Brexit: they catch up eventually

Tuesday 16 July 2019  

I sometimes think I could go on holiday for six months without writing a thing, and I'd still be ahead of the game – by a factor of some years, in the case of some issues such as the effect of a no-deal Brexit on F1 racing.

So it comes to pass that the mighty, omniscient Robert Peston has finally discovered that, with nothing between the Tory leadership candidates, we are heading down the path towards a no-deal Brexit.

As far as I'm concerned, it was weeks ago that it was blindingly obvious that neither Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt had the first idea of how to manage Brexit, both residing in the fiction that they could abandon the backstop and renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.

But then, when the likes of Peston start noticing the blindingly obvious, it simply confirms their brilliance, allowing us plebs to stand back in wonderment at their skill and perspicacity which allows them to divine that which has been known for weeks to everyone with a brain.

Of course, such brilliant leaders of men will never, ever realise how far behind the curve they are. So deeply rooted in their bubble, listening only to their adoring claque, nothing exists until the likes of Peston have invented it and brought it before the great unwashed.

That they are "brilliant" is a given, and we know this because they keep telling us, as in the tail-end of the Telegraph piece which enjoins us to "sign up for our brilliant subscriber newsletter".

For me, I rather take Margaret Thatcher's line, when she famously said, "Power is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't". Basically, if you keep having to tell people how brilliant you are, you aren't.

Nevertheless, that won't stop the legacy media preening and posturing, massaging their own egos and spewing out error-filled misinformation. That's what you do when you're in the media, because that entitles you to stop listening to anyone outside the bubble, conferring a free pass which absolves you from having to apologise for delivering second-rate work.

But there you go. Robert Peston has told us that a no-deal is now "probable". With the public now exposed to such brilliance, this affirms that our intellectual masters have got there – eventually.

Give them another three years and they might have worked out what non-tariff barriers mean, and how they impact on third country trading arrangements. Some of them might even begin to understand what "third country" actually means in relation to the EU.

But then we mustn't expect too much of these geniuses. Too many facts might hurt their little brains, while telling their followers too much might overwhelm them with adoration. Once you've reached the pinnacle of brilliance, there is nowhere else to go.

Despite Peston being on the case with his factoid of the day, therefore, there is little chance of him catching up with the rest. If he ever did, I the lowly blogger, would be redundant.

As it is, the media generally don't have a clue what a no-deal Brexit really entails, so I will probably have to wait quite a while for my redundancy notice, although we do get a tiny glimmer of sentience from Michael Deacon in the Telegraph. As court jester, he has a licence to ask awkward questions, taking a look at the absurdity of maintaining the no-deal Brexit "on the table", as leverage in the hypothetical renegotiations which the EU says we're not going to have.

Says Deacon, Johnson and Jeremy Hunt agree on at least one thing: that the way to get a better Brexit deal is to threaten to leave with no-deal – the very thing that Peston seems to have noticed.

Johnson, for example, has said he wants EU leaders to "look deep into our eyes and think, 'My God, these Brits actually are going to leave. And they're going to leave on those terms'". Such will be the EU leaders' alarm – so the theory goes - that they’ll ditch the backstop on the spot.

The one possible flaw in this plan, Deacon asserts, is that the EU leaders might decide a no-deal Brexit would be a lot more damaging to Britain than it would be to them. If that is what they think, they might not find the threat quite so compelling, leaving Deacon to paint an alternative scenario:
The British Government might as well be saying: "If I shoot myself in the foot with this machine gun, it's going to make a terrible mess of your carpet. Imagine the stain. Could take you a whole hour to get it out. All that scrubbing. Be a real nuisance for you. Plus you'd have to put up with the horrible sound of my screaming, as I writhe around in unspeakable agony on your floor until the paramedics arrive. Wouldn't be much fun for you, would it? Could ruin your evening. Do you really want that? Are you sure?"
This is about as close as it gets to pointing out how absurd the stance of the leadership candidates is, delivering us a train wreck where the only choice is the side of the rails from which we want the doomed train to plunge.

One can only assume that, once the new leader assumes office – but not power – he will realise the fatuity of his strategy and start all over again, trying to craft something sensible. Only then will be find that he is subject to exactly the same constraints that stopped Mrs May from making progress.

However, the candidates are for the moment having to satisfy the whims of the Conservative Party, which is not in the reality business. Slurping up the propaganda from the Spectator and the Telegraph, with occasional sojourns elsewhere, they have allowed themselves to be convinced that no-deal is a tenable option, although they are equally convinced that the Johnson "handbag" strategy will have the EU blinking furiously at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour on 31 October.

When such stupidity is given the power to decide the leader of our government, there is no obvious means of escape. The "stupid party", living up to its name, is about to condemn us to perdition.

It is probably now too late to influence events – not that we could anyway. But most of the leadership votes are now in, and the die is probably already cast. Too late, the Guardian is pointing out what an odious little man Johnson really is, one of a series of pieces about "the real Boris Johnson". But it will not have the slightest effect. Nothing the Guardian can say about the character of the Tories' favourite son will touch his popularity in the party.

That will then leave the paper – and others, if they have a mind to do some real journalism – to "do a Peston" and try to catch up on the most likely effects of a no-deal, and the mechanisms for avoiding disaster.

When you're in the catch-up game, though, the big problem is that by the time you get there, the birds have usually flown. Properly to influence the debate, the media needed to have been exploring the consequences of a no-deal Brexit the moment Mrs May put the possibility on the table with her Lancaster House speech back in January 2017.

Thus, while we are always pleased to see the media catch up – eventually – sometimes "better late than never" doesn't hold true. To define and shape the debate, the media needed to be on the ball, ahead of the game and ready to inject real information into the system. It wasn't, and still isn't. "Eventually" really isn't good enough.

Richard North 16/07/2019 link

Brexit: the wages of propaganda

Monday 15 July 2019  

If ever one needed to know why businesses are so often badly managed, and why the banking industry makes such a mess of things, it is probably because they employ intellectual lightweights such as Anthony Browne, one-time business reporter and economics correspondent for the BBC and former policy director for economic development for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson when he was mayor of London.

Typically, this is the sort of person – a "quango queen" with trousers - to whom the Spectator turns when it wants to extend its no-deal propaganda, knowing that the man will deliver just the right level of misinformation to make it look plausible, without actually veering anywhere near the truth.

Thus we have the decidedly smug and self-satisfied Browne seeking to address the question of whether a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster, to which he offers the predictable answer, "probably not", then purporting to give the reasons why – building on an edifice that asserts that "the government is better prepared than it has let on".

It matters not in the least to the Spectator that this self-serving rhetoric coincides with a statement from chancellor Hammond – to be broadcast in full by the Panorama programme later this week - warning that the UK "will lose control in a no-deal scenario", not least because "others control the levers", in particular the EU-27 and private business.

Necessarily, he says, a no-deal Brexit would leave Britain at the mercy of the French, who would be able to "dial up" or "dial down" at will the queues for goods going into the port of Calais. Paris would be able to exploit the Channel crossing to exert pressure in the same way that the Spanish had used the border with Gibraltar.

Despite spending more than £4 billion on Brexit preparations, Hammond said there would be a limit to the amount of influence the government could exert in the event of no-deal. We can seek to persuade the others, he said, but we can't control it. "For example, we can make sure that goods flow inwards through the port of Dover without any friction but we can't control the outward flow into the port of Calais".

What Hammond is saying, of course, would easily qualify as a statement of the bleedin' obvious, as we've been rehearsing such issues for years, issues about which the legacy media and the politicians have displayed their usual level of ignorance, so much so that what Hammond is now saying is actually treated as news.

Needless to say, the possibility of delays at Calais is precisely the sort of issue that the egregious Browne homes in on, this being one of the headline issues which will most likely define the media perception of a no-deal Brexit.

