Tuesday 31 July 2018

Cnut, May and Brexit

When Cnut sat on the beach and told the tide to stop, he didn’t actually think for one moment that it would obey him; he was just trying to prove that he didn’t have quite as much power as his courtiers seemed to believe.  In similar vein, when Theresa May says that no new Brexit referendum will be held “in any circumstances”, could she just be trying to demonstrate (not that she really needs to) the extent to which she is not in control of events either?  Because, as sure as eggs is eggs (or perhaps as sure as “Brexit means Brexit” to use her own terminology), there are a whole host of potential circumstances in which the decision becomes no longer hers to make.  Although assigning probabilities to events is a fraught exercise, the probability that she won’t be the one taking the decision seems to be growing almost daily.
On the whole, I’d prefer to believe that she is trying, Cnut-style, to demonstrate her own lack of power or control, largely because I’d prefer to live in a state where I believed that the head of the government retained at least a tenuous grip on reality.  But all the evidence, based on previous behaviour, suggests that she genuinely believes that she is currently, and will remain, in a position to simply rule out a second referendum.  Worse, the same evidence suggests that she believes that, having ruled it out, the issue will simply go away.  The problem with that, as the Chequers debacle demonstrated, is that she can’t even keep her own cabinet in line, let alone the rest of the country.
The phrase “in any circumstances” is a dangerous one for a politician to use in an uncaveated form.  It’s probably safer for us to assume that it should have been followed by “that I can currently foresee”.  So, not this week then.

Monday 30 July 2018

Drifting ships

I can’t remember exactly when (although I think it was towards the end of the 1970s) but many years ago Atholl Cameron from the SNP spoke at a Plaid event and told us a story about a cruise she’d been on in the Mediterranean.  The engines on the British ship broke down and the ship was waiting for an engineer to come on board to make repairs.  There was also another problem on board, as a result of which the kitchens were unable to prepare hot food for the travellers.  The passengers were sitting in the dining room stoically eating cold food in a drifting ship in the middle of the sea, and a fellow diner, from England, said, “Doesn’t it make you proud to be British?”.  Atholl’s cutting response was that she’d have been a great deal prouder if the ship was underway and they were eating a cooked meal.
The memory was prompted by the prime minister’s claim last week in relation to possible stockpiling of food and medicines that we should all feel reassured that the government was taking the necessary steps to protect us from the worst-case outcome of Brexit.  In truth, I’d feel much more reassured, and have rather more confidence in the government, if they hadn’t taken us to a position where they seriously need even to consider stockpiling food and medicines.  It tells us something, though, about Theresa May’s concept of Britishness.  Like the English passenger on that cruise ship, she sees virtue in the ability to respond to adversity with stoicism and resignation, to find a way of somehow muddling through.  For those who think that way, there is something profoundly un-British about having a concept and a fall-back plan before starting in order to avoid getting into such a situation in the first place – that’s the sort of thing that only Europeans do.  It helps to explain the gulf in understanding between the two sides and how we’ve got to where we are.
The interesting part of the decision, since rescinded, to release information gradually over the summer about the status of preparations for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is that it was apparently taken to placate Brexiteers, by publicly demonstrating to Barnier that the UK was ready to simply walk away.  It was a cunning plan of Baldrickian proportions, but it appears not to have occurred to the devisers of the plan that telling the world about the preparations being undertaken might just have an impact on the domestic audience as well, by highlighting the scale of the potential problems.  The expectation was that we would all display that famous British stoicism and take pride in the way that our ‘proud island nation’ was preparing to respond to those beastly Europeans.  Instead of which it seems that those responsible for drip-feeding the details to the public have now realised that it’s more likely that the public would panic and never vote Conservative again.  As a ‘senior source’ told the Sunday Times (paywall), “People will shit themselves and think they want a new referendum or think the Tory party shouldn’t govern again”.
The rather patronising suggestion that people might only ‘think’ they want another referendum (with its implicit assumption that ‘we know they don’t really’), like the rest of this not-so-cunning plan, reveals, yet again, the extent to which the Brexiteers’ world view is mired in an idealised past in which people did and thought as they were told, and blind patriotism and deference to their ‘betters’ were enough to allow the government of the day to get away with almost anything.  But blind patriotism doesn’t keep a ship moving through the sea; neither can it turn Brexit into a triumph.

