Writing

The social media political rants

Some political thoughts I’ve posted on Facebook in the last few years, collected for the convenience of those who’ve found them interesting. You can scroll through the lot, or jump to a few of the more substantial posts:

15 November 2018 - Interesting Times

30 June 2016 - A letter to an MP

25 June 2016 - It’ll never happen

16 June 2016 - Pre Brexit Referendum

14 September 2014 - Scotland

8 September 2019

I haven’t felt compelled to post about Brexit during the recent political Sturm und Drang, because it seems to me that nothing at all surprising has happened. But it's Sunday night and I'm awake... Perhaps I’ll just try to counter a little of the more hysterical commentary on all sides.

First, there has been no ‘coup’ or destruction of democracy. The new PM has a perfectly valid mandate, despite everything he said against Gordon Brown when it suited him. The prorogation, unaccompanied by a reduction of the party conference recess, is disappointing and shameless, but it’s not illegal or a breach of the constitution, and it won’t stop Parliament acting to stop the nonsense if it has the guts to do so – and signs are that it does. The bill aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit is not a coup either, it’s an encouragingly well-written piece of legislation, and a perfectly proper assertion of control by a sovereign Parliament. Both sides are running bleating to the courts, on what are essentially political rather than legal issues, but no one is breaking the law, no one will be allowed to, and the courts are quite capable of telling them to buzz off. The UK’s institutions are in good health and are doing their job.

Second, Boris Johnson is not an extreme right-winger or a fascist. On almost all questions of policy, he’s consistently been a liberal conservative: pro-immigration, pro-business, socially liberal, etc. He’s also, obviously, fundamentally unprincipled, self-serving and opportunistic. I don’t believe he cares in the slightest whether the UK is in the EU or not; what he wants is to enjoy being prime minister, and for that he needs a five-year term and a majority. He’s decided that his best chance of gaining those is to deliver Brexit come hell or high water, which is almost certainly a misjudgement, and certainly ignores what a miserable term he’d serve if that Brexit were of the no-deal flavour. Happily, he has very little chance of delivering any kind of Brexit, because there’s still no majority in the Commons for the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands, and the Commons is still quite rightly dead set against a no-deal Brexit. It’s a Catch-22: he can’t deliver Brexit without a majority, and he can’t get a majority (and thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, may even struggle to trigger an election) without delivering Brexit.

Third, that bill is not a “surrender bill”, because the government’s stated position (of using the threat of a no-deal Brexit to negotiate an improved deal) is largely a sham. It’s not a completely empty threat because of the effects of a no-deal Brexit on Ireland – the EU27 might perhaps offer enough tweaks to allow the PM to have a crack at dressing it up as a new deal and putting it to a vote (some kind of limit to the backstop in return for a longer implementation period, say), but ultimately a no-deal Brexit would hurt the UK far worse than the EU27, and, as Ivan Rogers described very clearly in his timely Spectator article, it would not provide anything like the “clean break” some Brexiteers talk about. As many close observers have pointed out, including today the departing Amber Rudd, it looks clear that the government isn’t putting much effort into trying to negotiate a better deal anyway, so presumably Boris really is going for a no-deal exit or bust. No wonder even his brother couldn’t stick by him.

Fourth, Dominic Cummings is not some evil genius. He’s a capable and ruthless campaigner who shows every sign of being out of his depth at Number 10. New PMs often first think powerful SpAds are the key to a strong centre; it takes them a while to find out that the real key is harnessing the top of the civil service, whose political acumen ministers routinely underestimate. Good SpAds are essential and valuable and often delightful people, but they can’t possibly have the depth of expertise of teams and networks of officials, and nor can they possibly compete with the collective ability to make things happen of thousands of people who’ve pushed measures good and bad through parliaments friendly and hostile. When ministers and SpAds work in harmony with the permanent civil service, they can move mountains – and the machinery of government can be agile, radical and fast. Tony Blair and David Cameron have both attested to this since leaving office. Harmony may come if Boris sticks around long enough, but there’s no sign of it yet.

Fifth, withdrawing the whip from long-serving and distinguished Tory MPs like Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames isn’t the end of civilization, it’s a normal way for a PM to assert authority when under attack – if people won’t follow the whip then why on earth should they retain it? Theresa May must frequently have considered doing the same. The problem, of course, is that when you have a tiny majority, or none, then you pay a high price for the sanction because you reduce your numbers still further. Doing nothing looks weak; doing something looks strong but weakens you. It’s an act of desperation by someone who is willing to try some bully-boy tactics. It won’t get him anywhere.

What happens next?

If Parliament prevents a no-deal Brexit and wins a further delay to Article 50, then we should get a general election. Boris may storm off the stage humiliated, in which case I hope the Tory party will revert to more sensible leadership. At the moment it’s the mirror image of Labour, with the majority of moderates sidelined and an extreme clique in charge.

If on the other hand Boris accepts the blocking of no-deal with reasonably good grace and sticks around to fight the election, he’d probably win it, though god knows Johnson vs Corbyn is a spectacularly dismal choice. He could then tack back to the centre. His best bet would in fact be to revoke A50 and say we’re rebooting the whole Brexit process, on the grounds that no deal was better than a bad deal and “I was blocked on no deal”. Quite a U-turn from where he is now, certainly, but then he’d get to be PM with a rapidly recovering economy, and he might be able to make some kind of fist of his “new golden age” – and in practice I doubt he’d revisit the Brexit question in much of a hurry.

Alternatively, Parliament could fail to stop a no-deal Brexit, which would be a disgraceful failure. Boris might even get his election victory, then get to repent at leisure as the economy takes a nosedive.

What if Labour wins the election after an A50 extension? As long as Corbyn and McDonnell are at the helm, it would be worrying economically, though I retain some faith in the civil service’s ability to contain the damage. The sensible majority of Labour MPs will have to fight hard to assert themselves to ensure he holds a second referendum.

Could there be a different election outcome? A new coalition or a government of national unity is certainly appealing, but hopes for that seem overblown to me – yes we’ve had a couple of hung parliaments recently, but as long as we have the first-past-the-post system they’re likely to remain the exception rather than the rule. If the crazy cliques persist at the top of the two major parties then they could both split and a new centre could emerge (whether around the LibDems or not), but it’s a very long shot, as Anna Soubry and co can testify.

Regardless of the party politics, my personal preference for a way out of the Brexit mess (though sadly I still see no real prospect of it) remains for Parliament to take responsibility for the situation, and insist on revoking A50 itself. To this point the Commons collectively has behaved like someone who wants out of a relationship but through cowardice ducks the confrontation and instead just waits while the situation deteriorates further and further until the plug is pulled for them. They should say: “We respected the 2016 result, we triggered A50 and tried our best to deliver Brexit. But we can’t in all conscience sanction the deal on offer, which is highly damaging, or a no-deal Brexit, which is far worse. And the current limbo is more and more damaging too. We’re sorry, and we know many of us will lose our seats in the face of understandable public anger, but we have to do what is in the national interest.”

A new PM with a decent majority might get the Withdrawal Agreement, or a variant of it, through the Commons where May thrice failed. Or a Norway/EFTA compromise. Fair enough if so. But more likely is a second referendum. I’ve never liked this option. It would surely be ugly, and despite the demographic changes since 2016 and the overwhelming evidence that Brexit is no picnic, I still don’t think we can be confident that it would go to remain this time round. It would be even worse-tempered – but for anyone who has been paying any kind of attention, it would surely be better informed.

As I keep saying, this almost certainly still has many years to run. I have to admit I’m starting to enjoy the ride less.


1 September 2019

Sunday Telegraph headline today: BREXIT ENDGAME. I think at least a decade premature.


28 August 2019

George Canning was the UK's shortest serving prime minister - 4 months. Boris deserves to beat the record, and might do it.


12 June 2019

Of the ten candidates for the Tory leadership, only one (Rory Stewart) is telling the truth about Brexit, and he is very unlikely to get close to the final two. Of course, none of the ten promises to follow my preferred path and abandon the whole enterprise by revoking Article 50 (more on that later); the eleventh candidate, Sam Gyimah, was promising a second referendum (which I like much less), and even that was enough for him to have no chance of making the cut. The other nine are all to varying extents either deluded or flat-out lying about the biggest issue of the day. One of the worst of them is the front-runner (Boris), who is, consistent with his career to date, peddling a complete fantasy. Meanwhile Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is polling very high, with barely any declared policies.

Daniel Hannan has argued that people misuse the word “populism” as an insult when they simply disagree with their opponents’ policies and those policies happen be popular. He suggests the phenomenon is better described as democracy. It’s not a bad argument, but it’s disingenuous. One definition of populism is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups” – and that’s an excellent thing as long as the appeal to the people is honest and principled and based in evidence and reality. Established elite groups can indeed grow blinkered and out of touch, or succumb to group-think, or become self-serving and corrupt. At other times, however, they’ve reached their position through a reasonably fair and meritocratic process and are attempting, successfully or otherwise, to serve the interests of those ordinary people. I think when I call people like Boris and Farage populists I mean something more like “politicians who take unprincipled or unevidenced positions, often including conspiracy theories, in order to attract votes”.