Last year, says Browne, the French ports of Calais and Boulogne weren't ready, leading to predictions of the M20 becoming a lorry park, and shortages of food and drugs. But, he now reassures us, Calais has now stepped up the number of checkpoints, employed 700 customs staff, and bought scanners which check lorries as they drive past. Then, as the no-dealers always do, Browne relies on the president of the Port Boulogne Calais, who has said, "there will not be any delay" in a no-deal Brexit.

It is this element of wishful thinking that really gives the game away. Jean-Marc Puissesseau, Browne's "president", was the man who originally warned of 20-mile queues outside Calais but later changed his tune when he and other local politicians conceived the idea of building an off-site joint customs SPS facility at La Zone Turquerie to service both the port and Eurotunnel.

But, like so many local (and national) politicians, Puissesseau had very little idea of how EU "official controls" work, and had entirely misinformed himself about "derogations" that might permit an off-site facility – the key to his plans to avoid congestion at the port and thus ensure that there were no delays.

When Brussels stepped in, however, the local authorities fell into line and we now see Border Control Posts established within the perimeter of Calais Port, with separate facilities established at Eurotunnel. The very arrangements needed to avoid congestion, therefore, have been vetoed by Brussels.

Furthermore, it is in the nature of the system that, while the port authorities provide the physical infrastructure for customs and SPS checks, staffing is provided by national government who work to a remit set by EU law and supervised directly by Brussels. The local authorities have no control over the scale or tempo of inspections, and must simply conform with the requirements of the authorities charged with implementing border controls.

It goes without saying, therefore, that with both customs and SPS checks being carried out at Calais Port and Eurotunnel, when hitherto there were none, there are going to be delays. The only question is the extent, and this is unanswerable until the system goes into operation.

However, it cannot necessarily be assumed that official border controls will be the only factor at play. Already, the Calais Port has experienced delays through industrial action from customs officials. But what might also be experienced is blocking action by either farmers or fishermen, who see in Brexit an opportunity to curtail UK imports. This possibility cannot be discounted.

Interestingly, Browne doesn't directly mention SPS controls and the need for Border Control Posts, and nor is he up-to-date on the Calais situation. But then, writing for the Spectator, he doesn't actually need to be informed. He just needs to tick the boxes which will keep the faithful happy, sedated by misinformation which allows them the comfort of believing that no-deal is a credible option.

That said, much of what Browne relies upon lies in straw man territory. For a long time – after being at the cutting edge of evaluating the effects of a no-deal Brexit – I have taken the view that the headline delays and possible shortages, so beloved of the legacy media, are the least of our problems.

Mostly, what we will see is the accumulation of disincentives, some small and some large, which will dissuade continental buyers from sourcing goods and services from the UK. Progressively, as is already happening, UK exports to EEA territories will gradually decline, the fall picking up momentum should we leave with a no-deal. The net effect will be a collapse of exports, causing major damage to a market worth £270 billion.

This, as Hammond indicates, is something over which the UK has little control. When we leave the EU, we become a third country in our relationship with the EU, and the restrictions that apply to our trade will automatically take effect. Without the mitigating effect of a comprehensive free trade agreement, the result can only be a substantial downturn in trading volume.

Significantly, Browne scarcely talks of our new status as a third country, which relieves him of the need to explore the wide range of implications. Rather, he focuses his readers' attention on preparations for a no-deal, heedless of the fact that so much lies beyond the remit of the UK.

But this is the way the game is being played. Politically, for the likes of Johnson, no-deal must be seen to be a tenable option. So the hacks and the drones are enlisted to make it so, with compliant media sources enlisted to the propaganda effect – the self-same media outlets that are so quick to squeal about "press freedom" if there is ever a hint on constraint.

What these outlets clearly haven't anticipated is that there will be a price to pay for dedicating themselves to the pursuit of political propaganda. Despite the facile reassurances of the likes of Browne, the net is closing, as no-deal becomes more of a reality by the day.

European Commission president-designate Ursula von der Leyen has in recent days reiterated her strong support for the Withdrawal Agreement and declares that the backstop is "absolutely necessary", ruling out once again any prospect of a renegotiation.

If then, 31 October becomes the date of our no-deal departure, the unavoidable realities will not be long in becoming evident. And all those legacy media outlets which have talked down the consequences of a no-deal will have some explaining to do. Blaming the EU will only take them so far, whence the credibility of media will take another lurch downwards.

For the moment though, their lies and misinformation prevail – no one can prove them wrong. But events will tell their own story. Then the wages of propaganda will become due.

Richard North 15/07/2019 link

The Harrogate Agenda: a package of reforms

Sunday 14 July 2019  

Amid all the negatives, there is one possible positive outcome from the selection of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as UK prime minister. Once the full horror of this creature hits home, people may rebel against the system that put him there and move towards a directly elected prime minister.

Before we get there, however, we have a lot of thinking to do, from which needs to emerge a degree of clarity about the nature of democracy which currently does not seem to exist.

A classic example of the muddle we're in comes this weekend from Nick Cohen who writes a piece lamenting the decay of democracy. In this, he puts much of the blame on what he calls "party democracy", asserting that it is the "enemy of representative democracy".

In this, I am of the view that the moment you have to qualify "democracy" with an adjective, it is no longer democracy. Thus, I have long asserted that, as wooden is to leg, representative is to democracy. The same must be said of party democracy – neither can qualify as a meaningful form of democracy.

To that extent, the UK is not and never has been a democracy. Rather like Brexit, which I defined as a process rather than an event, way before anyone else thought of doing so, democracy in the UK has never been a fixed state. It is more a direction of travel, an aspiration to higher things that we will eventually achieve.

Nick Cohen, in his dissertation, relies heavily on historian Robert Saunders to guide him through the matrix, thus displaying the bad habit of many contemporary columnists and journalists in hiding behind the opinions of others instead of asserting his own.

Thus, after a dissection of the demerits of the role of political parties – and especially with reference to the election of our next prime minister – Cohen still manages to confuse himself with the contradictory assertion that, "we are a democracy and power should flow from the people, not from a privileged caste in a private club".

The contradiction, of course, is that unless power flows from the people, we cannot be a democracy and if – as is most definitely the case with the selection of the prime minister – we are in the grip of a party clique, we cannot by definition be a democracy.

It is there that Cohen brings in Saunders to suggest remedies. Either, he says, we return to MPs choosing leaders, and thereby accept that no one can become prime minister without first holding an election, or we move to a presidential system with a directly elected prime minister.

For our money, though, all we're getting is another element of confusion. Like so many, Saunders seems to believe that the process of electing a prime minister somehow turns it into a presidential system.

Yet, as I keep pointing out, presidents are heads of states. Prime ministers are heads of governments. To directly elect prime ministers does not miraculously turn them into presidents. If we have a system of directly elected prime ministers, then that is what we get – a system of direct election, not a presidential system.

As to having our MPs elect prime ministers, this goes back to the electoral college system. And if that has some merits, they are vastly overrated. I cannot see the need (at least in the UK) to interpose another layer between the people and the leader of their government. If the prime minister is to be elected, let the people do it, and cut out the middle man.

But there is more to the process of direct election than simply the selection of a prime minister. With this system comes something we do not have in this country – a proper separation of powers, where MPs are elected to scrutinise government, not to become part of it. A prime minister should not be an MP and neither should ministers. Government should govern, and parliament should scrutinise.

In his attack on the party system, though, Cohen does have a point, where he calls in aid Saunders once more to say that control of politics has passed to unelected and irresponsible members of the respective political parties. Says Saunders, "Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt needs the support of about 70,000-80,000 Tory members to become prime minister. That's roughly the size of one parliamentary constituency".

The thing is that political parties are primarily election-fighting machines. Without them, we would be even more prone to the situation where money buys elections, with the rich being the only people who could afford to stand. If one is to reduce the role of parties, therefore, we need to change the way elections work.

For my money, I would abolish general elections altogether, as a means of choosing MPs. The big electoral event should be directed at picking the prime minister. For MPs, I have argued that there should be a means of tying constituency boundaries to those of local authorities, allowing local communities to take control.

