Wednesday 30 October 2019

Could Farage be the best way of stopping Brexit?

Despite what the opinion polls are saying, the pundits all tell us that the coming election is highly unpredictable.  Maybe; the polls have been wrong before, and things can change during a campaign.  The recent finding that the Tories are in the lead in Wales just ‘feels’ wrong, but that could be affected by a large dose of wishful thinking on my part.  And while Johnson is likely to prove a better communicator than May (he could hardly be worse), he also has a massive propensity for gaffes, and some of the people around him could also blow it by accident.
To get his majority and then get Brexit (phase 1) ‘done’, the PM needs only to get around a third of the electorate to support his party, and there are certainly enough hard-line Brexiteers to give him such a level of support, even if, as seems at least possible, he jettisons the support of all other types of previous Tory voter in the process.  If he achieves that, then under what passes for democracy in the UK, he would claim a mandate for his deal, despite the fact that a good number of those hardliners would prefer something even harder.
But overall, the biggest potential obstacle to his success is another party, namely Nigel Farage plc.  At current polling levels, they are likely to make only a minor dent in the Tory vote, but their vote share could easily improve over the course of a campaign.  If they were to poll around 12% (currently their status in the polls), spread evenly over the whole of England, they would do no serious damage to the Tories and fail to win a single seat, but at around 25%, spread less evenly, they could start to win seats to a significant extent.  It means that there is a ‘sweet spot’, at around 20%, evenly spread, where they would win no seats but badly damage the Tories.  Put another way, at that sweet spot, people choosing to vote for the party which most accurately represents their view of the desired outcome of Brexit is the best way of ensuring that they don’t get what they want.
Leaving aside (for a moment at least) my own preferences when it comes to Brexit, the idea that the best way to stop Brexit completely is to get those who want the hardest version of it to vote for the only party openly offering them what they want underlines the broken nature of the UK’s sham of a democracy.  There is something very wrong with a system which can potentially either give absolute power to one minority or completely exclude another significant minority from any representation at all.

Friday 25 October 2019

The artifice of the deal

When he was just plain old mister, Donald Trump ‘wrote’ a book called The Art of the Deal explaining how to do deals.  He didn’t write it himself, of course, he got a proper writer to do that, but the book claimed to explain how he was the world’s best dealmaker ever.  I’m not sure that anyone other than himself ever believed it (the real author has subsequently suggested that it should be recategorized as fiction), and it’s clear that his view of all deals as zero sum games is significantly at odds with the way most businesses set about achieving agreements, but somehow it managed to sell quite a few copies.
One person who appears not to have read it is Boris Johnson.  I doubt that even Trump could have come up with the sort of offer that Johnson made to parliament yesterday, which appears to be of the form ‘do one thing you don’t want to and I’ll allow you to do something else that you don’t want to’.  The attraction to the opposition parties of being allowed to discuss his withdrawal agreement if they first agree to his demand for an election immediately after passing it is far from being obvious.  It’s more like the mafia than a negotiation, except he can’t even get that right – instead of making the opposition an offer they can’t refuse, he’s made them one that they can’t accept.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘offer’ isn’t really serious at all, just another attempt at playing silly games to try and get his own way.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Following the money