President Trump is an archetypal populist (by both definitions). Since his election in 2016 some of the posts I’ve most appreciated on Facebook are by the small number of Trump-supporting friends I have on here. It’s brave of them to defend their choice against some often offensive criticism. I’m not going to defend the president, who I think is an appalling man and a dreadful choice for the Oval Office – my biggest problem with him is on his climate denial: that’s not just a policy I happen to disagree with, it’s a position based on a dangerous lie. However, some of the criticism of him in the UK is born of exactly the same anti-Americanism and snobbery that I remember President Reagan and both Presidents Bush getting, and I have no time for it. It should also go without saying (and I’m not sure it does any more) that we should all defend each other’s right to hold whatever political opinions we like (short of anything as extreme as, say, totalitarianism), no matter how much we disagree with those opinions. It has helped me to be reminded that many people voted for him simply because the policies of his party better reflect their views than those of the opposing party. I may think he’s crazy, but that’s just my opinion, and it doesn’t for a moment mean I think all his voters are crazy. Also I’m not an American citizen, so while I’m free to have and express views about elected officials in the States, fundamentally it’s not really my business.

It is perhaps my business how the UK Government deals with President Trump. I see no reason why he shouldn’t be welcomed to talks here and treated with the deference due to any American president. I’d marginally have preferred to see the extra cachet of a state visit being withheld – most presidents haven’t been offered one, and if it’s considered an honour for the best of them then he seems a poor choice – but as head of state as well as head of government there’s no strong reason why any US president should not have one, and I don’t think such questions of diplomatic protocol are very important (while he clearly does). Once the opposition leaders had refused to attend and the speaker of the House had refused to offer him an address there, it seems me to the overall national welcome was reasonably well calibrated. And, of course, the prospect of needing a post-Brexit trade deal means we’re hardly in a position to hold any moral high ground.

Back to Brexit. I still think the only sensible answer is for Parliament to assert its sovereignty, take responsibility, acknowledge that Brexit is undeliverable in any form that it finds acceptable, and revoke Article 50. MPs would need to take on the personal risk of losing their seats in what would no doubt be a very ugly backlash – and yes, it would do immense damage to trust in politics. It’s still less bad, in my opinion, than a no-deal Brexit, which is the only other realistic outcome after yet more stalemate. I don’t see that a further public vote (a second referendum or a general election) will change anything.

Some commentators (Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday and Matthew Parris in the Spectator) have suggested that Boris may himself decide to revoke, and that only he could get away with it – funnily enough that’s the theory I put forward immediately after the referendum in 2016. It would be harder for him to pull off now, and I think he’s much more likely to take us over the no-deal cliff. It is, perhaps, the one thing he could do to reverse my view that he is the wrong person to be prime minister. He has shown consistently that he doesn’t have the appetite or aptitude for any kind of challenging policy work, or for putting the national interest ahead of his own. He’s a talented and entertaining writer, but he never had the integrity to be a serious journalist, let alone a senior politician. He does, perhaps, have a kind of feral, Trumpian instinct for the mood of the disenfranchised parts of the population – but I don’t see that ending happily on either side of the Atlantic.


27 May 2019

So far, based on the share of votes reported by the BBC, if you combine Brexit Party, Conservative and UKIP votes on the leave side, and combine LibDem, Green, SNP, Change UK and Plaid Cymru votes on the remain side, and split Labour votes equally between the two sides, I make it 51.8% leave vs 48.2% remain.


22 May 2019

Hard to see much positive in tomorrow’s European Parliament elections in the UK. Parties that stand to lose from its being seen as a proxy Brexit referendum mark two (Tories, Labour, Green) are repeating that it isn’t one, but I think it will inevitably and reasonably be seen as one by voters and media alike. I voted (by post, a couple of weeks ago) Lib Dem on that basis, without much enthusiasm.

If the new Brexit Party runs away with it, as the polls predict, then it will kill off the wishful thinking on the remain side (and in Brussels) that a second referendum would reverse the result of the first. The last three years have shown very clearly the downsides of Brexit, and that it is likely to deliver more or less the polar opposite of what the Leave campaign promised – and the people still want it.

But there is still no majority in the Commons for Brexit of any kind, nor the courage to overrule the people and cancel the project altogether; in an interminable series of votes MPs have managed to agree only that a no-deal Brexit is unacceptable – and they’ve passed legislation which makes that the default outcome.

So, when the Tory party finally brings Theresa May’s spectacularly cack-handed premiership to an end, and, staring electoral annihilation in the face, replaces her with someone even worse (Boris Johnson), he will have to choose between battening down the hatches to sit tight till a no-deal Brexit in October, and (perhaps after another delay to Article 50) calling a general election to try to win back the majority that May idiotically threw away in 2017. Given the state of the polls, and the likelihood of Brussels letting a new PM negotiate something better (even in Johnson’s own delusional terms), I imagine he’ll go with the former.

So over the cliff we’ll go, with a dishonest, irresponsible, populist monomaniac at the helm, and Parliament will be able to congratulate itself on having brought about the one thing it has agreed must not happen.

Marvellous.

Still worth voting.


3 May 2019

Not sure how the PM can say with a straight face that big losses in local elections by the pro-Brexit parties (Tories, UKIP and Labour) and big gains by the anti-Brexit parties (LibDem and Green) shows that people just want the two biggest parties to get on with delivering Brexit.

But local elections aren't widely seen as a proxy second referendum, and the European elections in 10 days are, and I'm afraid they're going to tell a very different story.


27 March 2019

Brexit remains enormously entertaining, at least to me. Today’s thoughts in brief, or as brief as I can:

- Much excited commentary about Parliament ‘taking control’ via the Letwin amendment being some kind of coup d’état. It seems no big deal to me – the government manages parliamentary business only by consent of the House in any case, and the government had already conceded the need to allow indicative votes.

- When you give people responsibility, they start acting responsibly – at least, that’s the theory. It’s taken this anomalous moment, with a hung parliament being held accountable for the decisions it’s already made on a matter of real historic importance and being required to indicate a way forward, to bring them to their senses on at least one front: temporarily replacing the absurd rigmarole of voting by division (widely derided for centuries) by voting on paper on several questions at once: a dramatic leap forward into, oh, the 17th century or something. I suspect it’s too much to hope that the innovation will endure beyond this crisis.

- No surprise, and no disaster, that none of the options reached a majority – but interesting that customs union and second referendum got so close (264-272 and 268-295 respectively). That will surely sharpen Brexiteer minds: a softer Brexit or no Brexit looks likelier than a no-deal Brexit (160-400).

- The ERG has in any case finally understood that the government’s deal is the hardest Brexit they’re likely to get. If it turns out to be too late, and they have already ‘lost Brexit’ (as Andrew Neil told JRM after the second “meaningful” vote), it serves them right.

- They’ve also managed to get the PM to commit to resigning if her deal gets through. She’s clean out of political capital, so even if it doesn’t get through it’s hard to imagine her sticking around beyond the summer. I’m surprised she’s lasted this long actually – I thought the second “meaningful” vote was curtains for her.

- Can the government get its deal through this week? A bit of fancy footwork needed to avoid asking the same question again; ERG largely onside as above; DUP still offside (no surprise: hard to think of a group of people who’ve more consistently demonstrated over decades that they’ll cut off their nose to spite their face). It's not quite enough, unless a reasonable number of Labour MPs defect or abstain. But that must be tempting: they get to see the downfall of a second Tory leader, without having to risk their seats at a general election (yet).

- If the deal doesn’t finally pass, however, then in round 2 on the options on Monday, I think a second referendum has the best shot, simply because it’s a logical response to parliamentary deadlock.

- I still wish Parliament had the guts just to revoke A50 for now and promise to revisit the whole question in due course. Sadly that’s clearly not going to happen – they had the chance tonight, and voted it down 293-184 (more support than no-deal, at least).

- The government could add a ‘confirmatory’ second referendum to its deal – many Tories incl. ERG would baulk at that I assume, but enough Labour MPs might get on board to ensure passage. Too bold a tactic, I suspect, and there’s not much time to cobble together cross-party support.

- The march on Saturday, effectively pro-remain, had a very big turnout (though it seems probably not the million that was claimed), and was peaceful, whereas civil unrest and riots by leavers (a minority element among them, of course) are widely expected if a second referendum is called, and certainly if remain wins it (which I’m not confident it will). The government seems to take the latter threat seriously but be happy to ignore the hundreds of thousands of responsible protesters. It should be the other way round.


21 March 2019

Today I happened to have a meeting at the Burlington hotel in Birmingham. This was once the Midland hotel, where Enoch Powell made his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, saying in effect that mass immigration was not acceptable to the British public and would end in disaster. (He put it in terms that were seen as stoking racial hatred, and his front-bench political career was, rightly, terminated as a result.) Some still see the leave vote in the 2016 referendum as a spasm of nationalism, nativism and xenophobia, stoked by irresponsible populists – as Powell’s prediction coming true. In the current climate where people far too easily malign the motives of others who happen to disagree with them politically, it’s worth repeating that polling has consistently shown leave voters citing many factors as far more important to them than immigration, and that while clearly there was a small and noisy minority of leave voters who voted on xenophobic grounds, all signs are that Farage put off more leave voters than he attracted. Polling also shows that attitudes to immigration in the UK were reasonably positive in 2016 (and have become more so since).

