the do nothing "herd immunity" strategy is consequence free. It isn't. In any case, trade and movement restrictions stay in place between countries (particularly air freight) which causes supply chain problems that mean a lot of businesses can't operate normally anyway. Not particularly helped by panic buying either. In short it's a giant shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite.

In my view the lockdown could have been avoided had our planning and timing been up to scratch but since we missed the containment window, we don't have much of a choice until we can ease our way out of it. The populists argue that this virus is no more deadly than the flu. This is clearly not the case. We can all play cynical games with statistics but ultimately the nature of this virus means it has the potential to kill more than Ebola because it has a larger infection pool.

It's not surprising that the "herd immunity" grunters cross over with hardline no deal Brexiters. The populist mindset, addled with conspiracy and suspicion, spoofed toxic propaganda and fake news, continually believes there is a hidden agenda and that their "common sense" trumps expertise. For sure there is disagreement on how to proceed between experts, and the strategy is as much political as it is scientific, but right wing populists can always be counted on to dispute virtually anything for any reason if it suits their massive superiority complex. It's always grunty middle aged men and frumpy Tory women who continually assert that their total ignorance is equal or better than professional judgement.

To some extent our expert class has brought it upon themselves by way of their professional misconduct during Brexit, demanding that a constitutional issue was a purely technical question that ordinary people weren't equipped to consider, and couldn't be trusted to vote the right way. They themselves have brought expertise into disrepute. As with climate change they will always sing the song of their funders, meaning they are instinctively not trusted. Like the boy who cried wolf, now there is a wolf, nobody is listening. There is also the malign influence of the media which is a whole other essay.

There is then the politics of it when the progressive left favours the word of international bodies no matter how corrupt or incompetent, while the populist right mistrust all government but especially any entity above the nation state level. The populist right doesn't just want to leave the EU and UN, they actively seek to destroy them regardless of the consequences. Consequently they will disregard anything said by the WHO or EU, and the moment they see what their domestic political opponents are saying, they will automatically assume the extreme opposite narrative. This is not in any way driven by rationality on either side.

As with everything else the truth is somewhere in the murky middle, buried under a mountain of partisan propaganda, struggling to get an airing with audiences lacking the time, attention span or background to absorb what they need to know, so will instead look to persons of prestige as recommend by opinion gatekeepers in their own tribe. We therefore have a debate where nobody can be persuaded of anything because holding the party line always comes first. To do otherwise is to invite ostracism and since most people are cowards they'll do or say whatever is expected of them - even if it kills them, which in this case, might just do that.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

You have the media you deserve

I haven't been monitoring the UK Corona soap opera very closely. Hypocrisy is running wild and it's too much to bear. I'm tired of the partisan bickering on Twitter and I want no part of it. I'm not going to get sucked into arguing the toss over manufactured issues and I don't want to know Robert Peston or Piers Morgan think let alone debate their opinions. The issue is far bigger than our festering tribal politics. 

My first thoughts when Corona hit were obviously related to trade and Brexit but then I started thinking about the global implications - chiefly what happens when Corona hits the slums of India and Pakistan and parts of Africa. We're not getting reliable data because they don't have sufficiently good governance to collect it and are probably not even testing, let alone treating in the worst affected areas. Moreover, I wouldn't place too much faith in the accuracy and honesty of data from these such places. We can see, though, that it is already causing tensions and political instability.

I have some confidence that the UK will eventually get a grip and we will somehow cope but the bigger picture, while we prat about, failing to control Covid-19, is that less developed countries which rely on us for trade are suffering from the economic downturn which we have precipitated. If Corona doesn't get them then famine and other diseases most likely will.
The world is facing widespread famine “of biblical proportions” because of the coronavirus pandemic, the chief of the UN’s food relief agency has warned, with a short time to act before hundreds of millions starve. More than 30 countries in the developing world could experience widespread famine, and in 10 of those countries there are already more than 1 million people on the brink of starvation, said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. “We are not talking about people going to bed hungry,” he told the Guardian in an interview. “We are talking about extreme conditions, emergency status – people literally marching to the brink of starvation. If we don’t get food to people, people will die.”  
This has dangerous implications for Europe. We have already had a decade of death in the Mediterranean and a massive upsurge in migration to Europe which has had a profound influence on central and eastern European politics. They are already at breaking point in terms of how much they can absorb while feeling utterly abandoned by the EU. If the migration crisis then becomes a magnitude larger than it is now, we can expect to see conflict on the EU's borders and possibly massacres in the Balkan transit camps.

Being that the problem will be inconvenient to Western European nations, there's every chance they will look the other way. If the EU doesn't have an adequate response then we could see the Visegrad group going rogue. It is potentially an existential issue for the EU that makes Brexit little more than an irritating distraction. 

Presently the Corona debate is divided into two camps. The do mores, and the do nothings. The do mores are failing to identify how we should proceed while the do nothings are not thinking beyond our own shores. Not controlling Corona is not an option. We need to resolve the epidemic in order to address the economic problems. The rest of the world doesn't have the luxury of waiting to get to grips with the problem - and if we don't then their problems become our problems.

I don't know exactly when the UK will get its act together, but an urgent global response is needed to tackle Coronavirus. It stands to throw everything into turmoil. I don't even rule out regional and possibly world war at this point. So much of the global order has been creaking and under sustained attack for years and it won't take much for stabilising mechanisms in geopolitics to fall over.