Friday 27 July 2018

For Welsh, see British

There was a bit of a kerfuffle earlier this week about the branding of food at the Royal Welsh Show in Llanelwedd.  Why the show organisers decided that it was appropriate for a show in Wales to be sponsored by the ministry with responsibility only for England rather than the relevant Welsh minister, and then to allow that ministry to determine the branding, is an interesting question in itself.  The politicians protesting against the outcome are attacking the branding and the minister concerned; the real target here should probably be the show organisers, even if it’s a lot easier to attack ‘London’.  Once the decision was taken, the fact that the ministry for agriculture in England then took a very English (in terms of language) and Anglo-British (in terms of nationality) approach should hardly come as a surprise to anyone.
I don’t see this as a direct result of Brexit, but it certainly looks like a result of the same underlying philosophy, which is all about British exceptionalism and trying to restore Britain’s place in the world based on an idealised image of a long-gone past.  For those who see ‘standing together against the rest of the world’ as the natural role of this ‘proud island nation’, encouraging people to identify with their view of what Britain is becomes a necessary concomitant of their vision.  Eliminating what they see as the fragmentation of identity which has occurred in recent decades is another.  And, dare I say it, even if they didn’t realise that this was what they were voting for, a majority of the Welsh electorate supported this in the referendum two years ago - the Anglo-British nationalists have some justification for assuming that this is what 'we' want.
It isn’t just Brexit driving the rebranding.  The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 gave the Anglo-British establishment quite a scare; the extent to which people felt increasingly Scottish rather than properly British took them by surprise.  It’s another good reason, from their perspective, for trying to reimpose a more standard identity: rolling out union flags, the armed forces and royals at every opportunity.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, if Brexit goes ahead trade with the EU27 will become more difficult than it is now, and in most scenarios (certainly all those currently being supported by the Labour and Conservative parties), there will be tariffs on agricultural products.  For those who see this as a good thing ('taking back control' etc.) one probable outcome of a reduction in cross border flows of agricultural produce is that we will all be encouraged to ‘buy British’; indeed, we may find that we no longer have much choice in the matter.  Another is that the government will be investing more in trying to promote exports of agricultural products to a wider market.  For the simple souls who are currently in charge of the country, all of that becomes easier if there is a common branding to start with – and if that just happens to reinforce their view of identity at the same time, well that’s a bonus.
I know that some independentistas support Brexit because they see the EU as an organisation which will develop into some sort of super state in which individual nations will have less freedom and independence.  I think they’re wrong; I think that a combination of continued external enlargement alongside the probable internal enlargement will eventually lead to a rather different outcome - more like a confederation than a federation.  It could be me who’s wrong, of course; none of us can predict the future with absolute certainty.  I cannot, though, foresee any future for Europe in which individual nationalities and identities are not protected and celebrated; Europe is too diverse for any single identity to be imposed on the rest.  Wales as a nation and member state would be in the same position as all the other member states and nations.  On the other hand, I can very definitely see a post-Brexit scenario in which a centralising government in London seeks to reimpose a single national identity; and we’re seeing signs of that already.  The more of a crisis that Brexit provokes, the more the ‘wartime spirit’ will be invoked.  (It’s a perspective from which the demand for extreme Remainers to be prosecuted for treason doesn’t look as outlandish as it appears to the rest of us.)
I’ve argued from the outset that Brexit should never have been primarily about economics from an independentista perspective, and those independentistas who tried to make the case primarily on economic grounds missed an opportunity.  It is about Wales’ place in the world.  Do we want to be a European state enjoying the same level of independence as other European states, or do we want to be part of an isolationist UK in which a single identity predominates, and is increasingly imposed on the peripheries?  I can understand why some independentistas say that neither option is perfect but the problem with rejecting the only two realistic options as things currently stand is that we’ll still end up with one of them anyway.  And we can clearly see which it will be.