That’s not to say that the official leave campaign was honest, or that the leave vote was wise. In an interconnected world the UK’s sovereignty will in many ways be weaker rather than stronger outside the EU; people rightly judged that globalization has left them behind economically, but leaving the EU won’t help that, whereas reforming the economy could (in ways perhaps easier inside the EU than outside it).

The media got bizarrely excited about the speaker’s intervention on Monday, suggesting he’d trawled up some obscure parliamentary convention from centuries ago in a shameless attempt to prevent Brexit. No: the convention that you can’t ask the Commons the same question twice in the same session may be longstanding, but it’s perfectly current. Normally the speaker would just tell a clerk to have a quiet word with the whips’ office to remind them that they can’t have a rerun with nothing changed – and he could have done that straight after the second “meaningful” vote. That Bercow instead waited till Monday and then made a headline-grabbing statement himself only shows that he’s a vain, publicity-seeking prat, which we already know. It doesn’t mean there was anything wrong or even surprising in his ruling, or that the government won’t find a way to hold the vote anyway.

Now the EU has agreed a short extension if the deal is agreed and a shorter one if not. The threat of a no-deal Brexit has not gone; senior politicians are pushing for a second referendum; a petition urging the government to revoke Article 50 (i.e. to cancel Brexit, which the UK can do unilaterally) looks like gaining a couple of million signatures before long.

You may be familiar with the sunk-cost fallacy, which is where we make a bad decision to continue on our course because we’ve already invested time and effort (and perhaps money) in it. You’re building a house, the foundations turn out to be on unstable ground, but you’ve finished the walls now so you feel compelled to add the roof. Or: you’ve been playing the slot machine for so long you can’t believe a win isn’t about to come your way, even though in truth the odds are as bad as they’ve been all along. You’re putting good money after bad, and the rational thing to do at any point is to stop, but the longer you’ve been going, the harder it is to do.

If parliament simply wanted to do the best thing by the UK economy, it should absolutely instruct the government to revoke A50. Remaining is still the best option economically, even though it’s psychologically much harder now that we’ve come this far, with much economic damage already done. Of course, it would have been better to refuse to trigger A50 in the first place. That would have been a brave and difficult decision, would have meant admitting that the referendum campaign was premature and misleading, bracing for public unrest, launching a major campaign to inform the public about the EU and about the economy more widely, undertaking a programme of reform that would fundamentally rebalance the economy to tackle some of the legitimate concerns behind the leave vote – and even then hundreds of MPs would no doubt have lost their seats. In short, it would have required real political leadership then, and would require even more now – and while there are some good MPs in all political parties at Westminster, real political leadership is dismally lacking at the top of every single one at the moment.

It’s more than a purely economic decision anyway, so I think it’s reasonable that parliament will only sanction revocation of A50 if the people explicitly permit that. A petition could absolutely never provide that permission, although if the signatures count rises really high (into eight figures) it would send a very helpful signal. I’ve signed the thing.

The case for a second referendum, on the other hand, has been reasonably strong since the Chequers agreement pinned down the kind of Brexit on offer, on the grounds that this was substantial new information that might have affected the decisions of all voters in 2016. Crudely, the deal on offer is a ‘softer’ Brexit than remain voters feared (so they might now vote leave), and than leave voters had been sold (so they might now vote remain). The case is now strengthened by what so far has been parliamentary deadlock. Personally I would favour a second referendum if the polls had shifted decisively against Brexit – to 70-30, say. But they haven’t yet – remain does now look more popular than leave, but only by a small margin, and I certainly wouldn’t like to predict which way a second vote would go. Polls have a large margin of error, and the polls are unlikely to reflect the fact that some remain voters, even if more convinced than ever that the UK would be better off staying in the EU, may feel that the question has already been asked and answered and might therefore vote leave this time or abstain. We may end up with a second vote, and it will be gruesomely fascinating if so. Certainly no one should take any notice of the bleating about a second referendum being somehow undemocratic.

Should MPs back the PM’s deal at the third time of asking, and get the thing done? My view is that they’re duty-bound to do so. It was Parliament that voted to delegate the yes/no decision to the people; it was Parliament that voted to accept the people’s decision (despite disagreeing with it); it was Parliament that triggered Article 50, effectively instructing the government to go and negotiate the best deal it could. Any or all of those decisions may have been unwise, but when the government then returned with that deal, Parliament should have had the good grace to ratify it. It didn’t, and sought further concessions, and the government has done what it can to win some; now time has well and truly run out and it would be utterly unreasonable of Parliament not to ratify the deal. The Commons is in assertive mood, which is a good thing in many respects, but it must know that international negotiations can only be conducted by governments, not by parliaments. Yes the deal is unsatisfying to hard-core leavers and to pro-Europeans in equal measure; that’s a sign that the government has found a compromise somewhere in the middle. It’s not, in fact, a bad deal.

Will they back it? Quite likely not – they’re as sick of Theresa May’s unimaginative, tone-deaf leadership as we all are, and now are also offended by her blaming them for the delay. The same unholy alliance of MPs opposing the deal for completely opposite reasons can easily block it again. In a sense, as I’ve argued above, she’s entirely right that the delay is their fault, and it will be their fault if the deal fails again. But governments struggle to get even uncontroversial measures through without a strong majority – Brexit was never going to be uncontroversial, and her hopeless election campaign in 2017 left her with no majority at all. That would have been a good moment to cancel Brexit, at least for now, on the grounds that it was undeliverable. For that matter, it would have been a good moment for her to resign.

And if they don’t back it, we either leave quickly with no deal, or get more delay, leading to a variety of options which might include some different, probably softer deal, which would be no easier to get through the Commons and would probably be a less good compromise. None of that is good, although I might still get my wish of a proper political meltdown with at least one of the major parties imploding forever and being replaced by something better. We’d still be better off cutting our losses and remaining in any case. If MPs want that, they should belatedly find the guts to make it happen, rather than just playing for time.

Walk away from the slot machine: it is only making you poorer and more miserable.


14 March 2019

Yesterday the government voted against its own motion to 'rule out no-deal'. The motion passed anyway, but that arguably made a no-deal brexit more, not less, likely. Today Labour chose not to vote for a second referendum, despite a second referendum being official Labour policy. And then the Brexit secretary joined many Conservative MPs in voting against the government's own motion to delay, which he'd just been arguing in favour of from the despatch box.

In that context it's perfectly possible that the Commons will approve the PM's deal next week, having made very clear in two separate votes that it finds that deal completely unacceptable - the prospect of a long delay should focus minds a bit. But if it rejects it again, things will get *really* messy.


13 March 2019

Yes, PM, the motion against no deal was not legally binding. Can you think of any other votes that were not legally binding?


15 November 2018 - Interesting Times

Interesting times.

I haven’t commented on Brexit for a while, but at this moment it seems that my view of a couple of years ago (that there was a load more political turmoil to come and so it was too soon to assume Brexit would actually happen) wasn’t far wrong. The parliamentary arithmetic never made sense: a large majority of MPs in all the major parties supported Remain in the referendum campaign and voted Remain – they may feel obliged to respect the referendum result, but from the PM down, they still honestly believe (rightly or wrongly) that their constituents will be worse off outside the EU.

Many remainers, perhaps even most, seem (through the admittedly unreliable lens of social media) to have converged around a fairly consistent position, which is, crudely: 1) Referendums are a bad idea to begin with, being incompatible with the representative principle of British parliamentary democracy; 2) David Cameron was foolish to call one on this particular subject, and should have known he would unleash a torrent of repressed xenophobia leading to a bad decision made for the wrong reasons; 3) The PM should call a “people’s vote” straight away, i.e. a second referendum, to let the people change their minds and cancel the whole thing, now that everyone can clearly see what a disaster Brexit will be.

I disagree with almost all of that, and I’ll try briefly to explain why.

1) I have no problem with the convention that really fundamental constitutional changes are put to a referendum. I can’t imagine a decision being taken on, for example, Scottish independence, or the replacement of the monarchy with an elected presidency, without one.

2) I am still sympathetic to David Cameron’s decision to put Brexit in particular to the people: he’s accused of putting party before country, but I think simply ignoring the dramatic rise of a single-issue party would be irresponsible of any government, and that the consequences would have been far more dangerous than the consequences we’ve seen from tackling the issue head-on.

So much for the principles. Getting it right in practice is difficult (people must be well informed, the timing should be carefully judged, etc), and the government clearly made some huge tactical errors in this case. It doesn’t take much hindsight to see that the right time to make the Cabinet sign up to an agreed vision of Brexit, one which soundings with the EU27 suggested was more or less achievable through negotiation, was before the referendum, not two years afterwards (the Chequers agreement). So I think Cameron was right on the principle, but hasty and careless and vastly overconfident in attempting to put it into practice.

