Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Blind faith

Following his resignation as Brexit Secretary, David Davis has rounded on those who claimed that he had no alternative proposal of his own, and he took to the pages of the Sunday Times (paywall) to refute the claim and outline his own alternative.  He’s certainly managed to demonstrate that he does indeed have an alternative plan, so in that sense, he wins the argument.  The question, though, is whether his alternative plan is a realistic and workable one.
As ever, the answer depends on the assumptions that we make.  His ‘plan’ basically amounted to conceding nothing, demanding the right to cherry-pick, and waiting for the EU27 to blink first.  It was, in essence, based on the idea that faced with complete intransigence from the UK side, the EU would eventually back down and start to dismantle the single market and customs union in order to allow the UK to pick the bits it wanted whilst rejecting the rest.  And underlying that are two assumptions that the Brexiteers have been making from the outset – ‘they need us more than we need them’; and the whole EU was only ever about trade and commerce.
For those who really believe that, there was never any need to negotiate anything (which provides, in a manner of speaking, another explanation for Davis’ apparent complete lack of activity), because the EU27 would eventually come to accept the UK position and tear up its carefully honed rulebook.  Even now, as the eleventh hour approaches, there are still plenty of Brexiteers willing to bet the entire country on their firm conviction that the EU27 are just bluffing, and will roll over eventually.  There is, for them, no need for any sort of Plan B, because Plan A is an absolute cert in their world of blind faith. 
It’s a blind faith which has held the government and prime minister prisoner for two years, locked into a position from which they’ve been unwilling to move.  And it’s the sort of blind faith which has its true believers screaming about heresy and betrayal when anyone dares to suggest that the world might not be as they believe and want it to be.  It also underlines the extent to which Brexit is more akin to religious cult than a rational policy for many of its adherents.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Two birds, one stone

Yesterday’s interview in which the Prime Minister revealed to the world the ‘sage’ advice which Trump had given her about dealing with the EU – sue them, although on what grounds remains unclear – was one of those very rare occasions on which she actually seemed to be enjoying herself.  And who can blame her?  After the way on which Trump rubbished her approach to Brexit and suggested that the ex-Foreign Secretary would be a good PM, exposing Trump to ridicule must have felt good.
It gets even better, though.  If suing the EU is a spectacularly stupid approach to negotiating a withdrawal, what does that say about the idea of putting the person suggesting it in charge of the negotiations?  It was of course the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who suggested that putting Trump in charge of negotiating with the EU would be a “very, very good thought”.  Exposing Trump’s simplistic stupidity must have felt good to the PM in the circumstances – being able to give Boris a sly kick at the same time must surely have felt even better.

Friday, 13 July 2018

The invisible suit

In the tale of the emperor’s new suit, it was the little child who told the truth which everybody else could see but were afraid to admit – there was no new suit.  The child merely said what he saw; he wasn’t sophisticated enough to see the beauty, or marvel at the colours and pattern of the clothes.  It’s surely no surprise then that it was Trump who immediately saw through the White Paper crafted from invisible threads with which the Prime Minister has attempted to clothe herself since the Chequers meeting last week.
According to May and her courtiers (whose inability to see the beauty in front of them, just as in the tale by Andersen, would only prove them to be either stupid or unfit for high office in the eyes of their leader), the pattern woven into the White Paper is so intricate and perfect that it can allow the UK both to be part of a system where trade deals are common to all members and at the same time be able to go off and negotiate its own trade deals across the world.  But someone as immune to any accusation of stupidity and unfitness for office as a small child (or Donald Trump) has no reason to hold back.  It’s not often that I’d put the words truth and Trump into a single sentence, but in pointing out that tying a country into EU rules is incompatible with negotiating a different set of rules with someone else, he is only stating the blindingly obvious.
Of course, May’s courtiers – like the emperor’s – already know this but must go along with the empress for the time being, at least until everyone else understands the truth.  That won’t be long coming, I suspect; that particular part of the white paper won’t survive first contact with Barnier in the negotiating rooms of Brussels.  There can only be two possible outcomes from that; a messy and abrupt ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU, or further moves towards replicating the Norway model around which May is slowly orbiting.  Who knows which way she’ll jump?  I’m unsure whether she really believes that stockpiling corned beef is going to scare the EU27 into making concessions, or whether it’s really an attempt to scare the leavers into capitulation.  The problem is that I’m not entirely sure that she knows either – and nor am I sure that she’ll survive long enough to come to a decision.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Implementing 42

