Thursday, 24 May 2018

On the telly, again.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Groundhog Day.


The tempo of this blog has slowed somewhat in recent weeks. The daily grind of reporting of events is ably covered by eureferendum.com and nothing much has changed since December. I've been in the trenches over on Twitter. There is something else that hasn't changed too. Tory deceptions. If it isn't Jacob Rees-Mogg pushing the WTO option at every opportunity then it's the IEA venting their illiteracy.

Rees-Mogg this week and last is complaining at the "vassal state transition", telling us there is a provision for tariff free trade deep in the bowels of GATT. This is, of course, a total red herring in that it says nothing of non tariff barriers - and oh Christ am I tired of saying that.

I'm now at the point where I could actually construct a random blog generator whereby one selects from drop down boxes who has said what and it would, with reasonable accuracy, be able to debunk whatever has been said.

It would, however, seem that we are making small steps in the right direction. Today we see Chuka Umunna dismantling some of the mythology in respect of the EEA option. I am far from the only one to point out that Umunna himself is responsible for much of that mythology but at this point one is inclined to simply say better late than never.

Meanwhile, the Commission has released a slide pointing out which checks are eliminated by having a customs union. We're actually at the point where they have to set it out in red letters. As we can see a customs union doesn't actually achieve very much at all yet it has occupied most of the debating runtime for the last six months. It may yet sink in but I fear the Commission will have to make it clearer by adding giant red arrows.

Meanwhile, as reported by Nick Gutteridge, EU negotiator Michel Barnier makes Brussels' position on the Irish border clear: "The only frictionless model for the future of the UK would be Norway plus, being part of the Single Market plus the Customs Union. For each of the other models we’d have controls".

This suggests the EU is not willing to entertain any kind of "MaxFac" even though the technologies available could eliminate the need for a customs union. In a way I don't blame them in that the UK government has not understood the issues and hasn't presented any kind of workable proposal. They perhaps would were we making moves toward the EEA - as is required to address issues in the above illustration, but it seems patience has run out.

Eventually there will be no time for any more procrastination. A choice has to be made; either we stay in the single market or we have a wet border with Ireland. But then we've been here before haven't we? The choices have been clear enough for months and Mrs May is simply refusing to grasp the nettle. As ever, there is little we can do except for making the same points over and over and pray that some of it sinks in. We may yet get there. Maybe.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Guardian needs to stop insulting the working class


An article by Aditya Chakrabortty yesterday is not what you or I would call journalism. It's clickbait, because that's the only way for the legacy media to get noticed these days. Chakrabortty says in his Twitter bio "I am gainfully employed by a newspaper. Future generations will not be able to say that". I rather expect the reason for that is because we are fed up with the likes of him.

Now I don't normally go in for the fisking technique on this blog because I've long since vowed not to let the legacy media set the agenda - but with Brexit now being so brain-wiltingly tedious I am for once going to take the bait. Let's dive in!
Cut the niceties. Skip the jargon. Let us speak the plain truth, however ugly. What is driving this country headlong into a chaotic and punishing Brexit is a blind desire to cut immigration. That’s why people voted to leave the EU, politicians and pundits tell us.
No data supports that. It is primarily remainers who bleat that narrative because it's easier to salve their own conscience if they believe the reason really was that we are all a xenophobic horde.
That’s what makes a Norway-style deal impossible, since it would almost certainly allow freedom of movement with mainland Europe – and any prime minister accepting that would be strung up by the press for treachery.
Well, as readers of this blog are well aware, there are a number of obstacles to the Norway option, largely to do with the issue of regulatory sovereignty and to a point freedom of movement. These are largely myths created by the remain campaign which have since been adopted by the Brexit ultras. EEA freedom of movement for workers is a wholly different animal to EU citizenship and it can be amended. Those details, however, will not feature on the limited horizons of Chakrabortty. 

Cutting to the chase, Chakrabortty picks up on a study showing the media incontinence on the subject of immigration. 
“When not associated with rape, murder or violence, migrants were often characterised as job stealers or benefit tourists,” observes the academics’ report. So grab-handedly abhorrent were these newcomers that they were simultaneously taking our jobs and stealing our dole money. Or else they were jostling British mothers out of maternity wards and cramming their kids into British classrooms.
Such poisonous stories were happily ventriloquised by Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove. Their reward for helping to generate the hatred that will scar this country for years was, naturally, a big job in government. Their targets, on the other hand, have to live in a society in which racial prejudice is not just normalised but tacitly encouraged by cabinet ministers.
Yet time and time again, the politicians’ claims were false. The men and women who have come here from Budapest or Prague are like previous generations of arrivals: young, educated at someone else’s expense and here to work. They aren’t low-skilled labour but what former government economist Jonathan Portes describes as “ordinary, productive, middle income, middle-skilled – the sort of people our economy actually needs”. Study after study has failed to find any evidence of significant undercutting of wages. Far from jumping the queue, analysis published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows they are much less likely to be on benefits or in social housing than their UK-born counterparts.
So you can see what's happening here. Chakrabortty is building the narrative that Brexit is xenophobia, the plebs were conned by the media and nothing that they believe is actually true because the experts says so. The subtext being that we are knackering our economy for no good reason and it's all in our imagination. What symptoms there are is entirely the fault of austerity and nothing at all to do with surges of hapless bipeds turning up looking for work. 

As is typical Chakrabortty invokes the village McExperts, in this case Jonathon Portes - the man who is in part responsible for much of the mythology surrounding the EEA option. 

The whole case presented depends on the destruction of a a straw man. To say that the classic media narrative in respect of immigration is incorrect or overblown is actually plucking at the low hanging fruit. It's very easy to shoot down those arguments. The problem, though, is that it does not bridge the disconnect between well argued reason and what we see on the streets. 

Illustrating this well is Ben Judah writing in that well known ultra-far right magazine, the New Statesman where he describes his experiences masquerading as a migrant. 
The worst-off migrants often spend their first nights like this – on the street. Today the majority of London’s 7,500 street sleepers are migrants, and a third of them are eastern European. Squats and doorsteps tend to divide into “English” and “Polish” zones. There are frequent fights.
How do you get into work if you arrive with nothing? No money or means, no proper address – and no proper address means no National Insurance number. This is why many head immediately to the illegal touting spots that mushroom outside the hardware stores along the North Circular ring road and the edge of London.
What Judah reveals is a black market economy based on exploitation. We are told "Study after study has failed to find any evidence of significant undercutting of wages" - which begs the question, where are they looking? Ben Judah can find it. Why can't Kings College?

You only need go to a busy NHS hospital to see that the kitchen and cleaning staff are mostly migrants working in minimum wage or lower when you scratch away the creative accounting. Migrant workers with low overheads living in squats, over-crowded HMOs and beds-in-sheds can easily undercut - but because this is off the books it doesn't count in the official statistics. To say that it does not create wage pressures for the bottom decile is a flat out lie. 

But underlying this is the further narrative that the NHS depends on immigration. What they actually mean is that the NHS depends on exploitation. But then this isn't just about wage pressures. Speaking more broadly the argument is that immigration creates growth. This is the typical narrative of the spreadsheet sociopath in hock to the cult of GDP who sees economic growth, irrespective of inequality, as the be all and end all in life. 

The fact of the matter is that people don't want their towns and public spaces turned into migrant transit camps. They don't want aliens on the streets fighting their turf wars - and when GDP growth does not translate into prosperity for many, why on earth should they put up with it?

Of course there are measures we could have taken, not least deporting those who were sleeping rough and had no employment, but a court has ruled that as discriminatory. The government said it was disappointed by the ruling - which applies to people from the EU and European Economic Area - but would not be appealing. We just roll over and accept it.

Then there's the effect in the regions. This local news story is absolutely central to the immigration debate. "A war of words has broken out between the police, fire service and landlords over claims that parts of Rhyl have been turned into a crime-ridden “ghetto” because of a glut of rented properties". The spat erupted after an officer said poor management of multiple-occupancy housing (HMOs) was a factor in how many incidents police were being called to in west Rhyl.

Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMO) are supposed to be inspected and licensed and managed by councils. They don't do it. Consequently, even if gang labourers were paid minimum wage (yea right), local workers still cannot compete because immigrants can massively undercut on expenses by way of overcrowding HMOs.

The Landlords Association confirms "Councils are dreadful at prosecuting rogue landlords. The prosecution rate in 2012 was less than 500 out of 1.5m landlords."Councils often won't do anything about it because if they evict they have a statutory obligation to house them, adding to an already acute problem. The overcrowding and consequent crime it brings is what generates a great deal of resentment. Notionally migrant workers are not entitled to be rehoused but there are enough rulings in the system whereby anyone who can classify themselves as vulnerable can evade deportation.

This is where Chakrabortty, Portes et al would argue that austerity is responsible. Councils could do more were they not "cut to the bone". Except that many of these acute problems are legacy issues that have been happening since EU expansion - back when councils had more money than they knew what to usefully do with. 

All of these social issues have an impact on the local level, often disruptive and it happened without any consultation or consent. And that is chiefly what is at the heart of Brexit. A ruling class that continues to do as it pleases and one that writes of any objection as racism and xenophobia. Jonathan Portes especially is a guilty of this and Chakrabortty is essentially weaving the same narrative. 

But let's say that none of these well documented issues are not true and that the New Statesman has fabricated what many working class people experience every day, there is still the issue of the "left behind". 

We are told by Jonathan Portes that EU workers are “ordinary, productive, middle income, middle-skilled – the sort of people our economy actually needs”. In some sectors I wouldn't dispute that. I've worked in plenty of places in the nuclear and aerospace sectors who will hire anyone with the right skillset - and will cast the net wide to recruit them. And that is another part of the problem. We have a recruitment sector that hires on the basis of tickboxes and companies not willing to invest in training. Labour has become a commodity - and unless you can afford the training privately then you're on your own.

In this, I suppose I am to an extent agreeing with Chakrabortty, in that there are policy measures we could take that would mitigate the externalities, but the fact is, so long as we have an open door policy with the EU and elsewhere there is no economic or political imperative for our politicians to act, not least when the popular "experts" are deniers like Jonathan Portes. Patience has run out and the public have been insulted for the final time. 

Furthmore, Chakrabortty adds to that insult in saying "The Tories haven’t created this climate alone, of course. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, Labour leaders have marched alongside, muttering about “legitimate concerns” and handing out anti-immigration mugs. Forget about the evidence or leadership or having a backbone. Never mind the surveys showing that however much people dislike immigration in the abstract, they appreciate migrants".

The anti-immigration mugs are in a similar vein to the Windrush scandal where we see an out of touch political establishment which does not understand the working class sentiment - and is blundering around to demonstrate that they do understand the issues. Because London politics is informed by the metro-hacks of the London bubble, like Chakrabortty, who think we are all foaming xenophobes, they make policy to placate on that basis. 

Chakrabortty evidently does not think there are "legitimate concerns" and all of the sentiment is whipped up by the tabloids - when in fact it is his ignorance and his misrepresentation of the working class which is primarily responsible for he knee-jerk policy making. 

Moreover, if you really understand Brexit, then you understand it is not a rejection of immigrants or immigration. A lot of us never expected to win the referendum but the preening obnoxiousness of the metro-establishment was a gift that kept on giving. Chakrabortty is symptomatic of that very culture, where we tune in to the Guardian and BBC Question Time to see a yet another limp-wristed beta specimen with a speech impediment telling us we're thick racists taken in by the headlines we see in garage forecourts. 

I don't resent immigrants. One of the most important and inspiring people in my life is a Polish lady who made a life for herself from nothing and she has achieved more in ten years than I will in a life time. We all know a success story and we all recognise the contribution they make. But then at the same time we have a government who keeps using immigration as a sticking plaster instead of making fundamental reforms to pensions, schools and the NHS. Immigration is used as a means to extend the life of the post-war socialist settlement when the current model simply cannot sustain it. 

Being that the Guardian and the wider establishment will squeal at the very idea of market driven reforms, we are locked into continually absorbing more people, irrespective of whether people want their country to be transformed, communities disrupted and their identity diluted. Voters have drawn a line in the sand. 

If there is one consistent feeling among Brexiters it is that we want the trade and economic cooperation, and if the four freedoms were not said to be indivisible then more Brexiters would be amenable to the EEA option - but the establishment, by misrepresenting the issues out of ignorance have made it a binary choice. You can have trade or immigration control, but not both. The public will not stand to be blackmailed like this, and the EU's system wide refusal to accept that all of Europe wants more control over who and what crosses the border is a stark reminder that it simply isn't a democracy - and that is the primary reason for leaving. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Brexit's McExperts


The biggest problem I have with self-appointed #Brexit "experts" is their total lack of intellectual agility. They keep telling us what won't work but won't lift a finger to float something that will. We are dealing with people who are not remotely interested in solutions.

Anyone can shoot down a bad suggestion - and there are plenty of those to keep them in business but trying to do anything in the system of rules we have is difficult and the real talent examines the system for workarounds. Instead they just tell us everything is impossible. The most obvious one being that there is no cherry picking from the single market - when in fact the adaptive framework of the EEA is designed to do exactly that. There are hundred of exceptions and opt outs.

And then with the wider WTO rules, they system is not a list of do's and don'ts. The WTO system is a framework designed to encourage adherence to the principles of the WTO - which actually gives policy makers a lot more scope than is generally imagined.

To say that "WTO rules do not allow XYZ" somewhat overlooks the volumes of waivers, safeguards, opt outs and blind eyes in the system, not to mention existing rulings and historical precedents. If we only listened to these people then we would never do anything at all because there would be so little scope - but Brexit is going to require quite a lot of rule bending and a lot of wider cooperation in the WTO system.

Course our gifted class of Brexitologists will never actually explore any of this because it might mean they have to admit there are options that 1. they didn't think of and 2. suggest that the impossible might actually be possible after all.

Being that they are predominantly remainers (who still think remaining is an option), they will continue to lie by omission. Shamefully we see Brexit reporters getting pally with them, forming their own groupthink to the point of not being receptive to any alternative ideas.

You will get no argument from me that David Davis is on another planet, and the IEA/Brexit Central bunch talk utter rubbish, but going after them really is low hanging fruit - and still doesn't change the fact we need answers to difficult problems.

It is that lack of integrity and curiosity which is ultimately regressing the Brexit debate. @UKandEU are certainly not honest actors, nor are the IoD or IfG. Mainly they are parasitic timewasters seeking only to enhance their prestige and public profile - and because our media has no expertise of its own, FT especially, they then rely on these chancers and media whores while doing no independent verification and using them as the default source simply because they are sanitised and carry prestige.

Partly this is because they are readily accessible on Twitter which saves them from having to do any leg work, but increasingly I find the real experts are nowhere near Twitter and much further down the food chain.

What we actually have is a class of McExperts. Cheap, readily available prestige which supplies ample copy for reportage and editorial fodder for Guardian morons. Extruded Verbal Material. They are all complicit in misinforming the debate.

These are the people largely responsible for promoting the myths that "Norway adopts all the rules and has no say" - and only now they are in a blind panic about the direction of Brexit do they reexamine the mythology they have spread. And will these people take any responsibility for what they have done? Fat chance.

Instead they will expect to be applauded for telling us what the rest of us have known for years now - as if we weren't capable of finding the facts ourselves. They then have the temerity to demand politeness. What nerve! These parasitic pondlife are simply not owed any respect - and certainly they should face unpleasantness for the damage they've done. Their insult to us is far greater than any name I might have called them.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Respecting the vote


There are plenty of fringe arguments about the conduct of the referendum about who lied and who spent what. That debate will go on until the end of time or until nobody cares. The fact of the matter is that there was a free vote and more people voted to leave than remain. That remains a political artefact. The general sentiment is that Britain should take back control.

