Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Lite blogging...

I hesitate to say I am putting the blog on pause for a week because every time I say that I end up writing another half dozen essays. That said, there is not much on the Brexit front to churn over and I would sincerely hope that you have better things to do over the coming few days than read Brexit blogs. I will return after Christmas when I expect things might start getting interesting. Have a good one!

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Citizens of nowhere


Says the Independent, "People who don't engage as much with the wider world are overwhelmingly more likely to have voted for Brexit, research has found. A study by Demos also found the size of a person's social network and their likelihood of travelling beyond their hometown had a greater influence on their decision to vote to leave the EU than other factors such as income. The think-tank found those who socialised with friends from a different part of Britain were nine per cent less likely to have voted for Brexit, despite their income".

The subtext of this being that leave voters are small-minded introverts from the shires. Except that there's good reason for that. 

People who stay in one place do so for a good reason. Travelling is expensive. Going out is expensive. I know quite a lot of people who don't really go anywhere and if they drink at all it will be a few beers at home - to save money so that they can invest in improving their homes and giving their kids the best start in life. 

I often whinge about house prices - but there are ways to play the system if you are frugal and austere. At some point in my youth I consciously made the decision not to live an austere life because I couldn't cope with the stifling routine of staying put. This is why I am always out and about and have what many would consider a more cultured lifestyle. 

There are times when I notice the gulf between the motivations. Working out in Gloucestershire I am presently working with people who live locally, support the local rugby team and have a large circle of friends, but mainly people much like them living in the same places. Something known as community. I am acutely aware I am not part of it and my rootless ways arouse suspicion in the settled community. 

The choice I made has its inherent risks. Without building up an asset base I have no security. My entire life is a gamble and to stay safe I have to stay sharp. As you get older you find the safety nets shrink. But it was a choice. And while I may sometimes envy the security and community that others have I would rapidly go crazy living my life in one place keeping up the same routines. 

Consequently this means I don't quite fit in and I find the interests and obsessions of the settled community somewhat parochial - and when you're dealing with people who stay in all the time you are most likely dealing with people who stay home and watch things like Strictly Come Baking. I can't deal with it. 

It's easy to write such people off as the great unwashed but these are the people who hold down jobs and make the machines work. These are the people who keep the gas flowing and the lights on. They are the people who come to our rescue when our cars break down or when we become injured. 

The remainer subtext that the opinions and ambitions of working class people should be swept aside for their more enlightened cosmopolitan ideas is one of the many assumptions which prompted people to vote to leave. People who make different life choices do so for good reasons, all of which are as valid as my own. And this really does link in with the immigration debate. Settled peoples have rights too. Why should the fabric of close knit communities be disturbed without consent? 

In the end there is nothing especially virtuous about people who are well travelled and outward looking. A society needs all stripes to function. We need people to work the routine jobs and then we need a fluid workforce not tied down with responsibilities. Moreover, having dealt with more well pampered HR people than a person ever should, one thing I have noticed is that travel does not necessarily broaden the mind. 

If you take an incurious person and lavish travel upon them you are wasting your money. Some of the most shallow, snobby and fatuous people I know would consider themselves liberal citizens of the world. Such people have no concept of what it is to be building or maintaining something with a long term plan. They latch on to the fashionable and socially convenient worldview that the EU is the manifestation of liberal values but it's little more than virtue signalling. 

In a lot of respects I have a foot in both camps. If travel were free you would never see me. For the moment I am in a phase of "just about managing" and I'm stuck where I am. These are the times I miss things like community and being "a local". And then I think of my old friends back up in Bradford - people who would give anything to get out as I have - to have seen the things I have seen., to not have travelled the same road every day. As I get older I sometimes find myself envying them.

When you have routine certain things are always in a particular place and your schedule is already dictated. Your choices are fewer but then you are less likely to suffer from choice paralysis. As I got older I learned that moving around does not bring any greater comfort. It's great to have met the people I know in Bath and Bristol and Edinburgh, but like people back home, they're living their lives and getting on with it, ending the week at the same bar in the same old pub. It turns out people are pretty much the same wherever you go. 

What I find is that the broader your horizons, the harder it is to fit in wherever you go, and so there remains a polarisation between the settled and the travelled. It is then no surprise that there is an obvious demographic divide and opinion is split between the ages. 

In this, the remain side of the Brexit debate seem keen to pour over these demographic studies to pathologise the leave vote, and consequently delegitimise it, as though you need to be of a particular set for your opinion to hold any worth. Democracy is lost on such people. The whole point of democracy is one person; one vote, where we take a sample of opinion and move together on the basis of compromise.

In something as binary as EU membership though there is only winner takes all. There is no third option on the ballot so we move with the majoritarian view which is to leave. For whatever reasons they voted for, they did so in accordance with their own views based on their own choices. Their worldviews are formed by what they see and hear in the media, but also in the street and in the workplace. They are the best judges of what is important to them. To suggest that choosing a more conservative lifestyle means you are not qualified to make such an estimation is to invite the very sentiment behind the leave vote. 

What these people know better than anyone is that the frivolous and rootless people telling them how to vote are no better than anybody. I imagine the working classes would like nothing more than to live a more adventurous life but they don't because they can't afford it. It's then a bit rich to tell them that the EU brings them freedom of movement and prosperity. 

Earlier this year Theresa May said "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what citizenship means". I smiled when I heard that. Nothing quite so succinctly demolishes the flimsy worldview that believing in the borderless homogenised EU, along with all the pompous garb that goes with it, is somehow enlightenment. May recognises that being a citizen is more than holding outwardly liberal views. It means making a contribution - to be part of something.

It takes no particular talent to drift through life going place to place - and in so doing all you're likely to meet is others who have made the same choices or enjoy an extraordinary privilege. Far from broadening the mind it merely reinforces a particular mindset which is never exposed to the values of the settled community. It's why self-styled "citizens of the world" have no self-awareness and do not for a moment appreciate just how naff they sound to everybody else. 

By most statistical estimations I should be a remain voter. I'm youngish, mostly socially liberal, I travel whenever I can and I know people in almost every UK city. There was a time when I wouldn't think twice about going clubbing in a far away city and ending up on someone's couch. I met all manner of people of all professions. I met trainee doctors, polish labourers, accountants and forklift drivers. Just people making their way in life. I was one who for a while who had no direction of my own so decided to see how others do it. I see nothing superior in that. 

If I was true to the statistical stereotype I would probably have voted remain but I didn't. To vote for the EU based on a bovine interpretation of what it is by way of the values it pretends to embody is the very worst kind of tribal parochialism. More so than simply choosing to stay put. This vote required that citizens took the time to look at the EU closely, to examine its history, and to audit its achievements against its rhetoric. Not only did I take the time to do that, I committed a year of my life to writing this very blog. 

It turns out that the EU is not what it pretends to be, is not pivotal to the freedoms and prosperity we enjoy and political union is not required to achieve the same things. The many thousands of people who read this blog agreed with me and it turns out fifty two percent of the electorate agreed with them. So it's time to put away these divisive studies. They are instructive but not conclusive. 

All it takes to change the tide of history is the people hanging in the balance. In that, the citizens of nowhere lost the argument. The self-admiring enlightened souls of the Easyjet generation might well have seen the sunrise in Paris and the sunset in Berlin, but I have yet to hear a good reason why Britain must be a subordinate to a supreme government in order for that to happen. I find no enlightenment among those who believe that to be so.

More euro-parochialism from the FT


Chris Giles, Economics Editor of the FT has finally discovered something this blog has spoken at length about. 
Beyond the headline-grabbing claims from both sides of the Brexit argument lies a more prosaic fact that could make Britain’s departure from the EU much more complicated. In the 21st century, gains from trade can often depend less on eliminating tariffs on imports and exports than bringing down “non-tariff” barriers created by different rules and standards between countries.
Gosh, whoddathunkit?
The EU’s average external tariff on industrial goods — which the UK could expect to be charged in the instance of a hard Brexit that gives no access to the single market — is just 2.3 per cent, although it is much larger in sectors such as motor vehicles. But academic studies generally show the cost of the bloc’s other barriers to trade is two or three times as large.

Non-tariff barriers to trade are “extremely important” says Stephen Woolcock, associate professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. While leaving the single market could mean long and arduous border checks, many economists and trade experts do not expect anything like such an apocalyptic scenario.

