Bland Brexit: Yay

 

As some of you know, I was scheduled to be on LBC radio this morning talking about this week’s developments in the Brexit saga. I was axed in short order, but not before I had had to work out what I would say. Here is a summary of my thoughts now regarding the most likely path of the exit negotiations.

In short: we will be a lot like Switzerland or Norway, by a different route.

 

The transitional implications of the EU’s draft negotiating position, and the implications of David Davis’ statements on European migration, add up to very substantial migration between the EU and UK for the foreseeable future. This will not legally be “free movement” or part of the single market, but it will be substantial movement rights. For individual migrants this is not all that reassuring, since their rights to housing, healthcare, schooling et cetera may change, but the big picture is that very liberal migration will continue, including for low skilled industries.

 

We can also expect continued budget contributions way beyond 2020. These will not be as high as the budget contributions we pay now as a full member, but they will be in the billions.

I’m very happy that there’s been such goodwill on both sides over the question of the Irish border. The determination with which the Theresa May government says the common travel area will continue implies that there are no plans to impose a hard border in the island of Ireland. What this means is, probably, Northern Ireland will have a very strict regime for checking work eligibility, and landlords will be required to check people’s nationality, forcing the state and private individuals to act as a border force. This is an inelegant solution, but much preferable to putting guard posts, soldiers and sniffer dogs on the historically sensitive border.

The EU’s positions on a trade deal with Britain heavily suggest we will not be free to use state aid to support ailing industries that are uncompetitive, nor will we be able to jettison environmental standards, social standards or progressive taxation measures. There are also hints that consumer and safety standards will need to be upheld for us to have a free trade agreement with the EU. This is what many of us predicted: if we want a comprehensive free trade agreement with our closest trading partner, they will not allow us to undercut their high standards.

I am not sure yet what happens to fisheries, agriculture, banking. The last of these is probably a big question but I would be wary of too much doom mongering: recent news reports that banks and insurance brokers and moving their operations out of London are quite exaggerated.

To moderate Remainers and to mainstream levers, this should be very good news. It means the government will have to do keep a lot of the stuff about the EU that we liked, and will find hard to do anything too radical or right-wing if it doesn’t want to be seen to tank the economy. The position set out by Donald Tusk effectively takes the “WTO cliff” of the table. We can continue to be within the single market for an indefinite negotiating period, so long as we keep paying budget contributions and keep abiding by the four freedoms. The only way we would get the full horror of tariffs and customs breakdown, the WTO option, as if our government very deliberately walks away from the negotiating table. This is not impossible but I think it is no longer likely.

There is now debate over whether Britain can negotiate free trade agreements with other countries before the exit deal is agreed. This is a big red herring. Free trade agreements with countries that are far away, that do not have particularly large economies, or that already trade fairly freely with us on the EU’s terms, will not deliver great boosts in exports, imports, or favourable pricing. Not only do trade agreements take many years to negotiate, but once signed, are phased in very gradually which means that their impact on industries is usually minimal and difficult to detect. It would be nice to have comprehensive trade deals with other countries, but these should not be the focus of any discussions in the next few months.

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Out from a small cathedral

 

I have not blogged for a long time and I doubt anyone is to upset by this, but here I will try to put down thoughts about recent developments.

There is no great mystery as to why I have not written much recently. During the coalition government and even the early months of the Conservative government, I felt like writing could make some sort of a difference. Perhaps it would only cause 10 or 15 friends to think differently about a topic, or bring more evidence to attention of a couple of people on twitter, or encourage someone to research more themselves I see both sides of an issue. I was interested in writing for writing’s sake, I had strong feelings about the mistakes and missed opportunities I felt the coalition was making, so I was energised to write about these things.

Since the referendum, the elevation of Theresa May and finally the election of Donald Trump, I’ve become numb but not comfortable. The direction and momentum of politics and the dominant culture so clearly moving away from the incremental progress I would like to see that it feels like there is no point making small interventions in causes like feminism, social justice, censorship, or Internet freedom.