That is actually a difficult thing to reconcile in a world full of rules and conventions developed over the last seventy years. It is not, however, impossible. You might think it was from all the fuss made by remainers but the fact is that there are those who have the independence we seek and they fiercely defend it.

Central to this is deciding who and what comes into the country and what terms. It need not be restated that trade deals come with come compromise on control, but the key concern is where the authority lies. As members of the EU we not only cede control but also authority. That is what is intolerable.

Though Norway and Switzerland have both ceded a great deal of control, outside of the treaty system they are at liberty to refuse if in the balance of trade-offs they view a measure to be intolerable. The decision making rests with the people - especially so for Switzerland with its consultative direct democracy.

We are told that Switzerland's relationship is mired with robust disagreement with the EU as though that is a bad thing. That to me is precisely how it should be instead of having a supine administration which allows the automatic adoption of rules. That democratic firewall is what the UK lacks.

Now that we are leaving we can expect a similarly frosty relationship where we will see far more scrutiny of EU affairs than we ever did as members. For the first time our media will be attuned to reporting on these such issues and will serve as an early warning system.

I also expect that we will see far more public engagement on trade issues. As a subject matter it barely features in the UK debate. There were some mutterings about TTIP but few could tell you what it actually was and even less about the ISDS system. Brexit has been a major national education.

This does seem to be a peculiarly British attitude though. We have never properly engaged with trade as a topic under EU rule. It has largely gone under the radar with virtually zero civil society engagement. This is not true of Germany where several development organisations have appealed to the new federal government to suspend the forcible opening of African markets through the European Union's economic partnership agreements with Africa.

Long have I objected to the EU's murderous trade policy but as an issue in the UK it gets little traction even among our NGOs who are supposed to care about such things. Unlike continental NGOs we find ours to be a hive of virtue signalling europhillia - an ecosystem for social climbers and the do-gooder set. They who cannot make the distinction between intent and outcome. 

This to me is part of the problem which only Brexit can bring remedy to. Very often in our foreign affairs it is difficult to see where Oxfam ends and DfID begins. We have an unaccountable monster coiled around the throat of Whitehall and extending all the way to Brussels. With so little public scrutiny and political scrutiny largely coming from crank organisations like the IEA, they are free to come and go as they please. Worse still are MPs who genuinely don't see a problem. 

For the better part of three decades our NGOcracy, acting in the service of Brussels, has been calling the shots on anything from agriculture to energy policy - and with MPs ever keen to display their right-on credentials they can often be found supporting these same organisations - even when their aid workers are found balls deep in a Haitian rent boy. 

The politics of Brexit has forced the government to rethink both trade and aid, where aid can no longer be a do-gooder slush fund to reinforce our collective self-image. That should hopefully put the likes of Oxfam out on their ears.

What we can also expect is for trade to become highly politicised. We have already been bored to tears with talk of chlorine washed poultry, fluoridated ocelot and steroid laced pork. These are the sorts of consumer issues that will reinvigorate lobbying, particularly by the agriculture sector which is so poorly served by the NFU.

We can also expect to see consumer groups sharpening their elbows and once again the left might start taking an interest in the consequences of trade - as they once did. We might then see moves to demand referendums on all comprehensive trade agreements. If ever there was a process that needed democratisation then it is trade. 

The simple fact is that the EU has never been a central consideration in our politics and we pay little attention to it. We barely turn out at Euro-elections and we have next to no idea who is in charge of the EU or how it even works. Genuine civil society engagement is virtually non-existent. Consequently we have no business being in the EU because any competences delegated to the EU cease to exist altogether so far as our domestic politics is concerned. this is how we became so self-absorbed and insular.

Trade as a discipline has increasingly become the domain of nerds and technocrats, who have a vested interest in depoliticising it, building up a firewall of impenetrable nomenclature deliberately to exclude it from wider scrutiny. This is the source of my current irritation. We seem to have forgotten that trade is politics - where even marginal tinkering with standards has major ramifications for UK industry. 

We are often told that Brexit was a populist revolt against experts - and indeed it is. Wonderfully so. A healthy democracy depends on questioning authority and examining the motives of experts. Very often we find our expert class is financially dependent on the EU or shares the EU's general view that the plebs are a nuisance who continually frustrate their noble goals.

What we find is that technocrat and politician alike are in thrall to what Catherine Colebrook, writing in The Guardian, calls "The cult of GDP" as discussed many times on this blog and wonderfully illustrated by MP Chris Leslie here...
  

We haven't even entered a recession and we are talking about 0.1% of GDP - which by the technocrat's estimation is enough to jettison all other concerns about sovereignty, identity, democracy and accountability. Colebrook describes the total inadequacy of GDP as a metric in that it doesn't really tell us what is happening in the wider economy and whether policies are working. This may be news to economists but it is not news to leave voters in Stoke on Trent.

Not by any measure would I deny the impact of Brexit, and though economists are often completely wrong, voluntarily excluding ourselves from a number of lucrative markets is sure to have a negative impact on business but voters have been warned and decided to take a punt - taking into account all the voluminous warnings of the referendum campaign.

Were this solely an economic argument then I have no doubts that remain would have won hands down - but just about every voter is acutely aware that British politics is in terminal decline and without a surge in political engagement we are not likely to revive it. That is why Brexit is the cure. Without a radical shake up then our economic future is entirely in the hands of Brussels - out of sight and out of mind. That is dangerous.

As the EU enters a new phase we can't be far away from moves to bring about a single market in services - removing the technical barriers. Very often these are local issues or complications brought about by differences in culture and language. Erasing those barriers will likely prove invasive and asymmetrical - and without an engaged electorate we will simply allow it to be done to us. Yet again the public will be viewed as mere collateral damage in bringing about the wet dream of eurocrats.

Having left the EU the process of further trade liberalisation will be a political battle. Each legislative act we adopt will be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny. Never again will the European Scrutiny Committee be a toothless talking shop for the mouth-foamers of the Tory right. It will be expected to do its job.

Hither to now our political battles over Europe only ever arise when there is a treaty on the horizon. Our government rams through the treaties granting ever more authority to the EU and that then opens the door for yet more automatic adoption of diktat. Those days are over.

This is why the battle over the Customs Union is pivotal. As much as it is totally unnecessary for the facilitation of moving goods around it speaks to the fundamental sentiment behind the referendum. Remaining in a customs union would mean the EU retains authority over a core aspect of trade and consequently foreign policy - with even less input than previously. By no measure is this acceptable. Voters were clear that they placed values over GDP. MPs would be unwise to second guess us.  

Yes, I could be more offensive


I have a reputation on Twitter for being "unpleasant". It does not come naturally and I do have to look to others for inspiration but I think I have nailed it. I make a point of being unpleasant to unpleasant people. But the thing about politics is that the most unpleasant people have no concept of how unpleasant they are.

There are rules to this game to remain in favour. One should never criticise, condemn or complain and one should certainly never accuse. To break with that code is "poor form". This is as true in real life as it is on the internet. A veneer of politeness must be upheld at all times.

The product of this is a claque of self-regarding individuals who never say what needs to be said, will never debate and are disingenuous to the core. To even robustly disagree is to fall foul of the code - and to prove somebody wrong, well that's just rude!

Being that these circles function entirely on gossip, where information is transmitted orally, to be part of this circle one must either be in London or in favour with the London set. This is how groupthink forms.

There is, therefore, no point in trying to persuade. They will ultimately form up on whoever is fashionable and carrying the most prestige. Not for nothing do they have their little press conferences in oak panelled rooms in the Westminster village. It is about the projection of authority.

Being that we oiks are interlopers we are already viewed as unclean and little more than a nuisance where if they deign to speak to us at all it is with the greatest of condescension, claiming that if only we were more deferential they would listen to what we have to say. This often gets nods from the gallery, even among my own "supporters".