Thursday 26 July 2018

Carwyn and Corbyn aren't that different

There have been times during the Brexit saga when the First Minister has seemed to be saying something different and more helpful than his party’s leader in London.  He has generally managed, in particular, to give the impression that he is much more open to continuing membership of the single market and customs union.  But his comments last week put him right back in the same position as both Corbyn and May.
There’s nothing wrong with asking the EU to ‘help us avoid a catastrophic Brexit no-deal’, as the headline put it.  Indeed, it seems to me that the EU27 have had that as an objective from the outset but have been hampered by the utter inability of the UK Government to agree on what it actually wants.  But in asking the EU to ‘blur its red lines’, he is effectively asking for exactly the same thing as May, Corbyn and the rest – a deal in which the UK gains some or all of the benefits whilst avoiding compliance with the rules.  The semblance of reasonableness is once again lost in the demand for exceptional treatment for the UK.
It’s important, of course, that he does what he can to get the best deal for Wales from the increasingly shambolic process which Cameron kicked off; but he’d stand a better chance of doing that if he were willing to explain, clearly and repeatedly to the people of Wales, why the Brexit fantasy they were sold was never an option, instead of joining the fantasists in pretending that it, or something like it, can be implemented as they expected.  He's as much an Anglo-British nationalist as the rest of them.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Rees-Mogg's little helper

I can think of no good reason in principle for opposing Corbyn’s call for a return to ‘making things’ in the UK rather than depending on cheap labour elsewhere.  He’s not alone in believing that the UK economy has become over-dependent on what are loosely called financial services.  But linking it to Brexit rather than to under-regulated capitalism is playing into the hands of those who want to use Brexit for a completely different vision of the future.  And some of his proposals fly in the face of reason.
There is nothing that prevents EU members from having a healthy manufacturing sector.  As a percentage of national output, Germany, for instance, manages 23% compared to only 10% in the UK (UK Parliamentary research briefing).  The chart on page 7 of the same source shows how the UK has declined from being in the top 20 in terms of manufacturing output as a proportion of GDP in 1970 to the 118th position by 2015.  The cause of the decline in manufacturing in the UK has more to do with a long-term productivity issue (largely down to a lack of investment) and the economic policies pursued by successive governments – Labour and Tory alike.  The capitalist mechanisms which led to globalisation and the ‘offshoring’ of manufacturing don’t operate in a vacuum, they operate in the context of policies followed by governments. Being a member of the EU is no obstacle to a successful manufacturing economy, and it follows that ceasing to be a member isn’t the solution. 
There are many on ‘the left’ who believe that part of the solution to the decline in manufacturing is to give more state aid to industry, and that membership of the EU prevents that.  The idea that the EU ‘prevents’ state aid is not new, despite having been debunked many times over.  (Here’s an example of one response on that issue.)   What EU state rules do prevent is ‘unfair’ state aid; the sort of state aid to industry which distorts the market and gives companies or countries an unfair advantage.  There are plenty of examples of nationalised companies and state-aided companies within the EU; there’s nothing that prevents the UK from following the same route as long as it’s done in a way which does not tilt the playing field.
Of course, that may be exactly what Corbyn and his acolytes want to do – provide state aid in ways which enable UK companies to gain a competitive advantage over those in countries like Germany - and to the extent that those companies can find an adequate domestic market in the UK, it’s an approach which can work.  It would be naïve, however, to believe that companies receiving such aid would be able to trade freely with countries whose companies do not receive such aid.  Any trade agreement with the EU will inevitable make it clear that subsidised companies in the UK will not have access to the EU market; and any other country entering a trade agreement with the UK will almost certainly impose similar conditions – it would be economic suicide for them to do otherwise.  Corbyn’s policy is a recipe for the sort of economic isolationism which Trump is pursuing in the US.
Perhaps most alarming of all was Corbyn’s suggestion (reported by the BBC) that Labour ‘would opt out of parts of world trade rules if necessary’ to ensure jobs went to local people.  I can see how the promise might be attractive to those whose votes he wants to win but given that we already know that a trading relationship based on WTO rules is the worst possible outcome of Brexit, suggesting unilaterally opting out even of those rules is taking things to a whole new level, and is in danger of making Corbyn look even more like an extreme Brexiteer than Rees-Mogg.
There is much about the trend to globalisation which I dislike.  On that I’m with Corbyn but where we part company is when the proposed solution is to try and pretend that it all never happened, turn back the clock, and go back to where we were before.  That really is Brexitism writ large and, as we are in serious danger of discovering, the past was not the nirvana as which some seem to see it.  Any viable solution has to come from working with others, not pretending that the UK can simply go it alone.  It’s not only the Tories who are suffering from Anglo-British nationalism and exceptionalism, and an idealised memory of the past.