I am already of the view that there is no returning to normal. The normal we have enjoyed for so long is gone for good. What matters is what the world looks like when the music stops. This is why we need central government focussed on the international dimension rather than stepping in to do a poor job of the day to day management of the domestic crisis. This is why having toothless and de-skilled local government is so critically in need of correction.

If there is one thing I have noted, it's that if people barely took an interest in Brussels news, they take zero interest in British activities in Geneva. For all that we have seen a change of management in Downing Street, for our diplomatic corps, save for the occasional admin chores thrown up by Brexit, it's business as usual. It looks very much like it did prior to 2016.

This is as much to do with the fact that our own government take little interest in it either. It is used to conducting its international affairs through Brussels, but now we have withdrawn from that level of European politics we have seemingly abandoned any kind of global engagement, leaving our Geneva contingent to continue making bland and inconsequential statements which translate into no action at all.

At a time when there are calls to dismantle DfID and foreign aid, with populist calls to join Trump in defunding the WHO, we risk self-isolating at a time when global engagement has never been more urgent. The WHO rightly faces harsh criticism in how it has allowed itself to become an unwitting agent of China, but the UN system is still, by and large (though we don't realise it) the West's primary instrument of soft power.

Instead of realistic engagement, what we are seeing is a political and media class as insular as ever it was, continually distracted by trivia, unable to get serious. Here we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the Tories are trying to construct a trade treaty with the EU based on collapsing trade norms when we need every swinging dick turning their attention to fighting Corona at home and abroad.

At the best of times Brexit is no small undertaking, requiring a massive chunk of Whitehall's operating capability, yet we're now doing it when circumstances are changing faster than our ability to understand let alone respond. Not exactly ideal for negotiating a long term relationship - yet the media has all but dropped the issue while the government executes its Brexit agenda out of the spotlight.

The insularity of our political class though, is not an indictment on our politics. Our politics is only really a reflection of us. The right is presently complaining about the conduct of the media but they don't protest when it's spewing out Daily Express/Telegraph fiction. Ultimately the media's problems come from market saturation. There is plentiful demand for trivia and gossip and a universe of suppliers. There is plentiful lightweight toss for free so there is no real incentive to part with money for it. But then the media can't win. If they did produce quality content that required more than a nanosecond's attention span, that in any way conflicts with existing tribal narratives, few would actually read it.

For the last few years I have viewed politics through the prism of Twitter, where the more outlandishly crass the statement, the more popular it is. (See Tice, Richard/Grayling, AC). It has given rise to a new class of know-nothing punditry, preaching ideologies they have never read on or understood, reacting to events by way of trading insider gossip and prestige opinion. The rest of us are expected to follow it and debate it as passive consumers of politics where they set the agenda.

As such it is a top down relationship with politics in that nobody I know of has successfully set the agenda from outside the bubble. There were times when The Leave Alliance got close, but the Brexiteers circled the wagons.

If anything kills us in the masses or destroys everything we value, it won't be Corona. We'll be helpless passengers of events far beyond our control because we took no notice when it was necessary to do so. The Chinese navy could be moored off the coast of Kent and right wing Twitter would still be demanding Brexit talks stay on schedule while the left would be bleating about whatever nonsense takes their fancy on any given week. Disturbances to their regular political grazing habits are ignored unless there is a politically useful dimension. (See PPE)

Unless the public themselves are willing to step off, to stop being passive recipients of political narratives and engaging with celebrity journalist trivia, then our politics will remain in its comatose state. But instead of getting serious people prefer to remain in their comfort zone of whatever provides them with the validation they crave. Virtually nobody on Twitter is remotely interested in achieving something. They just don't know how to occupy their day otherwise without someone setting the agenda for them. It's actually worse than political disengagement and apathy because it sustains this corrosive dynamic.

As it happens, there is still worthy journalism out there. Quite a lot of relevant news comes from the Guardian World section which tweets under a different account (@guardianworld). It's the Guardian's equivalent of BBC World Service before it was cannibalised and downgraded. Bizarrely it doesn't get much in the way of retweets. It's the sort of news that's useful in constructing your own understanding, but that is not really what the market demands. They want neatly pre-packaged narratives they can deploy in their own petty little Twitter spats which accomplish nothing.

We saw this during the Brexit debate where chlorine washed chicken became a feature of the debate, sparking countless misconceived debates over whether it was safe to eat, completely missing the point that the issue is a flashpoint because it marks the differences between the regulatory philosophies of two trade giants, where pivoting our alignment has implications for our exports. Nobody in that argument was especially interested in trade (an inherently interesting subject). They were only interested as far as it was a useful scare to play petty partisan games. Four years on and it is still a recurrent theme where nothing whatsoever has been learned. There is no curiosity beyond the confines of a political bubble created for its inhabitants by the media.

Fast forward to today and we are having the same kind of  inane debates about PPE in hospitals, which is really a logistics problem if it is a problem at all, but in any case is a situation that varies between health authorities - but it serves as a stick to beat the government regardless of what it actually achieves, whether it's relevant or not.

The right has it that the media should be getting behind the leader where it should be "fostering an atmosphere of national unity", which is fair to a point, but what they actually mean by that is it's bad form to criticise the government at all. The real failure on the part of the media, though, through its own intellectual debasement, is a failure to identify and prioritise the government's errors with a view to correcting them - which it couldn't manage even on the remotest chance it was inclined to do so. But why would they when there is so little demand?