Howard Kerr, chief executive of BSI, the business standards group, emphasises that EU regulations do not require most goods to be checked for conformity with rules at borders, only when they are put on sale.

Sensitive goods — food, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and potentially hazardous goods — are subject to strict rules. A hip replacement part, for example, requires a certificate of conformity to be put on sale in the single market.

But for most goods, it is the job of trading standards officials in EU member states, not customs officers, to check whether products have the CE — Conformité Européenne — mark. This shows they meet EU legal requirements and can be sold in the European Economic Area of all member states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

In addition, products from the UK will not necessarily diverge from European regulations even after Brexit. On day one after leaving the EU, Mr Kerr contends, all products produced for the UK market will still comply with CE rules. This is partly because the UK government is planning to incorporate a large majority of EU regulations into UK law after Brexit and to prune the legislation at its leisure after that.

But there is a bigger reason why differing regulations might not be a large problem: the agreed standards that are the cornerstone of the regulations. European product standards are normally voluntary, agreed outside an EU framework and led by industry to promote competition. The UK has played a leading role.

About 80 per cent of the standards governing manufactured goods in the single market are voluntary and have been progressively harmonised across Europe. During the past 30 years, the number has fallen from 160,000 to about 19,000.

Typically, EU regulations state that if a product meets these standards it can be sold in the single market. While Brexiters say Britain has an opportunity to simplify regulations outside the EU, many experts see costs rather than benefits. British business would need to establish new UK rules and standards, while exporters to the EU would still need to comply with those rules.

Andrew Grainger, assistant professor of logistics at the University of Nottingham, says he can see “nothing good” in tearing up the current rules.

Mats Persson, head of international trade at professional services firm EY, previously served as adviser on Europe to David Cameron, the former prime minister. “The potential impact of regulatory divergence differs between sectors and firms. For some the impact could be limited, while others could benefit from better tailored rules,” he says. “However, particularly for some companies in competitive export sectors and with low margins, separate EU and UK standards could require costly duplication of production lines.”

Duplication could also affect the retail market for strictly regulated products, such as innovative medical devices. If the duplication of costly regulatory approval meant it was only worth exporting to the large EU single market, rather than also seeking UK approval, UK consumers might have no means of getting their hands on the product unless the government accepts EU approval as acceptable.

Some Brexiters are happy to accept the product standards and regulatory approval of other countries as a badge of quality, allowing sale in the UK. But trade experts say that large economies — the EU and the US, for example — would not allow such mutual recognition agreements to be reciprocal.

The UK could not, for example, agree to recognise US regulations as compliant with domestic sales without the EU wanting to ensure those same products were not routed through the UK for sale in Europe unchecked.

Peter Holmes of the University of Sussex says this will severely limit Britain’s ability to bring down non-tariff barriers to trade with countries outside the EU, in case it becomes a “back door” route for goods into Europe.

The upshot is that the question of regulations and standards will be a fiendishly difficult part of Britain’s negotiations with the EU and other potential trading partners. There is no obvious solution that satisfies all the UK’s goals of simple and cheap regulations, easy trading relationships with the EU, deals with non-EU countries and full sovereignty over regulations.
Much of this was discussed by this blog long before the referendum. As much as the WTO tariff trading system has stalled we are no looking at peak regulation where the gains from bilateral horse-trading are minimal. But you will note my emphasis in bold, "European product standards are normally voluntary, agreed outside an EU framework and led by industry to promote competition".

And this is central to the entire Brexit debate. The continued obsolescence of the EU as a rule making body. These days if business wants to lobby for change in regulation they are best focussing their efforts in the various standards bodies rather than wasting their time in Brussels. Quite a lot of major companies do exactly that.

Where it comes to mutual recognition, the article is about right. "The UK could not, for example, agree to recognise US regulations as compliant with domestic sales without the EU wanting to ensure those same products were not routed through the UK for sale in Europe unchecked".

Moving forward that is less of an issue because the USA has an executive order to the same effect as our various statutory instruments which automatically adopt global standards as per the WTO TBT agreement as illustrated in the image above. This should be not be news to regular readers.

The Brexiteer case for less regulation was always based on a flawed concept of what it is and what it is for - but especially where it comes from. Bilateral horse-trading on tariffs and regulations is a non starter. What matters is that we take a more active role in their creation. As the article states, the UK already plays a leading role but there are instances where the lack of a free vote can have a very real effect on British jobs.

Further to this, if we want to boost trade, since regulatory harmonisation is already in hand - and the main focus of the EU and the WTO it falls on the UK to rethink trade policy entirely and look at means of bringing emerging economies into line. This could be a central component of our aid policy.

The general thrust of the piece is about right in that Brexit offers us no silver bullets and the Brexiteer arguments are woefully thin, but it is yet another crack in the dam that exposes the EU as a bit part of a much larger system where our agility, by way of being an independent actor with the right of initiative, can outsmart the creaking EU. Rather than seeking precarious bilateral deals we can sidestep the process in the same way that corporates already do by engaging on the global regulatory forums.

What Chris Giles and other have not yet woken up to is that the game has evolved and Giles is still wrapped up in euro-parochialism - as indeed are all FT hacks. He's right in that the old approaches will yield little in the way of progress, but the whole point of Brexit is to reignite the debate and seek out new approaches.

One thing I would note is that outside the EU the UK gains its own vote on the global regulatory bodies and it also gains the right to say no. There may be penalties for doing so, but that is a matter for parliament to debate rather than being told what to do by the ECJ.

In a lot of respects the UK will find it has more freedom, more influence, and more support for its views outside of the EU. On bodies like the International Maritime Organisation the EU is not very popular.

As to whether this issue will be "a fiendishly difficult part of Britain’s negotiations with the EU" remains to be seen. If there is a sudden outbreak of sanity and we remain part of the EEA then most of these issues are sidestepped and require little negotiation. It does not give us the carte blanche Brexiteers unrealistically expect, but it does make us an independent actor, like Norway, with a far freer hand in the creation of the rules that make up what is now a global single market in standards and regulations.

With that in mind, I wonder if Chris Giles will now revise his February 2016 view that "If Britain were to remain a full part of the single market, it would have to accept EU regulations, including the free movement of people, without any influence in setting them". I expect not since this is not the first time Giles has been keen to display his profound ignorance. Why he continues to occupy office space at the FT beats the hell out of me.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

From there to back again


I am old enough to remember the fag end of British socialism. I was a child of the Thatcher era but the reforms had yet to kick in. It was a time of greaseproof paper for loo roll in motorway service stations and polystyrene cups that spilled scalding coffee onto your hand in the buffet car of a crowded Intercity 125.

It was a time of "tell Sid", Last of the Summer Wine and interminably boring Antiques Roadshow Sunday TV. Trains were nearly always on strike, Arthur Scargill was on telly all the time, and Allo Allo was popular. It was a time of British Telecom and eye-watering phone bills. It was a time of inexplicably bad dubbed Spanish cartoons on BBC children's TV. A time of "exact change only".

So let's get something clear. Mostly the eighties sucked. Ok, so we had the A-Team, Knightrider and Airwolf and some passably good pop music but if I could wind the clock back I wouldn't. Everything we have tried to revive from the eighties has sucked even more than it did the first time around.

If I think about it, it was better to be a kid in the eighties than an adult. Having to write out cheques for groceries and imprinting paper with those slidey things you ran credit cards over with must have been a serious pain in the arse. If you wanted information you had to go to a library and use those microfish machines and have a working knowledge of the Dewey Decimal system. Google didn't exist, and the closest you had to texting was a BT pager. You felt really important if you had a pager and a Filofax.

In a lot of ways it's a wonder anything got done at all. The only computers we had were slow, incredibly basic and the best you could get was a dot matrix printer. Email was a fax machine and a portable computer was as big as golf bag.

It was also a far less liberal time. The state was decisive, authoritarian and terrifying in its prestige and gravitas. The police were thugs - even more than they are now, and falling foul of the law was something you most definitely did not want to do.

If my memory serves me well, there was a certain order. There were moral and legal absolutes which have been diluted over the years. Police were far less tolerant of drugs and drug users and the justice system was notoriously unforgiving. We may now lament the blurred lines and moral uncertainty but if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law, which I have now and then, you're glad of the civil liberties you have and the expectation that your punishment will be proportionate to the crime. As bent out of shape as the system is, I don't think I would want things to go back to how they were.