But this is a lie. What we see is little bands of self-important nonentities setting themselves up as authorities, parroting the basics to a shrinking pool of hacks who then credit them with expertise. They carry just enough borrowed prestige to qualify as a quotable source - where there is little verification of what they actually say.

What do they not want is competition. They will not, therefore, acknowledge outsiders, nor will they acknowledge anything they didn't think of, unless of course it comes to them via a sanitised source. Usually from an article an FT hack has plagiarised. Often we find them talking about subjects and concepts as though they were new - many months after the blogs have already covered it - and in greater detail.

To then complain about this is actually more of that "rudeness". This is their default excuse not to admit their own failings and will use any device to further the meme that I am "unpleasant". There is now a union of polite society - remainers and leavers I have robustly attacked who now join in chorus to tell the world how unpleasant I am. Since there is no escaping that and they will do it anyway, nothing at all is lost by playing into it.

The kind of groupthink we see on display is quite alien to me. I don't get it. There are many sources I dislike and many personalities on the web I find thoroughly disagreeable - but if they report a verifiable fact then it remains a fact. This notion that others must flatter before arguments are entertained is extraordinary narcissism.

My mission, therefore, is not to seek their approval, nor their agreement. They are more a Maginot line that we must go around, whereby we continue to expand and inform the debate until there is a pool of people who can see these frauds for what they are. I do so in the knowledge that decent people will see right through their weaponised indignation - because it is so very transparent.

As it happens, I don't think I am unpleasant enough. Certainly I could never hope to match the unpleasantness of the mealy-mouthed, backstabbing gossip groups inside the bubble. I lack that natural gift. I will, however, find new and creative ways to repulse these people - because they are not saying anything useful, they are not adding to the debate, and they should at least be told by someone how revolting they are.

I have never been known for my finesse. Perhaps it is my Yorkshire upbringing or a general distaste for pretentiousness. What I do know, though, is that the faux-politeness of the bubble and that veneer of decorum is far more toxic than I could ever be. Destroying this cancer that lies within our politics is the whole reason I got into the game to begin with.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

They are just not thinking.

Parliament demonstrated more than ever yesterday that they are a treacherous bunch of imbeciles whose loyalties are to Brussels, not the British people. The resolution to keep us in a customs union was a slap in the face. A two-fingered salute to the voters.

Being in a customs union ultimately leave authority over the UK's tariff defences in the hands of Brussels - even after we voted to "take back control". It was OUR decision and they now choose to defy us. But what makes it all the more moronic is that it does not actually solve anything. It brings no remedy the to the NI border problem, it doesn't eliminate third country controls and it has nothing to do with the VAT border.

The IoD and FT, among others, tell us it does away with origin checks but those inspections are based on intelligence led customs systems where there is a suspicion of fraud - much like we do already even as EU members.

Moreover, for all that we are told technological solutions could not work, the EU has issued an edict saying that by 2020 all data between customs authorities, including declarations must be electronic. The world over is moving to WCO conventions. We only need to look in the most recent EU FTA to see that the EU is doubling down on trade facilitation commitments under the WTO TBT agreement where all trade partners are obliged to move to paperless transactions.

The only reason Norway still has checks is because they have not yet upgraded their systems and continue to operate a differing VAT regime which is nothing whatsoever to do with a customs union. The very idea that a kiosk clerk is going to do anything more than a cursory inspection of certification is risible and ultimately unnecessary since origin certificates are issue in advance.

There is a WCO convention where the originating country is required to carry out investigations on behalf of the importing country if requested. The whole thing is sewn up in such a way that border checks on ROO are an irrelevance.

So while our quarterwit MPs think they have won a great victory, all they have done is put pressure on negotiators to leave a core power in the hands of Brussels while actually doing nothing at all to alleviate border friction. If we want frictionless borders then much is going to depend on the regulatory relationship but there are no customs union issues which cannot be resolved through existing frameworks and those about to be release imminently.

Consequently all we need do is agree to an interim period where we voluntarily track the EU external tariff until our systems are ready. But no, our cowardly and thick MPs have been utterly negligent in learning how the system works and taken the path of least resistance.

We may have a political obligation to keep NI free of border infrastructure but we have no political obligation toward Nissan, Toyota and the likes - and there is every reason to believe in Efta we could negotiate a fairer ROO threshold for the auto sector.

For all the we have been told we didn't know what we voted for, we know that we voted to become an independent country and that requires us to be a distinct customs entity with control over all aspects of our trade policy. These issue illiterate clowns sought to bind the government in crucial negotiations without the first idea how the system works, knowing full well that this is more to do with sabotaging Brexit than softening it - hobbling the UK out of pure spite. How petty can you get?

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The power is ours if we choose to use it

I've been a blogger on and off now for about a decade or so. More seriously in the last few years. There was a time when I thought it was a path to journalism. I once dreamed that I would write for one of the big UK titles - but now I wouldn't write for any of them even if they paid me. Which they wouldn't. They're broke.

Ultimately I am driven by a desire to understand things and in the process inform my readers. Nothing is more gratifying than to have some tell you they learn from you and depend on you to keep up to speed. The media, though, no longer serves that function. If a story is breaking the last place I would consider looking for quality information is our so-called newspapers. 

Largely thanks to Twitter I have a vast array of genuine expertise at my fingertips and the ability to cross reference what I am told with background material found on Google. I no longer have to take anything on trust and I do not need unpaid interns and twenty-something hacks to interpret events for me. 

What the media now subjects us to is to is little more than reportage, trivia and reinforcement of existing prejudice. I wonder then what the point of having a newspaper column would be. If one is not seeking to inform or challenge ideas, why even bother?

More to the point, every newspaper has its own agenda - usually that of its owners or sponsors - and why would I wish to serve someone else's agenda when I can advance my own? This does of course mean a smaller audience but there again, what use is a large audience if you are not actually saying anything? If exposure requires narrative conformity then it seems a complete worthless endeavour. 

In fact our legacy media is now so robbed of its vitality and intellectual curiosity that at least half of my role as a blogger is to correct the misinformation put out there by newspapers - and if one were so inclined one could make it a full time occupation. 

Nowhere is this more true than a complex area like Brexit where we are speaking of complex interwoven physical and legal systems each possessing their own rich fabric of nomenclature. To understand it requires a degree of intellectual investment, and cannot be understood without verifying the basic facts - something far beyond the abilities of the modern day press.

We are, therefore, presented with several different versions of reality based on best guesses, where those in power choose to believe the source not with the best track record for accuracy, rather they choose the source with the most institutional prestige. This tends to mean that lazy establishment sources who take no responsibility for their errors who continue to misinform the national debate.

This is ultimately what is responsible for the poor decision making in Westminster. With members of parliament attacked from all sides and lobbied on all manner of issues, they can never hope to acquire any expertise of their own and so they frequently delegate the research function to a media which is no longer in the business of doing research.

Newsrooms all over the world, challenged by the internet, are making major cuts and so they prefer younger, cheaper journalists (if we can call them that) with no real world experience, straight out of a ranking university with no specific subject knowledge. They then spend their careers inside the Westminster bubble, never once rubbing shoulders with anyone working class, mixing only with political functionaries and out of touch academics - themselves living on borrowed institutional prestige, regardless of their own academic track record.

We therefore limp from crisis to crisis on the basis of guesswork from a narrow and insular culture whose actual knowledge is minimal - and decisions are taken on the basis of a Westminster consensus, guided by its own distorted groupthink.

The only real way to break this miserable cycle is for individuals to rob these redundant shells of their power by electing to inform themselves by other means. For as long as we, like our representatives, delegate our research to those incapable of carrying out that duty, we as a people will be incapable of adequately holding our politicians to account.

The internet has allowed us to interact directly with our rulers; to question and cross examine them. With tools such as Twitter we are able to tell which of them are engaged in genuine dialogue and which of them are simply in transmit mode only. The fact of the matter is that we do not need our media as an intermediary. We can do their job for ourselves better than they can.