I'm all for media bashing pretty much all of the time, but if you published or retweeted articles saying "We have nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit" or other such baseless propaganda you don't get to lecture anyone about the state of journalism. You're guilty of the same incuriosity and lack of integrity. Right now the government's mistakes are destroying our economy and the fabric of our society yet media consumers carry on as though it were just another theme in their regular news entertainment and whatever passes for political participation. Say what you like about the media, but you do get the media (and the government) you deserve - and it's going to cost you everything.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Corona: the slow march to authoritarianism.

It finally happened. A Tory MP tweets:
There is a very real risk that the savage media hunt for alleged scandals and scapegoats will distract the government from its coronavirus strategy. There will be time for analysis of performance later. Now is the time to support the war effort. 
This is edging toward " It's unpatriotic to criticise government". Of course there is an element of that. The partisan attacks on the government in respect of PPE look more than a little strained and the remainer blob has seemingly taken up a position of opposition for its own sake, largley believing, or at leas proliferating, virtually anything that paints the government in a bad light. Then there is the clickbait media that makes a living demoralising and denigrating.

Being that Twitter is binary on just about every issue we now have two camps. Those with the government and those against, where again nuance disappears between the cracks. But of course it is entirely possible, and likely, and indeed demonstrable, that while the media is chucking the kitchen sink at the government to the point of losing public trust, the government is also making a complete hash of our response to Corona. 

One thing the Twitter debate doesn't do is separate out the issues. To date I still get people accusing me of being a remainer largely because don't tweet anything in support of the government or any of its decisions pertaining to Brexit. It seems to support the proposition you also have to fall in line with the current execution. Twitter largely wants to be told what it wants to hear and to have its ego stroked. 

As with Brexit, government loyalists can hold the line until it all starts falling part. And fall apart it will. All the foundations are there; poor preparation, inept strategising, weak leadership and a lamentable media. Though the lockdown appears to be having an impact on the overall death rate (so long as you discount the hidden epidemic in care homes), we have only really bought time. We can't stay locked down forever and unless the government has a credible containment plan then Corona is going to spread like wildfire when the lockdown is eased.

The government appears to have weathered the attack by the Sunday Times but it won't be the last of its kind. This time it didn't land a punch because it's not exactly news that the PM is lazy, indifferent and feckless. It doesn't seem to have any bearing on his approval ratings. It's all priced in and they'll keep making excuses for him. I do suspect, though, we are seeing cartoon physics in motion where the hapless coyote doesn't fall until he looks down.

From the very start, there has been only one thing that was going to get us out of this mess, and that was a programme of aggressive contact tracing and isolation. It still is essential, yet no-one seems to be able to focus on this. The media is all over the place, Twitter is up its own backside, and the BBC has developed a morbid fascination for sickness. As a nation, we've totally lost it. The media can play its little games and tribalists can have their little spats while the government spoonfeeds them propaganda, but there is a day in the not too distant future when the bill has to be paid in full.

This will be an itemised bill. There's a price to pay for dismantling local authority capabilities. There's a price to pay for inept pandemic planning. There's a price to pay for the lethargic response. There's a price to pay for having an insular, tribal public debate. There's a price to pay for BBC self-abasement. There's a price to pay for a self-regarding and useless media. There's a price to pay for the Corbyn experiment. There's price to pay for electing Boris Johnson. There is a long list contributing factors spanning a decade or more that leads us to this point. If it wasn't going to be Brexit that pulled the trigger then Corona will do the honours.

It can be argued that other countries have not fared much better, each having their own difficulties with their respective media highlighting many of the same problems, but the bottom line is this government is accountable to us and it must be asked why the government after several weeks is still dragging its heels on implementing the very basics of outbreak containment. It's not like we are a poor country reliant on the science of the EU or the WHO. As a first world country where local government is founded on the principles of public sanitation, we have to ask why this has become a West Wing soap opera so badly disconnected from reality.

As remarked the other day, though, the right are now enforcing a political correctness of their own. If it's now bad form to be looking for alleged scandals it won't be too long before any criticism is viewed as suspect. We've been here before in the early days of the WW2 where criticising the conduct of the war could cost you a week's pay. With the plod having a track record of making arrests for tweets, and suggesting they may monitor what people buy in supermarkets, with authoritarianism making a comeback, it's not unthinkable that the right may have its own list of thought crimes. We are soon about to see how much baloney all that "free speech" guff was during the pre-corona culture wars.

When Ukip stared bleating about the establishment all those years ago, lodging it as a concept in political discourse, it was a mistake to ever assume they were anti-establishment. We have just seen a ten year process of Ukip absorbing the Tory party to become the establishment. Now that their man is at the helm and his cabinet is singing their tune about immigration and foreign aid, they are not in the least bit troubled by all the same excesses of government and presentation politics.

To a very large extent Brexit has had zero impact on our politics. We still have elected dictatorships. The Sunday Times says "One day there will inevitably be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks" but as usual there will be no consequences for the guilty. They'll walk away richer. 

Just as Tony Blair faced no consequences for Iraq, Boris Johnson will face no consequences for the mishandling of Brexit or Corona. All the while, elections are just as futile as ever with participation being every bit as fruitless. This government may make all the pleasing noises the mob likes to hear, but on the ground it looks to be business as usual; a command and control government playing a perpetual game of whack-a-mole where management of media matters more than managing the apparatus of government. 