At the same time, I feel like I have much less useful to say about anything. I won’t bang on about how we have “had enough of experts” except to note with a muted but ever mounting dismay that a great many victorious levers still fail to appreciate the very real difficulties of Brexit, and still fail to prepare any kind of innovative tactics or even baseline sensible approach. There are honourable exceptions such as Roland Smith and Andrew Lillico on the Leave side, Ben Judah on the Remain side, who are at least thinking tactically about how we might enter Brexit negotiations and what we might want from them. Public discussion over these questions is not so much pathetic as non-existent. We have been blinded by debate over triggering article 50 which is, if not meaningless, then one of the most flagrant examples of seeing one tree rather than the forest that I have ever heard of.

Just as I don’t think there’s much point discussing the fall of experts, I’m dismayed by how much now is attributed to fake news or post truth politics. These are both meaningless terms. People have always lied on the Internet, politicians have always lied, and in any case there is a large amount of what is now called fake news which is in fact highly biased news: this has always existed, even in whichever democratic golden age you choose to dream of.

Comparisons to the rise of the Nazi party or of Mussolini or Franco are of little use here. Trump has not come to power through overt violence or an outright fascist message. It seems to me utterly pointless for academics to debate whether and to what extent Trump or his cabinet are fascist: we can all agree that he is awful and needs to be resisted, and we do not need a new label to enable this.

I used to worry about the little Eichmann theory. This is the idea that evil can triumph if ordinary people just slot into a bad machine and do as they are told, or excel at what tasks they have been set. I thought of the machine as late capitalism, the way it locks in exploitation of the developing world and enables wealthy societies to justify inequality, poverty, state-sponsored cruelty. I don’t really worry about this anymore. There are enough people who are beyond little Eihmanns, who are openly consciously pushing for changes I detest, that navelgazing and wondering whether buying a particular T-shirt or coffee is a bad choice is hopelessly self-indulgent. (One of the many contradictions within this post.)

I have been on three protests in the last month. I have absolutely no idea whether this is any use. If I try to consider historical periods I know best, I would say most protests are futile unless they have very clear goals and a distinct enemy who might heed them. I was encouraged to hear that Donald Trump was visibly upset by the size and multiplicity of protests the day after his inauguration, which highlighted women’s rights around the world. Is upsetting him a useful victory? I imagine the man is upset several times an hour.

Protesting for centrist, centre-left or progressive causes with an element of racial justice and harmony actually helps the man in his media manipulation efforts: the more we do it, the more he will be able to point the damning finger at us social justice warrior snowflakes, the elitist enemy within, and rally his own troops. Does that mean we should not protest? I have no idea. At the moment I will keep going because I cannot see what else useful to do, other than donate to charities that seek to fix the problems he is causing and to proper journalism to hold him to account.

Proper journalism. That brings me on to the echo chamber. Through having worked for a centre-right organisation and on a topic mainly supported by the centre-right, I am fortunate enough to follow a lot of people with whom I disagree on social media. I no longer read right-wing publications often, but I think I challenge myself a reasonable amount. I will happily recommend thoughtful right-wing writers if anyone is looking to expand their media consumption outside of their bubble, although I’m sure readers but very able to do this themselves.

For good anti-Trump writing, see:
Nick Cohen, Guardian

David Frum, Atlantic

Rom Rosenbaum, LA Review of Books

For Brexit read: Dominic Cummings, his blog

 

My final observation is simply this: my friends and I will be fine.

This was the tragedy of the 2015 election, of the referendum, of trump. For the educated middle-class white intelligentsia, everything bad that is happening is abstract. Right-wing media can and does use this point to make it look like our opposition is insincere or hypocritical. I reject this: if you’re willing to spend time and effort pushing for something that does not help your immediate interests or those of your social group, surely it is logical that you have actually thought about the issue and are demonstrating compassion and empathy?

A pessimistic reading would be that the right media attempts to shame the progressive middle class out of political action: we must not be ashamed. Of course people like me should follow the direction and example of issue-specific protesters like Black Lives Matter or March for Women so we do not undermine or model the message. But that does not mean we cannot support it.