As to how things got done, it was a time when we had a sprawling public sector. It wasn't like the Blair years with people nested in quangos and sucking up grant money. There was one umbrella and if it was a council service, then you worked for the council and they issued your payslips. From the binmen to the teachers. That's why going on strike was a national pastime.

Now the system is far more fragmented. We tell ourselves the big lie that there has been privatisation but in a more real sense all we have done is changed the procurement model. There was a time when we had council planning offices which dealt with anything from planning permission for conservatories to complex piping systems under the roads. Everything non-domestic has now been farmed out to Atkins and the likes.

In the early nineties this was because Atkins along with a number of other large firms were real companies with real capability with their own institutional knowledge of how to build things. It made sense. The crippling inefficiencies of heavily unionised councils were weeded out and councils gradually became commissioning authorities. To say that such functions were privatised when they still require vast injections of public money is an abuse of language.

If at the time you were a conservative you wholly approved of privatisation. It made a lot of sense. There was no good reason why there should be a single telecoms company. The government certainly had no business making cars, and the model we have for gas now vastly cuts down on the administrative burden. We could argue the toss about water and electricity but on the whole the reforms we made were the right move at the right time. The socialist structures were ossified and creaking and in desperate need of renewal in ways government lacked the capacity.

So where are we now, nearly thirty years on from this? Nobody can deny that telecoms has thrived bringing about better and cheaper phones, and looking back there was never any rationale for the nationalisation of vehicle manufacture - and though Londoners piss and whine about the railways, the ticket prices are proportionate to the costs of running such a hideously expensive mode of transport and they mostly work. The real cost of the revolution is felt elsewhere.

As we know, public procurement has a long track record of being pretty dismal. Botched Public Private Partnerships have scarred the public psyche. There is still colossal waste and commissioning authorities have a way of making everything cost more than it should. There's a certain aspect of "tough titties, Tinkerbell" to this. Governance is expensive. Infrastructure costs money and the people building it need to get paid. To have a first world developed economy it necessarily means we will pay through the nose for it.

But then everything is cyclic. We were in an era where we were suffering from the worst excesses of socialism with its inherent inefficiencies but we are are now halfway on the journey to the other extreme. Some would say we are there already. As mentioned above, the big suppliers to government on major contracts used to be companies of substance. Now they are something else entirely. They run on a skeleton crew seeking out projects to bid for and only then do they, at short notice, acquire the people necessary for its execution.

In this they do not take on permanent staff, and instead they skim from highly paid contractors or subcontracting firms. The result is certainly a more dynamic workforce - with workers enjoying greater pay but fewer rights. Though many are satisfied with that now I think this will become a problem down the line when people realise that security is also important. The problem with this model is that these "engineering" firms posses no institutional memory and hold no assets of their own in relation to their contracts.

This removes the safety mechanism against egregious mistakes and as each phase of a project is farmed out to other big consultancy firms, there are any number of free riders and parasites taking their cut. We are now so far away from the original model that contracts are fluid on a daily basis. Far from being the slovenly mess that was socialism we are no in an age of hyper-accountability where every penny is tracked. The real world effect of this is that pennies are pinched from those at the bottom of the chain while the free riders in the middle still take their cut. Either way the taxpayer is defrauded.

This forces me to conclude that there can be no rational ideological positions on economic policy. At either extreme nothing gets done so politics is really the process of keeping the balance in check and governing it in order to trim off the worst excesses at both ends. I no more want a hyper-libertarian society than I do a socialist one. The dogmas of the right have it that utopia is only just over the horizon if we sell off a few more things. I see it as the mirror equal of Corbynist socialism.

Instead of seeking a new Jerusalem we must accept that this flawed muddle is how things get done. What matters is that we have trustworthy institutions run by transparent and competent politicians. Since that is not the case, the dismal partisanship of old must take second place to genuine constitutional reform.

On present trajectory we are looking at a systemic collapse of politics whereby one extreme has total dominance - which would be a disaster. No system of governance should ever be run by true believers. I fear we lack the checks and balances in this ever more polarised world to stop that from happening. Trump shows us that the USA has a constitution for very good reasons. It's time we had one too. I don't want to loonies of either stripe in control and I definitely do not want to go back to the eighties. 

The shrewdness of apes


I have always tended to avoid people. I am not a joiner of of groups nor do I have a wide social circle. Even in school I always gravitated to the library specifically to make use of the quiet. Things that interested the other kids did not interest me. Instead I would be reviewing the newspapers or looking at mostly factual books. I've never really been a reader of fiction. In that sense I always knew that I was a little bit different.

Though it is fashionable to have a syndrome of some kind these days where everybody seems to want to diagnose their personality, there is more than a passing relationship between my behaviours and and what is commonly understood as Asperger Syndrome. Ever since my sister stumbled on the Australian Scale for Asperger Syndrome, a lot of my past has made a lot more sense.

I have since taken an interest in it and having met people who are quite severe I know that mine is only a mild case. It turns out it's a spectrum. Mine is subtle but it is there nonetheless. What it tends to mean is that it's difficult for me slot into any given social circle, I don't really gel with any team and in a work environment I am acutely aware that I am conspicuous by way of not conforming to certain behavioural standards.

There was a time when this would cause me great difficulty because it would invariably get me fired. I would drift between jobs struggling to understand what it was that made me so instantly undesirable. In the post-industrial north there is still a cultural hangover in the workplace whereby there is greater peer pressure to conform to certain unwritten codes and everybody is bothered that someone else might be getting a slight advantage. Very much a mill town mentality.

Because I am singularly incapable of conforming I quickly seem like I don't play by the rules and believe myself to be exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. Not for nothing do I have a reputation for arrogance. It's why I seem to have done better ever since I moved south where the more dynamic economy creates a more liberal workplace where increasingly everyone is in it for themselves. It means everybody is looking for the maximum advantage and is less concerned when someone has an advantage in that if I have one they can have it too.

Having lived in Scotland, Yorkshire and Bristol, I have noticed that the further north you go the more tribal it gets and the more conformity is demanded. Scotland is the absolute worst for it. The police officious and petty, officials are inhuman in their adherence to red tape and as for wider tribalism, I don't think I need expand on the point.

Yorkshire is more tolerable. The problem is that the economy is more geared to services which means most office jobs are call centres which are a modern day version of the Victorian mills. Being just a few minutes late is very much noticed. Schoolyard rules seem to apply and few people do anything without asking permission.

Moving south was in many respects the best thing I ever did and a new world opened up to me where nobody really cares what you do just so long as the job gets done. That is why I managed nearly seven years at Airbus when virtually every other job I'd had was a living hell. It certainly helped that it was an aerospace company since I am an aviation obsessive, but all the same, the contractor culture of maximum individuality and self-management allows me to get my work done without selling my soul to the devil.

In a lot of respects getting by requires that I adopt a "my way or the highway" approach and I impress upon employers that they probably do have to tolerate me being a dysfunctional mess most of the time. Aspergers awareness has increased and it seems for all my social deficiencies I have a few compensatory superpowers.

One of these is a perceptiveness that is generally unmatched. Very often I will know how a company works better than the people running it. I will understand their systems, their social rules, and their place in the wider economy. Having worked in dozens of offices I have a broader picture than most about how the economy works and though that knowledge has come at a cost of great pain and frustration, it is valued insight nonetheless.

One thing I have learned though is that no matter what sector you are in, offices are the same wherever you go. They are all imbued with the sense that they are a little bit different, which always amuses me but one is much the same as the other and the culture is nearly always the same. There are certain stereotypes which we can all immediately identify. It's what makes The Office sitcom such a ready hit.

In this, it's easy to understand why certain fault-lines exist. Offices are a very abstract places where people are pretty much forced to congregate with people they would never choose to congregate with in a sterile environment and somehow learn not to tread on each others sensibilities too much. Some find it easier than others.

Those who find it easy tend to be the ones who reap the most rewards - job security, a good credit rating, promotions and such. Career success very much depends on your ability to integrate, interact and conform. This path has never been available to me. In more than one sense, my lack of a credit rating makes me a drifter - having no real assets, getting by on my wits and the only thing that makes me commercially viable is a particular set of programming specialisms.

This is why I find I often have a great empathy with homeless people and people who are just outright freaks. People out on the fringes. Sometimes you make eye contact with a fellow freak and there's a connection there. Though my skills and mean I can just about carve out a pampered middle class lifestyle, I am still acutely aware I am an imposter. I am an executive level hobo who only stays afloat by exploiting the blind-spots in the system where they won't see me coming. This sometimes means I have to make certain moral compromises, but then we all do at some point.