To say that I don’t often agree with what one former political opponent (and now MP for Carmarthen West) has to say would be something of an understatement.  But there is an exception to every rule, and when Simon Hart describes his fellow Tory MPs as devious, self-indulgent and incompetent – well, who am I to argue with that assessment?  I suppose there is room for a slight disagreement about whether he’s right to exclude himself from an otherwise entirely sensible generic description, but let’s not quibble about minor details.
He also managed an effective demolition job on the idea that all 17.2 million who voted to leave supported identical outcomes, saying “… voters I know opted to leave for a range of reasons and with different levels of indignation.    the referendum followed the pattern of almost every election that comes our way, and so anybody claiming to speak for 17.2million is more likely speaking for their small circle of friends and a bloke they heard in the pub.”  That goes to the heart of the problem with the referendum – in his utterly mistaken belief that the result was a foregone conclusion, a ‘devious, self-indulgent, and incompetent’ prime minister asked only one simple yes/no question to what was always a complex series of related issues.  The answer, when it came, was not unlike the ‘42’ in Hitchhiker’s Guide, telling us only that we really need to give a lot more thought to what the question is.
I found it interesting that, in his first response to the Chequers non-agreement, Rees-Mogg said that he couldn’t give a definitive response until he’d seen the detail.  Yet the same man argues that the result of a referendum where none of those voting knew in any detail what ‘leave’ meant, and where there were a whole variety of different reasons for supporting that option, is not only inviolable, it is also open to only one interpretation – his own.  He needs the detail to decide; the electorate don’t.
I’m currently not at all sure that a new vote – even a so-called ‘people’s vote’ on the final terms – would produce a radically different result; the underlying problem of people viewing the issue from completely divergent paradigms hasn’t gone away.  But there is surely an increasingly good case for listening to the wise words of Douglas Adams’ ‘Deep Thought’: “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question was”.  Proceeding on the basis of trying to implement the answer '42' could only happen in a fictitious universe, couldn’t it?

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Leaving the frying-pan

In his resignation letter and the series of interviews which followed it, David Davis did at least succeed in explaining his own apparently indolent and relaxed approach to negotiating with the EU – he still believes that ‘they need us more than we need them’, and the leaders of EU states would eventually fall into line and dismantle key aspects of the single market to accommodate the UK’s requirements.  Seen from that perspective, who needs to spend long hours locked in negotiations or carry voluminous files of paperwork as a basis for those talks?  It’s simply a matter of not blinking first, and his anger that May did blink gives him and the other Brexiteers the scapegoat they need. In Davisland, all would have been well if only they’d just done nothing and waited for the EU to bend.
It’s the stuff of fantasy, of course, because it turns out that for the EU (albeit not for the UK) it really is true that a bad deal (under which single market integrity is damaged) is worse than no deal (under which the biggest loser is the UK).  It’s what the Brexiteers have been saying all along, just the other way around.
With May in trouble, there’s no surprise that Labour are scenting blood, with the First Minister demanding a general election.  I entirely agree with Carwyn Jones when he says that “We need a different government with a different view on Brexit…”; I’m just utterly unconvinced that the Labour Party is offering that, let alone that a general election would produce one.  It’s true, as Paul Mason writes in the New Statesman, that there is a route by which the Labour Party could offer a coherent alternative based around the so-called Norway option; there’s just no sign that Corbyn is anywhere close to embracing that option.  It might be a sensible approach, and it’s certainly one which leaves the door open to re-joining easily and quickly at some future date (it was, after all, designed to allow easy admission to Norway should the political situation there permit it at some point). 
But if there’s one thing Labour can be depended on for in relation to Brexit, it’s taking a bad situation and making it worse.  The logical outcome of any sensible negotiation based on the May plan is a Brexit which looks remarkably like the Norway option, albeit using different words and descriptions in an attempt to pretend that no red lines are being crossed.  That logical outcome is exactly what is making May’s Brexiteers so angry with her; they can see the further concessions coming.  She knows that she doesn’t have a parliamentary majority for such a deal, which is why she is busy wooing other parties to support it.  And the current probability is that, rather than follow the approach outlined by Mason, the Labour Party will instead unite to vote against the outcome of May’s negotiations in the belief that a general election will lead to a Labour government – effectively demanding a ‘harder’ Brexit than the Prime Minister.  Unless and until the Labour Party changes its position, the First Minister is effectively asking us to leap out of the Tory frying-pan into the Labour fire.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Why bother?