In more ways that one the whole country has become servile. The media largely retails what it is told by government without conducting its own research, having no expertise of its own, co-opting prestige opinion when it needs a counter-expert, but possess no cognitive ability to ascertain the truth.

Meanwhile the opposition party has become an elected lobbyist group where instead of using parliamentary resources to conduct their own investigations they meekly demand the government holds an inquiry. Worse still, instead of taking early action according to their own pandemic planning, local authorities largely sat on their hands and waited for instruction. We've been conditioned  to accept rule from the centre.

The problem with this is that central government does not do technical governance - or much governance of any other kind. It is reactive and it is mostly political, so in times such as these (or any other for that matter) it is not going to know what it is doing, and its first concern will always be the optics. On that basis we are never going to have competent government.

It is not entirely the fault of Boris Johnson or his government that our response to Corona has been bungled from the beginning. For the most part having Boris Johnson as PM is a symptom of the political, cultural and media collapse. In that regard Britain has bigger problems than Corona.

As much as Corona will do a number on our economy, there is also that small matter of Brexit. Though Corona's effects on the economy are a magnitude worse than no deal, many effects of Brexit will be masked by the impact. So many issues are now a moot point given the destructive impact it has already had, but now we are tasked with climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

Thanks to Corona a fair bit of the Airbus estate has closed down and they've scaled back production, while demand in the interim will slow down. Any job losses that would happen as a result of Brexit will now be squarely blamed on Corona. The point for me, however, is that without a comprehensive deal, once those jobs are lost, they're not coming back. If the UK slams the door on an open process, the UK will be the very last priority for the EU, and as member states seek to rebuild their own economies they won't be keen on opening up aerospace to UK participation.

But then it goes far beyond Brexit and trade. In order to shore up the economy in the short term this government has taken unprecedented measures, going far beyond even a Corbyn government. It is seeking to keep business and families afloat until such time as we can all return to work. That, though, is not without significant implications (and may even prove pointless since it is not sustainable). We are about to learn a new definition of austerity which makes the old definition look like the partisan hyperbole it was.

It's easy to buy public confidence in the short term, but every single interventionist measure is sure to have blowback that may not even wait until the next general election. With a decimated care sector and the cupboard being bare the "dementia tax" that cost Theresa May a comfortable majority will have to come back along with cuts to universal entitlements. The welfare state we once knew, underpinned by taxation of a relatively thriving economy is never going to look the same again, in a country of children who've had it too good for too long.

Part of me suspects it might be a good thing in that the power of the centralised state it contingent on its capacity to provide. It buys power. If government can no longer provide things like childcare then parents are going to have to sort it out for themselves along with many other things, necessitating effective local government to coordinate social enterprises. It is perhaps by that means we shall see a return to localism. But since all my other hopes have been dashed in recent years it will more likely result in a hardening of state power, only a state that doesn't provide and keenly defends its monopoly on power.

Peter Hitchens has of late argued that the lockdown is a grave mistake, surrendering our liberties in such a way that we never recover them. I think, though, that we already surrendered the most essential component of our democracy when we gave up what little local control we had (the reason we are in this mess to begin with). From there it wasn't much of a leap to go the rest of the way. That we have found this centralised dictatorship passably tolerable is because it made politics redundant so we could get on with indulging our whims.

Now that we are faced with a wholly different economy where luxury purchases we take for granted and good jobs thin on the ground, it seems entirely possible that we become more like Hungary; a poor country run by an authoritarian mob gradually in the process of dismantling liberty. Though the Tory mob will have no particular problem with it, the centuries long march toward genuine democracy will for the first time go into reverse. Let's just hope there's more defiance in the British public than can be found on Twitter these days. 

Friday, 17 April 2020

Corona: the rot at the top

I would be surprised if many are still watching the daily press conferences. I'm not. I've tuned them out. It's the usual parade of evasiveness, sloganeering and inanity. The only thing worse than the government's performance is that of our media.

That we have them at all, though, is problematic. Central government has assumed too much responsibility over the management of the crisis, treating it as a single outbreak when what we are dealing with is multiple outbreaks across the country, where local authorities should be the focus. That the management of the epidemic has gravitated to Downing Street is symptomatic of a command and control mentality where the government enjoys playing West Wing in front of a media corps that turns everything into a soap opera.

I'm not exactly sure when the Union flag "batwings" appeared but these such press conferences are stage managed to the last detail to convey seriousness and authority, leaden with wood panels to give it gravitas. It puts Tony Blair, the master of spin, to shame. Meanwhile the government is now taking a Trumpian hostile line with the media, largely because the public are more fed up with the media than the government. Everything this government does is an exercise in power projection.

The problem, however, is that while it can create the illusion of power, and the illusion of competence (which certainly works on the Tory activist clan), all the indications on the ground suggest this government has no idea what it's doing. Matt Hancock's latest tracing app wheeze has echos of Brexit where having failed to understand the EU's legal position they insisted a vague array of technology would be sufficient.

The picture out on the front line is not looking encouraging with the hidden epidemic in care homes now penetrating the noise, and now there are indications that China concealed the true number of fatalities. We're talking about phasing out the lockdown when there is every reason to believe this could become a magnitude worse. On top of all the failures so far, the UK is not testing or quarantining travellers from overseas even as other world powers impose strict controls.

