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Aftermath

1. The Labour party is finished with Corbyn.

And if it’s sensible, with Corbynism. There is going to be an almighty battle for the soul of that party in the aftermath of the election. If the party decides that it wants to go with a Corbynite successor, then it will probably be smashed at the ballot box in the next election, and the outflow of MPs, donors, and activists will continue. Quite where they end up is hard to say; the Liberal Democrats have their own problems, and a fundamentally distinct value set.

2. The Liberal Democrats will need to do some soul-searching.

The Liberal Democrats are also facing some interesting decisions. For the past three years they have been the ‘party of Remain’, an identity which is no longer nearly so salient. Realistically, there will be little appetite for re-entering the EU for at least one election. They will need a new identity to hold together their electoral coalition of traditional voters and angry Remainers — if indeed one can be found. Their spectacular failure in this election — and the way in which they helped to bring it about — may turn off many voters.

In particular, the results in seats like Kensington — where Remain-backing MP Emma Dent Coad lost to the Conservatives by 150 votes in a race where the distant third place Liberal Democrats soaked up 9,000 votes — are likely to make hardcore Remain voters very angry.

Parachuting in Sam Gyimah as a candidate for an all-out campaign in a Remain marginal won by just 20 votes in 2017 was a horrendous strategic choice. The likely result was always to divide the Remain vote, and hand the seat back to the Conservatives. From the perspective of stopping Brexit, there was no need to compete for the seat. It was already held by a Remain-backing MP, and moreover a party which would be needed in any referendum/Remain coalition anyway.

This example is illustrative of the quality of decision making by the Liberal Democrat HQ throughout the campaign. The failings of the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn are clear and obvious, and their unwillingness to cooperate clearly deserves opprobrium also. With that said, the behaviour of the Labour party was clear and obvious in advance. The Liberal Democrats had a choice between acting in ways which would maximise the chances of an outcome conducive to staying in the EU, or trying to maximise their electoral gains.

They opted for the latter, in a deeply unsuccessful way. The idea that a party seriously out for a second referendum or EU membership would compete full tilt for seats held by a party it already needed in coalition is silly. Remain voters may well feel that the Liberal Democrats let them down also.

Whether disaffected voters and MPs can come together to form a viable new force in British politics is a question for another day. Given the strictures of first past the post, I suspect not. The best option may be to try and reclaim the Labour party.

3. The Conservative realignment

The Conservative party will also have to lift its eyes above the short-term horizon of Brexit at some point. The coalition assembled for this election as the ‘get Brexit done’ party will need something to hold it together, unless Boris Johnson believes former Conservative voters who left over EU membership will return by the time the next election is held.

I can’t quite decide if the realignment of the Conservative party has already happened, or has just begun. The purge of the moderates and the tilt towards hard Brexit prior to this election suggests the first. The new electoral geography of the party — and the imminent expiration of its current monomaniacal Brexit focus — suggest the latter.

4. Brexit is happening, but not done.

Of course, Brexit won’t be finished on January 31st. We will have the ongoing delight of trade talks for some time. Johnson insists he will be done by the end of December. The only way I can reasonably see that happening is if he either signs on the dotted line of a deal written by the EU — sign over your fish, sign up to the level playing field, and we’ll give you the minimum.

What seems more likely to me given the leaks from his own government is that there will be a fudge. Getting the infrastructure in place to operate the Northern Irish protocol cleanly is likely to take longer than a year, and while a no-trade-deal Brexit is still on the table, a not-exactly-extension designed to gradually fall away as the UK transitions to whatever free trade deal is struck seems more likely.

One small positive from this election is that the role of the European Research Group in talks is likely to be significantly smaller. While their numbers may have grown, Johnson has a large enough majority that he can likely ignore them for the most part. This gives him room to manoeuvre towards either outcome.

5. The next fight could be for the union.

Perhaps the most depressing part of last night’s results is the resurgence of the Scottish National Party, which took 48 out of 59 seats in Scotland. Labour was all but wiped out, while the Conservatives lost more than half of their seats. The picture is less bleak in terms of raw votes, with the pro-Union share crossing the 50% mark, but an 8 point increase for the SNP still paints a deeply worrying picture.

The problem for unionists is that for the next five years we are going to have a heavily Conservative government, with its mandate drawn almost entirely from England, implementing an incredibly unpopular Brexit policy against the explicit desire of the Scottish people.

The SNP may be poor governors but they are excellent at selling grievance, and there will be things for Scotland to be legitimately aggrieved about. With Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, the stage is set for the SNP to portray themselves as the authentic voice and desire of the Scottish people, with a mandate for another referendum.

In terms of vote shares, this is clearly untrue. But in the media — and particularly the BBC which tends to apportion time and attention by Westminster seats — will give it credence, and in doing so credibility.

It is crucial that the Conservative party is seen to be listening to the Scottish people in the Brexit process. Quite how this is done in a one-year dash for a final deal, with six Conservative MPs north of the border, and with the SNP representatives in Westminster largely out to avoid cooperation or engagement at all costs, seeking to twist any refusal of their demands into a sleight against Scotland, is another matter. The idea of Citizens Assemblies was floated before the election. As a policy-generating idea, it’s not ideal. As a cover for actions, it might just do. Alternatively, Johnson could give a highly public role to the Secretary of State for Scotland, who could pour resources and effort into ‘listening exercises’ in Scotland.

These are ideas on the morning after. They are not highly thought through proposals. But if the experience of the referendum has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot cede the ground on an issue to your opponents merely because you are not going to be formally fighting it in the near future.

Pro-Europeans let the Brexiters make the running on the European Union for forty years, failing to make the case for membership or against leaving, until the final six months before the referendum. Throughout that period, UKIP and its allies in the press were campaigning continuously. The last Scottish referendum should have been a wake-up call for David Cameron that this method does not work. That he went ahead and applied it in the European Union referendum speaks poorly of his strategic sense.

Whether Boris will repeat that mistake remains to be seen.

If we want to fight this and win, we are going to have to work across the Remain-Leave divide, and we are going to have to start fighting it now. We have the advantage that we will be able to at least dictate the timing, and with the size of the majority Johnson holds we will have no excuse for failing to take the actions we can to tilt the playing field in our favour — directing public investment and attention north of the border.

6. The culture of politics is going to change

Boris Johnson did not just secure a governing majority in this election. He has probably also secured a change in the way politics have been conducted.

Vote Leaveism1 works. We knew that before the results came out last night. We knew it before the 2017 election, when Theresa May stepped back from its worst excesses in favour of a refusal to answer awkward questions. We even knew it in 2016. Vote Leaveism works, and its expected failure was never the reason for refraining from it. The reason we don’t win elections by pouring poison into the veins of the body politic is that we have to live with what results. We choose not to use these tactics because we want a better politics.

The tragedy of this election is the triumph of a Conservative party which is no longer recognisably conservative. The rot in truth set in well before 2016, but in hindsight that was when it took the entity whole. The capture of the natural party of government by people who have realised there is very little punishment for breaking the norms around honesty, scrutiny, and accountability in politics, but not quite why we wanted those norms in the first place, could prove to be one of the longest lasting effects of the last three years.

Up until now the move for a ‘sensible’ fight against this dishonesty has largely held. Corbyn’s rhetoric on the NHS grew more frantic towards the end of the campaign, but the bulk of the party — and others such as the Liberal Democrats — never quite got behind it. Theresa May’s step back in 2017 helped in this.

Now that the Conservatives have won a thumping majority behind it, there is little reason to believe that other parties won’t follow suit. Queensbury rules are all well and good in a well-refereed ring, but following them on the street is inadvisable at best.

A more honest politics will not magically reappear. It will have to be something we actively work towards. And unfortunately, so long as the government is determined to win by any means necessary, meeting the standards we wish to install will likely leave us out in the cold. Things may have to get far worse before they can begin to get better.

7. As could our style of government

For the first time we may will be experiencing Vote Leaveism in government, with a solid majority, and no real internal dissent to hold back its worst excesses. Holding this government to account is likely to be a deeply unrewarding task, particularly in the absence of a functioning or viable opposition.

We will be relying on our other institutions — particularly the press — as never before. Their track record throughout the referendum period — and the ease with which they have allowed themselves to be cowed by successive Conservative governments and the initial Leave campaign — does not inspire confidence.

Whether Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings can continue to portray themselves as the outsiders and underdogs fighting on behalf of the people when they hold a vast majority remains to be seen.