Also, I think the caricature of Leave voters as moronic bigots is unfair and misleading – yes, there was a noisy element who voted for xenophobic or jingoistic reasons, and yes, the campaign did palpably unleash some very ugly scenes and a small number of tragic events. But polling data consistently showed that the vast majority of Leave voters voted primarily on grounds of sovereignty, with border control / ending free movement not coming second or even third (and of course it’s perfectly possible to favour reduced immigration without being a raving xenophobe), and indeed that for every voter persuaded by the dog-whistles of Farage’s unofficial leave campaign, several more voters were put off from supporting Brexit.

There’s a good and respectable case for leaving the EU; it’s broadly the one set out by Dan Hannan in his (best-selling) book “Why Vote Leave”; all evidence (other than anecdotal evidence amplified by social media) suggests very strongly that it’s that respectable case which persuaded the vast majority of Leave voters, not some spasm of nativist bigotry. It’s vital to be able to disagree with someone politically without portraying them as disagreeable. (There’s an interesting but imperfect parallel here with how Trump voters in the US are portrayed – more on that another time.)

3) I’ve never seen a second referendum as realistic without a change of government. I understand the case for one: Brexit wasn’t properly defined at the time of the 2016 vote, and the facts have effectively changed now that there’s a draft deal. But the government was very clear that it was a “once in a generation decision” – that exact phrase was at the end of the leaflet sent to every household. Rerunning an election you’ve described as a one-off binary choice, simply because you don’t like the result – now that *is* incompatible with the principle of representative democracy. So we just had to let it play out. The negotiations had to be taken to a conclusion (an interim one, given the transition period), and the political consequences would follow.

Those political consequences are not pretty. Personally I think there should be no way back for those who played leading roles both in the Leave campaign and in the negotiations themselves, who then declare the outcome unacceptable (‘Boris’ Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab), and talk of any of those as future leaders of the Tory party should be met with ridicule. I’m also surprised, by the way, to see Jo Johnson becoming the darling of the people’s vote movement. A capable minister, he supported Remain, then took an intellectually flexible approach after the result (“Big decision, let’s make it work”) – fair enough. Now he jumps ship when he sees the political tide turning – the act of a shrewd political operator, certainly, but I’m not sure it’s one that should be held up as principled and admirable.

But this political turmoil does increase the chance of the government changing – and if that happens pre-Brexit, then I think a second referendum becomes not just possible but likely. There may be voter fatigue, but a general election could effectively allow the public to consent to being asked again.

The PM says there are now three options: the deal her government has negotiated, no deal, and no Brexit at all. What she doesn’t say is that she only remains PM in the first scenario. (She also doesn’t mention that the best deal of all, remaining on the improved terms negotiated by Cameron, is sadly no longer available.)

The deal negotiated seems to me a reasonable one: it delivers the main things Leavers seemed to want (the potential eventually to strike trade deals by leaving the customs union, an end to being subject to the ECJ, an end to free movement, etc) while attempting to minimise economic and social disruption and to stay on the friendliest possible terms with the EU27. It respects both the decision to leave and the relatively narrow margin. Yes it’s messy on Northern Ireland, and yes that matters enormously, but it’s an inescapable consequence of the type of Brexit: you can’t leave the EU (with an explicit promise to “take control” of your borders), insist on leaving the customs union as part of that, and then insist on having no trace of a border with the EU country next door. The deal is a pragmatic compromise. I just struggle to see how she can get it through Parliament.

Leaving with no deal would be very damaging in the short and medium term, and I’m not sure there’s much danger of it happening now that there’s a deal on the table. Even hard-line Leavers should be able to see that the short-term risks outweigh any potential long-term benefits. It would make more sense to leave to a ready-made model like Norway or Switzerland, then if necessary think again.

No Brexit at all is still very possible, through a change of government and a second referendum. And all it will take for the government to change is for the PM to fail to get the deal through Parliament. She will then surely either resign immediately or be forced to do so via a confidence motion, and a general election will inevitably follow.

So what does happen at another general election? I think there are six possible outcomes (some with variants).

1. Tory win, new leader has promised a ‘real Brexit’. They reopen negotiations with the EU, there are yet more months of uncertainty sapping the economy – then the painful discovery that the EU still holds many of the cards and we can’t get a better deal than the one we have this time, and we’re back to where we are now. Disastrous.

2. Tory win, new leader has promised an off-the shelf Brexit, along say Swiss lines, and this is agreed with a transition period. Not too bad, though it makes the last two years look a bit of a waste of time.

3. Tory win, new leader has promised a second vote – and people vote Leave again. Then three variants: 3a) May’s deal is implemented. Not too bad (though strikingly unfair on her). 3b) Renegotiation attempt per 1 (disastrous). 3c) Off-the-shelf solution per 2 (not too bad).

4. Tory win, new leader has promised a second vote – and people vote Remain this time. Brexit’s off. Embarrassing all round, infuriating for some, but not too bad.

5. Labour win. Now, if there were a moderate, pro-EU Labour party (as there would have been under David Miliband), Labour could stand on a Remain manifesto, sweep to power and cancel the whole thing without any need for another referendum. But that’s not the scenario, because Corbyn’s still leader. He’s still anti-EU personally but he gets forced into backing a second referendum by his party. Then I think opinion almost certainly turns against what Labour portrays as a “Tory Brexit” (unfairly, really, since the Cameron government campaigned for Remain) and Brexit is off. Not too bad, except that 70s-style socialism is on. Spoiler: it doesn’t work very well.

6. Hung parliament. Painful talks to cobble together some kind of grand coalition / national unity government. The talks either fail leading to yet another general election, or a deal is struck, almost certainly involving a second referendum, probably ending in a Remain vote. Brexit is off, the coalition staggers on for a while without doing much damage or much good, then there’s another general election, by which time both party leaders have changed and we’re all pretending that 2016 never happened. Not bad, but hung parliaments are always very unlikely under first-past-the-post.

If you’re stockpiling food, I recommend popcorn. This still has a long, long way to run.


6 June 2017

It’s been decades since I’ve seen a general election as dismal as this one, with both major parties in England being (in different ways) delusional and incompetent, with many voters themselves in all kinds of denial (just as they seem to be in the States), and with the third and smaller parties looking entirely ineffective.  I voted by post a couple of weeks ago, without enthusiasm.  Whatever the result, there will be many very disappointed people.

Also, for what it’s worth, and despite officials’ best efforts, I still don’t put the chances of Brexit happening at higher than 50-50, regardless of the outcome of the election. 


9 November 2016

I think Trump appealed to exactly the same forces as the pro-Brexit campaign here:

1. People feeling that they're losing out from the globalized economy

2. An appeal past the political establishment's reasoned debate to an emotional patriotism ("give us our country back" / MAGA)

3. Fear and xenophobia.

1 is a perfectly legitimate concern. Most of those people are right: they live in a better world, but they've lost out personally economically. The protectionism they may get as a result of their votes (here proposed by the populist right, but equally supported by the populist left) won't do them a bit of good, sadly - if anything the opposite.

2 is essentially a dangerous route to go down, with some obvious and terrifying parallels in the 20th century - it's far better to vote based on reasoned argument than on emotion. But there's also a fair complaint against political establishments that failed to listen to the electorate and got out of touch.

3 is perhaps always there below the surface to some extent, but the fear is unjustified and of course xenophobia (along with other types of bigotry, especially in Trump's case) is indefensible.

In both cases, a massive divide in society is exposed. I expect the demographic breakdown in the US will be similar to that in the EU referendum here: younger, better educated and wealthier people especially in big cosmopolitan cities voted broadly one way (often without great enthusiasm), and are genuinely shocked to find themselves outnumbered by the opposite demographic, who broadly voted the other way (and were much more passionate about it). (Plenty of exceptions on all sides of course).

And in both cases, the resultant administration cannot possibly deliver what it's promised in its campaign. The NHS will not be £350m a week better off; Mexico will not pay for a wall. Etc.

Which may mean that things will get uglier.

But I wouldn't advise stockpiling ammo. Maybe plant a tree.


3 November 2016

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37857785

Interesting. But assuming that it's correct that we can invoke Article 50 but still make a final decision whether to stay or go once we've negotiated exit terms (as the author of A50 has confirmed), then the real crunch point is almost certainly at least a couple of years away in any case.

One way or another, for what it's worth, I still woudn't rate the chances of Brexit happening as greater than 50-50 (despite the government's best efforts - ministers and civil service alike). This has a long way to run.


4 July 2016

Boris Johnson: "The reality is that the stock market has not plunged, as some said it would - far from it. The FTSE is higher than when the vote took place."

No. The FTSE100 is *down* in dollar and euro terms, because the pound dropped like a stone on the back of the referendum result and hasn't recovered at all. The FTSE100 has held up only in Sterling terms.

In other words, shares in big UK companies are going cheap for buyers abroad, because the prospect of Brexit means they’re worth less, but they’re more expensive for us to buy, because the prospect of Brexit means we’re poorer.  And you’re making that a positive?