The old paradigm - that of the twentieth century, was that our rulers spoke to us via the media. In the modern age we can cut out the middleman, consult genuine expertise and challenge the pretenders. The power is ours now. The game is no longer about reaching a mass audience. What matters is reaching the right audience. It is better to to invest a year in changing one person's mind than to tell a million people what they already think.

In respect of those seismic shifts on the balance of power, I no longer have that same ambition to be a legacy media hack. I would consider it a demotion. Traditionally it was always the role of the media to hold the establishment to account. That is no longer the case. The media is the establishment - ever interchangeable with the corporate funded think tanks of London. They are no longer capable of speaking truth to power because their primary purpose is to seek the favour and approval of power.

It is now a duty of citizenship that we the people fill the vacuum vacated by the press and take up that mantle as defenders of democracy, challenging not only our politics but also our press. We no longer have to tolerate being spoonfed with opinion - and the more we choose to ignore the press the further they retreat behind their pay-walls until they are speaking largely to themselves.

During the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, we set up The Leave Alliance. I was dissatisfied with the official campaign in London and I knew that we needed a presence on the blogosphere. We set out to recruit a small army of bloggers to push a set of pre-agreed messages. I was only partially successful. In the end we numbered no more than thirty activists, but each of us managed a readership of two thousand people at least, which in internet terms is not vast, but through the force multiplier of Twitter it would not be an exaggeration to say we reached nearly a million people.

The one thing we had on our side was persistence. We were online all day, every day, for the better part of a year. We rounded on politicians and journalists, challenging their assertions, questioning their motives, and pushed our alternative ideas. We can't say for sure if we changed anybody's mind but we planted concepts and ideas into the debate and we set the agenda.

The point here is that it only takes a small band of motivated and like-minded people to coordinate their activities to make a real impact on politics. With so many people believing they have no power, the pool of people actually engaged in politics is comparatively small. Consequently, it only takes a few, with a plan, and the right ideas to change the course of an entire continent. You can't necessarily take power, but you can be the kingmaker.

Traditionalists exalt the virtue of a free press, calling upon the noble arguments of yore in respect of The Fourth Estate. This is largely the product of classically educated people who pretty much are the establishment, who view the empowered masses as interlopers on their domain. But the truth of the matter is that we owe these people nothing. They are not entitled to be the voice of the nation and they speak for nobody but themselves - and often only to protect their monopoly over the debate. This is why they often denigrate independent media and blogs.

As it happens, the more they protest, the more they clamp down on "fake news", the more it tells us that they are afraid. The plebs have found their voice and they do not like it. It means they have to up their game to stay relevant - and they very much resent it.

We are at a turning point in media. When the internet unleashed the power of people, the legacy media sought to freeze it out. They do not like competition. With their influence they push for regulation of independent voices and a tightening of libel and defamation laws. They were comfortable with freedom of speech just so long as nobody else was speaking.

It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to defend freedom of speech - with our lives if necessary. We cannot expect our media to defend freedom of speech because our speech is a threat to their business model. The media has found its own comfort zone - a compromise that gives our politicians a free pass. That bargain with the devil is how democracy dies - unless we the people are willing to assert the power we already have. You have a voice. Now is the time to use it. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The case for a customs union is falling apart.


The Westminster groupthink has it that a customs union is a magical device that makes all the problems of post Brexit trade disappear. You cannot persuade remainers otherwise since they are drunk on their own superiority, having convinced themselves that all the expert opinion is on their side.

Admittedly this has been exacerbated by the likes of  BrexitCentral and the Tory Brexiters who have yet to put forth a coherent solution, instead claiming that trusted trader schemes, mutual recognition and "technology" solves the problem. Neither are correct.

The Brexiters are wrong primarily because they think a combination of all of the above not only solves the customs union aspect but also that of the single market if we throw in mutual recognition of standards - which is not at all possible. The EU does not use mutual recognition where there are already harmonised rules.

What both fail to recognise is that the core concern for frictionless trade is regulatory harmonisation. That is what eliminates the non-tariff barriers and that is what facilitates low friction borders. The single market.

We are told that there is no cherry picking from the single market but this is not strictly true if you adopt the rules effectively under ECJ supervision as Switzerland has. But that then begs the question as to why Switzerland still has remaining border infrastructure. It is assumed this is because Switzerland is not in the customs union. This is not the case.

The reasons for Switzerland's dysfunction is largely down to its own under-investment in customs systems. If existing legislation was implemented properly then there would be no need for the large scale border post we see pictured above. The customs formalities themselves are all done by the exporter and pre-filed - but the independent local customs authorities have a habit of asking for unnecessary documentation - much of which could be eliminated.

What should be noted is that none of this has anything to do with tariffs, rather it is primarily a VAT border - and a customs union would not make that problem go away. It requires a different kind of agreement - one which the UK will need to hammer out over the course of Brexit.

One might then ask why Switzerland has never made a move to resolve this. It all comes down to politics. Cross border traffic in Switzerland is politically sensitive. There is a strong isolationist caucus in the country which would ban through traffic and severely restrict cross-border movement. The federal government, therefore, finds itself frozen into immobility, with not enough popular support to introduce reforms or even slight changes. It thus has to make do with the mess it has - it is the best it can achieve.

Meanwhile, if we look to the Norway border with Sweden we gain find the problems are largely of Norway's own making and the result of political choices. Origin inspections are not done at the borders nor is tariff collection. This is handled behind the border and with electronic transactions. Again we find the border infrastructure is for VAT and inspections are primarily for contraband - drugs, weapons and alcohol.

This seems to suit both sides of the border. There is only one post for both sides, the customs officers from both countries police both sides of the border, and clear each others consignments. There is no great political pressure to upgrade the system so it is not a high political priority. In theory though, it is possible to have an invisible border. Where spot checks are necessary, these can be roadside checks in the 10km border zone, or checks at the point of origin or destination. It all depends on the degree of harmonisation, the system design and the amount of trust and confidence.

The basic gist is that both Norway and Switzerland could have entirely frictionless borders if they upgraded their systems and there was any particular political will. It seems though that there is not. Were there the same political imperative the UK has in Northern Ireland then the problem would already be solved.  

In the remainer Brexitologist camp, however, the argument is a little more sophisticated than the Westminster groupthink. They would have it that though regulatory harmonisation is needed, a customs union is still a precursor to frictionless borders. One can see why but it actually isn't. 

Assuming we had full regulatory harmonisation, either by way of the Swiss "model" or the EEA, electronic filing and post-delivery auditing would still be sufficient. It's really a question of behind the border customs and excise enforcement to remove the incentive for smuggling.

The main problem here is that is it heavily dependent on systems and IT - which is not insurmountable and the general direction of travel anyway, so that makes it a question of what we do in the meantime. The is no possibility of rolling out a system in time for Brexit day. 

But that is another groupthink in play - the insistence that any solution must be finalised for our day of exit, when in fact longer term interim solutions can be found which again do not require a customs union. It is simply a matter of unilaterally aligning tariffs until the systems are ready. This does not even require the EU to consent to it. 

Critics would say that this involves a good deal more "red tape" than a customs union, which initially is a fair assessment in that we will have to equip and train for this regime. The opportunity therein though is to be an early adopter of UNECE Single Window, leading to greater integration of existing commercial accounting and supply chain software. We would be pioneering the methodologies and the system will eventually find its own natural equilibrium. 

What it does not solve in the long term is the issue of rules of origin, but there is no political obligation that says these must be avoided. The obligation is for an invisible border and nothing more. Rules of Origin is a purely economic consideration.

There we must examine whether the penalties of ROO tariffs are worse than losing our ability to deviate from the EU's common external tariff. Remainers tend toward the pessimistic, assuming that this will trigger the departure of the automotive sector and not leaving the single market. More likely it is the other way around, not least since, if we are creative, there avenues we can take to mitigate the impact. We should also note that the EU is being considerably more generous in ROO thresholds now. 