There is a popular meme, which has been shared many times over on Facebook and elsewhere, claiming that the reason why so many of the wealthiest in our society are so keen to ‘get Brexit done’ this year is to avoid an EU-imposed deadline on tax avoidance.  It’s been well and truly debunked – whilst it’s true that the EU is not over-keen on tax avoidance, there simply is no specific legislation coming into force in January which Brexit will help people avoid.  The meme retains its currency and potency, however, because it is otherwise so easily believable.  One only has to look at some of the financial backers of Brexit to see people whose whole behaviour is enough to convince anyone that they probably would be venal enough to pursue a course of action designed primarily to help them avoid the application of the same laws as apply to we lesser mortals.
I’m sure that the story in today’s Guardian, highlighting the extent to which the UK (together with its offshore territories) is a haven for money-laundering, corruption and tax evasion will reinforce the belief that those making a personal fortune by gambling and speculating with our money and by avoiding the taxes which should be due on their ill-gotten gains are indeed supporting Brexit for reasons which have nothing to do with giving money to the NHS, controlling immigration, or any of the other spurious reasons that they’ve given.  Taking back control, however, just maybe – but in the generic sense rather than the specific.  Co-ordinated, international action against dodgy dealing doesn’t suit their purposes, but having individual jurisdictions competing on tax and regulation most certainly does.  The EU is a threat to them – not in the narrow sense of specific regulations as portrayed by the meme, but in the generic sense that international co-ordination makes it harder for them to play off one jurisdiction against another.  Maximising competition between jurisdictions is in their interest (which is why they see Brexit as just one step - their real aim is to destroy the EU), and as long as competition exists, a clamp down in one jurisdiction merely encourages them to shift their anti-social activities elsewhere.  Effectively controlling corruption, money-laundering, and tax evasion requires international co-operation and co-ordination, and that, ultimately, is why they’re so opposed to such co-operation.  And I doubt that such co-ordination and co-operation will figure very large, or even at all, in any post-Brexit trade talks.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Pigs and pokes

An article on Nation.Cymru yesterday argued that independentistas who argue for a form of independence which involves remaining in the EU are in danger of alienating potential supporters who also support Brexit.  Put in such stark terms, the statement is unchallengeable; advocacy of a form of independence which is in any way predicated upon continued membership of the EU will undoubtedly prove unattractive to those who see the EU as some sort of evil foreign empire, and (in theory at least) it should be easier to gain a majority for independence if any and all such preconditions are removed.  Such an approach is not without its problems though.  Surely one of the lessons of the Brexit saga is that gaining a majority for a broad concept which can be interpreted in different ways by different people may be easier than getting a majority for a more specific proposal, but it merely kicks the can down the road.  It can actually end up making it harder, not easier, to define the ultimate destination, since it leaves everyone expecting ‘their’ version of the outcome to be delivered.
‘Independence’ will happen in a context, and that context will affect the meaning of the word ‘independence’ itself.  There is no absolute, context-free version of independence available to us and pretending there is in order to put together a majority in favour is misleading people.  As things stand today, there are three obvious potential contexts – and therefore meanings – of independence for Wales:
1.    Independence within the EU whilst the rest of the UK (essentially, England) also remains in the EU
2.    Independence within the EU whilst England is outside the EU
3.    Independence outside the EU with England also outside the EU.
In the first case, Wales would have the same degree of ‘independence’ as any other EU member state.  The same would also be true in the second case, but there would be a requirement for a customs and regulatory border between Wales and England.  And in the third case, our economy would inevitably be bound tightly to that of England; and Wales would, in effect, be bound to follow the English regulatory regime.  In theory, all of those are ‘independence’ as it is understood in the modern world.  The argument of Nation.Cymru is effectively that, if the concept is kept vague enough, supporters of all three can come together and vote for the concept, and that (to the extent that the choice would actually be in our own hands anyway) we only need to choose between them after the event.
But here’s the thing: whilst I would vote enthusiastically for the first, I’m not at all certain that I could vote for the second, and for establishing customs posts along the Welsh border, and nor am I convinced that a majority for such a proposal is attainable.  I’m not at all certain that the third is better than merely expanding the scope of devolution.  If a committed independentista like myself is doubtful, what chance persuading a majority?  Worse still – whilst leaving the nature of the result open to interpretation might well attract some voters, it could also put others off.
I’ve argued often enough in the past that asking independentistas to provide a detailed picture of a post-independence Wales is a silly question, because it depends on what sort of government we then elect and what policies that government follows.  That is not the same, though, as failing to define what we mean by independence and the context in which it happens, because if we don’t do that, we’re asking people to buy a pig in a poke.  And the last three years have shown us what can happen then.