It should be for each local community to decide the terms and conditions of the appointment of their MPs, and the money to pay their salaries and expenses should be raised locally rather than paid from central funds.

For accountability purposes, MPs should be required to publish annual reports and (audited) accounts, which would then be subject to a vote of approval from the constituents. If the report or accounts were rejected, then there should be a by-election. Otherwise, the MPs continue to stand for as long as they get affirmative votes.

For by-elections, one possible antidote to party dominance would be to have prospective candidates vetted by an independent (or cross-party) panel, appointed by the local authority. A finite number who pass the selection process might then be awarded grants from public funds, with which to fight their elections, that becoming the absolute spending limit. Party sponsorship should be prohibited and candidates should not be allowed to join political parties.

The intention here is to turn MP elections into local events. The big weakness of the current system is that people tend to vote for the party rather than the person, thus cementing in the dominance of the parties. But when there is no party to vote for, and the election is for an MP rather than for a government, one hopes that the focus would be on the people standing for election.

Here, there is also another element. Currently, many of us are appalled by the low grade of MPs in the Commons, typified by their inability to grasp the technical issues of Brexit – and much else. Yet, if we have learnt anything, it is that the scrutiny of government is a tough and demanding job. Before standing for election, candidates should at least show evidence of an ability to perform the necessary functions.

This, though, cannot be all. In his earlier piece, Saunders argues that other changes are needed. Like the buildings it inhabits, he says, parliament needs urgent renovation. The first priority, he thinks, is a new voting system that more accurately represents the spectrum of national opinion. The second of his changes is to replace the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which allows zombie governments to linger on when they can no longer pass their major legislation.

Thirdly, he says that parliament should radically reduce its workload, distributing more of its powers to local and devolved government. Party members are right to prize the immediacy of a smaller, more responsive democracy; but that should be open to all, and not just to a fee-paying minority.

It is interesting how many people think that tinkering with the voting system is an answer to anything - as if other systems have solved the dominance of political parties elsewhere in the world. But Suanders's third idea is very much a core part of The Harrogate Agenda (THA), where we see central government doing far too much. The larger part of the system of government could be devolved to local authorities, with the spending ambitions of local politicians constrained by annual referendums on local authority budgets.

And that was the key lesson we learnt from our work on THA – that piecemeal measures were not enough. We crafted a package of six demands which work together as a whole. The last one, incidentally, was the creation of a constitutional convention with a view to drafting a written constitution. No longer is it safe (not that it ever was) to allow either governments or MPs untrammelled power to decide on constitution issues.

If power is to flow from the people, so that eventually we get closer to being a functional democracy, then the people must be the constitutional authority who decide on the allocation of powers in this land.

Richard North 14/07/2019 link

Brexit: under the radar

Saturday 13 July 2019  

In 1998, the EU and the US signed a broad Mutual Recognition Agreement, which included a Pharmaceutical Annex providing for anticipated and limited reliance on each other's Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) inspections.

The year 2017 marked the entry into operation of the agreement, which entailed the EU and the US recognising inspections of manufacturing sites for human medicines conducted in their respective territories.

This agreement strengthened the reliance of the two blocs on each other's inspection expertise and resources. Initially it applied between the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and those EU Member States that the FDA had assessed.

This had been gradually extended to all EU countries and now the regulatory authorities in all 28 EU Member States have been recognised by the FDA. Meanwhile, the EU made the same determination about the FDA in June 2017.

This is according to a European Commission press release which now celebrates the unique milestone, with the FDA having completed the very last of the capability assessments of the 28 EU competent authorities, bringing Slovakia, the last outstanding EU Member State, into the fold.

This, says the press release, brings to fruition five years of close transatlantic cooperation, in a process that started nearly 20 years ago, indicative of the sort of timescale on which these agreements operate. Since May 2014, we are told, teams from the European Commission, EU national competent authorities, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the FDA have been auditing and assessing the respective supervisory systems.

As a result, the batch testing waiver will also start to apply. This means that the statutory "qualified persons" in EU pharmaceutical companies will be relieved of their tasks of carrying out quality control on products imported from the US, when carried out already in the United States.

This, of course, lies outside the framework of WTO Agreements and is one of dozens of detailed sectoral agreements which help facilitate trade between the US and the EU Member States – without which transatlantic trade would be a fraction of its current level.

The importance of the Agreement cannot be over-estimated. Together, Europe and the United States account for more than 80 percent of global sales of new medicines. The full implementation frees up resources in industry and in public authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, and substantially reduces the costs and complications of trading in pharmaceutical products.

Fortunately for the UK, it is included in the current deal and, on 14 February 2019, the UK and the United States signed a continuity deal which would keep the agreement in force, in respect of the UK, after it had left the EU. Ironically, the deal was signed by now ex-ambassador Sir Kim Darroch.

As reported at the time, this was further evidence that the EU Member States and the US do not operate under WTO rules, with the agreement facilitating around £7.7 billion of UK exports to the US annually - nearly 18 percent of total UK goods exports to the US.

This is despite quarter-wits such as James Delingpole and many others averring that "the vast majority of the UK's trade with countries outside the EU is done on WTO terms", compounding his own stupidity by telling us that "it would be illegal for the EU to impose punitive tariff barriers on the UK, much as it might like to" – "punitive" in this case meaning MFN tariffs.

However, it doesn't stop there. The pharmaceutical industry is a strategic sector in which EU-US regulatory cooperation is much more advanced than in most other sectors. And it is to be extended further. The MRA implementation work is now to continue with a view to expanding the operational scope to veterinary medicines, human vaccines and plasma-derived medicinal products.

Obviously, there are procedural and resource limitations which will dictate the speed with which the extensions will take effect. And while, in the UK-US Agreement there are update provisions, there is no specific (or any) guarantee that the UK will be on top of the list when it comes to arranging the pre-cursor assessments.

But even if the UK is eventually to benefit from enhanced regulatory cooperation in the pharmaceutical field, the EU has already stolen a march on the UK with a joint statement in June 2018 between Commission President Juncker and US President Donald Trump on entering a new phase of trade relations.

Some see this as a sort of slow-motion TTIP, where the parties have already started negotiations, against a pledge to work towards zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.

Even with its continuity agreement with the US, therefore, the UK is going to be playing catch-up with the EU, which is already streets ahead in its negotiation strategy. And it cannot help that the UK will be starting afresh with a new ambassador leading our efforts by what is said to be a demoralised workforce, with overstretched departments working "at cross purposes".

It says something though that, even as of yesterday with the vacuous Johnson still prattling about tariffs, the European Commission itself says that, given the low average tariffs (under three percent), the key to unlocking the potential for US trade "lies in the tackling of non-tariff barriers (NTBs)".

Here, of course, the EU and the US have developed and continue to develop opportunities for regulatory cooperation – the key to reducing NTBs. The parties are engaged in a continuous dialogue through the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC), which was set up in 2007 as part of a framework agreement – a formal trade cooperation treaty.

Nothing like this will exist between the UK and the US after Brexit, so before the detailed international work of regulatory cooperation can begin, the UK will have to negotiate something similar, setting up the appropriate bodies with the necessary staff and resources. This cannot happen overnight, and it then takes time to develop smooth working relations.

Already, the EU and the US, under the aegis of the TEC, have set up three subordinate forums: the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue; the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue; and the Transatlantic Business Dialogue. They also facilitate formal consultations with civil society on both sides of the Atlantic.

Pundits tend to underestimate the importance (and value) of such arrangements, yet institutions such as the TEC are the main mechanisms by which continued, if unspectacular progress is assured.

And these days, with the EU-Mercosur agreement already attracting protests, it seems as if the days of the "big ticket" free trade deals could be drawing to a close.