And by the way, the wider indices like the FTSE250 are down even in Sterling terms, because it’s even worse news for mid-size companies.


 1 July 2016

The Independent and Standard both have polls which suggest that many leave voters were indeed swayed by leave campaign misinformation and that a significant proportion of them would now vote the other way. I wouldn't read too much into the numbers (the Standard's one shows a majority for remain now) because they're only opinion polls. But it's further grounds for reasonable doubt as to whether the referendum outcome reliably represents the will of the people.

Links below.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-news-second-eu-referendum-leave-voters-regret-bregret-choice-in-millions-a7113336.html

https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/brexit-poll-most-brits-want-general-election-to-be-called-this-year-a3285706.html


30 June 2016 - A letter to an MP

So today the leader of the Leave campaign has ruled himself out of contention for PM, the leader of the opposition continues to refuse to resign despite a 4-1 no-confidence vote from his own MPs, and at the launch of a review into antisemitism in his own party seems to have compared Israel to ISIS. London is looking quite a lot like my cover pic.

I've pretty much said all I have to say on Brexit, but before I crawl back under my code, here's how I put it to my MP. I wrote this before Boris bailed, but I haven't seen the need to change anything. Anyone's welcome to crib any of it if they're writing to their MP.

Dear Mr Coyle,

I am one of your constituents who contributed to Southwark’s 72% Remain vote in the EU referendum. I know you share my disappointment at the national result, and I read with interest your letter of resignation as PPS.

[...]

I write simply to stress the importance of the sovereignty of Parliament, which is a fundamental principle of our constitution. The advisory nature of the referendum is not a mere technicality. Of course MPs rightly take very seriously the expressed view of the public, but they are not ultimately bound by it, and I believe that two factors particular to this referendum mean that Parliament should be very wary of letting the mantra that “the will of the people must be respected” exclude bringing its own judgement to bear:

1. It is clear that the Leave campaign made promises which it had no intention or ability to deliver – most obviously, its headline pledge to use £350m per week saved from ending UK contributions to the EU to increase NHS funding. The likely state of the UK economy post-Brexit is a matter of speculation, but the pledge was undeniably dishonest because the £350m figure excludes the rebate, farming grants and development grants. Many people were evidently persuaded to vote Leave by this and other false promises. I believe it is therefore fair to consider whether the referendum outcome was a true reflection of the views of the British people.

2. The stakes are always high in questions put to referendums, but on this occasion, because of the clear pro-Remain vote in Scotland in particular, it is obvious that a Brexit may lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom itself. I believe when the very existence of the country that Parliament represents is at risk, it would be a dereliction of duty for Parliament to fail to exercise its right to have the final say.

I have thought carefully about whether this argument lacks objectivity, since there is a clear risk that Remain supporters behave as bad losers, either reacting illogically in their frustration, or trying to change the rules after the game has ended.

I believe I have excluded subjective issues entirely from the case I am making. I do not question Leave voters’ intelligence or integrity; I believe that wanting the UK to leave the EU is a perfectly valid political position. If it were the settled will of a majority of the British people that the UK should leave the EU, then no matter how much I disagreed, I would accept that Brexit must happen. I simply suggest that, since many Leave voters were clearly misled by a dishonest campaign, it is reasonable to imagine that at least some of them would have voted differently if the choice had been presented honestly. In those circumstances, and given the relatively small overall majority, the referendum failed to demonstrate that a Brexit is the settled will of a majority of the British people.

I am not suggesting any change to the rules. I do not claim that the referendum should not have been held at all, or that the franchise should have been extended to 16- and 17-year-olds; I do not challenge the threshold of a simple majority (and am not signing any petitions on that point); I am not necessarily suggesting a second referendum (although it is one route open to Parliament). I am merely asserting the rules that were in place all along, namely that the referendum was advisory and that Parliament is sovereign. It is no threat to our democracy to remind ourselves of its fundamental principles and to abide by them.

I think there is a chance that the new Conservative Prime Minister may attempt a further renegotiation for continued EU membership in any case, once the available options outside the EU become clear, and to seek endorsement for it through an early general election or a second referendum.

But if that does not happen, then Parliament must not duck its duty to make the largest constitutional decision of our lifetimes. Parliament is free to decide whether or not Article 50 should be invoked, and it should weigh the full body of evidence in doing so. The result of the referendum is one important part of that body of evidence, but the final decision must be Parliament’s.

Yours sincerely


30 June 2016

Boris out - and my lead theory becomes less likely (though still possible) because he was uniquely placed to renegotiate and to sell remaining. I'll refrain from commenting on his behaviour, which I think speaks for itself.

Parliament can still decide to block the invocation of Article 50, of course.


27 June 2016

Thanks for all the kind comments re my Brexit posts. I should really move on, but it's a non-working day for me and people seem to be finding them genuinely interesting/helpful, so I'll allow myself another. At least we're out of purdah now, so that's one set of rules I'm not breaking.

Today's thoughts:

1. I've been wondering whether my no-Brexit scenario is just wishful thinking. Am I merely enabling a pleasant state of denial for disappointed remainers? To be clear, I haven't said it I think we will necessarily remain, just that it really is possible - and the more I think about it actually seems likely. I'll say a bit more about why.

2. But please don't let it stop you writing to your MP, demonstrating, or getting off your face on honey, if you were otherwise going to do that. Sign the pointless petition too if you like, though in my view Mark Zuckerberg has already proved that millions of people can click a mouse to indicate that they're happy or unhappy about something, which is all I think it can achieve.

3. No Brexit would mean one of two things. First: Parliament decides, in the national interest, to overrule the expressed wishes of a slim majority of the public, on the grounds that the MPs (who were pro-remain by a large, cross-party majority) know better. That's not an entirely easy decision for them, especially those whose constituents voted leave - they're democrats by definition. On the other hand, a) some MPs may judge that opinion has since moved in those consituencies, as the leave campaign's lies become apparent and the remain side's warnings start to look fair; b) you don't run for Parliament unless you think you know better than most; c) weekly surgeries leave MPs with no illusions about how intelligent and informed the average voter is. Doing what's in people's best interest whether they want it or not is pretty much the first line of the job description. Half the country will be furious either way - better to infuriate the ones that are wrong and save the economy than to infuriate the ones that are right and wreck it.

4. Second: a second mandate is sought, probably through an early general election. I think this is the more likely route.

5. So, to summarize my scenario: The EU miserably contemplates its first major secession (and possible contagion), while Boris wins a Tory leadership contest and moves into #10 (which is all he ever wanted). He effectively gets another crack at the negotiation, with the trump card Cameron lacked of a genuine threat to leave if we're not made a better offer; he wins a couple of further concessions, explains (as only a leading Brexiter can get away with) that the small margin in the (non-binding) referendum left room for a variety of options, but seeks an explicit mandate by calling a general election. Time to put this behind us and heal our divided nation, etc. Meanwhile public sentiment has moved a litlte against Brexit, as "Project Fear" is unmasked as Project State The Obvious. And, while the Tories remain deeply divided, Labour contrive yet again to be in an even worse mess. The Tories win, and the UK remains in the EU.

6. Where are the holes? One might be that Boris doesn't get the leadership. Okay, but I think he will - he's big box office, and he just headed a succesful campaign. The Indep/Guardian theory that Cameron somehow won the ultimate victory and that Boris is ruined is absurd.

7. Another potential hole would be the EU being sick of pandering to the UK and saying no to an improved deal. Well of course they're sick of us - hell, I'm sick of us - but the bottom line is still that Brexit is a disaster for them. If they could undo the referendum result, they would, and this would be their chance. Concessions could be very minor - just enough to allow Boris to claim he'd changed the equation.

8. A third potential hole is that Boris and co actually want Brexit and won't settle for less. Some have pointed out that his statements so far, while wrong-footing many who fell for leave campaign rhetoric by being pro-Europe and pro-immigration, haven't gone so far as to float remaining as a possible outcome. True, but he needs to hold onto the negotiating position. I think, in truth, he does indeed favour a Brexit deal, one that somehow keeps full access to the single market (with London still able to be at the centre of euro trading) but with freedom from EU bureaucracy and a points-based immigration system rather than free movement. Well, if he can negotiate that, then good luck to him - but I don't see how the EU can be as generous as that. In practice he'll most likely have a choice between staying on improved terms or leaving on terms a bit like Norway's, and since in the former you save the City's position as a global financial centre and keep Scotland and in the latter you risk both, I think he'd end up making a virtue of the former.

9. The fourth potential hole is that the Tories could lose the election. I think that's only likely in a scenario where Labour has morphed into Blue Labour (with Umanna as leader, at a guess) - not likely in the time available, and I've seen no evidence of a groundswell of support for Labour. But if it happened, they'd want to remain too and would presumably get to implement a slightly different deal.

10. A couple of people have suggested that this all shows Boris to be some kind of Machiavellian genius. I wouldn't give him that much credit. People tend to think you're Machiavellian if they're thinking two moves ahead and you're thinking three. A risk-taking and unscrupulous opportunist with a way for words can go a long way.