My initial reaction to the lack of resignations from Brexiteers following Friday’s ‘agreement’ by the UK cabinet was that they were so confident that the plan would be rejected by the EU27 that agreeing to the ‘plan’ was not so much a concession on their part as a prelude to the no-deal crashing out which they crave.  It certainly appeared as though May’s rebadging-with-conditions was putting down a series of conditions to which the EU27 could never agree; and her demand that the EU now start to be flexible sounded like the usual Brexit demand for the EU27 to abandon at least some of the basic tenets of the single market.  But yesterday’s resignation makes me wonder whether at least some of the Brexiteers are starting to realise that the plan does actually contain the outline of a possible deal, if we regard it as a two-year late opening position, rather than a last minute set of immutable demands.
Take the “combined customs territory” for instance.  It sounds a lot like a new name for a customs union, and the chief difference between the two seems to be that the May plan assumes that the UK will have the right to negotiate different tariffs from those set by the EU.  This is obviously fraught with difficulty; apart from being a smugglers’ charter for any goods where EU tariffs and UK tariffs are different, the proposed use of technology which doesn’t yet exist to control where imported goods end up looks like being completely impractical when one considers raw materials turned into components turned into finished goods.  Without a physical border check to determine whether the contents of a lorry are what the electronic ‘paperwork’ says they are, the potential for UK firms to gain an unfair competitive advantage is something that the EU will never allow.  But what if the ‘right’ to negotiate different tariffs was accompanied by an agreement that the ‘right’ would never actually be used?  That’s hardly an unusual approach from the EU, and it would leave the ‘combined customs territory’ different only in name from the customs union.  I can’t see the EU27 being particularly averse to allowing the UK to call it something different.
Or take the proposal to replace freedom of movement with a ‘mobility framework’.  If the only difference between the two is that the UK starts to apply restrictions already allowed for in the EU treaties (or can be negotiated to that point) – something which successive governments have decided not to do – then why would the EU object to the UK simply using a different nomenclature?
Or consider the ‘harmonisation’ of rules instead of membership of the single market for goods.  If the UK is prepared to guarantee that it will follow all relevant EU rules for goods (in which the EU has a trading surplus with the UK) and accept that the interpretation of those rules is down to the ECJ, whilst excluding services (in which the UK has a surplus with the EU), then why, in principle, would the EU27 not be willing to discuss the details of how that compliance is guaranteed and implemented?
The amount of money which the UK will need to pay into the EU budget will be something of a sticking point; it will certainly be higher than the May plan envisages.  But a little bit of creative accounting under which it becomes a series of individual payments for specific services will allow it to be presented as something other than a contribution to the central EU budget – again, as long as the amount they receive is consistent with other deals and meets their requirements, why would the EU 27 be particularly bothered about what the UK decides to call it?
The only way in which May’s plan can be considered to adhere to any of her red lines is by assuming that those red lines apply only to what things are called, not to what they achieve.  The plan, as Brexiteers are coming to realise, not only ignores the substance of all those precious red lines, but might also provide a sound basis for negotiating something which will end up looking an awful lot like the Norway option which Brexiteers correctly characterise as Brexit-in-name-only, and under which the UK would follow the rules whilst having no input into them.
If only we had an alternative government-in-waiting which was prepared to look at all of this and ask one simple question: “Why bother?”

Friday, 6 July 2018

Rebadging the unicorn

Badge engineering’ is a long-standing practice in both the car industry and the IT industry, and basically amounts to selling identical products with different labels or badges on them.  It never really fooled anyone, and wasn’t usually intended to; it was more about appearing to sell products targeted at specific markets by using brand names familiar to the relevant audience.
Today’s so-called crunch meeting at Chequers looks like an attempt at something similar, except that in this case, there is indeed a deliberate attempt to mislead.  From what has been revealed so far, it seems that the Prime Minister’s latest composite proposal is an attempt at rebadging something very close to membership of the single market รก la Norway in such a way that the Brexiteers will think that it amounts to non-membership whilst those who think otherwise get a nudge and a wink to say that nothing much will change at all.  The deviations from the Norway model will still cause problems and are likely to be rejected by the EU, but this proposal isn’t really aimed at the EU27 at all.  The only aim of the proposal is to get the cabinet united around a proposal from which the PM and her team can then negotiate a route to a form of membership of the single market, called something different.  And as long as, at the end of those negotiations, the only difference is what it’s called, the EU27 are likely to agree.  A rose by any other name, etcetera…
It’s almost a wizard wheeze, except for the simple fact that it’s so obviously a ruse that no self-respecting Brexiteer would be able to swallow it.  Richard Murphy suggested yesterday that the main question to be asked is “Who will have quite the Cabinet by Monday?”.  It’s a reasonable question; the gulf between the two sides in the Tory party is so large that there is no chance of any substantive agreement being reached on anything which is remotely likely to be acceptable to the EU27.  If they do manage to reach agreement today with no resignations, it will be because they’re continuing to demand that the EU27 gives them that unicorn but they have solemnly agreed to call it something different.  In short, another fudge which kicks the can even further down the road.
The Prime Minister said today that the Cabinet have a ‘duty’ to come to an agreement on what they want.  For once, I agree with her – but that duty didn’t suddenly come into being today.  They’ve been under the same duty for the last two years, ever since the referendum vote, but it’s a duty about which they have signally failed to do anything.  It’s not clear why that is suddenly going to change.  And whatever she says, she certainly doesn’t trust the people whom she has appointed to the cabinet further than she can see them.  Telling Ministers that ‘they will have to hand in their phones and any smartwatches on arrival at Chequers on Friday’ (as the BBC report) doesn’t strike me as the action of someone who has any confidence that she can rely on the people around her.  And if even she doesn’t trust them why on earth should the rest of us?