What this means is that I am always the outsider looking in. There is a glass wall between me and the rest of the world. That perception is very much amplified and to some extent distorted by way of interacting via the internet. Without the contrasts of the physical world it alters one's behaviour which makes me even less able conform. I can't tell you what having a Twitter addled brain has done to my attention span.

Consequently I live my own separate life in my own solitary bubble, forever on the outside, more observer rather than a participant. In a lot of respects it is unparalleled freedom that most people will never know. Free of obligation and responsibility every day is my own to do with as I please. As rewarding as that is, it can also be quite desolate. It's why the weather can have such a profound impact on my moods. I become a reflection of my environment. It makes every day different and I am never the same person twice. I am many things to many people.

Being an observer is perhaps why I end up knowing things most do not. I pay attention to my surroundings and I look into the history of my environment, and I notice things. Nobody else knows that the old building next to where I work was the Sperry Gyroscope factory during the war. Nobody else has ever even asked what the anonymous concrete structures are for. Turns out they were part of a weapons testing facility. I find that most people don't see, don't enquire, and they don't care.

I find that really sad. It gives every new place an extra dimension which I why I love travelling more than anything in the world. Very few know this country as well as I, and I really do notice the details. Where most would just see a pylon I would see part of a wartime radar installation. Where others see a red brick hut, I see part of a WW2 military hospital. And I can almost smell a disused aerodrome. I don't suppose anyone gives it a second thought as they drive down the M4 at Membury that they are intersecting an aerodrome used for the D-Day parachute drops.

And though most of these little discoveries and facts are barely ever useful they are part of the tapestry that is me, and I take pleasure from it. In that sense little facts and details are largely harmless. It just makes me out as a nerd. I'm fine with that. It's when facts become contradictory to the narrative of a tribe that they become a threat. We see this in the way ISIS demolishes any trace of the past.

Narratives have power. We can see this in the power games people play. The grievance-mongering of the SNP requires of it that a retelling of history is required to form a common sense of victimhood. Nobody hates a fact quite like a Scottish Nationalist.

Narratives are essential to tribal identity. Not for nothing do Arab cultures keep weaved records in their prayer rugs and not for nothing do our grand cathedrals have stained glass windows. Narrative is sacrosanct. It is also why the most successful of demagogues are those who are best able to rewrite history. It is why history is so central to politics.

In the latter part of the twentieth century it is well understood that Mrs M Thatcher closed down the mines. It is fair to say that more jobs in the mining industry were lost under Thatcher but the previous Labour administration closed down more actual mines. That is a fact which is to this day ill advised to repeat in some backwater Yorkshire pubs.

In that sense the northern mining towns have a tribal narrative of their own and it is reflected in the way that northerners have continued to vote Labour regardless of the candidate. Only now the mines are long gone and the villages depopulated do we see a weakening of the narrative and consequently a weakening of power.

What I have noticed though is that this dynamic is not by any means confined to the left, nor does it require any particular scale. Groupthink works in much the same way. The Tory hard Brexit clan have their own mantras, their own reading of history and their own narrative. It is one that crosses over into Ukip which for a time was a breakaway Tory tribe. Having spent the last few years contesting their narratives and misconceptions I have seen just how nasty people will get in the defence of their tribal narrative.

Having no tribe of my own nor any particular allegiance to a group, I am thankfully not dogged my this social disorder that seems to affect the majority, but it also makes me more cautious in the knowledge that most people who are not afflicted by Asperger's very much do have a tribe, a narrative and a set of associated mantras whether they know it or not. Consequently one is always very wary of people.

You can forge superficial relationships with people who are in broad agreement but ultimately loyalty is to the tribe and to the narrative and unless you conform you are vulnerable to attack. Not for nothing do they say "never trust a Tory". Tories are every bit as much sheep as the bleating left and they will stab you in the back at any time for any reason if you show signs of non-conformity.

Consequently I find that my very closest friends are either not political at all or believe in notions so utterly dissimilar to my own that there is no compatibility of opposing arguments. We argue past each other over entirely abstract things. That though is a shame because real intrigue only ever comes through conflict and consequently most relationships, though fun, can only ever be superficial.

It is this tribal dynamic which also explains the success of various personalities in politics. Take Owen Jones, Nick Cohen or James Delingpole, Daniel Hannan - or any of the Toryboys who scribble in the Telegraph. These are the court scribes who weave the narratives for their respective tribes, preaching to the devotees what they already believe. It buys them popularity and social standing inside their respective tribes.

By that point, truth and accuracy don't really come into it. It's more a case of preaching to the choir to preserve the perks of social recognition. Dissenters are ostracised and only licensed court jesters may ever speak the truth in the presence of their betters. Conformity is the only means to acceptance.

Each generation has its own high priest, it's unassailable sacred scriptures and each high priest will appoint or her own successor. In most respects we have not evolved very far from apes at all. Politics is merely rival groups of monkeys flinging their own excrement at each other.

The problem being that in a modern and highly sophisticated first world economy, things do need to get done without being tainted by this kind of politics because it depends on accepting certain things that are true without disputing the basics. You couldn't build a suspension bridge without taking gravity as fact. It would be a pretty stupid design if you didn't.

And this is why much governance has been detached from politics and into the realms of technocracy. Nerds shall inherit the earth. As it happens, in most instances, the nerds do a pretty good job of keeping things working and things work considerably less well by introducing politics into it. Dysfunctional as the EU is, the bits that do work would not work at all if the politicians had any influence in it.

In that regard the modern political process is a matter of finding a balance between politics and governance to ensure governance does not become a faceless inhuman bureaucracy making sweeping decisions over the lives of millions without regard to the human costs and sacrifices. That is where our politicians haver dropped the ball and let their shit flinging become all consuming, leaving the technocracy to do as it pleases.

As an Aspergers's "sufferer" I take a keen interest in the mechanisms behind our technocracy - the many tiers of governance that make up something as sophisticated at the single market. It's deeply fascinating. Others are far better at interpreting the laws and treaties that bring it about - but when it comes to the systems I get it better than most. It is this governance that our shit-flinging tribal apes need to be more aware of.

Leaving the EU is far more involved than hammering out a territorial bargain with the continental apes. There are structures and systems to consider along with factors related to their upkeep. The problem is that even suggesting these things exist - which is an objective truth - runs counter to the tribal narrative on the right. Such complications commit the ultimate sin of being counter to the scriptures. And this is why they get so nasty about it.

One thing that marks humans out is their unparalleled savagery in the defence of scripture and orthodoxy. There is no upper limit to the stupidity in conformity. Some may even argue that it is futile to resist. But resist it we must because it is that momentary enlightenment that transcends tribalism - setting us apart from the shit-flingers.

In a purely Darwinian sense, what you are reading here is the words of a loser. One whose wares are not sufficiently simplistic enough to attract a following of devotees. I am the ape shunned from the shrewdness. Reality is the most threatening influence of all. Reality disrupts and disturbs and exposes stupidity for all to see. It must be denied an airing. In any context be it social, political or in the workplace, the illusion of competence must be preserved with all the baubles of prestige. I shall therefore venture forth into the jungle and watch it unfold from the highest branch. The spoils are there for those who are left to tell the story.

Friday, 16 December 2016

A year in Brexitland


It's probably a bit early to be writing one of those year review pieces but here goes anyway. 2016 has been a most uneventful year. For the most part I have been sat at my computer writing articles in the hope of injecting at least some sanity into the Brexit debate - and for the most part I have not succeeded. Too many sacred cows unjustly continue to suck up oxygen.

And I say uneventful because nothing really happened. Sure a bunch of celebrities died, but they tend to do that. And then there was that referendum thing. But that wasn't really anything much. It's not like there was a mass movement demanding our exit from the EU. There was an opinion poll on the establishment and at the last minute the people let out an inchoate howl of rage securing a pretty dismal majority.

What we learned is that most people, including our politicians have only a very dim perception of what the EU actually is. And no, I'm not saying the plebs didn't know what they were voting for. They voted for change and Brexit is very much the vehicle for that. What I'm saying is that there is a profound ignorance of what the EU is and particularly what it has become in recent years.