11. A thought on leave voters' motivations. A small minority (including any likely to read this post) voted for more or less what Boris and Hannan are proposing - an escape from Brussels bureaucracy, restored sovereignty, freedom to lower trade barriers bilaterally, a points-based immigration system to bring in the high-skilled people corporations want to employ (and quite possibly more of them than total net immigration now). It's a perfectly respectable political position, though whether it's achievable remains to be seen.

12. What brought people out in large numbers, though, does seem to have been Farage's anti-immigration message. As I've said before, that doesn't equate to xenophobia or racism in all voters - you can be a Polish Brit married to a Jamaican Brit and still believe the population has grown enough. But they were sold a lie (and didn't believe us when we told them they were being sold a lie). Farage was and thankfully remains a side-show; the people who will be running the show have no interest in reducing immigration, and the only thing likely to reduce net immigration is an economic downturn (which, as we're seeing, is a very real possibility).

13. It is also possible, however, to be anti-immigration because you are a xenophobe or racist, and Farage absolutely played to such people. Many are now shocked by how many there seem to be. It is depressing, and there are some horrifying examples emerging of idiots believing that bigotry has now somehow been licensed and acting on it. Not everyone will be surprised by our dismal fellow citizens, however: I am thinking of MPs (see above) and civil servants (public consultation responses are an eye-opener).

14. The main (but not the only) answer to this is education, and I think it's no coincidence that Scotland's education system was far better than England's for decades. I believe England's has made up some or all of that ground in the last couple of decades, happily - and I don't believe the age profile of remain voters (a compelling straight-line graph) simply indicates that people turn nastier or stupider as they get older. Cultural change takes generations - but that graph shows that it's happening. Wait even a few years and the result might have been different.

15. You may or may not take comfort in my scenario. But either way, I can assure you that there are people far smarter and better informed than I in the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the FCO who are already working flat-out on preparing for negotiations and who will stop at nothing to get the best possible deal for the UK, whatever political hand they are dealt. I have the privilege to know a few of them and to call them my colleagues. Quite who is served by gagging them is entirely lost on me. But, unlike me, they're at work today (as they will have been over the weekend), and they're far too busy to be writing long Facebook posts.


26 June 2016

Replies to various comments on my earlier posts, and a couple of other thoughts.

1. It's been pointed out to me that the petition was lodged before the vote, so it's not exactly changing the rules post-game. True, but the spike in signatures is post-vote, so it still just looks like bad loserdom. And a high threshold 's problematic in this case. The rationale for holding the referendum was that the EU was not what we signed up to in the 70s, so neither side represented a status quo previously endorsed by the public. Each side could therefore argue that the other should reach a higher bar, so 50% was the only option. Turnout was high for a public vote; complaining about it not quite reaching 75% looks petty. In any case there's no need for a rule change since the referendum was not binding: Parliament doesn't need permission to take a different course, it just needs to be willing to face millions of outraged leave voters, which might be the lesser of two evils. There's no harm in signing the petition, but if you're seeking a happy ending I'd look elsewhere.

2. How to appease Farage and the Tory outers if staying in? Well Boris won't care about Farage in the least: he's not in the party, not in Parliament, and UKIP only has a couple of MPs. The divisions in the Tory party over Europe will continue in any scenario, but two things unite the party: unionism and pro-business, pro-growth economics. Leave the EU and you run a very high risk of losing both Scotland and a raft of investment bankers. You do the math.

3. Boris, Hannan and co have never been anti-immigration in the least. They'd prefer a points-based system with criteria set in Whitehall (informed by corporate needs as much as by public services, by the way), but free movement in the single market is surely better from their perspective than leaving and crashing the economy. Alarming numbers of people do seem to have bought the UKIP line and voted leave on immigration grounds, but no one who will actually be in power is likely to give them what they want.

4. Cameron had to step down, in the national interest, because, his political capital suddenly all spent, there was nothing he could do with the leave vote but pull the UK straight out. Boris on the other hand can have another crack at the negotiation, this time with the trump card Cameron lacked: permission from the British people to leave if we don't get a good deal.

5. Won't the EU play hardball even with that gun to their head? Maybe, but they're staring into an abyss right now and want the nightmare to end as much as we do. Modest further concessions might be enough for Boris to sell to a relieved Parliament here, especially with the only real alternative (Norway model) looking worse on most counts.

6. In my scenario, Boris would have risked the wellbeing of huge numbers of people purely for the sake of his personal ambition, used every rhetorical trick in the book to explain away some barefaced U-turns, and ended up having his cake and eating it too in the most outrageous way imaginable. And you know what? That's exactly what he's done at every point of his career (and every part of his life) since his late teens.

7. I'm not saying I'm confident we'll stay in. I'm just saying that we really might. This has a long way to run, and so far all we've really seen is the first part of an opportunistic leadership coup in the Tory party.


25 June 2016 - It'll never happen

Today I think there's a genuine possibility that the UK won't actually leave the EU. Why?

1. Everyone agrees that the will of the people must be respected, but the margin was relatively small, and it could be therefore be argued (though controversial, certainly) that the mandate it gave could stretch to some kind of compromise.

2. Some leavers (a minority, but possibly enough make a difference) are now having second thoughts, as it becomes apparent both that the leave campaign was lying to them (Farage's quick retraction of the £350m/wk NHS funding pledge seems to be hitting home, in particular) and that the remain campaign's warnings of the risks were not as exaggerated as some claimed.

3. Despite the popular mandate, the large majority of MPs are still pro-remain, and the political atmosphere is far from collaborative - it will be difficult for anyone to get Parliament to trigger Article 50 (and remember that technically the referendum was advisory rather than binding).

4. If Boris Johnson wins a Tory leadership contest, he will have achieved his true goal, which of course was always the premiership rather than anything to do with the EU.

 5. If he's then to make any kind of success of the job, he will want to hold the UK together, and to avoid trashing the economy, notably the financial services sector (which to his credit he championed as mayor of London even when it was at its most unpopular).

 6. For all his faults, if there's anyone good at explaining away a U-turn with clever arguments and charming his way out of a hole, it's Boris.

By the way, I doubt the petition doing the rounds will help particularly - it just looks like (and arguably is) an attempt to change the rules after the game is over.


24 June 2016

Scotland very sensibly voted 62% remain. This could well be the beginning of the end of the UK.


23 June 2016

Rain, rain, go away / Come again when you're less likely to have an adverse impact on turnout of moderate voters in a critical referendum


 22 June 2016

 I've said my piece (at some length) on Brexit and have nothing to add to my argument. Latest polls are still leaning to leave (Opinium: leave 45%, remain 44%; TNS unweighted: leave 43%, remain 41%; TNS weighted: leave 49%, remain 42%; Qriously: leave 51%, remain 37%). I still think the crowd is wise and will prove the polls wrong, but it may be very close.

Post mortems on the campaigns have already started, with a lot of commentary pointing out how dishonest they were (leave in particular), how nasty the tone was (on the leave side in particular), how Jo Cox's horrendous murder did change the mood at least for a while, how politics should be conducted more civilly, and how unfortunately there's little prospect of that happening. That's all true, but I'd also point out that the remain campaign found its feet when it stopped only talking about risks of brexit and started making a positive case for a stronger economy within the EU, and the leave campaign ultimately put a lot of people off (including its own leader, it seems) by focusing throughout on an anti-immigration message, when its case that the single market was never effectively completed and Britain could actually trade more freely outside the EU might have appealed much more widely. By playing it negative and appealing to the worst in people, the two campaigns didn't just depress us all by lowering the tone of politics, they actually reduced their own chances of success.

Many of the tributes to Jo Cox have described her as exceptional. In some ways I'm sure she was. But in being an MP who worked hard for her constituents, meeting them face to face in her constituency every week despite a full workload in Westminster, and despite the constant barrage of criticism that every MP faces (including regular threats and abuse, alongside the usual assumptions of dishonesty, corruption, incompetence, etc), and in working with her political opponents to promote the policies she and they believed in, I think it's important to recognize that she was not exceptional at all. You can say all that of very nearly every single MP, of every party. Some are better informed than others, some come across pleasantly on TV and others don't, and of course you can agree or disagree with the politics of each of them - but it's not a job anyone does unless they believe they can improve people's lives and are willing to suffer in the attempt to do so.

See you on the other side...


16 June 2016 - Pre Brexit Referendum

I had hoped to stay quiet (as I’m supposed to, per the Civil Service code) on the EU referendum, but the polls (although almost certainly understating support for remaining) are now spooking me. So, as I did on the 2014 Scottish referendum (link removed), and for similar reasons (the coverage weak, both campaigns inadequate and misleading, the separatist campaign outright dishonest), I’m breaking cover. One difference from 2014 is that, this time, I have a strong view one way. I also have a vote (which I cast by post a while ago).

I’m sure I’m wasting my time preaching to the choir – I don’t think I know a single thoughtful and informed person who seriously supports Brexit (honourable exceptions may present themselves in comments below this post). But I’d regret not having said my piece if the vote goes the wrong way, so here are a few thoughts.