8. Unless we see a return to reputations

The last three years of British politics took place under almost unique conditions. The EU referendum and its aftermath can be seen as a brief ‘winner-takes all’ period, giving the victor the right to set in stone — or at least an international treaty — the rules under which the country will operate for at least a generation.

EU membership in some senses resembled a forced compromise, under which the extremes at both ends of the economic spectrum were agreed to be ‘off-limits’; no mass-subsidisation or nationalisation for the socialists, no American-style deregulation for the hardline free-marketeers.

Leaving the EU puts all options back on the table, but only for the initial period afterwards. The first government to take power after departure can pour resources into fixing the state of play into one amenable to their politics and inimical to those of their opponents. This does not just include the path dependency of investments and policies, but the blunt fact that the deals we strike with the EU and the USA will tie up certain commitments in international law – making resiling impractical.

At the same time, the sheer size of the prize on offer may have been what caused the breakdown in our politics over the last three years. While it is possible to sustain ‘cooperation’ on desired play in repeated games — for instance, honesty in politics — adding a large single prize may result in the breakdown of the same. When this period is resolved, it is possible that the parties may revert to cooperation over the longer run.

How optimistic you feel about this is entirely up to you. This argument was stronger for the initial Vote Leave and Stronger In campaigns, which had no institutional reputation to care about, and were never going to stick around beyond the initial referendum. Now that the Conservative party has elected to become Vote-Leave-in-government, and repeated the tactics under its own name, we will be relying on the end of the Brexit process to end this period of play. The reputational costs were either too low, or non-existent.

Vote Leave’s most lasting contribution to UK politics might well turn out to be the realisation that if you trash norms to win a one-off event, you can’t always rebuild them afterwards.

9. Electoral reform is not on the table, but should be. 

I suspect I will be thinking about this for a long time. The raw number of votes in favour of a second referendum or outright Remain exceeded those in favour of Brexit by a comfortable margin – just a little over 52% to 48%, as it happens. But the division of the Remain vote between multiple parties — and its unhelpful geographic distribution — meant that the Parliament that resulted was overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit.

What is particularly hard to swallow is the massive failure of tactical voting in seats like Kensington, where the division of the Remain vote handed seats to the Conservatives. Under an alternative electoral system — for instance, one where candidates are ranked — the result of this election would have looked very different.

Perhaps the most egregious failing of the electoral system was its success in locking voters into what was often in essence a binary Labour/Conservative vote. In fairness, that is the stated aim of the system; producing strong majorities that can govern well. The problem is that the unstated assumption underlying this was that the parties themselves would stay sane, or at least that no more than one major party would be captured by its extremes at a time. The failure of this assumption in the aftermath of the 2015 election is arguably what led to the victory of the Brexit campaign in 2016, and everything that followed.

The problem going forward seems to be that once again the left-wing vote is going to be fragmented between parties in such a way as to remove a functional opposition. In Scotland, read the same argument for the anti-independence vote.

I may be a conservative, but I am first and foremost British. And that means that I want a strong and functioning opposition, although ideally one just weak enough to be beaten by the right’s best. If the electoral system isn’t going to provide us with that, then it isn’t fit for purpose.

10. The left needs to learn to pick its fights.

Again, I should preface this by noting that I am a conservative. While I have been largely working alongside the left for the last three years, I don’t think I can counted among your number.

With that said, the ability of Britain’s left wing parties to find new ways to self-sabotage has left me genuinely taken aback at points. The infighting in the name of ideological purity that has divided your parties and votes would be truly impressive if it wasn’t so catastrophically mistimed. There is a time and a place for everything.

The Liberal Democrats, for instance, needed to accept that they were going to have to be the bigger party and take unilateral steps to avoid competing in Labour marginals if they wanted the country to remain in the EU.

The SNP and Liberal Democrats should also have avoided backing an election in the first place. A vote was inevitable at some point, and possibly before any pro-referendum majority could be assembled. Calling it in the way they did was even without the benefit of hindsight extremely risky. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings had been effectively in full-tilt campaign mode for months before, pitching a ‘Parliament vs the People’ narrative that was clearly breaking through. The antics around the prorogation and extension need to be seen in that light, as did the ruthless purge of dissidents from the parliamentary party. This comes back to the point I raised in the context, but bears repeating; if you must fight, don’t let your opponents set the battlefield.

Criticising the Labour party is trickier, as I am directing my comments implicitly towards the ‘moderates’ who were trapped in a party taken over by Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour party manifesto was a disaster, the refusal to cooperate with other parties predictable and predictably self-sabotaging, the leadership utterly toxic with the electorate.

In terms of what Jeremy Corbyn could have done differently, the list is endless. Restricting attention to the things he might have plausibly done differently given who he is, I would have suggested not using the prospect of Boris and Brexit as a licence to try and get everything he wanted, rather than attempting to build a coalition.

This has been an issue with the left more generally, including our cousins in America. The temptation to react to an opponent further to the right by shifting to the left has often proved irresistable, as the Democrats are currently demonstrating. The issue with this is that if the party just held their ground, they would often be in a position to win. Moving slightly to the right would nail it on. Moving to the left, on the other hand, forces voters to choose between two equal extremes. While your chance of getting your ‘best’ outcome goes up, your chance of winning at all decreases.

Finally, perhaps the key takeaway from the last three years is that you don’t put ludicrous candidates on the ballot to widen the fucking debate.

Header image courtesy of Matt Brown, used under a creative commons license.

Comments Off on This election is about trust. Do you trust Boris Johnson?

This election is about trust. Do you trust Boris Johnson?

This election is about trust. Trust that whatever government we elect will find a way to resolve Brexit that holds our country together. 

While Boris Johnson tells you that he can “get Brexit done”, he is lying to you. Passing his deal wouldn’t be the end of Brexit. We would have years of negotiations as we try to thrash out a new trade deal, with everything still to play for. Hard Brexit advocates demanding an ever purer free trade agreement. Moderate MPs trying to shift the ground towards customs union or single market membership. 

Johnson says he will have a deal done and in place by December. His own government has all but admitted that this isn’t true. And people who trust Boris get burned – just ask Arlene Foster and the DUP.

Unlike in most elections, the changes Johnson could make to our country will be permanent, bound and sealed by international law. The next Parliament wouldn’t be able to step back into our privileged niche in the EU, replete with rebates and opt-outs. It wouldn’t be able to rewrite his deal from scratch, either – unless the EU was willing to play ball.

So. Do you trust Boris Johnson? 

Do you trust him to tell the truth about the decisions we face, when he’s lied to you so many times before?

Do you trust him to keep his promises, when he broke so many from the 2016 referendum? 

Do you trust him with our NHS, when his Brexit plans are actively harming it?

Do you trust him to keep our country together, when his Brexit plan is alienating Scotland and Wales, and tearing Northern Ireland out of the UK single market?

Do you trust him that there won’t be a border in the Irish Sea, even though his own government says there will?

Do you trust him not to crash out with a no-trade-deal Brexit, when he’s threatening to do just that?

Do you trust him not to extend the transition, when he’s lied about one extension already?

Do you trust him to protect our NHS from Donald Trump, when drug pricing is already being discussed?

Do you trust him not to lower food hygiene standards to get a deal from the same?

Do you trust him to fight climate change and protect the environment, when he refused to commit to it in his deal?

Do you trust him with our BBC, when he’s already taking aim at the licence fee?

Do you trust him to ban live transport of animals for slaughter, when he’s set up to wriggle out of his promises?

Do you trust him not to do another surrender deal, and avoid turning us into an EU vassal?

Do you trust him to find a deal that protects our fisheries?

Do you trust him to find a way to secure access for our services?

Do you trust him to protect our democracy, when he’s spent three years corrupting it?

Do you trust him not to abuse the powers he would get through the Withdrawal bill?

And if you don’t trust Boris Johnson – are you really going to let him win, or are you going to vote tactically to stop him on December 12?

Header image courtesy of Matt Brown, used under a creative commons license.

Comments Off on Stop the chaos. Stop the arguing. Stop Brexit. Stop Boris Johnson.

Stop the chaos. Stop the arguing. Stop Brexit. Stop Boris Johnson.

The Conservatives have unleashed a mammoth advertising campaign for the end of the election, buying the advertising banner at the top of the YouTube homepage. The messages are simple.