Rather, we expect to see progress though technical, under-the-radar deals such as the now fully implemented pharmaceutical MRA. In a process known as unbundling, the parties negotiate separate, sectoral deals which, when finally linked, have the economic effects of a full-blown trade deal, without the histrionics and the build-up of opposition.

Through the three years of the Brexit debate, however, such aspects have scarcely been discussed, with the trade wonks largely obsessing about conventional deals – oblivious to the fact that the world is moving on.

In this context, the EU – in a thoroughly unspectacular way – is streets ahead of the UK. If anything the gap is set to widen after Brexit, with inexperienced British officials – and clueless consultants and advisers – stuck way down on the learning curve, barely understanding what is going on.

And, with the Oaf as the head of the UK government, things can only get worse.

Richard North 13/07/2019 link

Brexit: a champion brought down

Friday 12 July 2019  

I don't do posh and even the best of suits sits on me like a sack. And when animated, my North London accent still shows through, the antithesis of poshness that betrays my lower-middle class origins that I've never bothered to conceal.

Booker's funeral, therefore, was always going to be a trial. Primarily, it was an event for family, close friends and villagers and at that level it worked superbly well as a moving ceremony with the Order of Service crafted by Booker himself. But, at another entirely different level, it was a gathering of posh people - outsiders -  to send off their man, the "above-the-line" Booker. 

That's the man these people came to bury yesterday – their Booker, the man who lived with toffs and who could talk with them, and be them. This wasn't the Booker I worked with for 27 years – a third of his life and thousands of hours of conversation, deep into every night as we shared our experiences and perceptions of life.

Helen Szamuely, sadly deceased, put her finger on it. She likened Booker to Hudson, the butler of Upstairs, Downstairs, able to talk freely with the nobs but equally at home with the lower orders. He spanned the divide and, as his career developed, that's what made him different.

For me, Booker was a revelation. I'd started out my first career with a short-service commission in the RAF, leaning how to fly. That is all I had wanted to do since I was four, when I'd seen a Westland Dragonfly helicopter fly over our flats, asked my mum what it was. At that age, the shape remembered to this day, I learned that it was a machine that men flew, and resolved that one day I would be the man to take charge of this wondrous creation.

Sadly, it was not to be. The RAF could never make up its mind whether I was more dangerous to myself or the public at large, but one of the more correct decisions they ever made in the post-war period was to deny me the opportunity of wreaking mayhem in one of their precious machines.

That the decision totally shattered me is not an understatement and I sought solace by spending nearly a year on an Israeli kibbutz, with my wife to be – met in the Air Force. We both worked in the fields, myself alongside an Israeli parachute colonel, who had fought in the Six-Day war. Over the period, we were bombed, grenaded, shot-at and Katyusha'd, but it was great fun and an experience not to be missed.

By the time we got back to England, I was ready to start out with a new career – and it was a career I was after, not just a job. But we had returned with only ten pence between us and with no qualifications, a new start was hard to come by. Yet, oddly, it was the Job Centre which came up with the idea of my becoming a public health inspector, for which local authorities were prepared to offer salaried positions for the three years' training required.

From steely-eyed killer to sanitary man was something of a leap, but I took to my new role with the enthusiasm of a convert and found in the work challenge, enjoyment and a degree of self-respect that enabled me to re-start my broken life.

A core part of the training syllabus was the history of public health in England, which really took off in the early nineteenth century, establishing a home in local authorities where two key figures, the Medical Officer of Health (MoH) and the public health inspector (later to become Environmental Health Officers) ran the service.

This strong medical base made the UK system almost unique and entirely different from continental practice, where different traditions led to a veterinary-based, largely centralised service – especially in food control and related matters.

By this time, however, we had joined the EEC and, with the continental system established in EEC law, we were obliged progressively to abandon our way of doing things and adopt the veterinary system that had been adopted by the EU.

There are many ignorant people in this game, who aver that the EEC (and then the EU) don't threaten our culture and traditions but here, right from the start, we found we were having to abandon long-established public health traditions to accommodate the EEC's ways.

Furthermore, it wasn't just a question of differences – I felt (and still do) – that the EEC system was inferior and less flexible, while at the same time being more bureaucratic, intrusive and expensive. And, from a personal point of view, my hard-won qualification was not recognised by the EEC and I was required to become a subordinate "veterinary assistant", to people with a fraction of my knowledge and skills.

This is where Booker came in. The onslaught of the vets had turned me into a dedicated anti-EU campaigner and in our "Mr Hudson" we found a man who was not only interested in the story – he actually cared. And it was together we mounted a spirited campaign highlighting the way public health was being damaged by the EU influence, with the meat inspection service all but destroyed.

I know of no other journalist who could have taken on this task, who could have got to grips with the arcane details and then, week after week, turned events into a fascinating narrative that put EU law on the agenda in a way that it had never been before or since.

By contrast, the pathetic make-believe inventions of the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent – the infamous Boris Johnson – were an embarrassment. They missed the point and interfered with our carefully structured pieces which showed how the EU was changing the very nature of how we were governed.

What Booker had done for me, therefore, was to give me a voice. The lowly sanitary inspector found himself able to address ministers and senior civil servants. And, if they didn't listen, there was always another Booker column which could take them apart.

But what Booker did for me, he did for hundreds of others. People who had been directly affected by all manner of bureaucratic imposts found in him a man prepared to listen and master the detail, and then to craft a story in that unique way of his, which made the dull interesting and the complex simple. He gave them voices as well, and access to the legacy media which had hitherto been denied to them.

Those of us who were below the line knew exactly what a treasure we had, but the "above-the-liners" never did. They saw his popularity in the paper, but never really understood the appeal. They pretended to endorse his work, but often didn't even bother to read it – still less take the trouble to understand what he was trying to do.

Then you had the smarmy pseuds such as Daniel Hannan, who tried to emulate the Booker style, and would rip-off our work and call it his own. In the latter days, the pretenders gathered like vultures to take his crown, yet never managing to produce anything of interest, and never anything close to the depth.

Latterly, some of that story is emerging, ironically in a Europhile tract, where Booker's concerns about the Telegraph are aired.

A year after the referendum, Booker was writing private e-mails to friends, in despair at the way his paper was treating him. In November 2017, he was thus writing that, four times in the past three weeks, he had been told that "the editor" (with whom he was never allowed to have contact of any kind), had ruled that items he had suggested or written for his column could not be allowed. 

That week, as he was preparing yet another comment, he found that one "entirely suitable item" had been prohibited in advance. A second in his column as submitted was also vetoed.

Yet, he complained, the reasons why he had to keep off these subjects had never been explained. But he was to surmise that he was being blocked from writing about anything to do with social workers, the family courts and children being removed from their parents – an issue he had almost made his own.

The other "veto trigger", he discovered, was anything to do with the increasing madness of any form of "political correctness". He'd had worrying noises when he'd touched on this before, but now it was apparently wholly verboten.

Interestingly, Booker observed, he was still allowed to write about the EU, on which as an "ultra-Brexiteer", the editor held views very different from his own. But this was the reason, he suspected, why he had been so severely downgraded in his column in the summer. To have included the EU in the list of subjects ruled off-limits, he surmised, might have been a bit too obvious, and prompted questions from readers.

With the column a fraction of its former size, an insider gave a clue as to the thinking behind his demotion. "The feeling on the paper was it would be too awkward to sack such a big name", he said, "so at first we tried to persuade him to give up writing about politics and try doing a countryside column". When that didn't work, "we pushed him as far out of sight as possible. The editor couldn't face doing it himself, so it was all done by minions".

To add insult to injury, his old slot was given to Daniel Hannan, for whom he had utter contempt – a man who would touch him up for free copies of The Great Deception to auction for party funds, but who neither spoke favourably of the book in his column, nor ever reviewed it.

In short, for as long as our "Mr Hudson" was a champion of us "below-the-liners", he was tolerated by the toffs because of that popularity – but never really accepted. And when they could, they did their best to bring him down.