Monday 21 October 2019

The saga has a long way to run yet

The television coverage which we generally see from the House of Commons can be very misleading.  On the whole, it’s quite a friendly place; and most clauses in most legislation are entirely uncontroversial.  The coverage that we see concentrates on the areas of difference rather than of agreement; difference is more newsworthy than agreement, and it makes for better television as well.  There are a great number of cross-party friendships – indeed, over the years it has often seemed to me that MPs act, and maybe think, as though they have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us.  For all the rhetoric and vitriol in the chamber itself, the MPs play together in the various parliamentary sports teams, eat together, and above all, drink together.
That may be why the PM genuinely seems to believe in relation to Brexit that if only we can ‘get it done’ the country can come together again.  It’s a belief (insofar as he believes it – I mostly wonder whether he believes anything he says) which is entirely in line with normal parliamentary procedure.  In the case of Brexit, however, it’s a major category error, and it ignores the extent to which the debate around this issue extends well beyond the boundaries of the parliamentary estate.  Just occasionally our parliamentarians are asked to take decisions which are not just about comparatively minor details of legislation which can easily be reversed in the next parliament, but about issues which will change the direction of the future for a generation or more.  Brexit is such an issue.
It’s not just some sort of giant game at the end of which both sides line up, shake each other’s hands, and wander off to the club for a drink or two.  For those who care passionately about the sort of future we are going to leave for our children and their children, it isn’t a game which ends with everyone accepting the score-line and quietly acquiescing.  And that’s a factor which applies to both sides.  Just as Farage made it clear (entirely properly) before the referendum that if his side narrowly lost, the issue wouldn’t go away, equally those who believe that the future of Wales (or the UK, depending on one’s personal focus) lies in a European context aren’t going to simply go away and accept an insular or US-dominated future either.  There are non-Brexit parallels as well – supporters of devolution didn’t simply give up the battle after the 1979 referendums, and supporters of an independent Scotland haven’t simply given up after the result of the 2014 referendum.  And why should they?
Those who argue that such arguments can somehow be ‘settled’ by a vote in the House of Commons – or even by another referendum – are failing to understand the significance of the issue under debate.  It wasn’t the referendum which caused the polarisation of opinion amongst the population; the difference in opinion existed beforehand, especially within the ruling party itself, which is why we had a referendum in the first place.  The way it was fought and the way in which things have turned out since may have exacerbated the division and hardened opinions on both sides, but it didn’t create those divisions.  Agreement by the House of Commons on the terms of departure won’t change the opinions of those who believe that it’s the wrong decision, and another referendum won’t change the minds of those who choose to see the EU as some sort of evil empire either.
There really is no good way out of the hole into which we have collectively been led, and there is no mechanism for bringing people together, no matter how often the PM claims that a decisive victory for his side of the debate achieves precisely that.  As far as the next week is concerned, imprisoning the PM for contempt of court might please some; agreeing the terms of a deal might please others; yet others will be delighted to get one hurdle out of the way so that they can pursue their dream of what they call a ‘complete break’.  There is nothing that will please all of those groups, and nothing which will put an end to the argument.  This one will, as they say, run and run.