Meanwhile, if the aim was to protect the NHS then we have already failed. As pointed out yesterday, when confronted with an epidemic of a highly infectious disease, for which there was no known cure and no vaccine, the very last place patients should be taken is a busy district general hospital, full of ill people and staff, where they will be exposed to this infection. As long as the hospitals themselves are reservoirs of infection, they will keep the infection going, re-seeding the community (together with the care homes). 

With the disease spreading to care homes - not least because infected patients have been discharged from NHS hospitals – these institutions are becoming death camps for the elderly, while care staff are dying in their dozens. The lockdown is necessary to protect us from the NHS, and until they sort out the hospitals and care homes, it will be unsafe to lift it. Therein lies the folly in using Nightingale hospitals as overspill capacity instead of primary treatment centres. They've turned the NHS into a National Covid Service, preventing patients from getting treatment they need which could lead to 60,000 additional deaths. 

Eventually the consequences of a litany of failures will catch up with this government where even the slickest media management operation can't paper over the cracks. Soon there will come an array of policy reversals where even the dimmest of BBC hacks might see though their excuses. The problem them is that the system is so degraded that even if the government did have a coherent plan with the right methods, translating that into action is very probably beyond their abilities. 

At the beginning of the outbreak the government responded to queries about volunteering, launching an NHS Volunteer Responder scheme. A volunteer army of 750,000 registered which to date has only been given 20,000 tasks. These things cannot be managed from the centre and the job should have been given to local authorities - but without a coherent plan it's doubtful councils would know what to usefully do with them.

The new style of presentation in Number Ten largely speaks to vacuity of British politics, where politicians like the role play it affords them along with the prestige that goes with it. Not for nothing is the PM's increasingly presidential. The top job is little more than play acting. 

This, of course was well within tolerance when the big questions were settled by way of EU membership and everything else was run by a network of quangos ensuring ministers weren't allowed to touch anything, when policy was largely entrenched, but now we have a double whammy of uncertainty, Brexit and Corona, where we desperately need informed and responsive leadership and public institutions capable of mobilising in a civil emergency. The thing that government is notionally for.

What we find now is that central government is primarily geared for a different function, ie to ensure any government is re-elected. The various offices of state spend more time shoring up the reputation of the ruling party than they do fixing what is broken. Meanwhile the central functions of local government have been centralised, amalgamated, de-skilled and defunded til all that's left of local government is regional development and welfare agencies that have long since been robbed of any meaningful power.

Up to press the government had enjoyed a spell of untouchability. It's approach to Brexit is immune to evidence and too nebulous to be disproved. Only when we have formally left the transition does Brexit enters the realm of evidence. We can say the same of Corona. The government can plaster the internet with its half-baked propaganda to shore up its whimsical policy response, but sooner or later, as the full picture emerges and the bodies start to pile up, the government has to account for its failures. They'd better hope their spin machine has an ace up its sleeve or Johnson's approval ratings will plummet even faster than our GDP.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The nature of the beast

Today we learned that the UK government as no public intention of postponing Brexit trade negotiations. Personally I'll believe it when I see it. For now the government must hold the line and it has a few more weeks before it must decide.

The view on Brexiter street seems to be that now is the best time to be conducting these negotiations in that the EU being under considerable stress with a looming Euro crisis to rival the last one, the UK has powerful leverage. I still think this misunderstands the nature of the EU and trade negotiations in general. We are not haggling over a commercial contract. This is about principles and procedure, where the goings on as regards to propping up the Euro exist in an entirely separate domain. The Brexiters, oddly, believe the EU will act rationally in its immediate self-interest.

When it comes down to it, for all that Corona is taking its toll on the functioning of the EU, the intent is to return to to a semblance of normality when the dust settles, and the political will exists to ensure the various mechanisms of the single market survive. It will not, therefore, take any action that may undermine it in the future even if that comes with a mid term economic cost.

They also misread the mood in Brussels. There is a sense of weary resignation where they will do all they can to facilitate a deal that satisfies their own criteria but will not allow itself to be messed around by the Johnson administration. The UK is no longer a political priority and Brexit is waaay down the list. If the UK chooses not to play silly buggers then it's a win-win but there is no patience for the UK's parlour games. The UK has some leverage, but not much, and not enough for the EU to compromise its fundamental principles any more than they are already compromised by Corona. They will let us walk if that's the game the UK is playing.

As regards to the practicalities, in a material sense it's not going to matter either way for the time being. There is a manpower shortage on the frontiers while all the normal customs and procedures have gone out of the window as governments prioritise getting supplies where they need to go. If there isn't a deal then eventually the EU will get round to adapting to our new third country status, but for the time being the single market is only a theoretical concept. If, however, we have a deal worth having then the EU is likely to look the other way for longer. It's all going to depend on political goodwill, of which there will be little if the UK chooses now of all times to pile on the distractions, diverting critical diplomatic resource.

The other factor driving Brexiteer belligerence is the belief that the EU is imminently going to collapse. But they always think that any time there is a diplomatic crisis of any kind, yet the EU continues to plod on in its own lumbering way. If it is going to collapse it won't be soon enough to do the Brexiteers any favours. As ever the headbangers have a bad case of wishful thinking.

Regardless of the many sensible arguments for delaying our exit from the transition, it's really a question of where we want to be when the dust settles. Do we want to be outside of the EU and the single market lobbying to restart the talks, having no formal trade relations, hoping the EU is feeling generous, or do we wish to maintain what trade we can within the current construct where the EU is obliged to conclude a deal? It ought to be a no brainer.