Now he is safely in the ground, they're moving in to repossess their favourite son. "Booker never minced his words", writes Delingpole, applauding his "safe" efforts on climate change. But with the rest of his ugly pack, he was unrestrained in bitterly criticising and belittling Booker's stance on Brexit, regretting "his decline from former soundness into senescence".

Yet, this man, like the rest of the pack, knows nine-tenths of fuck-all about the EU (and even less about international trade), not that it stops him parading his ignorance. But the most astounding thing about these people is their total lack of self-awareness. Delingpole writes of Booker:
Booker wasn’t happy that he got ill — he felt that he still had much work to do. But he did feel a measure of relief that he'd no longer have to put up with a world where everyone gets their lessons on global warming from a 16-year-old kid in pigtails who can see 'carbon' in the air and a doddery old Malthusian whose TV crews drive walruses off cliffs and then blame it on climate change, all courtesy of a propaganda institution so shamelessly left-biased it makes Central Television of the USSR look like Fox News.
But I'd had that same conversation with Booker, only we included the ineffable, lightweight fools such as Delingpole, for whom Booker had an amused, if affectionate contempt – a man who was so comprehensively wrong about Brexit that he strove each time he wrote to prove himself even more ignorant than in his earlier attempts.  

Delingpole was at the funeral, together with Rees-Mogg and others like him. Maybe they should not have been there, but then it was their Booker they were seeing off, not ours. Having lost our champion, we don't get closure. We'll not see it this side of Brexit, if at all. Yesterday, the nobs re-asserted their authority and sought to reclaim their son.

Richard North 12/07/2019 link

Brexit: the dung-hill rises

Thursday 11 July 2019  

To the four Northern Ireland trade groups that have rejected Shanker Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) interim report, another can now be added. This is the Mineral Products Association Northern Ireland (MPANI), which has produced its own response which, in turn, has been reviewed by the Irish Times.

To say that the response is uncompromising is probably a fair description, as it starts by calling into question the origins, the purpose and the evidence upon which Singham's findings and recommendations are founded.

It starts by addressing a high-flown piece of rhetoric in the Singham report, where he claims that, "All over the world, technological advances are delivering seamless borders". Thus, Singham asserts: "our goal should be to ensure that the Irish border is the most seamless anywhere and certainly state of the art technology should be an aspirational goal for all policymakers and stakeholders".

Coming right down to earth with a bump, MPANI observes that, nowhere in the actual report "does the Commission actually produce any evidence where this is the case". What the Commission does is offer a series of country-specific examples where some facilitation techniques are used, but says MPANI, "the report fails to observe that an infrastructure free border does not exist in any of the examples given".

In other words, Singham is talking the big game about seamless borders but he is unable to offer any examples (outside the EU's Single Market) where truly seamless trade applies. And, effectively calling out the BS, MPANI goes straight for the jugular, declaring: "We would caution that this Interim Report gets treated as having more status than it deserves".

That was certainly the case on Tuesday evening when Singham's vainglorious efforts were vastly over-praised by the two Tory leadership candidates, taking a wholly undeserved position as the favoured solution for replacing the Irish backstop.

Such is the grip of this dementia on the body politic, though, that the government has just advertised four Senior Policy Adviser posts to progress the concept of "alternative arrangements", together with a Head of Ministerial Support Unit for DExEU which is said to be earmarked for the charlatan himself, Shanker Singham, should he deign to work for as little as £70K per annum.

Potentially five staff, costing the taxpayers better than a quarter of a million pounds in salaries, would be better employed in painting unicorns – for all the good that they will do. But it seems there is no idea so mad that the government can resist hurling money at it, even deluding itself that the fruits of its team might be used in EU-UK negotiations.

Back in the real world, MPANI raises an interesting point about the post-Brexit ability of Northern Ireland companies to tender for and win work in the Republic of Ireland as they have done for years.

Where companies produce relatively low-value community products such as ready-mix concrete and aggregate, the main economic contribution is in the added value, where the raw materials are only a small part of the total contract. And if Northern Ireland firms cannot partake in the service element of cross-border contracts, then they could be gravely disadvantaged.

I was mooting on this the other day when our fitted refrigerator failed, and Mrs EU Referendum was rather insistent on it being replaced. There were plenty of bargains to be had, but the crucial elements were the ability of the suppliers fit the new unit and to take away the original.

Basically, without the fitting service, there could be no sale and one wonders what the situation might be with a Northern Ireland retail firm. It might be able to sell domestic refrigerators, washing machines and the rest in the Republic, but would its fitters be allowed to cross the border to install them? And then, would cross-border disposal be possible?

Small wonder that the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has now come up with an assessment of the impact of a no-deal Brexit which makes for very sombre reading, suggesting that there will be profound and long-lasting impact on NI's economy and society.

While Johnson continues to assert that the cost would be "vanishingly inexpensive", the NICS anticipates a sharp increase in unemployment, with at least 40,000 jobs at risk, based on EU export exposure. A no-deal would have immediate and severe consequences for both NI's competitiveness in the all-island economy and its place in the UK internal market.

Particularly, the impact of EU tariffs and non-tariff barriers will mean that whatever the Irish Government and/or the EU may do or not do, many businesses will no longer be able to export to the Irish market, leading to a major reduction in NI's exports to Ireland.

The impact of EU tariffs could reduce NI's exports to Ireland by eleven percent and the inclusion of non-tariff barriers could see a decline of 19 percent. This equates to a decline of between £100-180 million in NI's exports to Ireland.

Analysis of import volumes and commodity prices shows that NI businesses would have increased vulnerability to low cost non-EU imports in the GB or NI market. This risk, NICS says, is particularly acute for the agri-food sector where certain commodity prices for larger agri-food exporting non-EU countries are much lower than local prices (especially for beef).

In the view of the NICS, therefore, a no-deal would place a "twin pressure" on NI's access to the EU and UK markets, leaving businesses with very limited options and the NI economy facing an absolute reduction in exports and external sales. Tradable services, it says, would be similarly exposed. For example, businesses exporting services to Ireland would face an average increase in the cost of doing business of 14.5 percentage points.

Much of this stems from being caught in the net of non-tariff barriers, which range from the administrative cost of completing customs documentation to the regulatory barriers to trade in certain products.

These regulatory barriers to trade, NICS says, are very significant for some products such as agrifood products, medicines or chemicals to trading into the EU without a trade facilitation agreement. These barriers include the requirement to batch test medicines within the EU or that products must enter the EU via a Border Inspection Post (BIP). Most agri-food products must clear a BIP on entry to the EU, of which Ireland has just the one in Dublin, which creates additional transportation and administration costs.

For services, it adds, these barriers can relate to restrictions on data transfer between the EU and non-EU countries, lack of recognition of professional qualifications or the requirement to be an EU resident to provide certain services.

Yet, for all the gloom, I still think they are under-estimating the problem. Taking the example of my fridge, in a sale with an invoice value of £500, the fitting cost £90 and disposal £20. These services are highly competitive – all the big players offer the same prices, so if an NI firm can't deliver the service or its price rises, its actual losses will be far greater than just the service element.

This we saw with my piece back in February 2017, when I wrote about the passenger lift business. Looking at the structure of one big player, only 36 percent of its value came from new installations and 16 percent from modernisation projects. The largest single contributor (48 percent) was routine maintenance, largely a service operation.

The interrelationship between the sale of goods and services, with the former dependent on provision of the latter, is something I explored further last year. Interruption in service provision will doubtless have a significant effect on the NI economy, but the impact could be far greater than anticipated. How does an NI firm sell a car or truck into the Republic, for instance, if it cannot provide maintenance services?

For all that, none of these issues are addressed by Singham's fantasy excursion into the realm of "alternative arrangements", yet vacuous politicians remain eager to soak up his flim-flam, ignoring the reservations from the real world.