Friday 18 October 2019

Handling a slippery customer

The 'victory' which the PM has secured in the revised agreement with the EU reminds me of the one secured by the trade union leader who, after negotiating at length with the employers, came back to tell his members “I’m afraid that I haven’t been able to get us a pay increase – in fact, I’ve had to accept a pay cut.  But the good news is that I’ve got it backdated”.  Boris Johnson has indeed managed to get rid of the infamous backstop, but, as the Irish Times put it, “The price Johnson has paid for killing the backstop is his acceptance, as the default position, of the very thing – Northern Ireland in the EU customs union – that the backstop would, if activated, have produced.”  He’s taken a solution which was designed to be temporary (until such time as a trade deal was agreed with the EU) and made it a ‘permanent’ one, thereby obviating the need for the temporary solution.  (The ‘permanence’ of the arrangement is, of course, subject to a periodic vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the EU is theoretically taking a gamble in depending on that.  However, given that the decision is to be taken by simple majority and given that demographic change is moving slowly but inexorably in one direction – against the DUP – the bet is a fairly safe one.)
The question is why he has given so much ground so suddenly; it’s a complete turnaround from what he has said in the past.  There does seem to be an outside chance that enough Labour MPs will have been bought out by the promised reductions in workers’ rights, environmental regulations etc. (compared with the better protection that they were offered by Theresa May) to be willing to support the deal this time round for him to be able to get it through parliament in principle tomorrow, potentially freeing him from the requirements of the so-called Benn Act, but then what?  There is a great deal of very detailed legislation that needs to be passed, and if parliament rejects that after agreeing to the deal in principle, we are left facing no deal.  For those who suspect that ‘no deal’ is still the PM’s preferred option (not because he believes it best for the UK, even he isn’t that stupid: it’s all about minimising the vote for the Nigel Farage plc Party), getting agreement and then seeing the legislation fail might be exactly what he wants.  People are quite right to have their suspicions about his motives.
There is also another possibility, raised by Craig Murray, who suggests that “Legal Advisers have been asked about the circumstances constituting force majeure which would justify the UK in breaking a EU Withdrawal Agreement in the future. … The situation that Johnson and Raab appear now to contemplate is agreeing a “backstop” now to get Brexit done, but then not implementing the agreed backstop when the time comes due to “force majeure””.  In ordinary times, with an ordinary Prime Minister, I would find it incredible that any PM would sign an international agreement with the advance intention of then breaching it almost immediately afterwards, but with Johnson, who knows?
For all of Johnson’s display of confidence that he has the numbers, none of us know what will happen tomorrow, least of all him.  But given his long-standing proclivity towards dishonesty, MPs can and should make sure that they ensure, in as watertight a means as they can, that they tie his hands in such a way that he cannot frustrate the will of parliament, whatever that turns out to be.

Thursday 17 October 2019

To whom the rules apply

One of the unkind things which people do to politicians is drag up comments that they’ve made in the past to contrast them with what they’re doing or saying today (and sadly – for the politicians at any rate – it’s something that the internet has made a great deal easier).  Theresa May’s remarks, in relation to the idea of a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea that “no UK prime minster could ever agree to it” can never be expunged from the electronic record.  People have been naughtily pointing out that Boris Johnson also said, referring to the same thing, that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement”.
The implication is that he is somehow now going back on what he said previously by negotiating precisely that.  This is unfair to the PM.  His comment only sought to tie the hands of a ‘Conservative’ government, but he removed that government from power in July.  Obviously, a Brexit PM cannot be bound by rules which only apply to Conservative leaders.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Nationalisation is about more than price