The problem with the Brexiteers is they never learned to think like a bureaucrat the same way I did which is why they persistently misread the beast. Moreover, having told themselves that Boris's tactics last time around were a roaring success, there is nothing to dissuade them that their methods are misconceived.

As to Corona, I am quite sure it will rewrite the script on trade but it's going to take a while for the politics to assimilate it and a while longer before the Brussels bureaucracy absorbs what has happened so for a time we are still going to be playing the old game by the old rules. Brussels reality seldom takes actual reality into account. It's the one thing it has in common with the Brexiteers. We therefore have to assume that we will be working toward a standard model comprehensive FTA where events in the real world have little bearing on the proceedings.

Wit that in mind, should we slam the door shut on the current process, we may find the bureaucracy has caught up with reality meaning that by the time we come to talk turkey, we are dealing with a very different animal; one that is not so accommodating and one bearing the scars of a disruptive exit at the worst possible time. Since the UK doesn't have a trade plan B, the EU can take its time while it clobbers us.

In many respects the Brexiter brain has fossilised. It has not adapted or taken on board anything new since 2015 and it isn't going to. The narrative is set in stone and the sea change in geopolitics just doesn't feature for Brexit fetishists. Though the majority now supports a delay, we are still held to ransom by the jihadists. It seems you can't reason people out of something they were never reasoned into.

Now is not the time for reckless gambles

Much though I loathe Twitter, it at least lets you know what your enemies are up to. Today it would seem there is a concerted propaganda effort in the Brexit blob to push against any extension to the transition.

Naturally the Brexit headbangers are behaving exactly as you would expect. We must be free of the shackles of the transition so we can dash off and sign FTAs with the rest of the world, right about the time when free traders are about as well received as a fart in a space suit and when the entire apparatus of governments the world over is directed at Corona fire-fighting. You have to wonder just how far gone you have to be for something like Corona to have zero impact on your political estimations.

Thanks to Corona the future is a great unknown. Most of the certainties underpinning the narratives of trade wonk land have evaporated. Hitherto now, trade had become uncoupled from geopolitics, with the underlying assumption that treating China as a market economy would lead to future liberalisation and democratisation, with global trade institutions steering us toward a peaceful era of global interdependence. An expansion of the EU mentality.

It's a good theory if you absolutely discount the threat posed by a global pandemic. Which is exactly what we all did. Now that everyone is scrambling for the same basic commodities that global interdependence and national specialisation model doesn't seem all that clever.

Of course this model will still have its defenders and there are still good arguments for maintaining free and fair trade on a level playing field with like-minded allies, but if Brexiteers tell us anything, it is that electorates are not likely to agree with them. The debate is too mired in legacy Brexit era dogma and too many misapprehensions as to what a free trade deal actually is.

As ever there are inherent contradictions to the dogma. On the one hand they tell us that we need to be agriculturally self-sufficient and buy British but at the same time advocate unilaterally dismantling trade protections against subsidised and mass produced meat produce. Richard Tice of the Brexit Party demands that we become self-sufficient - but one struggles to see how he reconciles that with being a "global free trade champion". How does that work exactly?

As with most populism it only works if you don't examine it too closely - but the mood is sure to be one of greater protectionism. The tide was already turning that way but Corona is sure to be an accelerant. All this seems to be in tune with existing deglobalisation trends.

If, then, the geostrategic priority becomes divestment from China (with good reason) then our regional trade becomes all the more important. Being that Western consumers are hypocrites (their buying habits betray their politics) it will likely require similar levels of economic and technical integration with the EU but an extension of the regulatory sphere into North Africa to continue exploiting low wage economies. As we have seen from remainers, progressive ethics are all well and good but only so far as they don't interfere with the supply of off-season fruit and veg. 

Essentially, if the "Global Britain" shtick wasn't flimsy before then it certainly is now. If we were smart we'd play it safe until the dust settles. Britain isn't the only country reassessing its supply chains and trade priorities. UK-US trade talks are on hold - as are most negotiations globally, with some at risk of never seeing the light of day again. It would be foolish then for the UK to slam the door shut on an ongoing process where the EU is is politically obliged to conclude a deal. Once slammed shut, that door may prove difficult to reopen - and the terms on offer won't be anything like as generous.

The one lasting impact of Corona will be to recouple trade with global politics. It will no longer be the sterile and exclusive domain of trade technocrats working behind the scenes. Every deal with have strategic implications and every deal will be looked at through a biosecurity and supply chain resilience prism. That suggests more local, more politically compatible trade partners and a shift away from fast fashion, cheap food and consumer technologies.

With that goes a societal shift, winding the clock back to the 1980's to a more austere, frugal and socially conservative culture. Not necessarily a bad thing if you like bad pop music and shoulder pads. Since we have a Romulan in government, Chancellor Sunak, it is perhaps a sign of things to come. 

Britain's fate, though, will be decided in the next few weeks as we approach the deadline for extending. It is that decision alone that sets the backdrop for the next decade. We can either bide our time to ensure a viable and sustainable outcome to Brexit talks or we can rush it and find ourselves out in the cold and easy prey for various predators, necessitating greater state intervention in markets to fend off the vultures.