It seems odd to me that eurosceptics would have spent twenty years screaming from the rooftops that the EU is more than just a trade deal, and then when their wish is granted they think Brexit is just a matter whipping up a deal on border tariffs and skipping away without a care in the world. And then there's the remainers. They have no clue what the EU is otherwise they wouldn't even be remainers.

And in the wake of the Brexit vote we have had a long and protracted debate about democracy with very few having a coherent idea of what democracy is either. It has been a most confusing year. A year in which we voted to leave the EU for reasons related but almost entirely abstract to it.

What was most surprising was how short lived my elation was. The morning I awoke to see some very upset looking ministers on the television I was both stunned and cock-a-hoop. Insofar as one can be with a rotten hangover. It didn't feel real and in a lot of respects it still isn't.

Far from being the end of a long struggle, it marked only a milestone, where every day since the vote has been much the same as the six months preceding it, having to write the same things, explaining the same issues to the same people. Even now people on both sides who should know better are still trotting out wearisome memes that bear no relationship to the predicament we find ourselves in. There is an air of unreality to it. My job isn't over and I expect it won't be for a very long time to come. The campaign to shape Brexit is every bit as important as the campaign to leave it.

As you know I haven't allowed myself to be distracted by the various legal challenges. I viewed them as noise not central to the issue. It's all good fodder for the chatterers but there has never been any serious question that we are leaving. At no point have I been concerned that we won't leave - only that our lack of preparation will lead to a fudge - or a disaster - and both are still very real possibilities.

And far from being a sea change in politics, what we have seen is the establishment taking back control. (to coin a phrase). It is taking back control of parliament and the political narratives, with virtually no opposition in or out of the House of Commons and we are likely seeing a reversion to the norm. Having had no plan in place, and no coherent set of demands, the Brexiteers have squandered an event that did have some considerable revolutionary scope.

We may be leaving the EU but the government doesn't know what to do with the powers it will get when we do and no challengers waiting in the wings with new policy ideas. Consequently the Brexit we get will be one largely defined by the same class of people who took us in. It seems all it took to pacify the "revolt on the right" was a few new grammar schools, cuts to wind turbine subsidy and a mouthbreather as Defra minister. Did we really come so far to achieve so little?

And this is really my problem with Brexit now. It had no energy. Even the leave campaign was a Toryboy circle jerk which operated to the exclusion of all others. They made a lot of money and got their mates into spad jobs. The think tank shysters got their consultancy fees and newspaper columns and now everything pretty much goes back to normal. There was no vision or drive and even the Brexiteers have a pretty dismal view of what to do now we have left. They mutter something about tariffs and controlling borders, but have no real idea what that actually means.

I'm not saying we should not still leave since the EU is every bit as ossified and directionless as our own government. It just seems to me that the feeble showing by the leave side means that we have passed up an opportunity to redefine European democracy. And so to me, Brexit is just another thing to add to the pile of things we failed at. It will bring about policy renewal and it will bring about a change of economic policy, but it will be the same people tinkering in the same old ways taking their cue from the media rather than dealing direct with the people. We will be governed through their distorted prism once more. The establishment is as healthy as ever it was. Brexit hasn't made a dent.

In that regard, Brexit does not count as a highlight of the year. It's been a chore and the event itself is largely marked as being one of the more severe hangovers of the year having once again fallen asleep with the windows closed. If I had to pick a highlight, standing on the Cobb in Lyme Regis on a blustery day, being buzzed by a Merlin helicopter, was definitely up there, and perhaps overcoming my fear of public speaking is a big plus, but in the end, nothing compares with hanging out with my niece and taking a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight under a beautiful blue Solent sky. Those are the days that matter. Bugger Brexit. All you need is a hovercraft and a big old smile.

More self-serving toss from Ian Dunt.


One of the more compelling arguments for Brexit was that our politicians had set upon a course of making themselves redundant, effectively abdicating the difficult business of structured governance and in so doing became a dismal band of prod-noses banning things and interfering with our lives in unwelcome ways, often taking on activities best performed by councils.

Now that we are leaving the EU they've had to drop their bicycle shed syndrome displacement activity and focus on the issues at hand. It's instructive just how ill-equipped they are for the task and watching them flail around further demonstrates why we needed to leave the EU. Institutionally we have lost the capacity for self governance. The experience and knowledge is no longer there.

That is not to say that we should not leave the EU. Quite the reverse. It just means that we have to go through the long and painful process of reacquiring that skill. But it's not just our politicians who have lost the knack for their trade. Our media is increasingly in the dark having thrown real journalism to the wolves. Instead all we get is self-serving sensationalist drivel. Ian Dunt again.

He notes that "In a speech at the Conservative party conference, May promised that Britain would now control how it labels food. But these rules have nothing to do with the EU. They come from a general code at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). For May to deliver on this promise, she would have to adopt the North Korean model of total isolation. She either didn’t know what she was saying was nonsense, or didn’t care".

He later makes the point Brexit will move the battlefield from Brussels to Geneva. The problem with our hack-o-sphere, parasites that they are, they treat any morsel of received wisdom as gospel because if they have just one feather in their cap, it's one more than the rest of the herd. The problem is that they lift up the panel but only go one level deep. Looking deeper into WTO Sanitary and phytosanitary measures we find it is divided into subsections invoking technical standards from FAO Codex and the WCO.

What Mrs May has said on the matter is neither here nor there. Her ignorance is not in dispute but it should be noted that Dunt is no better. FAO Codex is just one of the many standards setting bodies in vast global nexus of such bodies of varying legitimacy. One of the reasons the investors are not worried about regulatory divergence is because there is no chance whatsoever that we will deviate from core industry standards, not least in energy and aerospace. They are global. I spent two hours in a company strategy meeting today, listening to the French owners very positive outlook and no mention was ever made of Brexit.  

What Dunt makes no mention of in his self-serving rants is that UK membership of the EU neutralises our rights on all of these bodies and the UK decision is subordinate to that of the EU. We are therefore often forced to vote against our own interests to protect French and German defensive interests. They protect their manufacturing when we want to liberalise services. The model doesn't work for the UK.

In this, Dunt is absolutely right in that Brexit very much does shift the battlefield from Brussels to Geneva. And that is the whole point. For the first time in a very long time Britain will have a voice in its own right, and a right of opt out. We will be participating fully at the top tables rather than using the dysfunctional EU as a go between. 

As noted at the beginning of this piece, while parliament has gradually abdicated its own responsibilities, the EU has over the last twenty years been doing almost exactly the same, with MEPs no longer able to make substantive alterations to standards, they themselves have taken to meddlesome virtue signalling displacement activity. In that regard the Parliament is more of a joke than it ever was. 

Effectively the entire system of rules based trade has gone into autopilot with very little attention paid to it and virtually no oversight. That which does not come to us via the EU comes onto the statute book via Statutory Instruments, or hidden in global accords which our MPs never even read before ratifying. It is now the case that if business interests want to modify regulations and standards they send their own representatives to the global bodies and private regulators and sidestep the rubber stamping mechanism entirely. 

That we have shifted the battlefield now brings to light a whole universe of issues once assumed to be an EU competence. Now it is in the light of day we see that the EU is but a political showman taking credit where none is due. This prompts us to ask what is the honest to god point of it? We increasingly see that customs cooperation is made up of regulatory mechanisms made over the heads of the EU and if the EU did not presently exist we wouldn't bother to invent it. 

Though Dunt's misapprehension of who sets the standards is amusing, it is at least a crack in the dam. Sooner or later, we will have a long outstanding national debate about the nature of the laws we receive, who is making them and how we effectively scrutinise them. The horizons have lifted and dismal euro-parochialism is about to die a death. We will now start to engage in the world as it is rather than through the prism of the EU as the alpha and omega of imported rules. 

That the Prime Minister is entirely ignorant of this is telling, and it is no surprise that headcase Brexiteers are still in denial over it, but Brexit above all properly contextualises the EU as a bit part, not the whole of the process. Throughout the politico-media class there is a sudden dawning that things might be a little more complex than they seem, and though Dunt is dining out on that meme he himself has a long way to go before comprehending the scale of it. 

Dunt's modus operandi is to sensationalise Brexit complications as though there were no solutions, weaving in a hard Brexit scare because he knows his readers are just ignorant enough not to call him out on it. This kind of cynical opportunism I utterly despise. In truth it is a relief to see the system awakening from its four decade long slumber, and though it would be preferable if they would pick up the pace a bit, coming to terms with the issues is long overdue and very very welcome. 