The basic point, however, is that a customs union does not eliminate third country controls, it does not eliminate the VAT issue and has no discernible bearing on what happens at the borders. What little influence it has will likely be eliminated by the end of the next decade - not least thanks to improvements to global rules.

Ultimately the customs union debate is a major distraction from the more important debate yet to be had about our regulatory relationship - especially when the favoured solution of this government, inspired by the Tory right is simply not going to fly. Eventually that we will have to have this out where the choice will come down to either an ECJ or Efta regime. There are no other avenues short of full disengagement resulting in every kind of border friction going on every frontier.

There is then one final and pretty obvious consideration. Supposing we do elect to become a third country with no intention of retaining the single market, the extent of controls would be such that all those companies nominally let off the hook by a customs union would likely leave our shores anyway making a customs union redundant. If we are going to wreck the economy to such an extent and give ourselves multiple avoidable headaches, what's one more? 

From a personal point of view I object to a customs union in principle simply because the purpose of Brexit is to become a distinct customs union and repatriate decision-making, and like my fellow leavers I think that the economy is secondary to that. Trade is an aspect of foreign policy and we must have all the tools at our command to say that we have an independent foreign policy. that it inconveniences a handful of multinationals is not really top of my list of concerns.

The fact is that British industry, multinationals especially can adapt to being out of the customs union, and contrary to the persistent whinges of risk averse remainers, there are opportunities in doing so. They key battle was always going to be the regulatory relationship and those who keep dragging the debate back to the matter of customs unions are only muddying the waters and regressing the debate. The sooner they get their heads round the fact we are leaving the customs union, the sooner we can resolve that far more urgent question.

Monday, 23 April 2018

A customs union doesn't soften Brexit


Blogging has been quiet over the last week as we are now in a state of trench warfare - where all the relevant positions have been explored and churned over time and again, awaiting some kind of decision from the UK government. Instead we are back to square one and fighting over the basics again - made worse by The Times and The Guardian distorting the debate with their ignorance.

The Sunday Times saw fit to tell us that a Swiss solution would work for the Northern Irish border despite a cursory glance at Google Streetview dispelling this notion. Then we've had the amendment on the Customs Union where again we go through all the tiresome bickering over what it actually solves. 

The fact of the matter is that we are leaving the customs union because it is an integral part of the EU treaties. Whether or not we negotiate a new one is an open question but that does not arise until we have formerly left the EU. There is, by law, no remaining in bits of the EU. This is one of those debates that will keep droning on simply because our quarter-wit MPs do not understand the issue. 

Our MPs think a customs union would soften Brexit - but it doesn't. We would still be subject to third country controls. The only way to keep the trucks rolling is to remain in the EEA agreement. Were we to do so we would only need a rudimentary accord on rules of origin.

Further to this I am of the view that a customs union would in due course be redundant anyway. Telling is the new outline of the EU-Mexico modernised agreement released yesterday.
"The EU and Mexico will issue, upon request, binding preliminary information to traders on the tariff classification of goods and origin (advance rulings), which will provide them with legal certainty and stability in the customs treatment of their international trade. In addition, the EU and Mexico will provide for an impartial and transparent system for addressing complaints by operators about customs rulings and decisions. With a view to expediting procedures, they will adopt and maintain risk management systems for high-risk goods and post-clearance audits to ensure compliance with customs and other related laws or regulations".
The devil is in the detail but the mood music here is toward greater behind the border customs cooperation, moving toward electronic transactions - and though it will take time to mature, this is the EU getting down to business with trade facilitation. We can therefore expect that without a customs union agreement, and as a modern technology led economy we would arrive at our own equilibrium with the EU. Then, customs issues aside, what we also see in the agreement is yet more boilerplate references to the WTO TBT agreement. 
"The Parties reiterate their commitment to base their technical regulations on international standards, and furthermore agree on an open list of international standards setting organisations. On conformity assessment, the Chapter recognises the different approaches of the Parties to conformity assessment and their relevant trade facilitation measures: for the EU the use of supplier's declaration of conformity and for Mexico the recognition of product certification carried out in the EU".
This, of course, is yet more of the Geneva Effect, where the centre of the regulatory universe is shifting away from Brussels - even on conformity assessment. This is in keeping with the overall trend where we see the EU agreements with Japan, Singapore, Canada, Korea and Mexico bearing striking similarities. The EU has established a formula so we can expect to see them churning out new evolutions of it all the time, and with MFN clauses throughout the improvements will be replicated system wide. 

Being that we are leaving the EU and regaining our right of initiative, the opportunity lies in a multilateral approach. Though the EU racking up the notches on the bed post, the reality is somewhat different. On the face of it the EU has abolished tariffs with the named countries but that does not necessarily mean the EU is going to admit all goods and will use many of its non-tariff barriers to exclude competition. 

What that means is there will in the near future be growing ranks of smaller nations with ever more gripes against the EU despite having an FTA with it. That is a groundbase of support for UK initiatives and moves inside the standards bodies which will pressure the EU. It will depend on intelligent trade diplomacy but we do have soft power assets like the Commonwealth and means by which we can win favour. 

First on the list of measures to address will be rules of origin where there are already a number of working groups within the WTO and UNCTAD dedicated to untangling the web and simplifying the processes. 

The mistake both sides of the Brexit negotiations are making is seeking a finalised resolution to a complex problem. Whatever happens we still need to make major modifications to customs IT and much is already in urgent need of modernisation. Brexit presents an opportunity for both sides to trial new approaches which can then be replicated elsewhere. Given the direction of travel we are as well opting for an interim customs accord involving unilateral tariff alignment until such a time where the technology and the systems therein can cope with divergence. 

What we see generally though, especially in Westminster, is a total absence of imagination and creativity. They have been told by an inadequate media that customs is the problem therefore a customs union is the solution and that is as much as they can cope with - not least since most are remainers and are not actually interested in new or alternative ideas. We have an administration which sees Brexit as an albatross. That is why this process is cursed. Without ideas driving the process we are coasting toward all of the defaults whether they actually work or not. 

Monday, 16 April 2018

Virtue signalling should be kept out of trade policy


Leaving aside that Cecilia Malmstrom has zero democratic mandate, what we see here is classic EU vanity. This is the EU putting into action The Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment adopted recently at the WTO ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires. It is not without its critics.

How that then manifests in EU trade policy remains to be seen, however it is sure to lead to the EU making invasive demands. This is the creeping cultural imperialism not just of the EU but of the entire global rules based system which is increasingly captured by politically correct groupthink in the guise of UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

This hooks in well with the case The Leave Alliance has made from day one; that the EU is increasingly a middleman - an agent of the globalist agenda. The danger is that global governance becomes global government, creating unaccountable institutions much like the EU but on a global scale. We increasingly see trade used as a vehicle for export of technical governance but we see that role expanding to include labour standards and social policy. 

Clearly there is a case for international labour standards in that we can't have Filipino slave labour working our fishing boats in our own waters, and we have to eliminate unfair labour competition. Trade policy must have a social conscience, not least to avoid democratic backlashes which lead to protectionist governments.

The problem, though, is that we have come full circle. The technical governance of social issues will creep further into trade governance to the point of constraining popular sovereignty to a similar extent to that of the EU. This defines the political battlefield for the new generation as we head toward a global technocracy dominated by political elites and academic functionaries brainwashed in the latest fads, not least gender equality. This is where leftist thinking creeps in, seeking equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity.  

As much as that is dangerous, it is also, probably, counter productive. Cultural conditionality in trade helps no one. Where women are empowered in the world it is because they themselves have fought for it, not because of any Western cultural intervention. Wherever we have tried we have made things worse. 

Demands for rights and equality usually comes with increases in wealth, which is why trade policy should contain itself to that aim alone and let politics do the rest. It is not for us to use trade to leverage domestic policy in the developing world. It always has unintended consequences.