*Losing the plot*

Britain has long been in the classic position of the reluctant participant in a union arguing successfully for special treatment – the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Cf Quebec within Canada and Scotland within the UK. That position only works if you’re willing to threaten UDI every now and then, a threat that’s only credible if you’re willing to put it to a vote. But it has to be a bluff – if you actually leave then you lose not only the special treatment you’ve wangled by being awkward but also the larger benefits of membership. Could we really commit a huge act of economic and cultural self-sabotage because we’ve fallen for our own posturing rhetoric?

Or, worse, has a large part of the population fallen into old-fashioned, xenophobic nationalism, despite being a diverse nation born of centuries of immigration, and missing the obvious point that the patriotic choice is to do whatever is in the national interest, which in an interconnected world inevitably involves some pooling of sovereignty?

*Trusting the people*

Many on the remain side are now muttering that the PM was unwise to call a referendum in the first place. My faith in the wisdom of crowds is certainly being tested, but ultimately I disagree. The EU in its current form is clearly far more (for better and for worse) than the single market Britain signed up to in the 1970s, and since EU membership is of fundamental constitutional significance, it’s perfectly proper (overdue, even) to test the mandate for continued membership through a referendum. Yes, part of Cameron’s motive was no doubt to head off the threat to Tory seats from UKIP at the 2015 election – but the rise of UKIP demonstrated genuine concern about the issue (whether you share that concern or not); responding to it by taking on the debate and putting the matter to a vote is not wrong, it’s a sign of democracy working. Politicians should not fear public opinion, and when they think it’s moving in the wrong direction they should have the guts to try to move it.

*Tactical own goal*

The tactics aren’t looking too smart though. The plan made sense – commit to a referendum, negotiate a better deal with a credible threat of Brexit to strengthen your hand, then argue to remain – until the bluff was called, the deal negotiated was much less than intended, and the leavers’ point about Britain being dictated to by Brussels (or by Germany) was graphically illustrated for them. It’s an improved deal, and we were far better off in even before any renegotiation, so the vote should still be a no-brainer – but as a piece of theatre the negotiation was a turkey.

*Telling it straight*

Both sides have rightly been accused of hyperbole and dishonesty, but in my view it’s far from equally split, with the leave campaign being utterly shameless. The leavers do also have the advantage of having a positive vision to sell, albeit a delusional one. The remain side has been constrained by its own Euroscepticism: there’s no ‘Project Fear’, but it’s true that the message has been largely about the downsides to leaving, with no real positive vision of the EU – is no one willing to talk about culture?

And of course until Purdah descended, alongside the political campaign, there was an official government role in putting the evidence for remaining. People outside government forget the constraints on what it can say, the legal requirement that it state only what is evidenced, with the result that it often errs towards understatement and hardly ever to overstatement of its case. They also forget that the incidents where governments have been found to have presented things dishonestly, to have engaged deliberately in spin, are few in number and have been national scandals leading directly to people losing their jobs. No part of the leave campaign has laboured under such constraints.

I saw nothing wrong with the government’s leaflet (pdf), nor with spending taxpayers’ money on issuing it. The most frequent criticism of the substance of the remain case has been that the economic forecasts are spuriously accurate, which of course they have to be. The central forecast in what is often a wide range is quoted; no one claims that forecast will prove to be exactly accurate; it’s a best estimate based on the information available, and in this case I think the government had a duty to make it public. If Brexit happens, it will be proved wrong, but the chance of its being proved overly optimistic should, based on the information currently available, be the same as the chance of its being proved overly pessimistic.

*Dirty pool*

The leave campaign has repeatedly resorted to the crude rhetorical trick of exaggerating then rebutting. Two obvious examples: 1. The government says that Brexit would reduce the UK’s security; the leavers respond that it’s absurd to say that World War III would immediately break out. Yes, it would be absurd to say that, but no one did. 2. The remainers say that we’d be economically worse off outside the EU; the leavers say it’s absurd to say Britain couldn’t make its own way in the world. Yes, it would be absurd to say that, but no one did.

*False outrage*

The two most prominent and perennial complaints about the EU are financial irregularity and lack of democracy. On the first, the claim that the Commission’s accounts have been qualified for 20 years straight is familiar, but not in fact true: the Court of Auditors has signed off the accounts in recent years. As for the alleged democratic deficit, I don’t think anyone would expect working-level Commission officials to be elected (they’re the equivalent of civil servants), but I think it’s true that appointing rather than electing commissioners only works as long as the Commission remains a supra-national body with most real power remaining with the nation states. Electing commissioners would increase democratic accountability, but would also give them a mandate for genuine supra-national executive power – surely something that no eurosceptic wants. Meanwhile of course the Commission’s actions are subject to democratic approval through the European Parliament (and we all directly elect MEPs), with the Council of Ministers (each elected in their own country) acting as a kind of senate. Yes, that’s exactly Thatcher’s nightmare of a federal superstate in embryo (“no, no, no”), and leavers may dislike it as much as she did, but as long as power is primarily with national governments, I don’t see a democratic deficit.

That’s not for a moment to say there’s no need for reform. I won’t defend current EU agricultural or fisheries policy, for example.

*More dollars than sense*

The central argument (as with the Scottish referendum) has to be around the trade-off between economics and sovereignty. All independent forecasts (and all common sense) suggest there would be a major negative economic shock from Brexit in the short to medium term – hardly surprising given markets’ dislike of uncertainty – I’d be amazed if there weren’t at least a five-year disruption from the change alone. We’ve had a taste of that in the last few days, as the markets reacted to the polls, and the pound and stock markets both took a dive. If you want an indication of the level of uncertainty involved, I’d start with the basic question of whether the UK would stay in the single market (EEA / EFTA) if we left the EU. Parliament may try to insist that we do (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36457120); Germany may try to insist that we do not (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/10/no-single-market-access-for-uk-after-brexit-wolfgang-schauble-says).

And that’s just the uncertainty – i.e. before any real effects of structural changes to the economy. With the 2008 crash fresh in people’s minds, some might welcome the end of London’s reign as one of the great global financial centres, but it wouldn’t be pretty, and it would surely be an inevitable, if gradual, consequence of Brexit. A prolonged economic downturn, almost certainly losing economic ground that would never be regained, is a massive price to risk paying, but if purity of sovereignty is sufficiently important to you, you may judge that it’s worth it. I certainly don’t. Economic prosperity isn’t everything – but it does beat the alternatives, and it does pay for public services.

*The vision thing*

Some on the right have a vision that, freed from the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy (so, outside the single market), the UK could in the long term become a paragon of free-trading, small-state, entrepreneurial, low-tax economics. Maybe – but it would require long and complex negotiations that haven’t started – and precedents (including Greenland, the EU-Canada deal, the controversial TTIP, and even Cameron’s own pre-referendum negotiations) all suggest they would be far from easy. If the political will were there, the UK could move significantly further in that direction without taking the risk of leaving the EU in any case.

The leavers point out that EU countries will still want the UK as an export market, so would have an incentive to strike a good trade deal quickly. That’s true, but they would also want to send a strong message to other potential leavers, which would incline them to play hardball, as they did over the pre-referendum negotiations, and as they’ve clearly indicated they would. Not to mention President Obama sending us to the back of the "queue".

Many ‘leave’ voters are on the left; do they have an alternative vision? I haven’t seen one seriously expressed, but it would presumably involve getting off the globalization path, moving towards more protectionism (freed from the diktats of DG-Comp) and a reinvigorated trade union movement. An old-school socialist vision like that may appeal to many who long for a more equal society. Sadly history shows both limits to what those policies can achieve and a high economic cost to be paid in the attempt, but in any case there’s no prospect of a Brexit vote delivering anything of the sort, at least until the next general election. Cameron might hang on, but Boris Johnson would either take over in #10 or take a prominent Cabinet seat, alongside Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, perhaps an ennobled Dan Hannan, and quite possibly Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage – small-state free marketeers all.

*Tuk er jerbs*

In the media, much of the debate has been about immigration, where the leavers’ argument runs that after Brexit we could “take back control of our borders”, losing the requirement of free movement of people. I don’t personally see that as desirable, and studies have always shown immigration to be beneficial economically and benign in terms of public services, etc (this LSE study is a recent example. But whatever the logic at a public policy level, people’s experience at the sharp end of the job market or public services may feel very different. And while it’s easy (and sometimes right) to sniff xenophobia, it’s perfectly possible for non-xenophobes to think net immigration should be reduced.

But what would the effect of a Brexit be on immigration? Free movement of people is a requirement of membership of the single market – so either we really do cut ourselves off from our biggest trading partners and ensure that economic hit is enormous (but yes, have some increased control of immigration) or we keep the single market's rules (a la Norway). Then we’d still have free movement of people (and of course, all the EU regulations and costs, but with none of the influence over them we have now).

