Friday, 15 June 2018

My view on the sorry mess we are in - published in the Times on Line

'Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'  - Winston Churchill (1949).  The problem that the Brexit debate raises is this: what do we do when democracy manifestly fails, to the detriment of the whole country and its interests?   The Referendum and what has followed is a sign that we are in the end game of the form of confrontational, two party system we have in the UK and the US.  Two political sides polarise debate and with modern media and its rhetorical influence the two sides lead to a 50:50 split nationally: conservative, socialist; democrat, republican; remainer versus leaver.  Neither side wins but we end up in an endless cycle of we win then we lose, we lose then we win.   

The problem the Referendum has created is that one side feels emboldened to say 'we won', 'that's it', 'put up and shut up'.  There is no way the other 50% can hope or expect to put Humpty together again.  Neither the Referendum nor our political system has within it a mechanism by which national consensus can be achieved.  The Government cannot achieve consensus, not just because of its manifest inability to lead, but because our democracy does not have within it the institutional structures necessary for consensus to emerge.

Must we as a nation face up to the economic and social chaos of Brexit or is there a way back?  Only the most dogmatic leavers believe that Brexit will result in anything but cost, hardship and turmoil for a generation.  Will another Referendum or a General Election solve our problem - maybe, but the risk is that we are back with another 50:50 split.  In my view, if we cannot achieve a reasonable resolution with our European neighbours by October we must seek to revoke Article 50 with a commitment to remain in membership of the EU for (say) 10 years whilst we put our own house in order.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Has Theresa got a mandate for a new economic model?

The Times carries a very interesting article by Philip Collins questioning the basis upon which our PM can threaten to turn the UK into an entrepreneurial, low tax, low regulation economy.  I thought a rejoinder was in order:

So let me get the argument right. The great British population (or I should say a minority, sub-sample of the population) voted to leave the EU. A variety of opinion polls have discovered that the Leave vote was influenced by immigration (not sure from where but never mind), lack of control), straight bananas and a substantial cash bribe. Our then Prime Minister has a hissy fit because the GBP did not do what it was told and spits his dummy out, taking out the rest of the Cabinet with just one shot. Singing La-La-Land he disappears from public view.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man - in this case a woman - who decides that she really, really knows why the public voted the way it did. It was because a sizeable proportion of the population had been left behind - the old by time, under-achievers by achievers and those who wear a rust belt by those who wear (red) braces.

In flights of logic, lofty in their opacity, she appoints a small group of political failures to provide her with some clue what to do next. The only advice that comes through loud and clear is: 'if Nigel's happy, we're happy'. So be it, the only question to answer was what was Nigel's big thing? Immigration. We all know that migrants from the EU look and dress like arabs/chinese/afghans (delete as applicable) form disorderly queues, take our jobs, and sponge off our welfare system. So, having got that sorted out, our new Prime Minister decides that Brexit no longer just means Brexit, Brexit means Nigel. Brexit means abandoning the single market and if that means abandoning our own single market as well so what? The Scots and the Northern Irish are just a band of trouble-makers anyway.

That's clear then, even though her party won the 2015 election on a manifesto commitment to the Single Market let's abandon it, and if the EU doesn't give us what we want we will transform our economic model to be really nasty to them in exchange. We know that we can trump any bad hands the EU decides to deal us and, when the time is right, Sir Nigel will get his just reward. So, the current leadership of the Tory party is deciding to rewrite the governance, economic and social basis of the United Kingdom with no mandate apart from the result of a referendum on who could tell the biggest porkies to the British public. A-may-zing!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Another comment of mine in the FT.