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Wisdom, impact, or just luck?

Amongst the many comments made following the downfall of the Tories’ Assembly leader, several mentioned that whilst he may have fallen out with many in his party (including the then Prime Minister, David Cameron) over his support for Brexit, as things turned out it was Davies who correctly read the mood of the electorate and ended up on the winning side.  It’s one of those superficial pieces of analysis which sounds like the truth, but which raises more questions than it answers – and specifically a particular chicken-and-egg question.
It’s undeniably true that the electorate supported the position taken by Davies, but was he (and all the other leavers) following the public mood in Wales, or helping to create it?  The margin wasn’t that large, and it’s entirely valid to ask whether that margin was the result of the campaigns waged or not.  The suggestion that those who ‘campaigned’ on the winning side chose the right side based on the outcome, whilst those who ‘campaigned’ on the losing side chose the wrong one contains an implicit assumption that ‘campaigning’ has more to do with correctly guessing which side is going to win than with changing anyone’s opinion.
Perhaps it’s true that no-one actually changed their opinion at all as a result of Davies’ decision to back leave (and a true cynic might even argue that it’s possible that his decision to back leave might have driven some people to support remaining); but if that’s true for one ‘campaigner’ why would it not be equally true for all the others – on both sides?  It strikes me that an approach to ‘campaigning’ which is all about correctly guessing which side is going to win isn’t really campaigning at all.  Nor is it about leadership, unless we’re talking about leadership in the Ledru-Rollin sense of the word (“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader” - although like many of the best quotes, its attribution is far from certain).
Arguing that someone who happened to join the side which eventually won a debate is somehow blessed with particular wisdom or insight is surely debasing the whole idea of leadership and campaigning.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Where are those 'values' again?

Despite the restrictions placed on Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee by an overly secretive government about who they could question and what they could question them about, the committee managed to produce a damning report last week about the extent of British complicity in the rendition and torture of suspects by US agencies.  It’s easy, of course, for the MPs (and for me, sitting comfortable well away from the events) to be horrified at what was done and at the apparent complacency of those acting in our name.  And there are the inevitable calls for action to be taken.
But for me, the real underlying lesson of all of this wasn’t that there are rogue individuals, condoning and participating in activities which they knew to be wrong.  It is, rather, about the thinness of the veneer of civilisation, and how easy it is for people to simply ‘fall in’ with whatever is being done.  Unacceptable actions become – or perhaps it might be more appropriate to say ‘appear to become’ - acceptable when those involved are under pressure to produce results or to work with 'allies' who have a different attitude or approach. 
It isn’t the first time in human history that we’ve seen people simply slip into a way of operating or take a lead from their superiors.  And it won’t be the last either.  But amongst the recriminations and justifiable criticisms of a failure of leadership, we should also reflect on what it tells us about how deeply those infamous ‘British values’ which the politicians keep banging on about are – or rather, are not – ingrained.  It turns out that, when push comes to shove, they’re actually pretty superficial - more talked about than adhered to.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Defining identity in military terms

There’s a lot of lobbying going on within the hopelessly divided UK Government at present, with various cabinet ministers engaged in fairly public dissent about a whole range of issues, not simply Brexit.  One of the issues concerns the amount of money being spent on the armed forces, with military chiefs demanding more money.  According to the Sunday Times (paywall), they are also trying to enlist the support of the royal family for their campaign to increase spending.
What particularly struck me was the argument of one unnamed ‘senior source’ who said that “The prime minister needs to recognise that our standing on the international stage is linked to our national identity, which is linked to our strong defence”.  This reinforces a point which I’ve made before on this blog – for Anglo-British nationalists, the armed forces and the glorious (as they seem to see them) victories of the past are a key – perhaps the single most important – element in their whole definition of their own identity.  They’re not the only nation in the world to take an excessive degree of pride in the armed forces and their exploits, but how many other nations actually define themselves in those terms?
It helps to explain why there is such a huge gulf in understanding between the UK and the rest of the EU about the purpose and objective of the EU.  Whilst most European countries regard the wars which have ravaged the continent in the past as unfortunate events which must never be repeated, and therefore want to lock themselves together to prevent any such repeat, the Anglo-British nationalists see those same wars as part of the UK’s past triumphs and want to retain an independent capacity to fight such wars again.
But what sort of national identity is it that depends so heavily on the ability to wage war against its neighbours, and prefers to dwell on the outcome of past wars and prepare for future ones than work with others for a peaceful future?  This is truly the sign of a national identity which has lost its way in the world.