The likes of Tice, Redwood and the Brexit blob imagine a no deal Brexit to be the dawn of a buccaneering age of free trade and a renaissance of Thatcherism. Such fanciful thinking is for the birds - especially so now where the UK will necessarily have to revert to a mode of post-war socialism with all the borrowing and inefficiency that goes with it. How rapidly we climb out of it is really contingent on our export capabilities - which are not in any way improved isolating ourselves entirely from whatever remains of the single market.

The UK economy is already going to take a pasting. Brexit or no, the aerospace industry and air travel in general is going to take at least a decade to reassert any sense of normal. With that goes lucrative jobs in Airbus and Rolls Royce, and with inevitable defence cuts, a number of large employers in the regions will be shedding jobs. 

Meanwhile, the auto industry is going to be similarly fragile as we move away from leasing and back into bangernomics. As to the sort of disposable income that facilitates an array of coffee shops, fuhgeddaboudit. We might wonder then what work is available for the steady influx of people. The current economic model is predicated on a ready supply of labour. Soon industry will be spoiled for choice. Demands to curb immigration are only going to get louder. Even the EU may need to rethink freedom of movement as member states count the cost of losing their brightest and best.

Until there is some clear indication of what the new normal looks like, the last thing we need is further disruption. We are looking at a year at least before we have Corona under control, and in the meantime, the norms of trade will keep collapsing. Before we leap we need to know what we are leaping into and what we are dealing with on the EU side of the Channel. It may be that a better deal is possible if we wait. Single market membership of a sort without freedom of movement may even be possible. If not, we can still hit the road if we want to. Now is not the time to be making big gambles though. We have enough on our plate. 

Monday, 13 April 2020

Corona: the age of futility

I haven't climbed into the nuts and bolts of Corona in the way that other commentators have. I've seen what prats they can make of themselves when talking about trade and it's overstepping my bounds. The commentators making various confident assertions tend to be either contrarians or gatekeepers doing the bidding of their political masters. There are parallels with Brexit where, unsurprisingly, narratives emerge which are then adopted according to which trench of the culture war one fights in.

There are a lot of issues to separate out in this current debacle. Epidemiologists, virologists and other scientists have their place, but much of this debate is less to do with the science as it is a political decision over when and how to absorb the economic and health impacts of the virus based on the strategies available, where even the experts can only really provide supposition based on flawed and incomplete data.

Typically the remainer sect has it that if you are not a creditialised expert in one of the scientific disciplines then you're automatically prohibited from an opinion. We saw the same during Brexit with the likes of Simon Wren Lewis, an Oxford economist, insisting that expert opinion must take precedence over what was essentially a constitutional question about who really governs us. He was quite outraged that we plebs were allowed to choose for ourselves.

On the other side of the divide we have Tories who look to official channels such as the Telegraph and Spectator to be told what to think by the likes of Toby Young, never once letting reality intrude. On Twitter and Facebook there is absolutely no premium on knowledge or quality of output. All that really matters is tribal conformity.

There is, then, no public debate to speak of. There are only two belligerent sides, occasionally clashing but largely stroking each others egos. Nothing is ever concluded and it's largely an indulgent pastime since there is no possible way of influencing this government or achieving change by way of rational argument. This is a tyranny of ignorance, bolstered by spin, where the loudest and most malevolent voices get the hearing. I have never been more tempted to unplug from it all.

As regards to staying informed, Twitter is like sticking your head in a sewer and keeping it there, while the so-called mainstream media provides little of value. Much like the Brexit debate there is no real thirst for the facts. They pick up themes to run with be it chlorinated chicken or PPE and they rinse it to death to the exclusion of all other lines of enquiry largely because the media, and the opposition, is not especially interested in outcomes. It's all just game.

These days I can't face interacting with it. I have most of the media commentariat on mute while I focus on industry journals and associations, and wherever foreign news channels I find whose content I can verify. The British debate is wholly self-absorbed and insular, blinkered and binary with each side just as guilty of whatever they're accusing the other side of.

To a large extent we have somehow ended up with a dictatorship. Not in the classic sense, but with the opposition having opted out to fight its own civil war, and with media largely in the business of amusing itself there is next to no utility in participating. There is nothing particularly to stop the executive doing whatever the hell it pleases, to the point where it isn't even listening to its own supporters. This is unchecked power. We don't get a say until the next election (for what it's worth) whenever that may be, and we don't even have the euro-elections in between as a barometer.

At the best of times this is a wholly unsatisfactory position to be in, but right now it means a bungling government is not held to account for mistakes that will inevitably kill thousands of people. Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand are going all out on contact tracing to fight Corona. Boston is now doing likewise, hiring an army of 1000 practitioners. If the UK is seeking to ease the lockdown it needs to do the same to ensure it contains any new brushfires. There is, however, no indication the government will do any such thing. This government has no idea what it's doing.

Having been pressured into a lockdown, counter to its own plans, by way of public institutions and individuals taking their own precautions, it will cave similarly in easing the lockdown since the public have no real stamina for it. Since the lockdown was introduced by a series of bungled announcements, not having any real strategy, there is every reason to believe the same will happen as they attempt to ease it. 

If the public then assume it's all over and we're getting back to normal then we will see a second peak - so rather than a "flatten the curve" strategy we'll have an ongoing sine wave over a year or more - with each new lockdown more severe than the last. From the beginning this government has abandoned the basic principles of outbreak containment and as a result they have lost control.