In a sense, it might be highly appropriate for Johnson to lord over this dung-hill as prime minister. As Pete says, he's the perfect figurehead for an utterly degraded politics of a politically immature, decadent country informed by an ignorant and incurious media - the ideal captain to steer the Titanic to the bottom of the sea.

Richard North 11/07/2019 link

Brexit: two peas in a pod

Wednesday 10 July 2019  

To replace the Irish backstop, Jeremy Hunt tells us in last night's televised scrap, there are "three elements" to his plan. These, he says are "based on a 202-page 'excellent' piece of work by a group of MPs led by my friend Greg Hands". It involves: "first of all, mobile checks for food products, secondly a trusted trader scheme and thirdly use of technology, not new technology but technology that already exists".

A blustering Johnson went for the same, confirming that there was "no difference between us on this point" when it came to the backstop. He too wanted checks "away from the border" although he argued that if a new deal was not ready by 31 October, "then we do it in the implementation period".

And there, naked in tooth and claw was illustrated the utter fatuity of the contemporary political "debate" – two clueless candidates for the Tory leadership mouthing meaningless nostrums which, even that very day, had been rejected by four prominent Northern Ireland business groups.

Of course, if Julie Etchingham, the half-witted woman interviewing the two candidates, had an ounce of sense or political acumen, she would have seized on the response of these groups and, even with the material presented, could have demolished this gormless pair.

But this isn't how they do things in legacy media land. They whiffle around the edges, missing the killer points, coming up with a fudged morass of verbiage which fails completely to enlighten, and merely adds to the noise.

The purpose of this "debate" might have been to tease out differences in positions between the two candidates but, in this area, all it served to do was demonstrate once again that there is nothing of substance between them – two peas in a gormless pod, neither with an idea between them of how to resolve the Brexit impasse.

As for Hunt, he cannot even bring himself correctly to identify the origins of his own stupidity, attributing Shanker Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) fantasy report to "a group of MPs" – who had next to no input in the formulation or writing of the work.

It might have helped proceedings if yesterday's rebuttals had been given more prominence by the legacy media but one saw the BBC and others fall into the old trap of treating the backstop as local (Northern Irish) news, failing as always to look at or understand the bigger picture.

However, despite having to fight the national battle on a local front – with local resources – the four groups involved, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing NI, the NI Retail Consortium and the Freight Transport Association did tolerably well (although the NI Retail Consortium not so much).

And if one was to look for a reasonable summary of their endeavours, the Irish Times is as good a place as any to start. It forwarded the view of Manufacturing NI, which argued that the "Singham special" would "kill firms, damage consumers and inflict a level of surveillance on to Border communities which doesn't have their consent". It would, it said, "re-establish barriers" and "fundamentally disrupt the all-island economy".

In more detail in its online report, it noted that the AAC had offered "inadequate or no solutions offered for VAT, State Aid nor providing market access". Crucially, it added, many of its proposals "would require not only exemption or derogations, but changes to EU Law and Treaties which would require approval in the EU27 including through referenda".

When it came to the crunch, Manufacturing NI thought that the proposals "would ask businesses and individuals to trust in the delivery of a mass, complex mixture of derogations, simplifications and the rest". This is despite there already existing a solution which delivers frictionless trade on the island of Ireland which is supported by the overwhelming preponderance of business, farmers and civil society.

In this, the group took the view that it was "not clear that border communities in particular would give their consent to an increased level of enforcement, greater intrusion of HMRC and others, when it has been committed until now that there will be none".

This, presumably, was a reference to an earlier response to the AAC's work, where one of Singham's gofers had been told that full police support would be needed for officials if they tried to go into nationalist areas in Northern Ireland to do Brexit checks.

Adding detail, Manufacturing NI noted that many of the suggestions made on SPS "stretch the rules (exemptions, derogations etc.) a significant distance beyond what is provided for in EU law". For instance, it said, "the suggestions that inspections could take place at locations which are not Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) but there does not appear to be provision for this in EU law".

And, in a direct challenge to the competence of the report authors, it pointed out that "SPS is not customs". Given the impact SPS will have on creating a Border, it said, "it is perhaps advisable that the AAC Technical Panel would include a greater level of technical understanding in this area to guide its work in the next stage and before publishing its final report".

As regards mobile border inspection posts, the group acknowledged that there were "some flexibilities in the Union Customs Code" but none of those, it said, "removes the need for checks". Furthermore, it said, "Regulations on Border Inspections Posts are not covered by the UCC. So, again, there would be a requirement for significant Treaty amendment and approval from the EU-27".

Where the group really failed to score was in omitting reference to Singham's own claim than his Commission had "intentionally restricted our work to existing legal frameworks, administrative processes, software and systems solutions and existing technology devices to ensure that the ideas in this report could be agreed, implemented and tested within three years".

Yet here we have the trade association remarking that the core proposals in the AAC report have "no provision" in EU law, and that there would be "a requirement for significant Treaty amendment and approval from the EU-27".

Actually, we're looking at law changes rather than treaty change, but the point is valid. And since the EU has only just revised the whole corpus of law on official controls – which do not take effect until 14 December – it is very unlikely that it could be prevailed upon to change the law yet again. The fact is that Singham is working outside the current legal framework, inventing provisions that do not exist. This must undermine his own claim that his report "could be agreed, implemented and tested within three years".

Startlingly, one of his inventions has now reached the very top, with Hunt last night arguing for "mobile checks for food products". If only he could have been told, there and then, that the only thing the EU permits is the "mobile official control team", providing staff for dispersed BCPs performing controls on consignments of "unprocessed logs and sawn and chipped wood".

It is on such things, therefore, that detail matters, but where the NI groups acquitted themselves with less than full honours. The NI Retail Consortium, for instance, limited itself to observing that, "we know of no border where mobile SPS infrastructure operates effectively at the moment".

This, bluntly, is as weak as ditchwater. Indeed, there is no border where mobile SPS infrastructure operates effectively at the moment, but the reason for that is that mobile units – even if practicable (which they are not) – are not permitted by EU law.

Thus it is that a candidate for the office of prime minister gets away with uttering complete tosh on prime time television, and no one has to the wit to call him out, while the very organisations which could have hung him out to dry, drop the pass.

Therefore, it is not only the prattle of empty-headed media commentators which lets us down. Players right down the food chain need to up their games if we are to make a dent on the intellectual vacuum at the top of politics. As long as vacuity survives unchallenged, that's all we can expect from our politicians.

Richard North 10/07/2019 link

Brexit: supposing that they are that ignorant?

Tuesday 9 July 2019  

I was listening to someone who might be described as a "senior Brexiteer" the other day – as one does. He was getting animated over Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) and the claim that there was far more flexibility in applying BIP inspections than had so far been indicated.

With direct personal experience of moving eventing horses around Europe, he noted that the EU was "very relaxed" about enforcing its requirement for one hundred percent inspection of the horses when they crossed the borders, having found that they didn't even have to be sent to BIPs. And if the EU could be prevailed upon to drop its rigid requirements in this sphere, he averred, there should be no problem in getting them to relax their regimes on the Irish border.

This Brexiteer's personal view was that the major problem with the Brexit negotiations had been the British government's "negative" stance, failing to put such possibilities to the EU negotiators.

He felt that Barnier was a reasonable man and, had the idea of a single epidemiological zone been put to him by the UK, it would have been favourably received. And that was why he felt that there was still scope for further renegotiation – issues with which the EU would probably agree had not yet been put to the negotiators. If this was now remedied, we could see an entirely different outcome to the Brexit impasse.

What is especially interesting about these comments, though, is that our swashbuckling Brexiteer seems to be completely unaware that his movement of horses is currently governed by the Tripartite Agreement, something which I covered in February 2017 and which was followed-through by Booker only days later, with additional articles such as this one and this.

Although badly covered by the London-based legacy media, the Commission has since confirmed that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Tripartite Agreement will no longer apply to the UK.