What makes it doubly offensive is the EU using its clout to force trade liberalisation on African states in the process of trying to build up their domestic tax base instead of relying on mineral wealth (with all the death that goes with it). When the EU is dumping agricultural surpluses on Africa, it's totally hypocritical. 

Both the US and the EU use brute force in trade to force Africa to open its markets to Western subsidised surpluses, collapsing any domestic production capability - which increases the risk of famine. 

Between that and sending in EU seabed hoovers to destroy inshore fish stocks, the EU's murderous trade policy is driving migration causing thousands to die in the sea, and thousands more perishing on the journey to the Mediterranean. How any of this is striking a blow for Women's equality? How does any of this advance the interests of women - or humanity in general? 

This is why I despise the narcissism of remainers who believe their faith in the EU cult is an indication of virtue. The EU likes to pretend it is a progressive force in the world but the butchery of its trade policy tells a wholly different story. This is why African states are looking to regional trade blocs so that they don't have to sign deals with the EU.

Moreover this is more of the same folly in chasing headlines over progress. The idiocy of the EU is chasing bilateral deals, undermining the multilateral system, complicating matters when the global effort is to simplify trade.

Sadly, the UK government has adopted this same folly. As conceptually mistaken as it is, Britain doesn't have the clout to push cultural agendas through trade like the EU does - and nor should we - but this is evidence that our civil service are still in the Brussels mindset and are playing the game by the old rules. This needs to change. We need to focus on commerce.

This is ultimately what makes Brexit necessary. From the get go it limits the ability of the EU to impose this on us, and secondly it means we can at least influence the UK government and campaign against it. We might then help to restore some sanity to the global system and put an end to the mission creep, lest we have to go through this all over again. 

The challenge before us is to build a global rules based system but one which is accountable and allows democracy to breathe. If we fail in that then we drift toward a global super-EU of privatised regulation - serving a a tyrannical device for globalist elites and a petri dish for their sociopathic social experiments. Far from creating the peace it risks destroying nearly a hundred years of progress. 

Waiting to fall


Time and again I have wrestled with my conscience over military intervention and still I come to no satisfactory conclusion. The more we do the bigger the mess we make, whereas limited strikes tend only to serve the purpose of salving our collective conscience while achieving very little. Meanwhile, with so much misinformation and media noise, it is increasingly difficult to believe anything we are told.

Here though, I tend to be somewhat resigned to the fact that our government will do as it pleases and arrive at a justification after the fact in accordance with the politics of the day and politicians and activists will align themselves accordingly.

What is alarming, however, is how our politics is simply going through the motions. For the left, intervention is more a from of political GPS signalling on the Blair-Corbyn spectrum while the Tories will use a safe opportunity like this to show unity against Corbyn. This is all irrespective of what is actually happening. Our politics couldn't be less interested in the real world.

Normally my criticism would be directed at the Westminster bubble but it seems this condition extends to the wider population where, as well practised as we are, we trot out all the well worn generic protest narratives. It doesn't even matter what was hit in the raid, or how low the collateral damage, it will still be used as a political opportunity.

Worse still, as a political vehicle, it is well within the comfort zone of politician and pundit alike, supplying endless material for churnalism, where everybody will add their tuppence ha'penny. Like Brexit, it pays no attention to the details, has no interest in the facts on the ground and is done without reference to events as they happen. Mrs May is still pegging her hopes on a number of devices already dismissed by the Commission.

In both instances this is dangerous. We are seeing politics on autopilot but with no direction and entirely focused on insular tribal objectives. Where Brexit is concerned, that will eventually manifest as the cliff edge where all of them will be caught off guard with no idea what has happened or why. As terrifying as that is, it becomes doubly concerning as we tinker around the edges of a low grade proxy war with Russia. In both instances we lack the leadership to prevent the inevitable.

What is happening, I suspect, is that our politics overall has entered an all out war. Even on Twitter I find that any nuanced discussion of the issues is utterly futile. One has to pick a clear side and speak to that agenda otherwise you simply do not exist. It would appear that details are not going to get a look in until we have some kind of political resolution and a new national consensus.

It is at this point I start to wonder if there can be a return to sanity or whether this is the new normal. Certainly the presence of Corbyn is an aggravating factor and the absence of meaningful opposition, but Labour is stricken with the same illness as the Tories. Neither can name an obvious successor, and certainly not one who can unite the country. Without leadership, without direction and with a media incapable of bringing any clarity to events, we are destined to hit the rocks. Only then can we take stock.

This, though, is really what makes Brexit necessary. This political dysfunction is nothing especially new. We have been building to a political calamity for many years now. There was never any possibility of correcting it without a seismic political event. Left unchecked it could very well take us to a bloody and unnecessary war as our politicians, trapped in their own alternate universe deal only in narratives.

What this week in politics has shown is that our politicians are as bovine as ever they were, where lessons from the ballot box are quickly forgotten and they fall into their familiar routines, alienating the public as they go. If we let them carry on as normal the we face a glacial, but noticeable decline.

If there is one thing our establishment has proved, it has an unswerving ability to brush issues under the rug. We don't deal with problems, rather we mitigate the symptoms where governance becomes a game of keeping multiple plates spinning. It only takes one to fall for there to be a lapse in concentration and we see them all clattering down at once. We have arrived there.

For a long time I have felt this has gone on longer than the system can bear, with the rug bulging from all of the issues brushed under it. Meanwhile we continue to add to the pile of concerns, digging the hole deeper. Without forcing the issue, without a democratic intervention there is simply no way to arrest the decline. Miserable though the consequences of Brexit may be, it is our one and only opportunity to turn the ship around.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Rethinking aid and trade

Today's Twitter thread...

One of the first tangible benefits of Brexit I've seen is the emerging reform of DFID where it is becoming more of an arm of trade policy than a state owned humanitarian NGO. I would like that to go much further and rethink trade.

I do not think we should be wasting too much effort on free trade deals largely because they are of questionable value and encourage inefficient value chains. Any work on tariffs should really be reserved for multilateral activity.

Instead we need DfID as the spearhead of our trade policy. There is no reason why we cannot pursue humanitarian goals and enhance our trade while we are at it. For a start we can do a lot with medicines and pharmacy products.

Exports of pharmacy products have more than tripled over the past 15 years, with most of these gains obtained from extra-EU transactions. This is also the third largest industry in the UK, contributing 10 per cent of the country's GDP.

This is undermined by a massive global trade in counterfeit medicines and adulterated products. A recent World Customs Organisation raid netted some 113 million illicit and potentially dangerous medicines, with a total estimated value of €52 million.

Of the 243 maritime containers inspected, 150 contained illicit or counterfeit products. So there's a need for greater scrutiny of this type of fraud - which means firstly we need to assist developing countries with their customs controls. We're acquiring some expertise there.

We also need to look at the proliferation of standards and their harmonisation, while investing more in global surveillance networks. If you want an active trade policy then you have to spend some serious money.

The obvious benefit of this is that genuine medicines get to where they need to go instead of the poison currently in circulation. Works toward our development goals while improving the health of developing nations.

But more to the point, it increases the profitability of existing value chains on sectors most important to the UK. Especially if we're daft enough to leave the single market. We could well lose a lot of our pharmaceutical manufacturers unless we give them good reason to stay.

Improving the efficiency and security of supply chains is worth substantially more to the UK than tinkering with tariffs and in terms of improving distribution networks there is a lot to be done.

We could quite easily confine the activities of DfID to just a handful of pursuits and it will still enhance UK trade. As part of the development remit would be well advised to invest in the UNECE road Safety Trust Fund to help reduce traffic fatalities around the world.

Mundane as that sounds it has massive potential because it's a broad area of concern. Everything from child seats to traffic cones, road infrastructure and safety training services. Things the UK excels at.

We've heard a lot about growth in the far east and what we are seeing, in Malaysia especially, is a space race to improve standards of civic governance - driving tests, MOTs, instructor qualification, pedestrian road safety awareness, road maintenance, parking controls.