Two days ago, the CBI warned us that Labour’s nationalisation plans would cost taxpayers around £200bn, as well as ongoing costs for such things as maintenance and development of the infrastructure.  Labour’s response, accusing the CBI of "incoherent scaremongering" was, I thought, being rather too kind on the CBI; one would really expect those at the top of UK industry to have a rather better grasp of economics than this.  Richard Murphy has explained very well why the CBI’s statement is utter nonsense – buying assets doesn’t increase total net debt and borrowing money to purchase revenue-producing assets can actually reduce net debt charges.
It’s not often that I agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but their comment that "Economically what matters is whether these assets would be better managed by the public or the private sector" seems to me to hit the nail on the head.  And the real problem with Labour’s proposals is that the history of nationalised industries in the UK has not been a happy one.  Interference and micro-management from Whitehall have often meant that potentially profitable industries have ended up making losses and become a drain on public finance rather than a contributor to them, and their productivity record has often been poor.  The record of ministers and civil servants when it comes to running businesses leaves, shall we say, a lot to be desired.  Things don’t have to be that way, however.  Nationalised industries can be and often are successful elsewhere; the UK’s past experience isn’t an inevitable determinant of future prospects.
There are also some non-economic arguments about whether certain industries – particularly those which one might regard as ‘natural monopolies’ – should be run as public services for the benefit of all, or as private enterprises for the benefit of shareholders.  Apparently ‘profitable’ rail services are only ‘profitable’ because they receive public subsidy – in essence, those subsidies end up paying dividends to shareholders.  It is entirely reasonable to question whether that is the best way of spending the public money which goes into the railway network.
The real cost with Labour’s nationalisation proposals isn’t the cost of purchase itself, it is any additional costs incurred after nationalisation as a result of introducing a different business model.  Sticking with the railways as an example, a political decision to prioritise increasing capacity and reducing prices to encourage passengers to shift from road to rail would lead undoubtedly to a net increase in ongoing government expenditure.  Whether (or rather, to what extent) that would be matched by corresponding savings elsewhere (for instance on roads), or less easily quantifiable benefits such as environmental improvements, is a difficult question to answer.  It is not, though, primarily an economic debate at all – it is a political debate about priorities and the sort of society in which we wish to live.  The CBI’s headline about an “eye-watering” price is a diversion from the entirely proper debate about alternative approaches, as well as being incoherent in its own terms.

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Misreading the Labour Party

In the dying weeks of her premiership, desperate to try and save her Brexit deal, Theresa May engaged in negotiations with the Labour Party.  I’m not sure that she ever really thought that she would win over the party as a block, but there did seem reason to believe that some of the concessions she made on maintaining standards in relation to issues such as workers’ rights might have been a way of peeling off enough Labour MPs to get her deal approved.  Ultimately, it failed.  Despite all her attempts to demonstrate a willingness to protect standards and rights, and even potentially seek a closer post-Brexit relationship with the EU, the number of Labour MPs willing to buy it was limited to the usual suspects.
The new PM has adopted a different approach.  Whilst the details remain unclear, all the indications are that he has scrapped the commitments to maintaining standards and rights and is seeking a less close relationship with the EU than that enjoyed by Canada, let alone that enjoyed by countries such as Norway.  Yet it seems that he is attracting the support of more Labour MPs than ever Theresa May managed.  If only Theresa May had realised that the way to get more Labour MPs to support her deal was to promise to weaken employee rights, reduce standards, and increase the amount of damage done to trade and employment, things might have turned out very differently for her.  How could she have misread them so badly?

Friday 11 October 2019

Where can we find the kryptonite?

As a child, I used to enjoy reading DC comics with their array of superheroes, each of whom had his or her own unique superpower.  Superman was the first and I always thought the best.  Who wouldn’t want to be able to fly as well as having super strength and being generally invulnerable?  I doubt that the PM would have read such comics.  I could be wrong, but they don’t strike me as typical Eton fare and, as far as I’m aware, they aren’t available in an ancient Greek or Latin version.  On the other hand, when you have a whole pantheon of Greek gods to choose from, each with their own special abilities, who needs to burden their minds by reading about more modern superheroes?
In the real world, superpowers are much more mundane.  Boris Johnson’s seems to be a remarkable ability to look people directly in the eye, tell them the most outrageous lies, and be believed.  And then repeat the same trick, with the same people, time and again – even after they’ve discovered that all his previous statements were lies.  It’s quite a party trick.  In the last couple of weeks, he’s pulled the same trick on members of his own party, the DUP and the Irish Taoiseach. In an absolute triumph for hope and optimism over experience, they’ve all said that they believe him when he says he can produce a deal which will satisfy everybody, if they’ll just leave him in power for long enough to do the opposite.
In the comics, there was always a limit on a superpower.  It would have been boring if there was never any possible means by which the superhero could be vanquished.  In Superman’s case, it was kryptonite, which came in a complete spectrum of different colours, all of them having different effects either on our hero or else on other key characters in the plot. It was an update on the more classic concept of an Achilles’ Heel, something which would probably be more familiar to the PM.  The questions to which all those of us wishing to put an end to the Greek tragedy playing out before us need an urgent answer are what does ‘Johnsonite’ look like, and where do we get some?