As of the withdrawal date, before UK horses can be allowed into EU Member State territories, they will be "applying mandatory border checks", including veterinary checks, at the first point of entry into the Union territory. Horses will only be allowed into the EU-27 via border inspection posts, each animal requiring a completed veterinary certificate and having to undergo documentary, identity and physical checks.

This was set out by the Commission in February 2018, but the UK was slow in acknowledging it, not finally doing so until 22 February 2019, with the notice updated in April 2019.

Clearly, reliance on a concession for horses which is to be abolished once we leave with a no-deal Brexit, is going to have its limitations. The Commission is hardly going to accept this as a model for further concessions, when it has already marked it down for abolition.

Where the full rigours of EU law are to apply to horses, one can only expect equal treatment for the rest of the livestock industry, with potentially devastating effects, something I was pointing out in January 2017.

Yet, despite very real adverse consequences of a no-deal Brexit, the extreme Brexiteer fraternity have moved into high gear in an attempt to convince others that this is a credible option. Peter has drawn together some of the latest initiatives, culminating in a piece in the Spectator by David Paton, asserting that "A Halloween no-deal Brexit is no longer a scary prospect".

With a similar piece by Robert Tombs, which I looked at as well, alongside Pete I have no difficulty seeing the authors relying on the "same handful of lies and sleight of hand techniques that chiefly rely on the ignorance of Spectator readers".

But, when one takes in my Brexiteer and his horses, there is quite evidently room for another interpretation of what is going on. Difficult though it is to appreciate, we could be dealing with the genuinely ignorant – people who simply don't know what they are talking about, even though they think they do.

We saw this in particular with Shanker Singham where, in his first appearance in front of the Treasury Committee, he made so many unforced "rookie errors" that my fellow witness, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, observed that had he been employed even as an intern, his services would no longer be required.

When we see a more confident Singham currently spouting his brand of nonsense in public, this is perhaps not the glacial control of a practised liar, intent on deception. Rather, we have a man with serious but well-concealed learning difficulties, who is so thick that he doesn't even begin to understand how wrong he is. This is the innocence of the baby, as expressed by the fool, who simply doesn't have the wit to tell a conscious lie.

And if this sounds extreme, how otherwise does one explain the man's stance on mobile inspection teams? On reading an EU law provision which permits "mobile official control team", to provide staff for dispersed BCPs performing controls on consignments of "unprocessed logs and sawn and chipped wood", he interprets this as a block exemption allowing vets to do "beyond the border inspections" without resort to BCPs.

The obvious conclusions one must allow is that he is either telling an outrageous, demonstrable lie, or suffers serious comprehension/learning difficulties.

Much the same might be said of Brexiteers who continue to trot out the GATT Article XXIV canard, given the detailed rebuttal once again, this time in Prospect Magazine, which has WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo tell us that: "If there is no agreement, then Article XXIV would not apply, and the standard WTO terms would".

Since its first emergence, however, the argument has morphed into a conviction that the EU will come to an agreement because it no more wants tariffs on goods than does the UK.

As the heart of this lies an unshakable belief expressed by many Brexiteers that they can rely on the "they need us more than we need them" dynamic. Whatever logic or [lack of] experience might tell them, they are convinced that, at the very last minute, the EU will roll over and offer us a workable deal, without the backstop, simply because the EU needs us so much.

Their view is that they need to do nothing but hold the line. It just then needs the EU to be "pragmatic" and allow UK goods into their system without any of the controls applied to goods from third countries.

This again is influenced by an extraordinary level of ignorance. Not for a moment is there any recognition that any concessions made to the UK will also have to be made to the EU's other trading partners, potentially prejudicing the integrity of the Single Market. Never mind that it confers benefits on the UK which are not afforded to fully paid-up Member States – which the EU has said it will never do.

What we also get from the extreme Brexiteers is a complete lack of self-awareness. According to their narrative, the other side is producing unmitigated lies but they are offering nothing but the unvarnished truth.

They believe the "Europhile civil service" is blocking their message in Brussels and, if the likes of Barnier were presented with their solutions (the AAC), which were properly explained to them, then they would be welcomed with open arms. That their case is built on falsehoods, ignorance and possibly lies – where a difference can be determined – would never occur to them.

Thus, while everyone else is plagued with uncertainties, as we plunge into the unknown, no such doubts afflict the Brexiteers. They have that one, unbreakable certainty, that they are right in everything they think and do.

Richard North 09/07/2019 link

Brexit: the vocabulary of politics

Monday 8 July 2019  

"Boris Johnson generates enthusiasm of a kind I don't recall seeing for any other Conservative politician", writes Lord Ashcroft, adding: "On the other hand, he drives his many opponents nuts".

But, whether he understands it or not – or even cares – what really drives some of us "nuts" is the use of fundamentally unserious language for what are serious and sincerely-held views. There are many of us who regard Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as a disgusting, degenerate man, totally devoid of the skills or a moral base which would make him suitable for high political (or any) office.

You can agree or not – that is your privilege – but no one, not even Lord Ashcroft, is entitled to debase and trivialise people's genuine concerns. Johnson does not drive me "nuts". That is the sort of description you would apply to an errant child (which, in some respects Johnson is).

In equal measure, he disgusts me, infuriates me and fills me with acute concern for our future as a nation. To thus aver that he drives me "nuts" is wholly to misrepresent the strength and gravity of my feelings for the loathsome man.

And while on the subject of debasing the political vocabulary, one is fully aware of the adoption of "bollocks to Brexit" by the Lib-Dems as one of their official slogans. This marked a further deterioration in the standard of political discourse, as its users embraced the juvenile, for want of grown-up dialogue.

Nevertheless, a special hate of mine is the use of the word "bonkers" – never far away when Johnson comes to be discussed. This is a fundamentally unserious word, demonstrating the extent to which the metropolitan élites have captured the political vocabulary and trivialised it, emptying it of the gravitas that should attend the affairs of state. With its use, politics becomes just another reality show - part of the entertainment industry.

Another absurdly trivialising use of the language is the oft-used assertion that Johnson or his team, in causing still more offence with their crass, ill-considered behaviour, have simply "ruffled feathers", as if well-founded criticism has no more substance than the transient disturbance of birds in a roost.

Put this all together, with the carefully cultured image of disarray and we have the jovial, friendly "man of the people", loved by all except for those unfortunates who are immune to his charms, whom he drives "nuts", with his "bonkers" interventions, as he so winsomely "ruffles their feathers". All of a sudden, politics takes on a wholly different tone.

Nothing, however, can compare in levels of unacceptability than Johnson's resort to pure, unadulterated hypocrisy, a trait which has had him recently assert:
I think the Conservative Party needs to understand the moral case for conservatism again, and to speak powerfully about why we think that supporting business and supporting wealth creation and supporting home ownership is actually a morally good thing, because actually, what you'll produce is a society where people have a stake in it and where people are engaged in wealth creation [which is] vital for everybody
This is a man to whom the terms "dishonest" and "liar" are frequently applied, without the slightest hint of a libel suit, and one whose many less than desirable characteristics lay witness to the fact that, if morality was oxygen, Johnson would long ago have become an etiolated husk, his dusty remains blown away to the oblivion that he so justly deserves.

Here is a man who would lay claim to speak for the morality of conservatism, when a woman who knew him from his Bullingdon Club days says of his intimate association with the club:
The whole culture was to get extremely drunk and exert vandalism. Every time someone was elected, they had to have their room smashed to pieces. People talk about the Bullingdon Club "trashing’ places", but it was serious criminal damage.
"Boris", she says, "was one of the big beasts of the club". He was up for anything. They treated certain types of people with absolute disdain, and referred to them as "plebs" or "grockles", and the police were always called "plod". Their attitude was that women were there for their entertainment.

She said there was a "culture of excess" in the 1980s in which the activities of the Bullingdon Club felt "normalised". They had an air of "entitlement and superiority".