Either way, I’m sure immigration would fall post-Brexit, not because of any increased border control, but simply because the economy would be contracting and people seeking a new home would settle elsewhere if they could. Perversely, if we left the single market, net immigration might fall less than if we stayed in, if expat Brits had to start returning home from France, Spain, and other sunny parts of the EU.

*Cunning plans*

In short, serious contemplation of Brexit is lunacy, even as an attempt to achieve the leavers’ misguided goals. Or as the Washington Post put it: “Let’s not be coy: Leaving the E.U. would be an act of national insanity.”

But could something good be salvaged from a bad referendum outcome – and has some guiding mind thought a few steps ahead here and planned that from the start? I can think of only two basic salvage scenarios.

The first is that a narrow vote for Brexit focuses continental minds, that a dashing blond opportunist reopens negotiations and lands a better deal for us, and we stay after all but on improved terms, either after a wittily penned Telegraph column explains to us how the mandate was really for more reform rather than for departure, or after (God help us) a second referendum.

The second is that Brexit opens the floodgates, with emboldened eurosceptics on the rise across the EU, and with Grexit, Nexit, Dexit and other referendums lining up to follow ours; the EU starts disintegrating, and is replaced with the sort of looser union, with leaner institutions and tightly constrained powers, that the UK would always have preferred.

I think they’re both conceivable, but so unlikely that it would be very reckless to vote on the basis that either can be relied on. I also think the disintegration of the EU might get extremely ugly before a replacement was found. And I do not credit the guiding mind in question with anything more than self-serving opportunism.

There could easily be other unintended consequences of a Brexit vote, most obviously the break-up of the UK - the SNP would have an entirely sensible reason to call another referendum on Scottish independence, and a far stronger case for it. Wales might even go the same way in time.

*Enough*

Okay, I’ve said my piece. I can sleep now. I still think the crowd tends to be wise and the result will probably go the right way, but http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/ is still alarming, so please remember to vote.


14 September 2014 - Scotland

The English are encouraged to fly St Andrew’s Cross to show our love for our Scottish neighbours and to encourage them to vote against independence in the referendum on 18 September. It might have the opposite effect. Anyway, I’ve found the debate unequal to the importance of the decision, and it seems unfair to say so without offering my own views. So here’s what I think:

1.            It’s a question for the Scots and for no one else. The change will affect the whole UK, but I have no problem with not having a vote: any people has an absolute right to self-determination – if Quebec or the Basque Country or Texas or Cornwall really want independence then ultimately they must have it, and Canada or Spain or the US or the UK just have to accept it if it happens, otherwise they become overnight an uninvited occupier.

2.            Scotland has an entirely credible case. Passport to Pimlico this ain’t. Scotland is a nation (and has been for something very roughly like a millennium), and if it wants out of its union with other nations then it’s entitled to leave. In electing an SNP government, it chose to put the matter to a referendum, which is the right way to decide the question, though whether the referendum takes the right form is another question. The exclusion of Scots living in England, even if they’ve recently moved south, and the inclusion of 16- and 17-year-old voters both seem questionable.

3.            Constitutional change major enough to require a referendum should only happen if it reflects the settled will of a good majority.

4.            At this point it looks as if it could go either way. Alex Salmond is an extremely talented and persuasive politician, but sadly also unscrupulous: he’s shown himself willing to behave more like an opposition leader (promising things he’s highly unlikely to be able to deliver) than like a senior minister (constrained by a pesky bureaucracy to the truth or something close to it). And, deservedly or not, the leaders of the Westminster parties are unpopular and untrusted, probably even more so in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

5.            If it is a yes, it will seem very unsatisfactory to a lot of Scots. If the yes campaign had been polling over 60% before and throughout the campaign, then the democratic mandate for independence would be obvious, but a late surge that turns a consistent minority into a slim majority doesn’t meet my test of “the settled will of a good majority”. That’s not to say that the British Government can or should ignore the result – perhaps the bar should have been set higher, but it wasn’t, and you can’t raise it retrospectively. It’s just to say that if independence happens, it will be on an unconvincing mandate, and, as difficulties are encountered in the implementation, there may be quite a backlash.

6.            Personally, though I find the question interesting and important, I don’t actually mind very much which way the vote goes. I suspect many English feel the same, and I hope our agnosticism on the outcome is not mistaken for disinterest. Such major constitutional change would be refreshing in the UK, a country inexplicably attached to all sorts of medieval nonsense that should have been swept away centuries ago; much further change would inevitably be required consequently, and that process might reinvigorate Britain’s stale politics. We’d be more likely to see long-overdue reforms like renaming the country, replacing the Lords with a modern second chamber, reforming the Commons, resizing Parliamentary constituencies, perhaps even moving Parliament out of London: I think any or all of these would be very worthwhile. On the downside, negotiating the divorce settlement itself will be tedious, including (if I remain with my current employer) for me personally.

7.            Some in England (including, presumably, David Cameron, who’s said he would be “heartbroken”) would be sad from a sense of diminution of the UK’s “greatness” as it shrank – I would not feel that at all. I have nothing against patriotism, and do feel loyalty myself both to England and to the UK, but a patriotism that depends on the country’s size or power seems to me to belong in a long-vanished (and by me, unmourned) age – I have no 19th-century-imperialist sense of glory through ever-expanding boundaries. Scotland has never been England’s possession in any case, and Salmond’s analogy of a stroppy tenant is an ingenious but dishonest attempt to frame the debate for his own benefit; it’s a partner in a union, and any union can only last if both sides want it to. And Britain (or whatever we end up calling rUK) will, without Scotland, remain essentially what it is today: a geographically small European country with an extraordinary history and a relatively large population and economy. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Scotland, and love its countryside and some of its towns and cities – but they’ll all still be there and I’ll still be free to visit them. My relationships with my Scottish friends won’t be affected. So on an emotional level I really have no view.

8.            Economically of course Scotland is perfectly capable of going it alone, but would surely be worse off than if it remained in the union. Scotland does receive more central government funding per capita than England (not least thanks to concessions made over decades to counter the threat of secession, much the same trick that Quebec has often pulled) and would inevitably lose some, probably most, and possibly all of that subsidy. If it chooses to keep the pound or manages to adopt the euro (or dollar, or any other extant currency), it will have control over fiscal policy with no say over how monetary policy is set, which the Eurozone has shown to be a very uncomfortable place to be, especially in a crisis. It would do better to launch its own currency, which is perfectly possible. It would lose the financial clout of the British Government when it needs it: another RBS, and there would be no one to bail it out – arguably healthy, but a riskier position, especially as Scotland is even more dependent on the financial services industry than England is. And the process of transition itself will be expensive. Salmond’s claims that independence will be economically beneficial, or that new wealth from the offshore oil and gas industry will transform the Scottish economy are, in my view, irresponsibly misleading.

9.            The economy isn’t everything by any means, and many Scots may be happy to a risk a significant reduction in financial wellbeing for independence. Fair enough, if so. The definition of the state is important here. To characterize crudely, the Scottish electorate has appeared in recent decades to have more interest in a Scandinavian-style social democratic model (with a relatively large state providing public services and maximizing social equality) than the English electorate, which has been more open to the free-market Anglo-American model (with a relatively small state, and a government that tries to privatize state-owned assets and reduce taxes wherever possible). One of the SNP’s successful selling points has been the idea that that Scotland would be a more equal society if only it could shake off the right-of-centre governments (whether Conservative, New Labour or Tory-Lib Dem coalition) that the English electorate keeps electing at Westminster. An independent Scotland would certainly be free to elect whatever government it wanted, immune to any austerity-imposing Chancellor of the Exchequer in London – but the irony is that it would be less able to afford the munificent public sector it (allegedly) wants and would therefore find that it had to impose its own austerity programme in any case, which might be considerably more painful. The Anglo-American free-marketeer could argue that this would be beneficial, but it would clearly not be to the taste of voters who long for Scandinavian social democracy. They’d be better served by a devolved Scottish Government with tax-raising powers and continued subsidy through a Barnett or similar formula that sends the grease to the squeaky wheel – and that’s what is being promised in the event of a no vote.

10.          Whether independent-nation status is more important than economic wellbeing is up to voters to decide. Egalitarian social democrats, because they favour a larger state, may see statehood as more important than small-government free-marketeers – so Scots may on average care more about their allegedly oppressed nationhood than the English (who never seem to have cared much about the West Lothian question). My own emotional attachment to the nation state has little to do with the proportion of sovereignty it retains – but then I’m English.

11.          So I’ll happily fly the Saltire, but in doing so I’m not attempting to encourage anyone to vote yes or no on the 18th. It’s just a sign that, if you have a vote, I’m thinking of you. If having your own nation state, free of a capital city a few hundred miles to the south is so important to you that you have no trouble taking some significant economic risks, then you should absolutely vote yes, and I’ll wish the new independent Scotland every success. If an economically successful Scotland matters more to you than complete freedom from meddling Sassenachs, then you should vote no, and I’ll wish Scotland with its enhanced devolution every success.

12.          Rory Bremner’s take (supporting no, as it happens) is one of the few articles I've seen worth a read. It's funny, for one thing, unlike what I've just written.