A commentor called lastchance responded to my criticism of his views in this weekend’s FT.   He gave a link to natcen report which provided some evidence for the reasons for the ‘Leave’ vote in the June EU referendum.  In my reply I also suggested that Britain was now a politically failed state. He thought that idea too nebulous.  Here is my commentary on the reasons for the Leave vote and justification for my (partly tongue in cheek) opinion that the UK is failing politically.
‘Many thanks for the link to the natcen report, much appreciated and which I had not picked up yet.   It gives some clues about the motivation for the Leave vote but also suffers from severe methodological problems.  But, one thing it does show is the differential turnout figures which I believe point to an unspoken problem in polling and a large reason why the vote went counter-trend.  it wasn't, in my view, down to the failure of the Remain camp to get their vote out.
If you look at any of the 'polls of polls' the stochastic process appears to have a zero trend around 52-54% Remain with a noise component showing movement up or down by +/- 5%.   This suggests that the underlying opinion was stable in favour of Remain with the noise down to some movement in the population but predominantly down to sampling errors.    In the last few days of the campaign - particularly towards its close, the polls were showing quite sizeable swings in favour of Remain.   As I am sure you know, if you intervene in any system you change it and that is what happened.   This data strongly suggests that Remainers were reassured by the polls and at the margin did not turn out (on what was a pretty foul day for weather in the South particularly) and the reverse would have been true for Leavers.  This is a reasonable proposition but pollsters and those who pay them do not want it publicised.  So, if the hypothesis has merit - and casual evidence from recent elections here and in the US suggests it has - then ironically the polls may have got the opinion of the population correct but their publication altered the propensity to vote. 
My point is that the vote on both sides was driven by many different factors and much has been made of the freedom of movement argument.  If you turn up the Treaty of Rome you will note that freedom of movement of people was set as an objective in the original treaty (Art3(c)) - passed into law in 1972 and supported by an overwhelming referendum result in 1975.  Huge policy errors in the UK have led to it becoming a major problem for us but those are issues we should be fixing internally and not by walking away from the EU.
My point about political failure is straightforward:  Britain developed a model of Parliamentary democracy that became a model for political stability based upon rational debate and evidence.  Referenda have been a subversive addition to our political system - as the evidence from the 30's in Italy, Spain and particularly Germany demonstrate they are a tool for autocrats and dictators to undermine parliament and achieve power.  We have seen the whiff of such autocracy in the Government's use of the referendum result to justify the exercise of executive power through the Royal prerogative.  In my view,  the referendum result was largely down to UK policy failures over the last twenty years leading to the resurgence of an extreme policy agenda on the right.  This put the result within the reach of the Leave campaign.  The campaign demonstrated that politics in the UK is no longer evidence based but is driven by meta-narratives, conspiracy ideation, paranoia, and myths.  The result was further distorted, in my view, by polls that were aggressively exploited by a pro-Leave tabloid press who, I am sure, well understand how they can be used to manipulate propensity to vote.   We are in a period of political failure and as evidence from other countries show, economic failure will not be far behind.’

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Big Lie and how it got found out.

There is no doubt that the British public was lied to during the Referendum campaign.  It wasn’t just the threat of millions of Turkish immigrants or the £350 million a week that would be saved.  The great lie started with David Cameron and has now been repeated by Theresa May and her band of over-excited Brexiteers.  The great lie was that the result of the vote would be the definitive decision about whether we stayed or left the EU.

 What was obvious to anyone who bothered to look, was that the referendum result was not intended to mandate government to declare Art50 without further recourse to Parliament.  In the forums of this paper and the Times I, and many others, before the Referendum and since have made this point and been loudly rubbished.  But three of the most senior judges in the land agreed. The decision to leave the EU is down to Parliament not the Executive.

Before they voted, MP’s were briefed about the status of the Referendum 2015 bill as follows:

'It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. The referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998 are examples of this type, where opinion was tested before legislation was introduced.'

Given its status, even those MP’s who had a real concern about the wisdom of a vote such as this, were prepared to give their consent.  But Cameron, for his own political purposes, maintained that the result would be definitive as far as the Government was concerned he, of course, was presuming a vote to Remain.   After losing the vote the ‘Brexiteers’ had their hands around his delicate parts and it is said that when you grab a man by his delicate parts, his heart will surely follow.  To hold his party together Cameron had to make the claim it was a done deal and Parliament had no further role in the decision to leave.  He and his successor were wrong, the basis of the original vote was clear and the courts have reaffirmed that the execution of Article 50 is the province of Parliament and not the Executive. 