Thursday 10 October 2019

Johnson's super power?

When Boris Johnson formed his cabinet after being selected as the leader of his party, it was widely reported that all of those appointed had been asked to confirm that they would, if necessary, support the UK leaving the EU without an agreement.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that a number of them had their fingers crossed behind their backs as they duly confirmed that they would.  They had assumed that the PM was just bluffing, and that they would never be called upon to honour their commitment.  And indeed, that was probably what he led them to believe – he has, after all, been almost consistent in his insistence that the EU members would agree to destroy their own internal market for the benefit of the UK if only they truly believed that the alternative was for the UK to press its own self-destruct button.
Whether he really believes that is an open question, not least because I’m not sure that he really believes anything other than that he is born to rule.  A bigger question is what one earth possessed so many members of his own party to believe what he was telling them, given his long record of having what might euphemistically be called a ‘complicated’ relationship with the truth.  Worse still, they’re still at it.  Yesterday, Damien Green and a few of his mates went to meet the PM to make it clear that there are a large number of Tory MPs who will not support any move for the party to fight the forthcoming election on a ‘no-deal’ platform.  After the event, they claimed to have looked him in the eye as he pledged that the party would not shift to a no deal position, despite the lengthy briefing issued from ‘an anonymous source’ in his office the previous day declaring that that was exactly what they would do.  And they believed him.
I don’t know what it is, but Johnson certainly has something about him.  What is it that enables apparently rational and thinking people to have a meeting with a proven inveterate liar, who has a habit of saying the first thing that comes into his head and then saying the opposite later, to come away from a meeting with him believing that they, uniquely, and despite their own previous experience to the contrary, have extracted an honest statement from him?  Perhaps I’m being too kind in my description of them as ‘apparently rational and thinking’.