I expect it will take a long time for the government to get to grips with the issues but it seems the chief obstacle to this is the wastrels on both sides of the debate who seek to obscure the issues for their own ends. Call it what you like but it isn't journalism. 

Dunt makes the case that our approach to WTO schedules means that we cannot trade in tariffs. Though he is right to point out that this stymies the delusions of tariff obsessed brexiteers (tariffistas as I now call them), he makes no mention that trade is geared to the removal of non-tariff barriers which still remain the key obstacle to African goods qualifying for export to the EU. Brexit gives us the scope and agility, and right of initiative, so that we can sidestep the EU and bring that about in ways the EU cannot, having fixated on big bang comprehensive deals like TTIP which are increasingly prone to failure.  

Though Britain will never be entirely freed of external obligations we have at least gained the right to say no and the ability to act globally should we choose to do so. It will take a different form to that which the tariffistas envisage but Britain can very much administer a shot in the arm for global trade. As to the rest of of Brexit, it is mere administration. Yes it is complex, yes it has inherent risks, and you will get no argument from me that we presently lack the necessary competence. But that is the price we pay for letting our MPs put policymaking into stasis and shirking their responsibilities. 

What that tells us is that the first order of business post-Brexit is a new constitution that prevents our MPs ever doing this to us again and a further examination of sovereignty issues to put proper oversight on the global nexus of rulemakers - and ensure we have a proper defence against it. Brexit of itself has opened up a far reaching debate about the shape and the future of our democracy which makes Brexit a good in itself. 

Where trade is concerned, there is every advantage in being outside the EU and I still take the view that the short term losses can be compensated for and over the longer term independence, while keeping a high level of customs cooperation with the EU, will prove to be more valuable than EU membership. We may even stand a chance of having real democracy rather than the pastiche of it in Strasbourg. 

Brexit to my mind marks a reawakening of grown up politics and though it is ugly, and at times tense, and at times intensely boring, we are at least starting to ask all of the right questions in areas where we have long stopped paying attention. The system has ossified and decayed and the state of our politics and media is very much a symptom of it. 

It actually says a lot that a second rate thicko like Dunt is viewed as an authority in the bubble. I don't know what games you have to play or how low you have to stoop to make it in that grubby little London swamp, but if the sum product of such activity means becoming a manipulative worm like him, then it's certainly not worth it. The Brexit bloggers will have their day when cold, hard reality exposes these frauds for what they are. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Brexit swamp

Yesterday's dismal sychophancy from Andrew Lilico has been picked up by the Sun. And people wonder why I have such a deep running contempt for most mainstream Brexiteers and bubble hacks. Very often I am subject to the snarky retort of "who do you actually like then Pete?". And the answer to that is, as yet, no-one.

None of these people are prepared to do the homework, none of these people are ever prepared to admit their faults and none of them have the integrity to confront reality. Of the few hacks who do raise useful issues there is always a twist or a bit of cynical manipulation weaved in, which is why I detest Ian Dunt and his acolytes. Is a bit of intellectual honesty too much to ask?

There is a wealth of knowledge available to anyone who cares to look, and in most cases all you  have to do is read the actual agreements to dispel much of the mythology yet these people do not. John Redwood has built a reality of his own and the Toryboys continue to belch out lie after lie to bring about their wet dream hard Brexit. Then there are the shysters and the frauds like Shanker Singham.

These people are chancers and thieves on the make, and in so doing, because they have exposure, are playing dangerous and damaging games with the nation's future. 

So yes, I very strongly dislike these people, what they are doing and the games they play. I despise the way they act as gatekeepers to bogus narratives, fiercely fending off the truth. I hate the tribalism and I loathe the incompetence. It's underhanded and it's sickening.

The debate is already stricken by a poverty of knowledge without such people introducing falsehoods of their own, often wilfully. If that then drives me to a state of rage where I lose all dignity then it's because I do actually care what happens when many of these bloodsuckers will never admit their part in creating the unfolding crisis of competence.

It's easy to get things wrong, and god knows I have some egregious examples on this very blog, but the purpose of being in this game is to get closer to the truth, not to promote or defend lies. These people won't defend their ideas. They instead hide behind their iron curtain, deep within the bubble, using their supporters as attack dogs, spreading gossip and innuendo in place of honest debate.

I could understand it if these people were entirely thick but many of them aren't. Many of them by now know full well there is more to Brexit than what was immediately apparent to them. They would rather keep their readers and supporters in the dark than to come clean. Any lie will do to that end.

So yes, if I lose my shit, it's because I can barely name a single person in this game approaching it with integrity. If I now do little else but pump out venom it's because the dismal nostrums they spout cannot be adequately refuted on a medium like Twitter or Facebook. There are only so many hours in the day and I can't blog everything. If you find that I am toxic, it's a lot to do with the swamp I'm wading in. It stinks.

Brexit: navigating in the dark


I was going to blog this by Andrew Lilico. If by this point I need to explain why this is deeply moronic then every breath of mine since the referendum has been wasted. It is so deeply stupid that it defeats me. It requires a line by line demolition for which I no longer have the spirit. It doesn't matter how many times you try to introduce reality into the debate this crapology still persists.

But that's actually how they win. Persistent repetition of falsehood is how they control the debate and the energy required to refute bullshit is a magnitude larger than it takes to produce it. 

Instead, since I am war weary, I would direct readers to this article explaining why holding out for perfection will result in worse than what is possible. There is also this piece, originally appearing in The Times, clearing up the confusion on the matter of the customs union. 

In this I hold my hand up. Like just about everyone else I had assumed that the customs union was what prevents us from making our own trade agreements. I have even excoriated politicians for not knowing the difference between the single market and the customs union. Though I have written at length about the single market, I never imagined the customs union would become such an issue since leaving it is self-evident, so I never really looked closer at it. 

Like many I also assumed Turkey was in the customs union. It has its own agreement linked to it, but is not of it. The one mistake I did not make was assume that the customs union had anything to do with customs cooperation. The hard border Turkey has with the EU is sufficient evidence of that. The EEA is the mechanism for enhanced customs cooperation. 

It is now clear that there is no advantage in staying in the customs union and no real cost for leaving it. Doing so only brings about "rules of origin" costs if we depart from the common external tariff - which may make sense one day, but most trade is now in regard to non-tariff barriers; a focus for Britain, the EU and the WTO. We might as well leave tariffs as they are. 

Hard Brexiteers would have it that we can unilaterally drop tariffs to allowing African products to compete but this overlooks the fact that the EU already has done that (just recently) and it is the non-tariff barriers which remain an obstacle.   

But it is these kinds of distinctions that help us better understand the nature of our future relationship with the EU. If, as Lilico has it, we are seeking to "stay as close to the current arrangements for trading as we can, subject to maintaining the ability to set our own regulations and taxes, and to negotiate our own trade agreements with non-EU countries" then these issues must be resolved.

Anybody serious knows that there are conflicts in these aims and this issues are not as black and white as Lilco paints them. Under no circumstances will we be setting our own regulations. If you've had a real job of any kind you will already know this. In my last role with Airbus we were working to standards and processes as defined by global regulators and standards bodies, and in my current role in the nuclear industry, the EU is nowhere to be found in the standards we work to. 

That we get these regulations via the EU middleman is neither here nor there. Technical regulation has transcended regionalism where the sector leaders get to define the regulation. Global regulation is about the only meritocracy in lawmaking and that is going to be the basis of our lawmaking in the future. Regulatory divergence is a non-starter in or out of the single market.  

Meanwhile, Lilico has it that "the Single Market means (by definition) having free movement and being subject to EU law. That is crystal clear" but actually nothing is "crystal clear". To borrow a phrase I heard this evening, every rule has an exception but every exception has rules. The more we look at the precedents we find that the EU and its proxy arrangements are a mish mash of concentric circles where one could go quite mad trying to define them all. The only thing that is clear is that there are no non-negotiable red lines.

The central point I would make is that in order to have enhanced customs cooperation with the EU then that necessarily will mean funding the agencies that make it work, and in order to have it the price tag is a high degree of freedom of movement if not full freedom of movement - and ending it entirely is not worth the trouble. The EEA is an agreement that facilitates that maximum level of integration and if the government is intent on reinventing the wheel then there is every chance we will get a worse deal than if we simply admitted the reality of our predicament. 