The Brexit solution: Devo-Min

In the absence of anyone serious stepping up with a plan for UK exit, I have had an idea. It is an idea that satisfies the public’s stated referendum wish to leave the EU, but also acknowledges the political reality that the House of Commons is supreme, and the House of Commons wants continued close cooperation with Brussels. Since Vote Leave made a great show of the importance of Parliament deciding Britain’s future, it is hard to see how they would reject this. After all, Vote Leave repeatedly held up its hands and said that they were not the government, and would not be in charge of crafting a post Brexit future. They said they did not need and still have not offered one. Continue reading

Globalisation, the EU and British jobs

We’ve heard a lot in the EU debate about how European immigration pushes British people out of good jobs in Britain, and how competition with European workers on the ground pushes down British wages. I disagree with this analysis here, but inasmuch as it is true in specific circumstances, it is a general symptom of the globalisation triangle.

Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Ukip are very critical of migration for the reasons above, but tend to be confused when it comes to the other points of the triangle. They promise bigger, faster free trade deals with the world’s developing economies, while keeping free trade with the rest of the EU and retaining London’s position of dominance as a global financial centre. This goes against the idea of protecting British jobs.

In simple terms, as far as free-trade logic goes, British jobs are equally at risk from :
1) competition from immigrants,
2) competition from workers abroad freely trading with Britain, and
3) the free movement of capital allowing British firms to offshore their operations. Continue reading

Free Movement as Lifeline – an unpopular remain argument

This is not a popular argument, even among Remainers. It rests on my belief that migration, especially European migration, is good for both the donor and the host countries. Cynics will read this blog as an argument that we should stay in the EU so poor Europeans can come to Britain. That is not what I’m arguing. I am arguing that the ability to move abroad and work or study is important for Britons, particularly those with low skills or education.

Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain have been having a terrible time since 2007, and few in the EU debate would deny the euro currency had a major role. Youth unemployment soared in these ‘PIGS’ nations, peaking at 55.5% in Spain and 58.3% in Greece. In Ireland it was 33%, while Britain weathered the recession relatively well at 21%.

Tens of thousands of young PIGS citizens sought work abroad: in America, Australia, Germany, Holland and Britain. The first two of these have tight restrictions on unskilled migration. But under free movement that rules, the EU member states were open to young workers from the afflicted countries, whether they were lucky enough to have master’s degrees in engineering, experience in construction, or just gumption and a willingness to serve coffee.

At least 400,000 Western Europeans left their recession-torn home states to work abroad in the last decade, some for just a few months, others longer. It is much cheaper and easier to move to a country an hour or two away than to Canada stop Imagine how much worse Spain or Greece’s unemployment figures would have looked, had only skilled & wealthy emigrants been accepted in neighbouring states. If the least educated, least experienced young people had been forced to stay home, youth unemployment figures could easily have exceeded 70%, with the attendant extra strain on those countries’ buckling welfare systems, national psyche, even civil stability. Movements like Golden Dawn thrive in such conditions.

For those fleeing Mediterranean depression, free movement was a lifeline. Rather than spend long years living with parents, dependant on welfare, competing with all their old classmates for each rock-bottom job, they could go to Denmark or Sweden, get jobs, build up their language skills, make contacts, and return home more experienced people when the worst was over. Long-term unemployment affects workers’ earnings decades in the future.[1] The ability to find a job, even a job you’d rather not do, in a stable neighbouring country, is key.

Vote Leave say they would introduce an Australian-style migration system for EU migrants that let in only those with high skills.  The Spanish and Dutch prime ministers, Mariano Rajoy and Mark Rutte, have already said that if the UK adopts a points-based regime against EU citizens, Holland and Spain will have to do the same for Brits. This is implicitly all of Western Europe’s stance: Chancellor Merkel of Germany noted that countries outside the EU ‘will never get a really good result in negotiations’ with the bloc.

After Brexit this would not hurt elites like Boris Johnson, or those close to him. If Britain suffers a downturn, the best-educated and wealthiest Britons will always be able to travel. They will pass the hurdles to get visa for Australia, Canada, America – and they will be able to compete best for jobs at home. This is equally true of myself and many leading Remainers: thanks to globalisation, the world’s elite is already privileged with de facto free movement.

However, ending free movement cuts out the safety valve for mid-low skilled young Britons who cannot pass such skills demands.