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Re-interpreting the facts

From the outset, a major part of the case put by the Brexiteers has revolved around the idea that the institutions of the EU wield power that rightfully belongs to sovereign states and weaken those states in the process.  As Ian Dunt put it in an article in the Irish Times, “Their entire working assumption about world politics was that international cooperation sucked power from the nation state”.  In isolation, and from a theoretical rather than empirical view, it’s not wholly unreasonable.  It is, after all, a formulation of the fear which led some independentistas, including myself, to oppose membership of the EU back in the 1970s.  There is a problem, though, when people cling to a theoretical view which is not grounded in empiricism, and which events prove to be unfounded.
One of the things that the whole Brexit process has demonstrated is the way in which a group of nations acting collectively can actually strengthen rather than weaken the individual parts.  Specifically, the Republic of Ireland has ended up with a stronger hand in the process than its very much bigger neighbour, because the EU institutions have sought to protect member states against the demands and exceptionalism of a would-be non-member.  It is almost the exact opposite of a world view in which, as Dunt puts it again, “…international relations [is] a zero-sum game in which big countries are winners and small ones losers to be gobbled up”. 
It’s a reality which logic dictates ought to lead to a change in outlook, but the cognitive dissonance involved has all been too much for them.  The EU’s support for Ireland’s position has led to some Brexiteers complaining that the EU is not being tough enough in bringing that small country into line for the benefit of the larger ones – in the same way as they themselves have simply over-ridden any and all objections from Scotland or Wales to their approach.  For them, that is the natural order of things.  If their complaint sounds like the complete reverse of what they were previously saying about ‘Europe’ dominating its member states, it’s not because they were previously wrong; it can only be because ‘Europe’ is using Ireland to pursue its own devious and nefarious objectives.  Every fact or event which undermines their own world view can be and is simply re-interpreted in ways which confirm and strengthen it.  It makes rational debate close to impossible.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Yesterday’s poll showing that only one third of the electorate support exiting the EU without a deal is being interpreted by some as an indication that the PM is going against public opinion and should be reconsidering.  That seems to me to misunderstand the point – having around 34% support is enough under the UK’s electoral system, and the PM is more likely to interpret it as a very encouraging finding.  He doesn’t need the support of a majority, and public opinion on this one issue is unimportant.  All he needs is to ensure that all that 34% vote goes to his party (and of course that all his party’s candidates support no deal) and he could win the forthcoming general election with a thumping majority of seats.  And at the moment, that is the outcome which the polls are suggesting.
Personally, I’m not convinced that the polls are correct, or that the strategy will work.  Firstly, there is a real question as to whether the overall national figures will translate evenly across constituencies; in this election it seems likely to me that individual constituency battles (for instance those involving 'expelled' Tories) will be more important than has traditionally been the case.  Secondly, there is Scotland where the likeliest outcome is the annihilation of the Tories as an electoral force.  Thirdly, a Lib Dem surge in parts of England may well take a number of seats from the Tories, thereby pushing the winning line further out of reach.  And finally, there is a serious question as to whether long-term Labour voters who support Leave will really turn out and vote for the traditional enemy in the numbers which the Johnson strategy requires.  A hung parliament still seems the most probable outcome to me.
Let us suppose, however, that that analysis is wrong, that Johnson manages to unite most of that 34% behind his party as well as hanging on to less-convinced traditional Tory voters in sufficient numbers to win a large majority of parliamentary seats.  What then?  I wonder if he’s even thought forward to that point – he does, after all, have something of a reputation for flying by the seat of his pants.  It seems to me that his troubles, far from being resolved by a quick no deal Brexit, would be just starting. 
In the absence of a withdrawal agreement there would be no transition period, and all existing arrangements with the EU would, legally, come to an immediate end along with all the EU-brokered trade agreements.  For all Trump’s old talk of quick deals, negotiating a deal would probably take at least 5 years and probably more – the UK will not be dealing with Trump at the point of signature but with his successor (although that’s probably a plus rather than a minus); and negotiating other deals will probably take longer.  There would be customs checks at the border across Ireland, and the UK would be starting a long drawn-out process of negotiating a trade deal with 27 EU countries acting in concert, all of which it has spent 3 years mightily p***ing off, and for whom dealing with all the issues which were supposed to have been dealt with in the Withdrawal Agreement will be their starting point.  And all those voters who thought that the supposed difficulties of no deal were just Project Fear start to disover the truth.
His main objective (continuing to occupy the post of PM) would have been achieved, but I wonder how long it would be before letters started arriving in the in-tray of the chair of the 1922 Committee…

Friday 4 October 2019

Carts and horses

From the reactions amongst MPs to the proposals which the PM outlined in the Commons yesterday, it looks as though phase 1 of the Brexit process (where the Conservative Party negotiates with itself) will soon come to an end.  Given another week or two, the governing party may well be able to mobilise a majority of MPs behind its proposal.  Once they finally get to that stage – clarity as to what the government and MPs want and are prepared to vote for – it would be quite a sensible time to send a letter to the EU, triggering the start of the Article 50 process.  There’s just one small problem…