“Stop the Chaos. Get Brexit done. Get all of it done”. 

“Don’t risk another hung parliament. Your vote can end the uncertainty. Get Brexit done.”

Really? A vote for Johnson is a vote for chaos. Passing his deal won’t “get Brexit done”; it merely signals the start of years of negotiations as we try to thrash out a new trade deal. Of years of bitter arguments dragging on. Hard Brexit advocates demanding an ever purer free trade agreement. Moderate MPs trying to shift the ground towards customs union or single market membership. Even more uncertainty about where we’re headed. What will happen.

A vote for the Conservatives won’t end the arguments in parliament. Some of the biggest rows of the last three years have been between factions of the Conservative party. Theresa May’s deal with the DUP should have given her a majority. It was the Tories who voted her deal down three times, called a failed vote of no confidence in her leadership, drove her out of office, and chose Boris Johnson as their new leader – who then blew up his majority by kicking out 21 MPs. It was the Tories who started this whole mess with their referendum in 2016, the Tories who stopped the government ‘getting Brexit done’, and the Tories who called this unnecessary election. 

Do you really trust them to “stop the chaos”?

If you want to stop the chaos, end the uncertainty, and stop the arguing, then take back control. Stop Brexit. Stop Boris Johnson.

Header image courtesy of UK Parliament, used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments Off on Antisemitism is breaking activists’ brains

Antisemitism is breaking activists’ brains

“Isn’t it infuriating that yesterday all of Labour was tweeting furiously that the New Statesman refused to endorse Corbyn, and today they’re tweeting about how sad the Jewish Labour Movement dossier is?” ⁠ — Anon. 

Say what you will about the Conservative party but it does at least have the following advantage for those attempting to follow its internal culture wars: the bastards may be bastards, but at least they’re consistently bastards.

If only the same could be said of the Labour party’s more vocal supporters. Over the past week, we’ve had them claiming that accusations of antisemitism are simply a Tory smear, saying ‘the problem is real – but the Conservatives are the real racists’, arguing that the Jewish Labour Movement dossier ‘shows there is a problem that must be dealt with, but not that voters should choose Boris and Austerity’, and then, once enough time was judged to have passed, returning to the first point in the cycle.

For a single movement to contain this many viewpoints on the issue of antisemitism would show an alarming lack of coherence. For the same person to veer between them shows that something in their internal model of reality is rendering them fundamentally incapable of handling the world as it really is.

From my vantage point it looks as though at least part of the problem is that the issue of antisemitism, combined with a snap election, falls neatly onto the major fault-line in online left dialogue.

Those fortunate enough to have experienced the persuasive rhetoric of left wing activists will be aware that there is a certain tendency is to look at issues in terms of oppression, hierarchy, and privilege, and then to formulate arguments around policies and parties in these terms: “X is a transphobe. Y is islamophobic. Z is anti-black. Therefore you must vote for L – unless you, too, are all of these things.”

At the same time, the fundamental rationale for most of the left wing parties is a broadly utilitarian calculus which by its nature places a heavy emphasis on economic issues and redistribution. While the rise in emphasis on social issues has driven away some economically-left-but-socially-conservative voters, there is no inherent contradiction between the values of economic collectivism and social liberalism. And while some voters might be lost, they were racists, or transphobes, or some other flavour of bigot whose vote you didn’t want anyway.

The problem is that their own party is now a glaring exception to this stance, and there is nothing in their debating algorithm that tells them how to resolve it. The consistent line has been that the oppression/hierarchy/privilege axis is the single most important thing in politics, that it holds the power to disqualify utterly and without hope of redemption, and that it can never – never – be ignored. This is built into the core of their worldview. Their colours are pinned firmly to it.

But with an election looming, activists are now having to weigh their values against each other in a way they did not before. Do they stick with their rhetoric about the disqualifying nature of racism, or do they think that redistribution is more important? When forced to choose between an economically collectivist Labour party riddled with antisemitism, and the Conservatives, it seems that the economic motivation wins out.

For most voters, that would be the end of the matter. There would be a recognition that it’s a grubby sort of compromise, but that in the choice between two evils they have chosen the one that they believe to be lesser. For the activists who pride themselves on their social justice credentials, that option is unavailable.

The way they appear to be rationalising their decision while maintaining their self-conception as uncompromising anti-racists is to say that they aren’t making a moral compromise; the stories must be false, because Labour is the good party. After all, they are the good people – and they’re backing Labour! Q.E.D. The activist must simultaneously hold on to the beliefs that we must listen and believe to minorities who report bigotry, that the Labour party is not antisemitic, that bigotry is disqualifying, and that we have a duty to elect a Labour government that will do better by the poor and disadvantaged.

What this means in practice is that we end up with a peculiar whiplash between positions. The activist will declare that the problem of antisemitism is obviously dreadful, but tear into people for saying that they will vote against Labour on account of the same. They will accept the individual cases of antisemitism brought to their attention, but deny that there is any aggregate or institutional problem no matter how high the evidence piles. They will claim that Boris Johnson is a bigot who cannot be Prime Minister, but refuse to apply the same standards to Jeremy Corbyn. The conflict between the activists’ principles and their debating algorithm produces a total failure of rhetoric.

Header image courtesy of mrgarethm, used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments Off on The Brexit Trilemma

The Brexit Trilemma

If you spend enough time in policy circles, you will eventually run into the concept of the impossible trinity. A country can have full control of its interest and exchange rates, at the cost of imposing controls on the movement of capital. If it decides it would like to remove these controls, then it must either use its interest rate to hold up the currency (giving up its independent monetary policy), or allow the currency to float (giving up control of exchange rates). Of the trinity of desirable outcomes – fixed exchange rates, freedom to set interest rates, free flows of capital – a country can enjoy at most two. No matter what it does, no matter how ingenious the political fixes suggested, attaining all three is impossible.

An equivalent constellation of problems neatly explains why Brexit has become so intractable. While there are any number of conditions, subsidiary clauses, and lesser wants attached to the list, the major British, Irish, and European desires can (with a little flexibility) be boiled down to finding a deal that achieves some subset of an independent legal regime, preventing the creation of internal borders in their respective internal markets, and avoiding friction on the Irish border.

To see this, start with the negotiating mandate given to the Commission. The EU, as a bloc, has no desire to give the UK the right to meddle in its affairs as a non-member, and certainly has no interest in creating internal borders for its convenience. The UK’s position mirrors this; it has no interest in allowing the EU to meddle in its affairs as a non-member, or in installing a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And while Dublin’s Brexit wishlist might be quite long when it comes to relocating EU institutions, the top-line is very simple: Ireland doesn’t want any border frictions with Northern Ireland, and doesn’t want to loosen its place in the single market. It doesn’t really care what the UK does so long as these conditions are met, and it isn’t interested in leaving the EU.

These positions are clearly incompatible. Given that the UK wants to leave the EU’s legal sphere, you can have at most two of a frictionless border between between the UK and the EU, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the EU. Each party is insisting that the border goes somewhere else; Ireland wants it between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU-27 share that goal, but in the absence of a deal think it should go on the Irish border. The UK is (implicitly) stating that it should go on the Irish border, or at Irish ports.

Where Brexit builds upon the classic trilemma is imposing a condition of unanimity; unless all three parties involved make the same choice about the location of the border, no-one gets what they want: the UK leaves without a deal, and everyone spends an extended period of time pointing fingers and shouting while the Irish border hardens and businesses shed jobs.

The only way I can see through the trilemma is to try and soften the trade-offs. Just as a country can choose something between a totally free-floating currency and a fixed exchange rate, it’s possible for the UK, Ireland, and the EU to partially achieve their goals if they are willing to compromise. The caveat to this is that it would mean genuinely compromising; up until now, the EU’s version of the same has effectively meant ‘the UK accepts the backstop or just stays in our legal system’, while Britain’s version has largely meant the EU allowing a lacuna in its internal market.

One way out of the impasse – initially proposed by Jonathan Faull – was to play with the definition of what a ‘hard’ border actually means. What if – the thinking went – the UK and Ireland agreed to process goods for trade a long way back from the actual boundary between the two countries? That way, the border itself could be kept open, without any visible interference or physical markers to stir up republican identities. The compromise would be the UK and EU implicitly accepting a degree of smuggling, with an associated hole in their internal markets, and Ireland accepting that ‘no hard border’ does not mean ‘no frictions whatsoever anywhere in the process of trading with Northern Ireland’.