That is fine while the economy is stable, but in a recession, it could be appalling. The elite would be least affected, while those not in employment, education or training (‘NEETs’) would suffer most. They cannot all go to Ireland. A recent Economist article suggests that British NEETS have the grimmest prospects and worst educational achievement among developed nations, with the lowest numeracy and literacy rates. Uniquely, British youths ‘have worse literacy and numeracy rates than those aged between 30 and 54, a pattern not seen in any other country in the European Union.’ Without the free movement option, British NEETS would be effectively trapped in Britain if it suffered a recession. (This piece is not predicting a recession, either as a result of Brexit or from other later factors, but it is an important possibility to consider. )

Low and medium skilled Britons would find their options constrained if Vote Leave and Europe’s leaders keep their word after a Brexit. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet would not be an option. School leavers and graduates could be trapped in a jobless mire. Brexit supporters often note that after exit, visa-free travel could be negotiated and university-swapping schemes like Erasmus continued: that’s all very well for wealthy teens inter-railing or taking a year at the Sorbonne, but leavers the less fortunate no better off.

It is callous of Leave leaders, who claim to fight for the working people of the country, not to consider the most vulnerable young Britons’ life chances in their campaign. It is extraordinary to propose a border policy that arouses hostility in our closest neighbours.

[1] Even graduating into a recession has a marked impact on wages for 5-10 years, as examined by the NBER: http://www.nber.org/digest/nov06/w12159.html

How bad would the EU have to be for me to advocate Brexit?

 

Many supporters of Leave have challenged me to explain in what situations I would advocate exit. This is a good question: someone who was truly an EU fanatic would presumably see no situations in which leaving was best for Britain. I see plenty of situations in which leaving would be best for Britain, the differences that I firmly predict they will not arise any time soon. If they do arise I will be comfortable campaigning for a new referendum and vote to Leave.
(If I did so I would also push for the out campaign to have a much more comprehensive explanation of how they would safeguard the economy from Brexit fallout, but that is another story.)

The first threat, beloved of Eurosceptics, is Britain being forced into the euro currency. Even before David Cameron’s renegotiation this spring, this was impossible. There is no way the EU could force a new currency on Britain, either in terms of diplomatic pressure or EU law. We already had an opt out. From the British perspective, euro currency has been such a disaster that is impossible to see even a very pro-EU Labour government supporting joining in the next 15 years.

The second threat is an EU army being built with mandatory inclusion of British forces, without the express consent of the British government. A combined fear is that this force would be used in interventions without the British wielding a veto. Both of these futures are completely preposterous. Were an EU army ever to exist, it would rely almost entirely on French and British military assets, and they would always be able to stop action taking place. As it is, Britain has a veto on the creation of such an army or force, and is unlikely to approve of its creation any time soon. Recent policy has been to pursue bilateral cooperation with France, as seen in Libya.

A new treaty that saw centralising powers for the euro currency area and a reduction in the veto powers of individual member states would be worrying, and I would hope to look over it in a lot of detail. I like to think that the greater attention we have been paying to EU thanks to this referendum means that we would also scrutinise future treaties properly. A new treaty in itself would not be reason to Leave the EU, especially since we would have a referendum on accepting that treaty (see below). However, if the treaty was in some way forced on Britain (something I cannot imagine happening) then that probably would be grounds to Leave.

The EU accepting Turkish membership over a British veto, or ignoring the British veto in other important matters such as taxation, external trade policy, or changes to migration law, would be grounds for divorce. This would be the case even if I approve of the changes themselves. My hypothetical  scenario is simply that if the EU overrode what was clearly a veto in the Lisbon Treaty, then the system would be broken beyond acceptable limits. Note: this is not what happened in Greece, Portugal or Ireland. Those states were forced to accept troika rules in return for bailouts, i.e. they were creditor requirements, they were not strictly speaking requirements of the EU treaties. (Of course, this does not mean I remotely approved of the handling of the euro crisis.)

Voters who fear that any of the above could happen with the expressed okay of the British government undermine their own arguments. Because Britain can, and probably would, veto any of those developments, it stands to reason that if it approved them, that approval would be an expression of British sovereignty. It would be just the same as, after Brexit, a British government choosing to grant free movement to the people of Turkey unilaterally, or to join an EU army from the outside, or to join the euro from the outside.