To say we can opt in on a sectoral basis, paying as we go, might sound superficially appealing, but then the question becomes one of which sectors we don't mind throwing to the wolves. It is better to swallow the EEA whole and use the annexe system to disengage from the single market as and when we find we need to. The immediate concern for Article 50 talks is to deal with the administrative procedures. Shelving the technical issues by adopting the EEA sidesteps the messier, riskier negotiations. It is the faster route out of the EU.

It seems to me that the EU is a predicament we must understand our way out of, conceding to the facts whether inconvenient or not. Some facts we won't like, but in the end we will get a better, more amicable deal by accepting reality than constructing one of our own. That means admitting when we are wrong - something that journalists and politicians alike are seemingly incapable of doing. We all want the best Brexit possible, but that means taking the world as we find it, not as we wish it to be. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Aleppo: chickens come home to roost


Lifting words from Joe LM, "What is killing more people than any individual actor in the Syrian war? The war itself. The only way to limit the death toll is by stopping the war. The only way to do that (for more than a few days of negotiated ceasefire) is if one side convincingly wins and if that side has the means to govern effectively.

As it stands, the only group that could fulfill both of these criteria is Assad and his forces. The rebels (who are mostly made up of Al-Qaeda fighters at this stage) don't have the means to govern the country and prevent a split and another civil war (like in Libya) even if you accept that most of them are moderate Syrians (which they aren't). It's necessary, for the reduction of harm, that Assad wins this war now. There's no other option, and the sooner it happens, the better".

I couldn't agree more. Some ask why we didn't intervene sooner. We could have done something, maybe. But then there was no mandate for entering another ME war after losing in Afghanistan and and Iraq. We squandered our political capital at home and abroad. There was no guarantee we would not have made it worse and then we would have been blamed for yet another ME disaster. The fact is we have lost our ability to mount an effective foreign policy and subsequently to wage military interventions.

Behind that is the political dysfunction which lost the Iraq war. It is that same dysfunction that sees the entire political apparatus completely at sixes and sevens over Brexit without the first clue how to even navigate the basic terminology.

Our parliamentary system is broken because conformity is prized over knowledge and political advisers are now grubby ambitious underlings climbing their way up the greasy pole who delegate research to interns so they can go hobnobbing round the clubs of Westminster looking for their next step up the ladder.

It kills the feedback mechanism and centres all political thinking to a very narrow class who all know each other and live in the same squalid little social circle and exists in a reality of its own, never tempered by knowledge or emotional maturity.

The moment we made politics a career option whereby a PPE degree and the right unpaid internship was a door to a career in Westminster was the moment we excluded any real expertise from politics, and thanks to a media which no longer seeks out expertise and instead uses all purpose talking heads, the public no longer knows the difference either.

The resultant wail of anguish is one from a politically immature bubble who are now aghast at the consequences of their own policy neglect. They assume we can cede foreign policy to Brussels, trim down our diplomatic corps and prune our forces to nothing and still expect we can wield influence and project power. They then demand we take action, after we vacated the field for Russia some time ago, without any acknowledgement (or knowledge) of what the implications of that are.

This is the kind of political stupidity that will ultimately be the cause of the next major war. For our own safety we need to break up our parliamentary system and tear it away from the London bubble. As is they are going to make a serious pigs ear of Brexit which is bad enough, but if foreign policy continues like this then all we will do is count our dead.

None of the above Brexit

We are a week from the Christmas shutdown and government is only just talking about a transitional deal. They have no idea what that looks like. They know only what they don't want. They are vacillating because none of the choices are good choices and none of them deliver on what most people understand Brexit to be.

This is what you get when you think you can get everything you want in a single bound. This is also what you get when you have a complete inability to prioritise. This is also what you get when government has given no thought as to what it wants to do post-Brexit. If they had given it that much thought they would know how to prioritise on what powers are most in demand. Instead, there is a total ideas vacuum. All they have to go on is naive and fraudulent dregs from within the bubble. It will fail at the first hurdle.

Worse still it is apparent that the government, along with the rest of Parliament, has yet to comprehend the scale of Brexit and is still struggling with basic terminology. That's not altogether surprising. The EU as it stands is the product of decades of technical policy innovations designed by specialists and waved through by politicians without any scrutiny. Why would they know what the EU is since they have never paid it any real attention?

What they are now about to discover is that much of what they have committed us to is not undone at the stroke of a pen. If May sets upon a "none of the above" strategy and she does trigger Article 50 next spring she will be going to Brussels empty handed. She will have started the clock on a mystery process, entirely under-equipped for the job to face an equally clueless opposition just as beset by dogma has her own lunatic fringe.

While there are undoubtedly some excellent specialists deep in the bowels of the civil service and the Commission, without any structure they will either end up shaping Brexit themselves or deliver a litany of political dilemmas our politicians have never considered.

By that time it should dawn on them that two years is an impossible window to develop a relationship from scratch. They'll have set a time bomb ticking and will be entirely out of their depth. Very rapidly we will be looking at an emergency summit to pause or delay the process. It will consume the government.

The only way I see this not happening is if the government realises between now and March just how hopelessly unprepared they are and delay Article 50. Since that would be political suicide for May it looks like we are headed for a total pigs ear of a Brexit. There is zero chance they can get from where they are presently to where they need to be. We can only hope there is such a thing as a Christmas miracle.

During the referendum I made the case that after an initial period of confusion the government would inevitably arrive at the obvious conclusion that single market membership is the only sane approach. We are in worse shape than I thought if that much has yet to make itself apparent. 

March of the free trade frauds


With public ignorance being what it is, it's very easy for garbage like this from Shanker Singham (Legatum Institute) to pass off as credible. Singham argues for a "prosperity zone" based on the fundamentals of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"What is most interesting about TPP is that the original vision was for a “high standards” agreement. What diluted this ambition was the later inclusion of countries such as the US, Japan, Canada and Vietnam, each of which insisted on their own exemptions and alterations, in particular regarding their agricultural sectors.

So what if Britain were to revive that original plan? What if, instead of making deals on a country-by-country basis, we were to lay the foundations for a new Prosperity Zone, bringing together countries around the world that believe in free trade and competition?

The lesson of the TPP is that the more countries are around the table, the harder a deal is to do. So the founding principle of the Prosperity Zone should be that it will not sacrifice quality for quantity. We should start with countries such as New Zealand, Singapore and Australia, who are all committed to free trade and have jettisoned agricultural protectionism (assuming in the UK’s case that it will have come out of the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy when it leaves the EU).
What we're looking at here is a sales pitch for the ears of Tory eurosceptics. Singham's Legatum Institute very much wants in on the Brexit gravy train. It's no coincidence he makes mention of New Zealand, Singapore and Australia. It gets the attention of the CANZUK dreamers while dropping in Singapore, which is believed by many on the Tory right as the model of capitalism and free trade. You don't have to spend much more than a few creative moments on Google to disabuse yourself of that notion.

This isn't about presenting ideas that will work. This is purely about ideas that will sell. Singham has the ear of Steve Baker MP who is one of a Toryboy claque closely associated with key Brexiteers. Baker is the gullible weakling in the chain they have lavished their attention on. He's their meal ticket.

Superficially a prosperity zone sounds appealing but Singham's own reasoning for the failure of the TPP is exactly the reason why the EU is a dysfunctional mess. The more you seek out strict commonality the harder it is to achieve anything. A contraction of that idea may well produce a small Efta like alliance, but what is it for, and what does it achieve?

Further to this one of the greater advantages of leaving the EU is specifically so that we can opt out of key measures if the balance of trade-offs works in our favour. Rather than contracting a flawed idea we need to loosen the system and widen participation. We then restore the balance between sovereignty and free trade.

More to the point though, the basis of any such alliance is regulatory harmonisation. Singham talks about market distortions and the likes which tells you he's of the trade economist school that simply does not recognise the significance and fundamental dominance of technical regulation in any such endeavour. Before you can start dreaming up new scenarios you have to look at how it relates to that which already exists.

For starters there is the WTO agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade which compels all members to adopt global technical rules. I can't tell you how bored I am of writing that sentence. These rules are now the foundation of the global trading system but also the basis on which most of the European single market now stands and definitely will in the future.