This are all things we take for granted but the road fatalities, very often 100% preventable continue to plague India and the far east. That right there is a market in goods and services - and a market for exporting UK governance ideas.

What we are starting to see, with a growing middle class and a wealthier consumer base is demands for better food safety, better road safety, trustworthy medicines and good governance.

These are all development goals shared by most of the global forums where we see UNECE, ISO and others coming together to make that a reality. There is no reason why DfID should not be an active player - especially since DfID is respected globally.

Some would rather we didn't spend on foreign aid, but it is an essential component of any trade policy and if we can meld our trade and development objectives then we kill two birds with one stone.

To do this we need to shift the debate beyond the dismal "free trade" dogma of Tories and the insular technocratic nonsense of trade wonks who prattle on about FTAs. FTAs are better suited to the EU approach but we need to do things differently.

The UK probably won't bother with something as dumb as a customs union agreement but we can be sure there will be a number of obligations and technical restrains that prevent us meddling with tariffs. We therefore need better strategies to make trade more profitable.

Meanwhile we can use our right of initiative in the global system to work on multilateral solutions for medicines. Ideally a global system of approvals, which for now may be pie in the sky but we can chip away at it sector by sector.

Leaving the single market will be a costly mistake and one which will badly dent our trade, but even then the UK is not a down and out. Plenty of mid-ranking powers make valuable contributions. Japan, Israel and Norway worth examining. There is life after Brexit.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

To be a global Britain we must think beyond the confines of bilateralism


Sorry to be boring but I'm writing about trade again. It is a somewhat futile endeavour since the remainers have got their own little bubble going on, continually reinforcing their miserablist narratives and as for Brexiters, well, they couldn't be less interested. They have their own narratives too.

The remain side is working itself into a lather, continually recycling the TTIP debate in anticipation of an US-UK deal while Brexiters are poised to do little more than wail about Brexit betrayal and how things would have been so wonderful had we adopted the lunatic ideas of Patrick Minford. the remainer wonks are busy telling us what we can't do and Brexiters are not even on this planet which means very little thought is going into what we can do - and what is worth doing.

To give credit where credit is due, the Brexiters are least promoting ideas even if they are batshit crazy but as yet I've not seen anything that addresses the real world problems created by Brexit or anything that even begins to compensate.

One theme this blog continues to push is to question the wisdom of seeking out preferential trade agreements - or FTAs as we insist on calling them. I have always suspected the power of PTA's was overstated but just recently I've come to understand exactly why.

As it happens, much of the criticisms of PTAs can be traced to pioneering works by Jacob Viner, a Canadian economist who studied the diversionary effect of PTAs. This is not a new discovery. The basic theory holds that preferential trade deals divert trade from the cost efficient to the preference holder - where production can shift to higher cost partners. Being that the preference holder has a trade advantage, there is no incentive to bring prices much further down than the non-preference competition and instead they will pocket the tariff difference as profit.

The short of it being that preferential trade agreements not only create an unlevel playing field, they undermine mutlilateral efforts. What we find is that "free trade agreements" go against the spirit of free trade and do not necessarily bring down prices. Over the long term, by entrenching inefficiency PTAs could even have the opposite effect. Consequently we should not be seeking "free trade" for its own sake. Every deal must be meticulously analysed and monitored.

Being that this much probably has sunk in with the libertarian free trade crowd, their answer is unilateral trade liberalisation whereby we remove all of our trade defences irrespective of the fallout. What that leads to is UK business trying to compete with heavily subsidised produce or which makes us a dumping ground for surpluses and destroys those industries we have a cultural or strategic need to preserve. Unilateralism in most instances is never a good idea.

When it comes to nuisance tariffs (under 2%) I have some sympathy with the view that we should unilaterally zero them but given the fabric of interwoven agreements we already make use of, tariffs are increasingly a non-issue except for where complex supply chains are concerned.

What distorts the debate is when Brexiters pluck out tariffs at random from the general system of preferences as examples of where we face "crippling" tariffs but on the whole the impact of negotiating away tariffs of under 2% is scarcely worth measuring and difficult to detect.

Where tariffs remain higher is usually in commodities and agriculture, where tariffs are usually there for intensely political reasons and if at this point we still have them then they won't be negotiated away soon. While the logic of some tariffs may seem absurd, there is nearly always a reason.

This is where we should be looking to multilateral solutions rather than entrenching the folly of PTAs. The WTO Agreement on Trade in Civil Aircraft is one such instrument. It eliminates import duties on all aircraft, other than military aircraft, as well as on all other products covered by the agreement — civil aircraft engines and their parts and components, all components and sub-assemblies of civil aircraft, and flight simulators and their parts and components.

This strategy, however, is lost on Brexiters who seem keen to race off and do "bumper deals" because that is how they think it is done. There are few signs of intelligent life on the Brexit benches and we find that as much as Johnson and Rees-Mogg know nothing of the discipline, they don't want to know either.

We are told they have won us the right to make deals during the transition but any activity in that regard will be the replication of deals we already have via the EU. This is presented as a high drama by the FT and the wonkocracy of Twitter, but in actually it's a good deal more mundane than we might imagine. Some of the EU's PTA's will have no noticeable impact on the UK either way and Whitehall, I suspect, already has an idea of the ten or so key ones we cannot survive without. 

Moving on from there really all depends on what we can offer, which won't be much in the way of tariff reductions or regulatory easing not least because the final EU agreement will rule that out. We are then left with only a few commercial strategies - many of which were always possible even as EU members. What matters is how we choose our alliances and wield our soft power in the many international forums making the best use of our right of initiative. 

On that score, I am reserving judgement as to how well the UK will perform. We may have drongo MPs but I am seeing glimmers of competence in Whitehall that make me think that not all is lost. The FT yesterday informs us that the UK’s £13.9bn aid budget is set for its biggest overhaul in years, with plans to use development spending to push British exporters and pension funds to invest in poorer parts of Africa and Asia. 
Penny Mordaunt, the International Development secretary, said her department would experience a “big shift”. It has faced political pressure to justify its growing budget at a time when other ministries face sizeable cuts. Under the new strategy, aid money will be used to help African companies raise debt in local currencies through the City of London, and to facilitate British companies selling and directly investing in less familiar markets. Dfid’s aim is to facilitate pension funds’ investment in emerging countries, by helping to smooth regulations and to make companies creditworthy.
This is a hugely positive development. This blog has argued from the beginning that DfiD should be refocused on projects which enhance our trade policy. There is a lot of potential in international development to forge new markets for the UK. If they are thinking along these lines then there is hope for us yet. 

My previous thinking was that Britain could do more to enhance the ability of LDCs to export produce but what we find is the private sector is doing the heavy lifting in trade facilitation because there are clear commercial advantages in it which don't actually require governmental intervention. There are also promising signals from UNCTAD that Africa of its own accord is starting to get its act together and doesn't need the West to save them. 

This is one instance where Whitehall thinking is ahead of the curve in focusing on services while the Brexit debate is still bogged down in waffle about chlorinated poultry. I confess to being sucked down that same rabbit hole having lavished far too much attention on trade in goods.

The reason for that being, I suppose, is that leaving the single market attacks the foundation of our main trade in goods, creating new and wholly unnecessary barriers to trade. When the only game in town right now is the question of what our future EU relationship looks like, it stands to reason that we would have to go over the basics time and again. 

What our future trade policy looks like really all depends on how well we can service a foreign policy and that hinges on our participation in the single market and sustaining an active role in financing trade development. Though M. Barnier has said we can still change our minds on the matter of the single market I believe it would take a seismic shift on domestic politics for our present trajectory to change. 

Being that the case we will be in a considerably weaker position and faced with a great deal of domestic regulatory chaos, where we will watch helplessly as key industries hit the rocks and many of our flagships see a bleed of investment. It will take many years to normalise our new arrangement and trade will suffer. We always knew becoming an independent country would hurt us - but the ignorance of the Tory right will make us pay ten times more than we ever had to. Correcting the mistake of EU membership will now take a generation.