Thursday 3 October 2019

Leaving the door wide open

I know that I’m not the first to point out that the kerfuffle involving a backbench MP at the Tory conference could have been completely avoided if the security check had been carried out five miles away from the conference venue, or even at his house before he left, and he had been given a clever electronic device to track his movements all the way to the venue and into the room in question.  Under such a system (perhaps we could call it ‘alternative arrangements’) there would have been no need for a security check at the entrance to the room because the check would already have been done elsewhere, and the electronics would tell the security team exactly where he was at any given time.  And with no need for a security presence on the door, there could have been no confrontation and no fuss.
Unfortunately, it also neatly parallels some of the real problems for his proposal in relation to the EU-UK border on the island of Ireland.  Whilst the MP would have been checked and verified, what if his wife had simply gone directly to the room in question?  With no security clearance, she would have no clever device to monitor her, and with no security on the door, no infrastructure to detect her presence and no clever device, she would cross the boundary into the room ‘invisibly’ as far as the security team were concerned.  Without a physical control to ensure that only people who’d gone through the ‘clearance centre’ could reach the entrance to the room, the entrance would, effectively, be unsecured.  Now, one might ask, ‘does it matter if one stray extra individual gains access to the room?’  Maybe not – but if it doesn’t then the security check was irrelevant and unnecessary in the first place.  The point is that the security presence on the door wasn’t there to admire the documents held by the authorised and put a tick in a box somewhere; it was there to prevent access by the unauthorised.
A system which depends on goods and associated documents being presented at a clearance centre (or being checked at the factory) before proceeding but with no means of ensuring that everyone does so is a system which controls the movements only of the honest.  For the dishonest, it’s an open door.  And here’s the thing – the point of checking customs documentation and goods at the border isn’t to admire the beauty of correct documentation, it is to identify, deter and prevent the movement of goods which don’t have the correct documentation or on which the correct duties haven’t been paid.  If the PM had insisted his own party followed the ‘plans’ which he is putting forward, he might begin to understand why they’re not a viable approach for any territory which wants to control what does or does not enter its markets.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

It's not just words - it's the context

In responding to complaints about the language he and his team have been using, the PM chose to concentrate on justifying the use of particular words.  His response to that more limited issue was not at all unreasonable – words like ‘traitor’, ‘betrayal', and ‘surrender’ have indeed been common political currency on all sides for a very long time.  The response does, though, miss the point, which is more to do with context than actual words.
When Henry II asked, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, the problem wasn’t with the description of the Archbishop as being ‘turbulent’; it was with the ‘will no one rid me’ part of the sentence.  The adjective, in itself, could be interpreted as mere banter, just like the words which Johnson has been using.  But when placed into a context where the person described is also referred to as needing to be ‘got rid of’, (and where it is said in the hearing of individuals willing to carry out the getting rid of) the context makes the whole much more threatening.  It has the effect of legitimising (in their own minds at least) the actions of those believing that they are doing what the king wants them to do, even if they haven't directly been tasked with murder.
That is precisely the problem with Johnson’s language.  In a context where people are receiving death threats, and his team are openly suggesting that the way to stop the threats is for those receiving them to knuckle down and obey those making the threats, continuing to describe those receiving the threats as unpatriotic traitors amounts to legitimising both the threats and those making them.  Allowing him to justify the use of particular metaphors by referring to past use of the same words is ignoring context – and letting him off the hook for an utterly irresponsible approach to public debate.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

FPTP doesn't do what its supporters claim

One of the most common arguments against proportional representation is that it potentially allows extremist groups or parties to gain a foothold in elected bodies.  That is undeniably true; to the extent to which an extremist party enjoys public support, it will gain representation in a fair voting system.  But designing an electoral system around the need to exclude certain viewpoints from winning seats doesn’t strike me as being either a legitimate design criterion or the best way of countering extremism.  It is the ideas which need to be confronted and dealt with, not the electoral expression of those ideas.
Current political circumstances also cast considerable doubt about whether it’s only a proportional system which allows a platform to extreme groups.  What the Brexiteers have shown is that if a small faction manages to seize control of an existing political party, they can impose their will on the majority by gaining only around 30-35% of the vote.  Even better (from their point of view), using such an approach means that they are likely to ‘inherit’ a fair proportion of the existing vote for that party as a result of electoral inertia, so they don’t even need to win the argument for their viewpoint.
What the Brexiteers in the Tory Party have shown us is that we need to change the system which gives total power on the basis of a minority of the votes, as can all too easily happen with first-past-the-post; gerrymandering the system itself to exclude extremists doesn’t always work.