There is only one reason, in my view, why the Supreme Court will not uphold the decision of the High Court.  The judges may well address the question whether Article 50 is irrevocable and seek a ruling from the European Court.  This is the big-money question.  If it is irrevocable then it must be Parliament’s decision. through a legislative act, when and whether to commence the process of leaving the EU.  If it is revocable, and the evidence taken by the House of Lords and indeed, the comments made by Lord Kerr suggests that it is, then Parliament can wait until it knows how the EU will respond to the proposals put to it by the UK Government.  Those proposals will need to be argued out in Parliament but, if Article 50 is revocable, then the Government’s negotiating position is immeasurably stronger.  The only ones who do not want this issue tested are the hard-line Brexiteers – they do not want any deal with the EU.  They want out, completely and irrevocably.  

If Article 50 is revocable then a decision point will come:  do we stay in the EU on negotiated terms or do we leave on negotiated terms?  That would be the point at which a clear and definitive question could be put to the British people in a second referendum.  We would then know what the stakes are and this time Parliament, could decide to make the Referendum result binding.   If those who voted for Brexit are convinced of the strength of their case, then what is there to be afraid of? 


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

A comment of mine in the FT

David Allen Green wrote an interesting article in the FT where he expressed surprise at the lack of a view in Brussels about how the EU should deal with Brexit.  For me, it wasn't a surprise.  Here is my comment and some of the follow-up:

David, I wonder if your search for answers was doomed from the start.  They have not begun to think about the issues in any meaningful way in Europe.
Of all the major states of Europe, the UK is still the one country that has both a legal and a political system based on confrontation and contesting arguments.  In both our law and our politics, the side with the best story is the one that wins - even if all that is being told is fiction. With our first past the post system, even one vote confers a democratic mandate. 
This concept of democracy has blighted our understanding of the European project and the way decisions are made in Europe.  If you start from a premise that power is shared and that decisions are made by agreement and hard-won consensus then it is easy to see why no one as yet has a firm view on what Brexit might mean in Europe - the process of consensus building has not begun.  
The UK's trajectory has been away from the Union from the moment we joined in 1972.  We find it hard to conceive of a democracy apart from our own, or of a concept of a unified state that is not like the UK or the USA where the locus of power lies in the centre.   Indeed, the citizens of the UK or, to be more precise, England, would be happier if we formalised our current position as the 51st state of the USA.  We may believe that the Referendum was a clear decision that our politicians must follow no matter what the outcome.  It wasn't.  In Europe, their negotiating position is what all the member states are willing to accept.  What individuals might think is of interest but of no significance to the outcome.
@ProfBob  Would you call the Eurozone, e.g.,  a "unified state" without a central power locus?
(fair comment btw, though as a unionist Scot, I would not make your "correction" for England. Some English people just don't have enough awareness of the RoUK.)
@ciwp1 @ProfBob  That's a good question and I think the answer is no and that, again, is our problem in understanding the Euro and how a common currency could work without a controlling centre of political power.  The Eurozone is dominated economically by France and Germany and they will be powerful voices in any debate but I do not see any direction of travel towards what we might think of as a federal state.  
On Scotland - having studied there and hoping in the near future to return to live,  I am always surprised by the strength of its cultural links to the continent.  Perhaps in the UK we should think of emulating the EU model where England cannot simply overrule Scotland, Wales, and NI by force of Parliamentary arithmetic.
@ProfBob An excellent analysis.  I'm always struck by how British Eurosceptics, so critical of the 'democratic deficit' in the EU, are generally so supportive of the status quo in the UK, including fptp, House of Lords and lack of a devolved government.