Predictably, this plan was shot down, but Boris Johnson’s new plan appears to be built from its constituent parts. Northern Ireland stays within the EU’s regulatory sphere – a significant concession of sovereignty – and customs are dealt with at trading sites behind the border. The hole in the EU’s regulatory boundary is far smaller, and a border appears between the UK and Northern Ireland. As this border is likely to be largely one way, the UK is likely to experience some illegitimate importing of EU goods but has decided that that risk is worth taking, given that it keeps the UK out of the customs union and prevents the imposition of a customs border within the country.

But this, also, has proved unacceptable to the EU. If we had but world enough and time we could spend the next big-bang to heat-death cycle of the universe thrashing out a perfect deal that achieves every goal, and we might even succeed. But here and now we have to construct a deal with the limitations in front of us, and that means finding a way out of the trilemma.

The EU, at present, seems to think that the way out is to wait for the British government to be replaced. The gamble is that the Benn act will prevent the UK leaving without a deal, and an eventual election will result in the installation of a government more amenable to its demands. If this doesn’t happen, then it can just go back to insisting on the backstop as it’s starting point. After all, as things stand the backstop – is perfect; there’s no border with Northern Ireland, there’s no threat to its internal market, it gets to govern part of the UK, and as an added bonus the level playing field commitments and unionist fear of division will give it a powerful grasp on the regulation of what might have been a large and competitive neighbouring market. While the deal is still on the table and Parliament is still divided, there’s no good reason to offer anything else.

From the UK government’s point of view, the same backstop is a disaster that divides the union, pre-judges the future relationship, keeps the UK enmeshed in EU law, and – while in theory temporary – would in practice last forever as the EU is all but certain to reject any alternative arrangement as comparatively flawed. Boris Johnson’s government would probably prefer to leave without a deal rather than accept it.

The danger for both parties is that they might both, in the end, prefer to compromise rather than face a no deal scenario, but find themselves bound up in negotiating positions that prevent this. While Irish domestic politics in particular mitigate against accepting any sort of border friction, the default under a no-deal Brexit is that the border goes between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with Dublin, London, and Brussels trying to keep it as soft as possible. This, in itself, should be a call to compromise; it would be a tremendous shame to incur the high cost of a no-deal departure only to hit upon a workable solution afterwards.

Comments Off on That upstart crow.

That upstart crow.

“for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you…”

Robert Greene,Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, 1592

William Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years and more, and still his work haunts our betters. It reminds them, constantly, that the greatest writer of his time and since was not one of them. It reminds them that an outsider – a man without the benefits of a university education, or fine breeding – took on the gentry in their art of choice, and proved immeasurably their superior.

Some have refused to accept this, preferring instead to take refuge in denial. They raise high the standard of the ‘authorship question’ and claim Shakespeare for their own, attributing his work to the Earl of Oxford or Derby, or to some other suitable knight of the realm. They look for an author who provides for a more palatable past, a safe shelter from the bubble-pricking reality that a grammar school boy really could write that well.

Less obviously explicable is the re-emergence of this behaviour among the new elite, the adoption by meritocrats of their hierarchist predecessors’ cause. Their latest effort to explain away Shakespeare’s authorship is a classic of its genre. It could almost have been drawn from the notes of a 19th century theorist. The proposed candidate is, of course, an aristocrat. Someone well-educated. Who moved in the right circles. Who had the right upbringing.

Where this theory departs from the old — and nods to the social beliefs of the new — is in its selection of a candidate who was “a dark-skinned Jewish woman”1 . A candidate who stares across from the 16th century, and reflects back at us the features of our modern day demography.

It is in our nature to want to see ourselves within people we admire. Both groups of ‘questioners’ are moved by the same motivating force: they wish to see the author of Othello and King Lear as somehow one of their own. And on its own, fantasising of this sort is of very little consequence — the result of narrative thinkers overfitting theories that explain every quirk within a life, rather than accepting that reality does not always present us with neatly ordered stories.

But it is hard to shake the feeling that, underlying everything else, is a less worthy motivation. That rather than a longing for Shakespeare to have been one of us, it is driven more by a pointed desire that he not have been one of them.

So much of the ‘authorship question’ is bound up in rotten assumptions: that to be uneducated is to be unintelligent, and that to be lower class is to be uncultured. Left standing, Shakespeare demonstrates their essential falsehood. He forces those who hold them to confront their beliefs about where talent may come from, and where merit is found.

By claiming him as their own, the questioners rid themselves of this source of doubt. The ‘authorship question’ affirms their moral, cultural, and intellectual superiority over those below them in the hierarchy. And to the extent that the it does so, it is far from harmless.

Header image courtesy of ufopilot, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Embers

In the opening of his series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark stands on a river bank across from Notre Dame and addresses the watching audience. “What is civilisation?” he asks. “I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it”. Turning, he considers the cathedral before adding “And I’m looking at it now”.

It is difficult not to wonder what Clark would have seen in the smoke and embers settling in its place today. I suspect that we know what the answer is; that civilisation is not simply the sum of art and architecture left to us by our ancestors, but an intellectual and cultural inheritance into which we are initiated throughout our lives. You cannot burn it to the ground, because it is not bound up in bricks. It is, as Oakeshott says, the “stock of emotions, beliefs, images, ideas, manners of thinking, languages, skills, practices, and manners of of activity” from which “these ‘things’ are generated”.

The loss of Notre Dame diminishes us all, but it is not the first such fire and it will not be the last. Civilisation continues, divorced from the physical; “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”. It is there, solid and immovable, resisting every coming and going.

Until, of course, it is not.

The dynamics of norms are deeply curious. They exist in a web of expectations and actions, self-enforcing, evolving without direction, responding slowly even to great external strain. But when they do begin to move, these same forces result in rapid shifts to a new and sometimes unpredictable equilibrium.

The combined structure of values, norms, and ideas – expectations about what we owe to one another, and what how we should and will act – in any age seems as though it will last forever. It was unthinkable that Rome would fall, until it did. It was unthinkable that the Church would split, until it did. It was unthinkable that – well. You see the line of argument; simply because it is not physical does not mean that this cultural inheritance will last forever, or that our neglect cannot damage it.

This is not an argument for stasis; every society changes, and often for the better. But there is within these changes a thread of continuity; unless a culture is completely replaced, something of it will pass into the next step in the chain. What I wonder, looking at the smoke pouring from Notre Dame, is how much has passed from our own history to us.

Set aside the dramatic changes in population that have resulted from an era of mass migration. It is not possible to argue that these flows of people bring cultural benefits without noting that they also bring cultural change, but set them aside nonetheless; managed well, migration is no cause for alarm. Set aside also the dramatic rise in secularism – culminating in a nation where more than half of all “Christians” do not believe in the risen Christ.

Instead, consider the creeping rationalism which insists that no habit of being handed down through time is worthwhile; that a sufficiently clever design can replace without consequence something that has evolved over long periods, that the past is simply a legacy of brutality and ignorance. The mindset adopted by the educators and politicians, the writers and historians who are entrusted with the safeguarding and reproduction of our cultural heritage. The people – as Clark described them – who wonder “if civilization is worth preserving”; who wish to shift to a global perspective of history, deny the concept of a West as anything other than a target for rote condemnation, who wish to decolonise the curriculum of an uncolonised nation.

We have become civilisational secularists. We divorce our education, and state, and modes of life from our past. We believe that nations are little more than a collection of people who happen to live in the same place; there is no expectation that these people should have anything more than a vague list of values in common. The idea that they should share a common culture is viewed as a backward relic, and the idea that you might attempt to preserve any such by limiting change the result of some reptilian process of the hindbrain.

What this worldview misses is the value in continuity. In preserving a shared culture through which we can relate to one another. In recognising, like Chesterton, that unless you can explain why a thing might be a certain way, you should act with caution in changing it. In accepting as Oakeshott does that “learning to make something of ourselves in no context in particular is an impossibility”; that our culture is not simply a set of constraints on our actions, but something which shapes our preferences and modes of thinking. And that if you begin the task of writing your civilisation anew, what you create will not necessarily be better than what went before.

Looking at Notre Dame, Clark said, it seemed “hard to believe that European civilization could ever vanish”. And yet it had already happened once.