You would think that with so much hanging in the balance there would be a degree of urgency in holding the government to account for its failures but instead much of the media is concerned only with the health of the prime minister or the PPE sideshow. We saw much the same during the Brexit debate with the media trivialising the issues and speculating on speculation, all the while the EU's official Notices To Stakeholders spelling out the precise consequences of no deal sat there unremarked while the clock was ticking.

This time around the timetable is all the more crucial. We can't eradicate Corona but we can at least tread water by putting out the brushfires as and when we find them. We can get to new outbreaks before they spiral out of control. We may not have seen this virus before but the fundamentals of outbreak control don't change. Yet for all that, given ample opportunity to interrogate the executive, our media concerns itself mainly with personalities and soft issues, unable to wake from its stupor.

If there is a glimmer of hope then it's a growing dissatisfaction with the media, but that could just be the emerging trend of Tories considering it impudent to question government at all. With the media digging its own grave it's easy to see how we could drift to state of authoritarianism where criticising government is viewed as unpatriotic (as it was in the World War Two). Ironic given that these are the same people who spent the last ten years bleating about freedom of speech and political correctness. Now that they are the establishment order, they're developing a political correctness of their own.

Peter Hitchens has warned of late that it will be the lockdown that erodes our civil liberties. I'm not wholly convinced by that case in that public tolerance for curtain twitchers is short and unlike any other time in history, we all have video cameras in our pockets. The plod have been quick to climb down and apologise for transgressions. My fear is that we are sliding from one politically correct tyranny to another - only there is no real need to censor the media in that their witless noise making poses no real problem. To be inconvenient to government it would have to do its job.

Rather than overthrowing the establishment, all we've really seen since Brexit is a change of management. We haven't drained the swamp. We've just introduced a new species of pondlife and the prospect of meaningful democracy is as remote now as it was when we were in the EU. I suppose people have to learn the consequences of not having democracy before they see the importance of it. Perhaps they will as they bury their dead. 

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Lost in the political wilderness.

I'm politically lost at the moment. I used to be hardcore libertarian and then I started to confront a few of life's more complex realities which demoted libertarianism from a righteous cause to a set of guiding principles. I'm still fiercely individualistic and mistrustful of anyone in search of a leader. I'm especially wary of personality cults be it Farage, Corbyn or Johnson.

These days, I have no political allies at all. I have a few sympathisers but generally it certainly feels like I'm out on my own. I'm a robust critic of Boris Johnson and the more belligerent attitudes to Brexit which makes me a remainer in their eyes, but being pro-Brexit and running a Twitter account called the Leave Alliance makes me no friends on the remain side particularly, and being that I despise the left and the dumpster fire that is the Labour party (and everything it stands for), Twitter is not a good sea for me to swim in. When I'm not being mobbed by offendatrons from all four corners of the axis I'm completely ignored.

It's probably also a lot to do with the fact that I'm not especially interested in what they have to say. Twitter does tend to be the domain of tribal narrative enforcers who are entirely predictable. They're like zombies. To avoid becoming one of them you have to hack them up with a (metaphorical) chainsaw. Twitter is just something I reluctantly engage with until something better comes along - which it sure must eventually. It serves as a useful bulletin board that means I don't have to look at newspapers, but as a rule, the closer a person is to the British media establishment, the less likely they are to have anything of value to say.

The problem is these people are all absolutely certain of themselves. I'm not. I gave up being certain about anything circa 2014. I don't trust anything I read, I question everything, I doubt everything and in the end this blog is just my best guess, and like anyone else's best guess, it isn't worth a damn. My meandering thoughts have no impact on events and the more I demand the truth, the more I demand competence and integrity from politics and media, the more alienated I feel.

I've been losing my way for some time now. I thought our media and politics had already hit rock bottom about five years ago but they still keep finding new ways to plumb the depths of depravity. The leavers get more belligerent, the remainers become more unhinged, the left becomes more bitter, the right becomes more arrogant, and the centrists remain as sanctimonious and unbearably smug as ever they were - all the while my vote might as well go in the bin.

Politics has become an exclusive domain of zealots, haters, preening narcissists and pompous bloviators. Maybe it was always like this and I just never saw it but each day I yearn to unplug, to stop caring and to make something of a normal life for myself. But then that's not really possible anymore. There is no longer nay normal and if unplugging was an indulgence before, it certainly is now. I have no choice but to stay and subject myself to this in the hope that some sense of sanity will prevail.

But of course it won't. When we voted to leave the EU in 2016 we really started something. We pulled out the linchpin from an old and decaying order and in so doing revealed the underlying dysfunction and a number of longstanding injustices. Nothing particularly was resolved by doing so. All it did was drag it all out from under the rug for a fresh fight to define the new political settlement. It seems we may as well not have bothered since Corona has done that and more and has shown that even the fundamentals we thought were functioning are nowhere close.

To say these are unprecedented times is something of an understatement. We've gone from an era of relative wealth and prosperity to an era of political uncertainty that could descend into chaos and anarchy. Though we notionally have a strong government with a commanding majority, it may soon count for nothing as everything we have known collapses. A new order is coming whether we like it or not and I'm not even sure whose side I'm on. These are dangerous times when fear, irrationality and breathtaking idiocy threaten the peace.

I suppose in the end all I can really do is watch and wait - but it feels sometimes like that's all we do. We are passive spectators of a process we are told is democracy. My voted only counted once in my lifetime and even then Corona has made an irrelevance of it. I'm starting to understand why in these such times people start finding their faith - because right now, there's not a lot else to believe in - and not much to hope for.