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Comments - an apology

For some reason, there has been a problem with comments on this blog, as a result of which none were published for a while.  I think that this has now been rectified, but apologise to those who contributed their thoughts only to see them disappearing into the ether.   

Avoiding the argument

Being a fair-minded soul, I’ll accept that the MP for the 18th Century didn’t actually say, as he has been accused of doing, that we would have to wait 50 years for the benefits of Brexit to be realised.  What he did say was that it will take 50 years for the full economic consequences to be clear, which is not quite the same thing.  Either way, though, it’s a refreshingly honest statement from a Brexiteer, most of whom have been claiming all along that the economic benefits would be more or less immediate.
In strictly economic terms, Brexit, no matter how it’s dressed up, is the first instance in history of a country deliberately seeking to weaken trade ties with one group of countries, and there is an economic cost to doing that.  That cost might or might not be offset in due course by strengthened trade ties with other countries; for the true believers it’s an article of faith that it will, whereas the rest of us can only hope.  But those new deals will take many years to negotiate and agree, during which period the EU itself will also be negotiating stronger ties with the same countries – and they have rather more bargaining power at their disposal.  Any deals which the UK cuts need to be significantly better and/or operational for a very long time if they are to stand any chance of leaving the UK better off than it would otherwise be.  50 years sounds to me like a not unreasonable period over which to judge whether the gamble – for that’s what it is – will have been successful or not, and Rees-Mogg is making a fair point in saying so.
What he didn’t say, however, is that, for people who think like he does, it simply doesn’t matter how long it takes to arrive at a judgement, or whether the overall economic outcome at the end of that 50 years is favourable or not, because they start from a position of seeing Brexit as a good thing in itself for entirely non-economic reasons.  Those are partly about clinging to an outdated notion of absolute sovereignty and independence, partly about hankering after an idealised past where Britannia ruled the waves, and partly about Anglo-British nationalist exceptionalism which insists that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’ and are very special.  It’s about a world view, not economics.
The other thing he didn’t talk about was who in society would suffer the economic consequences as the economy adjusts over the next 50 years, because in any adjustment on such a scale there will inevitably be winners and losers.  There is, in short, a price to be paid, and the question is about who gets to pay it.  We can be certain that Rees-Mogg, and people like him, will not be among the losers.  Arguing that the price of taking this huge gamble is worth paying is easy enough if you’re not the one paying it, but the big dishonesty from the outset has been the failure of those taking that view to spell out that there is a price and to be clear about who will pay it.  Had they done that, they would have had to campaign for Brexit solely on the basis of the ideological rationale; that they did not do so underlines that they never thought that they would be able to persuade enough people to support their world view.
Even now, some of them are still arguing that there will be a Brexit dividend, despite the government’s own advisers having well and truly rubbished such an idea.  Their simplistic claim that if we’re no longer paying £x to Brussels (and we can argue about the value of x, but the precise sum is irrelevant here) we will be able to spend that £x on other things is easy to latch on to.  What’s missing of course is the unstated assumption that ‘nothing else changes’; and if that assumption were true, then of course there’d be a dividend.  But that’s a bit like assuming that if I stop spending money on food, I can spend it on other things, which simply assumes that the food keeps coming.  The point is that Brexit changes a whole host of other things; the assumption that it doesn’t is patently and obviously wrong and is being exposed as erroneous on a daily basis.
That leaves the Brexiteers in a desperate situation.  They ‘won’ the referendum but can see that victory slipping away from them as their lies and half-truths become increasingly clear, and as people come to realise who is going to be paying the cost of the Brexiteers’ dream.  Their only hope is to get on with it, to exit quickly before the process can be stopped or reversed, and deal with the consequences later.  Whether the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are complicit or merely useful idiots is open to debate, but ultimately irrelevant.  At the moment, the Brexit ideologues are winning the battle without ever needing to win the argument.