Header image courtesy of Olivierbxl, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Oslo Delenda Est

One of the rhetorical oddities of the Brexit process is the emergence of a sort of cargo-cult legalism. Adherents of this practice view the law as a series of debating club tests, where a sufficiently cunning interpretation of the rules – spoken in the appropriate venue – will allow the speaker to reshape legal realities in their favour; treaties can be nullified or joined over the objection of existing parties; rights can be secured when the treaties guarantee them fail; alternative ways of doing things can be summoned from thin air.

A sure sign that you are about to encounter cargo-cult legalism is the invocation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a document which has assumed the status of a contested holy text, invoked by all sides to show that they and they alone possess the one true path to Brexit nirvana.

Advocates of the “Common Market 2.0” scheme are merely the latest to strike upon this remarkable source of power, claiming that the correct invocation of the convention could force the EU into giving us the Goldilocks Brexit; neither too hard nor too soft. A fundamental rule of life in the 21st century is that if you encounter the suffix “2.0” anywhere outside of software versioning, someone is trying to sell you a bridge. Common Market 2.0 is absolutely no exception to this law. To understand why, it’s better to refer to it by its original name: Norway+.

  1. The Norway+ Proposal

The core of the Norway+ model is that the UK seeks an arrangement akin to the one currently enjoyed by Oslo within the single market. We leave the EU, take our place in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and through this join the European Economic Area – the single market consisting of the EU member states and the EFTA/EEA countries (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein). As this would create the potential for tariff divergence between the UK and the EU – and the need for enforcement at either the Irish border or the Irish sea – the UK also agrees to stay within the EU’s customs union.

A more accurate name for the model might be EU minus: you keep the regulation, the free movement, and the customs union; you lose some elements of political integration and the right to vote on the rules governing your economy.

This is understandably not how advocates of the scheme describe it; Nick Boles speaks glowingly of Norway’s ability to influence EU legislation. Nicky Morgan tells us we would be a “rule-shaper and would remain a lawmaker” by gaining “a voice, vote, and ability to refuse”. Rob Halfon goes so far as to say that he’d rather have been in the EFTA bloc to begin with.

As they tell it, the Norway+ model offers the UK the chance to do something very special. We’d be within the EU’s single market, but unlike the member states we’d be able to say no to new regulations. We’d be free of the European Court of Justice. We’d be able to stop free movement if we wanted to, and pay pennies on the pound on our current contributions to the EU budget. There’d be no need for an Irish backstop, and we could leave at any time with just a year’s notice. We’d be out of all political union, regulating our own agriculture and fish, and in the near future we’d even be able to negotiate our own trade deals. And best of all, we can use the Vienna Convention to force the EU to agree this deal with us – ah.  

As you may have guessed, this is almost entirely untrue. The purpose of the single market is regulatory homogeneity; allowing for the sale of goods and services across the EEA without regulatory barriers getting in the way, and without countries undermining common standards. If you are in the single market without following the rules, then the structure springs a leak. If the country not following the rules is as large as the United Kingdom, that leak turns out to be on par with the one that sunk the Titanic.

2. Strategically placed figleaves

Nick Boles, High Priest of the Norway+ revivalists, was not always so keen on the model. As he noted in 2016, following Norway would see us “still in the single market, still bound by freedom of movement laws, and still subject to rulings by the European Court of Justice”. Far from receiving all the marvelous benefits of sovereignty listed above, “we would have gained almost nothing while losing any say over future developments in EU rules”.

If you were to ask Boles what changed since, it’s likely that he would tell you about his journey of discovery; how his naive preconceptions about the Norway model fell aside; how he came to see the light. In reality, Boles has discovered cargo-cult legalism.

To be fair to the member for Grantham, the EEA agreement is written in ways that are meant to confuse the reader into believing the non-EU member states retain considerably more sovereignty than they really do. Understanding the document relies on understanding the distinction between sovereignty de jure – the formal legal status – and de facto; where the power actually lies.

Norwegians have had plenty of time to experience this distinction, and a report produced by a government commission unsurprisingly takes a dim view on the sovereignty fig leaves offered by the agreement. Norway “formally retains its sovereignty”, but signs up to “a supranational and dynamic political union” with “continuous adaptation to its rules”. The agreement “has never been viewed as an agreement between equals”, and features “a substantial gap between formality and reality”. While Norway transfers no formal lawmaking powers, in reality “there is massive delegation of legislative power to the EU, a considerable delegation of judicial power to the EU Court… and some delegation of executive power… to the Commission”.

The Norwegian Parliament is reduced to the status of an Apple customer; new terms and conditions are downloaded, and it can either accept the new terms or end the agreement. It is this “choice” that Norway+ advocates believe would make Britain more sovereign. The only reason they do not see it more clearly is the power of cargo-cult legalism; “for political and constitutional reasons”, the arrangement works through international law agreements that “consequently give the impression of conceding less power than actually is the case”. The gap between formal legal structures and real world outcomes – between the incantation and the reality – is huge, and concealed.

At the same time, it’s clearly there if you know where to look. We might not be able to see tectonic plates moving over one another, but we can follow the fault lines by watching the hills.

3. When Storegga slides (Follow the hands)

At the core of the Norway model is a marvellous conjuring trick. The single market works because the EU countries involved pool sovereignty; they set rules collectively, and agree to follow them. Norway doesn’t take part in the first part of the process; it doesn’t get to vote on the rules, but under the terms of the EEA agreement is still bound to follow them. Understandably, this is a constitutionally and politically difficult position for a country to put itself in; a formal surrender of sovereignty has all sorts of negative connotations.

To get around this, the EEA agreement adopts a very particular structure. The EU countries sit in one pillar. Under their agreement, common market regulations take ‘direct applicability’ in national law; once the EU passes them, they are in effect without further action needed. Directives – larger and more sweeping pieces of law that need a more nuanced approach to fit them into different national frameworks – do not. Instead, EU countries transpose their intent into domestic law. If EU countries deviate from the rules, then the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has the right to issue fines.

The EFTA countries – Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein – sit in a second pillar. They do not transfer any formal powers to the EFTA authorities, but commit to aligning themselves dynamically to EU legislation relevant to the maintenance of the single market. This is where the trick begins; watch the magicians hands carefully. EU legislation is not ‘directly applicable’ in the EFTA countries, the European Commission does not make decisions for the EFTA countries, and the European Court of Justice does not have jurisdiction. Instead, a second set of institutions — an EFTA Court and Surveillance Authority — are created.

When the EU passes a law, the new legislation is incorporated into the EEA agreement by the EEA Joint Committee — a forum of EFTA ambassadors and EU officials. At this stage, some alterations may be needed to account for the unique status of the EFTA countries; references to EU external trade policy might be removed, and the powers given to EU authorities are adjusted to the appropriate EFTA authority. The core of the law, however, is unaltered.

For some laws this is the end of the proces. For others, the EFTA states may need to win parliamentary approval due to the contents of the law, and their own constitutional requirements.

This is the aspect of the agreement that Common Market 2.0 advocates believe gives Norway a vote and a right of refusal; the UK’s constitutional requirement is likely to be that all new laws are approved by Parliament (assuming no ‘conduit’ for new laws is created by one overarching act of legislation), and the EFTA countries do have the right to refuse new EU legislation.

This can take place in one of three ways. The first is that only single market relevant legislation is included in the agreement (although EFTA countries have voluntarily decided to include legislation the EU failed to flag as relevant). This opens the option of contesting the single market relevance of legislation, as Norway has done with some regulations on the trade in seal products.

The second is that the EFTA countries can delay the process, failing to take necessary national steps, dragging out negotiations with one another and the EU, failing to reach a conclusion in the Joint Committee, and so on.

Finally, the EFTA countries reach decisions on the addition of new laws to the EEA agreement by unanimity. If one disagrees, they have the formal power to veto the addition of new laws.

On the face of it, the EFTA countries have performed a remarkable feat; they are inside a homogeneous trade area without formally having to follow the rules. And if you believe this, you haven’t been watching the conjurers hands.

One small aspect of the structure of the agreement de jure means that in practice, the EFTA countries are bound to follow the EU’s rules. If after a year of attempts to resolve a dispute over a refusal to incorporate legislation no decision can be reached, then the EU can begin to suspend parts of the EEA agreement.

Clearly, the EU can suspend the directly affected parts of the agreement. In some cases, this can be remarkably far reaching; the integrated nature of financial services, for instance, means that refusal to incorporate one act can lead to massive suspensions of access. But as the European Parliament notes, suspensions do not have to halt there; to “effectively oppose” attempts by an EFTA partner to incorporate legislation “in a selective manner”, the EU can aim to suspend related parts of the agreement in an attempt to “impact negatively on the partner’s interests”.