Of course, all these things are unlikely in the near term. Inasmuch as they are likely, I am comforted by the referendum lock in UK law, which means that Britain would have another referendum on any of these issues. We would have a vote on the creation of an EU army. We would have a vote on joining the euro. We would have a vote on any new treaty.

I’m amazed the Remain campaign hasn’t made more of this referendum lock, which means that any transfer of powers to Brussels in the future must be a plebiscite decision. This effectively means that the threat of “ever closer union” is blunted, since Britain cannot be pushed into deeper integration without public approval.

As a woolly sort of lefty, I suppose I would also be concerned that the EU would constrain the ability of the left-wing government to fulfil its program. This has often been overstated: the EU does not stop states nationalising industries, and there are ways to give struggling industries stated or procurement support that Britain simply does not explore. (I’m not sure I would want them to but the point is that the EU does not stop them.) I suppose another situation in which I would advocate Brexit, then, is one in which the EU constrains a radical social democratic or socialist agenda. This is quite hard to imagine really, since Britain is quite far to the right of most Scandinavian and many continental or Eastern European states. In a scenario in which the EU and left this platform clearly did clash, then I suspect another referendum would be very likely and may well pass since the government of the day would be supporting it: and would have a clear agenda (and possibly a manifesto mandate) for doing so. This would avoid many of the pitfalls centre and left wing commentators have identified in the Vote Leave campaign.

I oppose the mantra that this vote is necessarily once in a generation. If you believe in accountable parliamentary sovereignty and the strengths of the Westminster system, as many in Vote Leave do, then you should be confident that if the EU gets really bad, bad enough for me and other active Remain campaigners to consider leaving, the British government will be forced to offer a new referendum. If it does not, it may face a vote of no confidence or be voted out at the next general election.

Contrary to the claims of Leave supporters, the EU is not a prison or empire. Nations do not tend to join empires by their own governments’ initiative. Nations do not tend to choose to remain in empires by the ballot. There are very few prisons which include in the Prison Rules a clear article explaining how a prisoner can vote himself out of the prison. This is precisely what the Lisbon Treaty does in Article 50.

The mere fact that the EU has a mechanism for countries leaving it without recourse to arms shows it is far less evil than its critics would claim. Its critics see it as a prison mainly because of the last 40 years the British people have supported governments which themselves support membership. We are not prisoners because we never saw it as a prison.

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WIP

So I’m writing a book about cloning, normalisation of the sex industry, and financial crisis. Also about identity, relationships, mental health and happiness, effective business regulation, gender relations, the decline of aristocracy, and calligraphy.

Drop me a line about any of these, or if you would be interested in critiquing a draft in return for pints or actual cash money.

A Song of Earth and Air: EU elections primer

Through the medium of Game of Thrones

“I’m so excited about the European elections!” shouted nobody ever.

MEPs in Brussels seem like a distant, complex, and possibly futile thing for anyone under thirty to worry about. The prospect of actually voting for them is needlessly confusing, and very hard to get enthusiastic about.

Luckily Game of Thrones is here, and it’s great. The cool kids love it. Without further ado, and in no coherent order, here is an EU primer with a heavy sprinkling of G.R.R.Martin.

***Spoiler Warning: content up to s4e5 of the TV show or ‘A Storm of Swords’ of the books *** Continue reading

My Son would Never Rape a Woman

Epiphany in the Cacophony

sad-alone-cute-girl-waiting-someone-window My son would never rape a woman. It is brutal, disgusting and immoral. He simply isn’t capable of such a thing. She has obviously enticed him. __________________________________________________________

She was at the club when it happened. Short black dress, tall black drink. She stood in the middle of the dance floor, moved her hips slowly. She made eye contact with him. She even smiled. He walked up to her and asked her to meet him at his car. When she declined, he grabbed her arm.
And what a scene she created! She fought, screamed and kicked. You want this, he told her as he pulled her out of the club. NO, she screamed, yelling as he dragged her to his car. You don’t know what you want, you’re drunk.

She sat alone in the parking lot a few hours later. Disgusting girl, she reeked of smoke and alcohol. What…

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