Monday 23 July 2018

Boris, Tinkerbell and Brexit

The way in which politicians use words is often less about communicating a message than it is about framing the terms of a debate and trying to present things in a different light.  There were two classic examples from the UK government last week.
Firstly, we had Andrea Leadsom telling us that the EU should be told that the White Paper on Brexit was the UK’s ‘final offer’, and there was no scope for negotiating any changes to it.  Those two words, ‘final’, and ‘offer’ are doing a lot of work here.  In the first place, it’s not really an ‘offer’ at all, more of a request.  It sets out what the UK would like to get from the negotiation, and offers the EU little, other than the ‘opportunity’ to water down the rules around the single market.  And secondly, this so-called ‘final’ offer is the first time that the UK Government has managed to spell out what it wants; it’s more akin to a first proposal than a last one.  And an opening bid which is also a final bid, which is what she wants this to be seen as, ends up looking more like a set of demands than a basis for discussion.  Faced with that, the fact that the EU27 are even bothering to discuss it formally shows a great deal of patience and goodwill on their side, rather than the intransigence as which it’s being painted.
Secondly, we had Theresa May claiming that to date all the proposals put forward by the EU have been ‘unworkable’.  In the first place, I’m not convinced that the EU has put any proposals forward to date; it’s been more a question of them waiting for a proposal – any proposal – from the UK.  What they have done is to set out the options as they see them, based on the set of rules under which they operate and experience of deals with other countries.  In the second place, when the Prime Minister says that they’re unworkable, what she seems to mean is that they don’t accommodate her own red lines.  In fairness to the EU27, that really isn’t their problem; the problem stems from the UK’s continuing adherence to cakeism.
The common thread in both statements, however, is that they look like an attempt to present the situation as one in which the UK is being reasonable whilst the EU is being intransigent – setting up a position in which the ‘blame’ for any failure in the negotiations can be attributed to someone else.  And for as long as the UK sticks by its insistence that the EU must change its single market rules and undermine the integrity of that market to suit the departing member, then failure looks inevitable.  By now, it’s obvious that failure is the desired outcome of the Brexiteers, but they know that they need to be able to blame anybody other than themselves for the resulting damage.  And the EU will do for starters.
It’s not the only scapegoat being lined up, however.  As the former Foreign Secretary made clear last week, there’s an alternative scapegoat available as well.  It is all those who refuse to believe in Britain and the glories that await us after Brexit.  The sheer force of belief, if strongly shared by enough people, will be enough to make it happen, apparently, whereas failure to believe will lead to the death of the dream.  It provoked a childhood memory of going to watch Peter Pan in the theatre; if we didn’t all believe in fairies Tinkerbell would die.  But I suppose that a Tinkerbell Brexit is just what we might expect from a pantomime government.

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 á 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.

Monday 2 July 2018

Substance and semblance

The report published today by the Wales Centre for Public Policy neatly and effectively debunks many of the over-simplistic arguments about the possibilities for increasing revenue in Wales following the devolution of power over part of income tax.  On the one hand, the proposal which the Tories have put forward, of reducing the higher rates of tax in order to attract high earners to come to Wales and start businesses here, would have an impact only if significant numbers of people moved, and on the other hand, the number of high rate taxpayers in Wales is so low that an increase in the tax rate is unlikely to generate a lot of revenue either.
Of course, it is true that, as the report states, “Were the Welsh Government to change income tax rates in Wales, there would likely be some behavioural response from Welsh taxpayers”, but what is unclear is how much behavioural response to how great a stimulus.  I have long been highly sceptical about the idea that comparatively small changes to a single tax rate will provoke a widespread change in behaviour, but some politicians with an axe to grind attempt to argue either that a penny on the rate of tax would lead to a mass exodus or that a penny off would lead to a mass inflow.  Or even both. 
I simply don’t find that credible; the financial situation of individuals is obviously affected by income tax rates, but it is also affected by a range of other factors, including the services which they get in exchange for paying taxes, and questions such as house prices, and that is without even mentioning the wide range of intangible factors such as closeness of family and friends, and other attachments to a particular area.  Within the likely range of any changes to tax rates, I think we can largely disregard any impact on terms of population flows.  What we do need to recognise is that tinkering within a narrow range isn’t going to produce much, if anything, by way of additional revenue, and the report delivers a very clear message on that.  It might enable the taxes being raised to be distributed differently amongst the population, and that might well be a reason for the Welsh government to adjust tax rates – but any expectation of a significant revenue boost is misplaced.
Where that leaves us is exactly where many of us have long believed that the devolution of limited powers over income tax would leave us – in a situation where the apparent ‘power’ is close to meaningless.  Real power over taxation involves the right to vary a range of taxes and includes the ability to shift taxation from indirect to direct taxation (or indeed the other way).  But then, delivering the semblance rather than the substance of power has been the defining characteristic of devolution from the outset.