And there, ultimately, is the trick. This process has never been brought, because there has been no need to; the threat is sufficient. To understand what this means, think of it as a cliff-edge Brexit in miniature for the affected sector. Overnight, access to the EU market is lost. And it is lost in a way which may well be unpredictable. As Erik O Eriksen writes, “the cost of applying [the veto on legislation] is considered so high that none of the EEA countries have used it so far”. The Norway model offers the illusion of sovereignty through a succession of Hobson’s choices; take this rule, or lose all access for that sector. And once a rule is in place, there is no unilateral mechanism for its removal.

To see the collision of the de jure ‘right to refuse’ with the de facto reality, look at what happened when Norway decided to deviate from the EU in the most minute way possible.

Norway has vetoed legislation once, refusing to implement the EU’s postal services directive in 2011. In response, the EU threatened to cut Norway’s access to the single market. Norway caved. The trick with the EEA agreement is to remember that you cannot take issues in isolation; while you can only suspend parts of the agreement affected by delay or refusal, at any given time there is usually a backlog of EU legislation waiting to make its way into the EEA agreement. There is little stopping the EU ending its lenient stance on delays on one issue to put pressure on the EFTA countries over another.

One substantive clash on a relatively minor matter of homogeneity, and the fundamental imbalance of the EEA agreement is laid bare. The artful edifices constructed to give the illusion of retained sovereignty fall down. When Storegga slides, Doggerland is washed away.

4. In the European Free Trade Association, no-one can hear you scream

Once the fundamental imbalance of power between the EFTA countries and the European Union is understood, the value of Norway’s “voice” is similarly laid clear. Norway and the other EFTA countries have no vote in the EU’s legislative process. They take no seats in the European Parliament, or in the Council, and Norway cannot suggest that new laws be brought in, or changes be made to those that already exist.

Instead, they are invited to participate in expert groups and committees put together by the European Commission during the drafting of laws. Once this stage is completed, one of two things will happen. Either the rules will be adopted by the Commission – in which case national experts act as state representatives in an EU-only process where Norway is excluded – or they will be passed on to the Council. In the latter case, Council working groups are formed, EU member states begin the process of horse-trading, and Norway is shut out from the most important stage of the process entirely.

The only influence Norway has from this point on is through diplomacy; relying on “detailed knowledge of the priorities and positions of individual member states”, informal mechanisms for contact with the European Parliament, and the goodwill of friends and neighbours.

Norway has a voice in the process until the stages where most of the major trade-offs are made; at that point, they must leave the drafting room and wait in the corridor – sometimes quite literally.

In turn, this means that no matter how hard Norway works to stay on top of developments in EU law it can still be taken by surprise. On one end of the scale, new rules on central heating boilers forced companies “to make multimillion investments overnight”. On the other, Norway’s most crucial industry – oil and gas – is regulated by Brussels without the Norwegian government being able to vote on its future.  

The fundamental problem is that when it comes to the crunch, Norway’s voice is absent and the country is out of the loop. And with no votes to back its position, its best hope is that another country’s interests will align with it.

If you want to know how this works out, you can ask Norway’s prime minister: “We are not at the negotiating table when the EU is assembled and we’re lucky if we’ve made it into the hallways of Brussels”. There is a notable “political deficit” for the EFTA members.

On any reasonable metric, the UK has been extremely influential in persuading the EU round to its point of view. Quite how the UK would do when excluded from the bulk of the decision-making process and stripped of its large vote share (~13% of the total) is another matter entirely.

5. Overruled

Suppose that the Norway+ advocates accept the arguments put forward so far. They agree that the veto is, in practice, unworkable, and that Norway’s voice is severely limited by its lack of votes. But as true devotees of cargo cult legalism, they have one last strand of argument to advance: EFTA has its own court to interpret EU laws, enjoys safeguard mechanisms, and can work legislation to be closer to its needs. Through careful invocation of these loopholes, Norway gains sovereignty relative to EU members.

The reality is that the existence of the EFTA court is precisely why Norway cannot work legislation to its advantage; it will be consistently overruled if it attempts to deviate from EU law.

Return again to the subject of fig leaves. Because Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland do not formally cede power to the EU, the ECJ cannot make decisions for them. Instead, the three countries have their own separate EFTA court. Advocates of the Norway model frequently tout this as a significant benefit, liberating the UK from the all-powerful ECJ. The reality is that it would do no such thing.

The core principle of the EEA agreement is homogeneity. The aim of the EFTA Court is not to provide Norway and the other EFTA countries with a mechanism for deviating from the law of the single market while remaining within it, but to ensure that they hold up their end of the bargain.

To this end, the EEA agreement makes some explicit provisions. The first is that the EFTA Court is bound to the case law of the ECJ prior to the signing of the EEA treaty in 1992. The second is that the Joint Committee keeps an eye out for deviations between ECJ and EFTA case law. Where these arise, the EU and EFTA can try to negotiate a common consensus. If this fails, they can agree to refer the case to the ECJ for an agreement. And if that fails, then the EU can turn back to the old standby: suspending the relevant parts of the EEA agreement.

If the case law of the EFTA Court and the ECJ diverges, the overwhelming weight of political power is with the latter. The EFTA/EU agreement is a partnership of equals, where one partner happens to be holding a gun to the others’ head. So long as everyone plays nice, everything is fine. And if they disagree, it’s pretty clear about which side is going to get its way.

In practice, these divergences don’t arise. As one study notes, the EFTA Court is often accused of being more “Catholic than the Pope”; in order to avoid undermining the agreement, the EFTA Court essentially asks itself what the ECJ would rule if it was in its place.

Even when legal principles in EU law are not transferred to the EFTA states – such as the concept of “Union Citizenship” – the EFTA Court works to preserve homogeneity with the EU, and has read the EEA provisions in a “citizenship-friendly” manner.

It’s the existence of this Court that means that attempts to ‘work’ single market rules to the national interest simply aren’t a feature of the agreement. The aim of the agreement, in every sense, is to preserve homogeneity. National sovereignty is incompatible with this. If Norway twists the rules, then the mechanisms for enforcement swing into play. That the Court’s rulings are advisory rather than binding is irrelevant; if Norway is in breach of the agreement, that hands the EU a large stick with which to bring it back into line.

For all the talk of the EFTA Court lacking a principle of closer union, it enforces the same rules as the ECJ, aspires to homogeneity, and is in a politically subordinate position. To sing its praises as a mechanism for supervising the EEA agreement relative to the ECJ is to plead for a prison on account of the attractiveness of the jailer.

Even the doctrine of primacy of EU law sneaks into the EEA agreement by the backdoor; all EFTA states participating in the agreement agree to introduce a principle “to the effect that EEA rules prevail in cases of conflict with other statutory provisions”.

The safeguard mechanisms – such as the much-touted emergency brake – are a non-starter when it comes to seriously deviating from EU law. They exist to correct major detrimental effects, when they can be shown to exist, and entitle a proportionate response from the other party. Going into the agreement with the intent of pulling the metaphorical handbrake on immigration is unlikely to be met with approval from any party involved.

6. Yes, Commissioner.

A staple of cynical conversation is that voting makes no difference; politicians are all the same, and civil servants hold most of the power anyway. In Norway, this is at least partially true. The EEA agreement guts domestic democracy and distorts the relationships between the various branches of government.

By the time EU laws reach the Norwegian Parliament, there is no room for decision making. Either they accept the laws as they stand, or they face the suspension of the relevant part of the EEA agreement. This being very little choice at all, the role of Parliament in debating issues vital to the national economy is significantly reduced; why discuss an area where you have no regulatory power?

The Parliament has no role in Brussels, and no incentive to take part. Where there is influence, it lies with the civil service and ministers; with expert groups and conversations with other governments. There is no direct impact of voting on EEA laws; no-one can be held to account for them. The influence of Norway on the rules governing it is reduced to a tenuous set of connections with ministers vulnerable to reshuffles and elections, and the work of the foreign office overseas. As a government commission notes, “the arenas where Norwegian politicians can involve themselves… are few and far between… they do not represent the main development and often are not even particularly important”. Policy, meanwhile, becomes disjointed; Norwegian positions “are to a great extent formulated by civil servants in individual government agencies often at a low level”.