Before you can even begin to tinker with relations elsewhere you have to start on the basis that we have to resolve Brexit first - which is the process of designing a wholly new relationship - but one that necessarily will require a great deal of economic and technical integration simply because they are our nearest neighbours. We have the same regional concerns and face similar threats. Even if we do leave the single market there will be a common core of regulatory harmonisation which gives us very little scope to start dreaming up schemas for alliances on the opposite side of the planet.

Further to this, there is a typical British arrogance about this proposal in that it assumes we can just flounce out of a forty year long relationship, wrap it all up in no time and the rest of the world will drop their trousers accordingly. It takes no account of whether New Zealand, Singapore and Australia would want any such alliance while completely ignoring the fact that they each have their own regional agreements which further limit the scope of any proposal.

One such example is the ongoing dispute between China and Australia (also South Africa) on fluorine limits in coal, which have caused entire shipments to be quarantined by customs. Increasingly China is asserting its own regional regulatory dominance whereby exporters of ores and fossil fuels are following standards set by China - who is the biggest customer. China relies on its national standards for the quality checks rather than the widely used international ISO and ASTM standards.

Many of the major testing agencies in Australia and South Africa do not offer checks based on the Chinese standards, although tests for China's standards are available in Indonesia with costs already factored into prices. In addition, the longer shipping journey to China from Australia and South Africa will probably result in some coal quality degradation.

Here there is a clear need for a memorandum of understanding between these trading nations, agreeing to one standard and one inspection regime to facilitate trade. That in itself is no small undertaking. In itself it precludes Australia from entering any broader commitments with nations they presently trade little with - and are unlikely to for the foreseeable future. And that is just one sector picked at random.

This reduces the scope of any "prosperity zone" to tinkering with tariffs to offset imbalances and distortions which is very much the business of the WTO. That has stalled for good reasons. What we are seeing is the system maturing whereby the few remaining protectionist measures exist for entirely good reasons.

Straight of the bat we would not wish to compete with New Zealand in agriculture. Britain needs to develop a boutique approach to agriculture based on luxury food items rather than base food production. If we open up our markets entirely we will rapidly find that we have no agriculture sector at all. UK practices make competition impossible. We take a wholly different approach to agriculture which encompasses land management and habitats because we recognise the significance to our tourism.

Further to this, tariffs are at a historic low as I understand it and the imbalances, while significant, are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The greater gains can be had by switching focus to trade facilitation.

As the Global Enabling Trade Report 2016 points out, improving the efficiency of process and reducing the red tape around cross-border trade remains an easy win for international trade. While progress on multilateral trade talks looks dim and overall infrastructure investment lags, focusing on regulatory efficiency can help governments enable trade quickly, doing more with less.

According to UNCTAD and OECD estimates, the implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement costs between $4 to $20 million per country, while the impact on exports, and hence jobs, would be many times greater. The WTO estimates it could boost developing country exports by up to $730 billion per year - and global GDP by $1.3 trillion.

The obvious easy hits can be found in Africa. As much as that is more pertinent to European food security, it also addresses a very real world concern by removing the push factors that drive the migration crisis. That should be central to our trade and foreign policy, looking to unlock Africa's potential while easing our own immigration concerns. Singham's naive nonsense addresses no real world problems or strategic concerns.

It cannot be restated often enough but these flights of fancy from free traders are entirely spurious. Picking trade partners like a fantasy football team is simply refusing to engage in the political and economic realities while also neglecting the more immediate question of what our relationship with the EU looks like moving forward from Brexit.

Still, after all that has been written about the myriad of complexity in peeling away forty years of EU integration, there are still those who believe Brexit is merely a case of whipping up a free trade deal and going on our merry way. Such juvenile delusions have no currency in the real world. Only in the dark and corrupt corners of the Westminster bubble, where conformity is prized over knowledge, do charlatans like Singham find a welcoming ear. It speaks volumes about Westminster that they are so vulnerable to frauds on the make.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Don't appease Ukip. Keep freedom of movement.


I flip flop a bit on immigration. On the whole I think it better to have a system capable of tackling the more antisocial aspects of it than to set about ruinously expensive and bureaucratic border controls. I'd start with tackling overcrowding in houses of multiple occupation, prosecuting exploitative landlords who allow foreign temporary workers to undercut citizens. I'd then look at re-establishing effective noise pollution prosecutions and actually do something about people blasting out loud music. It's not just immigrants obviously but it is an overall good if they are not reputed to be noisy and antisocial.

Then there's the things that make residents uncomfortable. Work gangs using supermarket entrances as assembly points is one of the most visible symptoms that make people feel like we're being swamped with immigrants. A bit of intelligent council planning ought to fix that. Same for the human detritus cluttering up Marble Arch which gives the Daily Mail its periodic hate fodder.

On the whole though I do not think immigration concerns should dictate our course of action for Brexit. Ukippers represent only a quarter of leave voters and if you will pardon my frankness, Ukippers can go and fuck themselves. Farage set about winning the million or so BNP votes at the last general election and did so by conflating freedom of movement with open borders. It's a lie and it needs to be robustly challenged.

For the most part my experience of Polish people in the UK has been almost universally positive. There's even one I love dearly. And though it may be a cliché to say it but they do the jobs we don't want to do; computer programming, human resources and accountancy.

It;s all very well saying we should train up our own but business needs people now. Our nuclear industry is crying out for skilled nuclear engineers and the same can be said for aerospace and all the other areas where we are making major investments. In this, even casting the net Europe wide isn't enough. In this we need to be asking why universities are not supplying that demand.

More to the point, when you look at who Ukippers are complaining about it invariably tends to be Muslims. What possible use is closing down European freedom of movement? Refugees and economic migrants without an EU passport cannot get here let alone work here legitimately. We need to be closing down the human rights loopholes that allow south Asians to bring in their entire families. That is more akin with open borders than EU freedom of movement.

Further to this, if you did want to bring down immigration you have to do it with a number of surgical policy interventions rather than expecting it can be done with a silver bullet. The one thing we have done to deter EU immigration is immediately devaluing the pound by voting to leave. That will probably do more to stem the flow than any quota system.

Meanwhile, the "points based immigration" meme is just an empty nostrum. Nobody can add flesh to the bones because its just a talking point that politicians bandy about because they are otherwise out of ideas. The idea that the state has any notion of what people industry needs outside the main concerns is laughable. Such systems are rapidly out of date, unresponsive and end up excluding exactly the sort of people we want.

Even then Muslim immigration is not really that big a deal. The kippers spew their bilge about Muslim rape gangs but it looks like the Football Association isn't exactly kosher either. The short of it is the dirty old men in pyjamas are a dying breed here in the UK. Their offspring are almost entirely Westernised and because as a rule they're not swilling ale and taking party drugs they are wealthier - and it certainly shows in Bradford which is no longer the slum it once was.

Part of the reason Bradford had two consecutive lost decades was due to an exodus of talented people. London may be overcrowded but the rest of our cities can only get better with more people and if integration is your worry then we want more people from Eastern Europe. As to concerns about London overcrowding, fuck London. If you don't like it, don't live there. It's shit anyway and most Londoners are total wankers. I'd rather be swamped with Romanian trailer trash than Londoners.

As to Muslims, I can vent my spleen about Muslim ghettos with the best of them, and I don't deny they exist and something should be done - but that something definitely isn't ending European freedom of movement.

Furthermore, why would we want to close down such a good thing? Last year I was flown out to Amsterdam for a job interview. If I hadn't been the second best candidate, I would now be working overseas enjoying myself a lot more than I am now. This required no paperwork, no hassle and required no forms to be filled in. I see no compelling reason to change that.

And if we are talking about putting our own people into shit jobs out in the fields instead of paying them benefits, that is a total misreading of the unemployment statistics. As it happens there aren't that many people on the dole who necessarily could perform these tasks, not least by way of living in cities. The new Universal Credit system allows people a stay of execution so they can find jobs befitting their present skills which means they can find jobs that generate more tax revenue. It makes no sense to press people into jobs they don't want and can't keep.

If you want a good argument against freedom of movement it is that it facilitates people trafficking as it removes checks, but this can just as easily be tackled where it manifests - usually in prostitution. Just legalise it.

Personally I am thrilled to bits that we are leaving the EU. The EU is stupid idea and I look forward to its eventual demise. I just don't see the point of giving up on the one useful thing it has done for Europe. Yes, I want something done about immigration, but can it please be something intelligent? There are modifications we can make to freedom of movement to make it work better so we should try that first. I don't see why we should fuck ourselves over just to appease Ukip scum.