One incident she recalled at Magdalen College involved "a large galleried room that had just been refurbished with expensive wood panelling". Every piece of furniture that could have been broken was broken, she recalled. Every liquid sprayed around the room, the panelling was cracked, and everything was piled in a heap in the middle of the room. The college door to Magdalen was smashed to pieces.

"I remember the clerk of works looking at the mess in complete dismay. The college had spent a great deal on the refurbishment", she said.

This is about as closely acquainted with the morality of conservativism that Johnson might get. After all, the work at Magdalen having to be repeated must have doubled its notional contribution to the GDP, "a morally good thing" because people were "engaged in wealth creation".

The odd thing about Johnson, though, is as much the way people respond to this bumbling and rather ugly man. According to the egregious Lord Ashcroft, people tend to think that he is more likely to be a strong leader, take Britain out of the EU with no deal, win a general election for the Conservatives – and to make promises he knows he can't or won't deliver.

Unsurprisingly, when people are asked to pick words and phrases to describe Johnson, the top five were: "arrogant", "dishonest", "dangerous", "unreliable" and "amusing". This is the man who tells them he will take us out of the EU with no deal and, despite their actively branding him as "dishonest" and "unreliable", with a penchant for making promises he knows he can't or won't deliver. And yet they still believe him?

What probably keeps the Johnson show on the road more than anything is the weakness of Jeremy Hunt, but it has to say a great deal of the modern Conservative Parliamentary Party that this is the best it can offer its members as a choice for party leader and prime minister.

When it comes to his politics though, this is where Johnson's lack of touch with reality really shows. In a patsy interview with the Sunday Telegraph, he insists that he is "not bluffing" about delivering a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

This is part of his increasingly inane public pitch where he seeks to convince us that he is diligently striving for a renegotiation, using the no-deal threat as leverage in the event that Brussels refuses to respond, as it undoubtedly will.

Despite this, he has urged European leaders to "look deep into our eyes" and understand that the UK will leave the EU with or without an agreement on Halloween, if he becomes prime minister, thereby pretending to signal that he is in the business of looking for a genuine solution to the Brexit impasse.

Yet his reliance on Shanker Singham's implausible AAC plan shows that he doesn't have the first understanding of the dynamics of modern border management, or the politics of the subject. He is therefore, merely establishing in advance an alibi for his failure to reach a solution, intent on pinning the blame on Brussels for his inevitable failure.

This, in many respects, underlines the ultimate degeneration of our politics into a child-like pursuit of fantasy solutions to serious problems. Where we no longer have serious politicians who can address issues in an adult fashion, it is no wonder that the vocabulary of politics has descended into the nursery.

With a puer aeternus for a prime minister, the nation (and its media) certainly needs a vocabulary to match, as the child-man takes up residence and leads the government into a state of perpetual childhood.

Richard North 08/07/2019 link

Brexit: not just another Irish battle

Sunday 7 July 2019  

As the storm clouds gather, there is a "battle for Brexit" emerging, the nature of which will determine the final shape of Brexit, and its outcome for many years to come.

That the battlefield is the Irish border is entirely coincidental – the battle could have been fought on any number of grounds. But it has confused the issue, leading people wrongly to believe that we are seeing a straightforward border management dispute, one which is local, arcane and technical. They fail to see it in the broader context as the battle for the heart and mind of Brexit.

Reportage, therefore – as one might expect – is fragmented and disjointed. The political soap opera of the Tory leadership campaign is being given the lion's share of attention on Brexit-related issues. The different aspects of the fight in Ireland are reported without a unifying theme, and without the first understanding of the forces involved, obscuring the epic nature of the battle.

What is at stake is the survival of the Withdrawal Agreement, as the final instrument which should determine the next stage of Brexit, or whether the published draft is – contrary to the beliefs and assertions of the EU-27 – merely a stage on an ongoing negotiation process, the end point of which has yet to be defined.

If it is the former, then it stands as a statement of principle – agreed unanimously by the Member States of the EU-27 – which sets out the conditions on which the EU is prepared to continue to the next stage. It preserves, in their view, the integrity of the EU treaties, and thereby provides a firm legal foundation on which to base negotiations for a longer-term relationship.

However, both Tory leadership candidates have unilaterally chosen to take the view that the final draft of the WA, agreed by the UK government but not ratified by the Westminster parliament, is not a definitive document.

Rather, they see it as an interim step towards the final settlement, open to a final stage of negotiation. And, as with their unilateral stance on continuing the negotiations, they are also seeking, unilaterally, to define the terms of that negotiation – by-passing entirely the established structures, expecting the EU negotiators to fall in with our way of doing things, on a timescale determined by us.

Seen in these broader terms, it is hardly surprising that the response of EU-27 has been unwaveringly firm. From there, the UK is not demanding a few minor, technical concessions. It actually wants the EU to undergo fundamental changes to their established order, effectively handing over control of the negotiations to the British government.

Should this have been expressed in such stark terms, it would perhaps not be so difficult to understand why the "colleagues" have been so unequivocal in the rejection of the UK ploy. But, mainly because they, themselves don't understand what it is they are asking, the Tory leadership candidates are expressing their "demands" in terms of what, precisely, they are not – simple technical concessions.

That these unattainable – and ungivable – concessions are related to the Irish backstop is, as I said earlier, entirely coincidental. But what Johnson and Hunt both are doing is demanding that the terms of entry for the EU's Single Market – and the management of many related systems – should not be set by the EU itself, but by a third country, in this case the UK.

That these are dressed up in terms of technical issues - the supposedly "alternative arrangements", is neither here not there. What the UK is seeking to do is define EU policy on part of its external border, largely – it would seem – on a unilateral basis.

Essentially, though, this is the evil of Shanker Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC), although it is probable that he has little idea of the fundamental nature of the shift he is demanding from the EU. His understanding of EU politics and structures is slight, making him the perfect fool to rush in with something even a moderately competent angel would be giving a wide berth.

Perhaps it is only someone who is a startlingly ignorant as Singham who could propose something as stunningly unrealistic as the scheme set out in his interim report, while its technical nature obscures the fundamental nature of the changes being demanded.

But what needs to be realised is that we're not just dealing with dry, technical issues here. It is not a remote Irish battle, and even those tend to have far-reaching consequences. The "battle of the backstop", as we must call it, goes to the very heart of the Brexit debate, and constitutes a root challenge to the authority of the EU and it powers to set its own laws, for its own borders.

As to border policy, the UK can only decide the conditions in terms of a single direction of travel. Having decided to leave, the Tory leadership candidates must recognise that we can no longer have any say in how the EU makes its own decisions in territories which come under its jurisdiction.

And probably without even realising it, the UK is treading in a particularly sensitive area, where there are already complex issues to manage. Borders still exist in the EU and the free movement of goods, of which the Commission is so proud, is fragile.

Very recently the Commission has confirmed that it will intervene in what is turning out to be a major crisis at the French-Spanish border crossing of Biriatou-Irún where trucks lose a daily average of 3.6 hours because of the long queues arising from extended control processes carried out by the French authorities.

Apart from this being a long-running issue, cooperative arrangements between the French and Spanish authorities are redefining the nature of border management, and calling into question long-held principles.

The very last thing the Commission needs is self-centred Brits clouding the bigger picture with ideas intended for local implementation but which may have international implications.

At the heart of any EU calculations will be the WTO rules, about which our own "ultras" are so enthusiastic. Under MFN non-discrimination rules, all third countries must be treated in the same manner. Concessions made in terms of cross-border access to the Irish Republic may well have to be applied to other trading partners, if charges of discriminatory action are to be avoided.

Thus, what is proposed by the Singham AAC may appear to be innocent enough in isolation, but the EU needs to judge a scheme in the context of the response by other trading partners.

Crucially, therefore, we need to stop looking at the "Irish question" merely as a local, Irish issue. The baUpdateckstop is a mainstream Brexit policy and not just another Irish battle. And, as the colleagues have made abundantly clear, no backstop – no deal.

Richard North 07/07/2019 link

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