The balance of power between parliament, the civil service, and the executive is distorted, with the only Norwegian influence in some areas coming from the latter two branches. While all branches are weakened in absolute terms, central government benefits relative to the others.

The effect of the deal on domestic politics is also unappetising. Because the EEA agreement is written to preserve an illusion of sovereignty where none exists, the exact nature of the pact is at best obscured for votes. The structure is designed to give the necessary fig leaves to politicians who want to proudly proclaim sovereignty without doing the hard work of governing, with the result that “few comprehend the real scope and depth of Norwegian integration”.

The end result is by the time an issue reaches public attention, “Norwegians are presented with a fait accompli”. When the EU brings in the Services Direction, the debate is “what would happen if Norway were to say no, rather than on the merits of the Directive itself”.

One might think in turn that the EEA agreement would be considered controversial in Norwegian politics, an ever-present issue in electoral politics. On the contrary; coalitions generally form with “suicide clauses” breaking up the government if membership of the EEA is ever put on the table.

Every criticism levelled at the EU – that it is undemocratic, and unaccountable – comes back at the Norway model tenfold. And it is very difficult to argue that it is in any way unjustified. To many intents, Norway is trapped in a permanent political adolescence; neither fully independent nor involved in the decision-making process.

7. The Perks

The Norway model is a terrible fit for the UK. The sections above have gone out of their way to demonstrate this. That does not, however, mean it is a terrible fit for Norway; the two countries interests are very different.

The key benefit for Norway is that while it enjoys full integration in most of the single market, its key industries enjoy a certain special status. The deal excludes agriculture and fisheries, meaning one large industry is entirely under Norwegian control. While EU tariffs make high added value exports to the bloc uneconomic in many cases, Norway judges the trade-off to be worthwhile.

The second major Norwegian industry is petrochemical; oil and gas. This sector accounts for 22% of GDP and 67% of exports, and while it is regulated under the EEA agreement there is a limit to the amount of damage that can be done. Oil and gas deposits don’t move across borders simply because a new regulation says they must. The end result is that the Norwegian government judges the trade-off to be worthwhile; a loss of control in some sectors is worth the opt-out for key industries, particularly given the lack of support for joining.

To illustrate the difference between the UK and Norway, look at each country’s goods exports. Norway sells fish, oil, and gas. The UK exports cars and pharmaceutical products; industries where small regulatory tweaks can shut off exports and create massive headaches for firms.

Cast your mind back to the regulation that proved so costly to Norwegian boiler manufacturers. Now imagine something similar taking place for financial services. Mark Carney, for one, has clearly thought about this and decided he doesn’t much like the possibility, saying he would not be comfortable “outsourcing supervision of this incredibly complex, incredibly important financial sector”.

The opt-outs in the agreement would be worth significantly less to the UK. While would still end up following the majority of EU rules (approximately 75% by one measure) we would find our hands tied when it comes to managing the most important parts of our economy. When Nick Boles tells his readers that “most EU rules would not apply to us at all”, he is being deeply dishonest, and also missing the point; counting rules is a fool’s game. What matters is their import.

Norway wields much of its influence through friends and countries with similar interests. The UK is already an outlier within the EU, and has spent the last three years thoroughly irritating the countries who would be setting the rules for us under the Norway+ proposal. Do we really think that the EU wouldn’t take the chance to snatch a few crown jewels from the British economy? The EU27 have already tried to offshore euro clearing activities with the UK as a full member; once the UK leaves, there is very little to stop the bloc attempting to regulate activity ‘onshore’.

There is also, at the core, a fundamental difference in the view Norway and the UK take of their relationship with the EU, and this is particularly highlighted by the way Norway has sought time and again to join EU programs outside of the EEA agreement. Norway is on the outside but wants to be as integrated as it possibly can be; Norwegians even pay roughly the same amount that we do, on a per capita basis. The UK, on the other hand, is on the inside but wants to be less integrated. The two parties are coming at the model from very different directions, and this could cause frictions.

8. Off-the-shelf, off the table.

The one great advantage of the Norway+ model – as described by its advocates – is that it would be simple to negotiate. I suspect the EU would certainly be keen on the framework, with suitable adjustments; the problem is the other EFTA countries.

Remember that essential difference in outlook; the UK is on the way out and wants to be less integrated, while the EFTA countries are on the outside but want to be as close as possible. Combine this with the UK parliament’s reluctance to be backed into a corner, the hugely disproportionate size of the UK relative to the other EFTA countries, and the controversy surrounding the EU within the UK, and the net result is that the EFTA agreement could well take on a different feel if the UK were to join.

The nature of EFTA – and its unanimous adoption of regulation – means that when one country refuses a change in the law, every other member is dragged to the cliff-edge. As one Norway politician notes, “letting the UK join EFTA and the EEC agreement to veto parts of it could undermine the agreement for all of us”.

Neither the EFTA countries nor the EU would be keen on the UK using the EFTA agreement to cherry pick single market access. Joining with the explicit intent of slowly diverging one sector at a time is unlikely to win us many friends. In turn, the EU could well take a far more robust approach to enforcement to an enlarged EFTA, making use of the rights afforded to it by the treaty rather than merely threatening to do so.

If the EFTA countries don’t want the UK to join, it is extremely unlikely that cargo cult legalism will carry the day; the most likely interpretation of the agreement is that the UK has no automatic right to remain within the EEA after leaving the EU. If the UK does enter into a Norway style arrangement, it is likely to have certain key differences.

9. Enter Norway+

The Common Market 2.0 proposal does not stop at single market membership. Unlike the existing EFTA countries, proponents of the scheme envisage the UK staying locked in a customs union with the EU so as to remove any barriers between Northern Ireland, the Republic, and Great Britain.

This would of course prevent the UK operating an independent trade policy; between regulatory alignment through the single market, and the binding obligation to keep tariff rates at those set by the EU, there would be no room for the UK to make concessions to other countries when attempting to win access to their markets. At the same time, we would lose our say on the EU’s trade policy.

This problem is compounded when you recall that leaving the EU involves losing our existing trade deals we hold through our membership of the bloc. While the customs union would force us to lower tariffs for countries the EU signs deals with, there would be no reciprocal obligation for them to lower their tariffs on UK goods.

Considering the size of the UK, it is unlikely that the ‘+’ element of the plan would stop there. The EU is likely to insist on elements of agricultural and fisheries policy being added to the agreement at least insofar as Northern Irish farmers are concerned, and for enforcement of the deal to be far more stringent than the current arrangement with Norway.

The UK is a large and important economy. Norway, bluntly, is not. If the UK is within the single market but not playing by the rules, it has the potential to create political havoc. As EU sources told the Guardian, we would have to follow the rules. We would be bound tighter to the current rulebook, with less room for manoeuvre. Norway has occasionally decided to delay rules, and taken time to back down; “with the UK we cannot accept such a slippage”.

The other EFTA states – and the EU – are unlikely to be particularly keen on the idea of the UK merrily vetoing EEA legislation. Not only would this be economically disruptive, it is likely to be politically toxic: as Hans Petter Graver puts it, “The UK is likely to politicise the EEA agreement and in doing so may render more starkly apparent the fact that EEA countries are not EU members, but must accept EU law.”

One measure the EU could adopt to handle the potential for Britain to diverge is a ‘guillotine clause’; if the UK pulls the emergency brake to control immigration, or diverges sufficiently for part of its single market access to be suspended, the entire agreement with the UK is suspended. This is the approach that the EU has taken in its relations with Switzerland, and so far the leverage granted by the clause has forced the Swiss into backing down on an attempt to end an agreement on free movement with the EU.

And then there is the ever-present issue of the Irish border. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the EU either insists on the withdrawal agreement as a precondition for agreeing to the EEA model – locking the backstop into law – or seeks to have it written into the UK’s accession.

10. Norway for now, Norway forever?

There is a school of thought that sees EFTA as a staging post to some better future agreement with the EU; Norway for now, but in the future nirvana.

Amusingly, this is precisely how Norway found itself in its current situation. Pro-EU membership parties viewed the EEA as a stepping stone on the way to membership, and a way to prevent Norway from slipping into euroscepticism.

The EEA has ended up “a second choice that nobody particularly likes but that they can live with”. It keeps EU membership from being on the agenda, but prevents anti-EU parties from getting what they want. Norway can’t leave the agreement without all the agonies of leaving the EU. And at the same time, it can’t go in further because there is no political will to do so; it ends up “committed to co-existing in an undemocratic association with the EU, because this is the only solution on which it has democratically managed to agree”.

British parties interested in Norway as a temporary solution should take note.

11. The UK’s interest

A Norway+ Brexit would be the worst possible outcome for the United Kingdom. We would end up effectively following the majority of EU rules without any vote on their contents, and with very limited ability to influence them. The illusion of sovereignty granted by the veto and safeguards does not make the consequences of their use any less painful or practicable, assuming they even make it into an adjusted model.

Economically, we would be trapped within an inferior customs union, and likely to face an extended period of reduced access to overseas market. Regulations would not written with our interests in mind, and may well be designed specifically to draw economic activity back to the continent.

If the UK enters the EEA arrangement with the explicit intention of deviating from EU law – using it as a way to slowly diverge over time – the EU is likely to take strict enforcement measures. If British businesses face a series of unpredictable cliff-edges in business with the EU, they will be at a significant disadvantage. Those that can do so may simply up sticks for the continent in order to preserve continuity.

It is worth remembering too that the UK is the loud free market voice within the EU. Even with the best intent, rules set solely by the EU27 are likely to be significantly more interventionist than those set in a bloc where the UK has full participation and a hefty set of votes. The Norway model works for Norway – with its independent trade policy – because of its exclusions and the makeup of the Norwegian economy. It would be a very poor fit for the United Kingdom. It would not even be a model necessarily available off-the-shelf.

Democratically, the Norway+ model would reduce Parliament to the status of a chamber for rubber stamping the regulation of our key industries. In preserving EU law, the jurisdiction of a European court closely aligned to the ECJ, free movement of people, and significant budget contributions, it would run contrary to every promise made during the referendum to take back control of the UK’s money, borders and laws. While leaving the EU to join EFTA and stay in the EEA would fulfil the technical interpretation of the instruction to leave, it would run explicitly counter to its spirit.

Nick Boles previously described attempts to pass a Norway style deal as a “guerilla war” waged “in the not-so-secret hope a future government… will be able to take us back in”. I believe he is probably correct in judging this as a potential outcome.

It is likely that the Norway model would prove to be unstable if applied to Britain; we would end up rejoining, or leaving the EEA. Either way, we would simply be postponing the pain of refighting the 2016 referendum until significant further damage had been done.

And the world would not stand still while we make our decision. In our absence the EU is likely to push ahead with further political integration, and may well make our participation in all aspects of the EU – Schengen and the Euro included – a precondition for rejoining.

Whatever Brexit model we choose, Norway+ should not be on the table. To make my own views clear, I personally do not want to leave the EU. My judgement is that the withdrawal agreement and makeup of Parliament make it likely that a model similar to Norway may be the end result, eroding our democracy in exchange for very little gain. The alternatives – no deal, or a deal that separates Northern Ireland and Great Britain to the detriment of the Union – are unappealing in their own way.

What I will say is this; any Brexit outcome fixed in the next few weeks is likely to be catastrophically bad. What we have seen time and time again in the years since 2016 is the consequence of under-preparing; triggering Article 50 without setting a negotiating position, an end goal, or making any serious effort to prepare for a no deal. This in turn put us in a position where we were utterly reliant on the passing of a withdrawal agreement and granting of a transition period, and gave the EU very little incentive to give way. Signing the backstop agreement just to move talks on with a deadline looming in turn has given the choice of accepting a new status as a rule-taker, or dividing our country. Understandably, when this choice was presented to Parliament, both outcomes were rejected.

With very little time left until we leave without a deal, the EU has us at a heavy disadvantage. Whatever outcome you want – WTO, Super Canada, Remain, anything in short other than Norway+ – the best way to see it through is to revoke Article 50, halt the clock, and begin the process again as if we mean it.

Leaving the European Union is going to reshape the British constitution for a generation at the very least. Whatever form Brexit takes should not be dictated by a weak Prime Minister in thrall to her back benches. It certainly shouldn’t be trusted to a geriatric Stalinist. A genuinely cross-party approach is needed, drawing on expertise from around the country. Years, not months, of preparation would be required before we could think of triggering Article 50 again.

I acknowledge that this approach would be slow, but we have wasted three years on May’s efforts. If we had adopted this approach in beginning, we could now be about to trigger Article 50 with our destination set, a viable no-deal plan, and a great deal of leverage. Such is life. The most important thing to remember is that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing right; rushing through Brexit to find ourselves trapped in the EFTA twilight zone would be a very poor return to so much effort.


Header image courtesy of AlvaroPrieto, used under a creative commons license.

Comments Off on To the brink we go.

To the brink we go.

When humanity next gets round to revising the fundamental laws of the universe, Theresa May will surely earn a special mention. Her deal breaks down in flames. Her party, riven both by Brexit and her unique approach to implementing it, collapses around her ears. Her voice, worn out with meaningless catchphrases and outright untruths, gives out on her. Parliament refuses to back her deal. Refuses again. And still she clings on to power.

At this point, even the Terminator’s famed powers of resilience have nothing on the Prime Minister’s seeming indestructibility. Long after the nuclear fires of the next war wipe the world clean of humanity, May will still be stood behind a lectern determinedly informing the cockroaches that Brexit means Brexit. However insurmountable the obstacles, however staunch the opposition, however blatantly, laughably unworkable her strategy becomes, she continues undaunted by past failure or present reality.

Today, with preparations for Operation Yellowhammer – the government’s undercooked no-deal strategy – slowly winding into place some nine days before the ultimate deadline, May stood in front of the nation to explain how the Brexit process has ended up so badly off track.

You might think given everything that has come to this point that she would show some humility. That she would accept that her strategy of triggering Article 50 without a plan in place was premature. That negotiating in secret so as not to ‘show her hand’ – keeping both opposition parties and Parliament excluded from the process – had been an unwise move. That the deal she reached – keyed to her preferences and those of her immediate confidantes – could not be passed, and that a more inclusive process might have made this obvious earlier. That her strategy of driving the country up to the cliff-edge in an attempt to force MPs to acquiesce to her deal was undemocratic, and a mistake. That, in short, she bears some personal responsibility for the mess we finds ourselves in.

You would be sorely mistaken. The Prime Minister looked into the cameras and told the country – a country where in the frenzy of the 2016 vote an MP was murdered by a man who gave his name as “death to traitors” and “freedom to Britain” – that any hold-ups in the Brexit process are down to obstructive MPs.

MPs who were “infighting”, playing “political games”, revelling in “arcane procedural rows”. Refusing a deal that “delivers on the result of the referendum”. Who perhaps “do not want to leave at all, causing potentially irreparable damage to public trust”. Who can’t decide what they want. MPs, reading between the lines, who are letting down the public who just want this “over and done with”, while Theresa May – who has tried her very best, and who unlike them is “on your side” – can only stand by helpless as they reject her brilliant deal.

And if MPs choose to extend Article 50, and cause European elections to be held – well. Theresa May, the person who is supposedly in charge of this process, cannot be held responsible for what follows. “How bitter and divisive”, she mused, “would that election campaign be at a time when the country desperately needs bringing back together?”. The shadow of Thomas Mair looms large behind those words. To use them in an attempt to bully parliament into doing her bidding is beyond shameful; strongman rhetoric from a weak leader.

It takes some nerve to give a speech like that while standing in the middle of the greatest British policy failing since the Suez crisis. It takes even more to do so amid a crisis which is largely of her own making. And a simple lack of tactical foresight, as well: May will need the same MPs she is excoriating today to back her deal tomorrow. Does she genuinely think that this was the way to win them over?

Her tactic, such as it is, appears to be to drive the country up to the very brink of the no-deal cliff and dare Parliament to blink. The problem is that her pitch – that the choice is between her deal and no-deal – is not entirely true. Parliament can still choose to revoke Article 50, although there may not be enough time or political will to do so. But the simple fact that the option could be perceived to be on the table may mean that Remain-minded MPs refuse to back down, while the hard-leavers in the ERG continue to hold their ground as their favoured outcome comes ever closer.

In other words, there is absolutely no guarantee that her strategy – which has so far failed in every particular – will come good at the last. The only thing that we can be remotely certain about is that if we do go over the cliff, Theresa May will take no responsibility whatsoever.

Header image courtesy of James Loesch, used under a creative commons license.

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