Richard North, 07/04/2014  
 

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It is a little worrying that Mark Littlewood, now director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is former Head of Media for the Lib Dems, a PPE at Oxford and the "youth officer" for the European Movement.

This makes him more than a closet Europhile and perhaps the least qualified person one could think of to host the IEA's "Brexit" competition, where one would expect a high degree of impartiality, one which has so far been lacking from a singularly unimpressive judging panel.

But what is even more worrying is this piece in the Mail in Sunday, which has Littlewood waxing lyrical about the competition, which concludes this coming week (with the announcement of the winner on Tuesday). The competition, he writes, is "to find the best blueprint for a free-trading, successful Britain if we decided to leave the EU".

Now, this may sound fair enough to the uninitiated but, in the IEA lexicon, a "free-trading ... Britain" is a value-laden term, with specific attributes and meanings.  And I also have to say that, as a shortlisted competitor, it is very much news to me. This is the first time I have been told that this is what the competition was all about, that this is what we were supposed to be producing.

In this context, my regular ex-readers may not be aware that, in preparing their submissions, entrants were directed to a written brief, which set out the requirements of the competition. Specifically, we were asked to explore out the "legal and constitutional process necessary for the UK to leave the EU and set up, if desired, alternative international relationships".

This, we were instructed, had to include not just the process within the EU itself but the changes to UK law and regulation that would be desirable or necessary.

We were also required to provide details of the negotiation of the UK's post-EU-exit position to settle the UK's relationships with the remaining EU and other interested parties. Crucially, this had to include details of our relationships "with the rest of the world, in respect of trade, supranational governance, immigration, the environment, financial regulation, defence etc".

Readers of these instructions will struggle to find any reference to "a blueprint for a free-trading, successful Britain", simply because there is no reference at all to "free trade", much less to this mythical "free-trading Britain".

Short-listed competitors, were, however, given supplementary guidance directly from the judging panel, to help them prepare their 20,000-word submissions. This guidance was sent to us by e-mail on 25 November. Then, it was suggested that we might provide:
… estimates of where the greatest potential advantages from bilateral trade deals might lie; what trade policy options would confront the UK - from unilateral free trade through to joining particular free trade areas or remaining in the EEA; where the fastest benefits of lower trade barriers might be achieved and what impediments might stand in the way.
In other words, "free trade" deals were just options to consider, alongside "remaining in the EEA". We were also advised that, when it "comes to some of the more difficult issues", there would not be "a hard and fast answer", although we were asked to "try to provide estimates and make judgements and these must be backed up with argument and evidence".  This indicated (to me at least) that no options were being ruledout.

Then, what came though with crystal clarity was the injunction that "the successful entrant should include a clear sense of the practical steps that would need to be taken and the likely timetable in relation to them". The idea of "practical steps" was thus taken as the guiding ethos. It was certainly my primary objective, leading me to focus on those which were not necessarily the most desirable, but which were feasible. 

Nowhere was it ever specified, and nor was it implied, that the judges were looking for a "free trade" solution, or that only this was admissible. In fact, the emphasis was very much on giving "a clear sense of the practical steps that would need to be taken", and that is precisely what I gave them, based on EEA membership as an interim solution, probably the only possible option within the constraints of Article 50 negotiations. 

Had a "free-trading Britain" as an outcome been specified as an essential requirement, and the judges had made it clear that an EEA-based submission had no chance of winning, I would not have put my plan forward. In my short-form submission, I had already made it clear that there is no practical solution to "Brexit" without using the EEA (or a similar fallback). There would have been no advantage in my submitting something that was set for automatic rejection.

But that seems to have been situation we were placed in. Under normal circumstance, we accept what the judges say without demur, and accept the final decision.  But that presupposes that we were judged fairly and honestly.

Yet all the indications we now have are that the judges imposed additional requirements, essentially requiring what they considered to be a "free trade" solution as an essential qualifier, without telling the competitors. Thus, on Tuesday, if the winner's submission is then published (and we haven't been told it will), I expect we will see a fantasy plan, based on free-market ideology which has little if anything to do with reality. Personally, I doubt very much whether it will be workable despite, at this stage, not having seen it.

Whatever else happens, my settled view is that those who offered EEA membership as an option and who were then blown out of the water - for reasons which simply don't stack up - deserve a proper explanation of why they were eliminated. 

We can see why the adoption of a huge acquis of over 5,000 EU regulations, involved in continued membership of the EEA, might not be acceptable as a "blueprint for a free trading Britain". Not least, it would have offended "free market" ideologues such as Bootle, who appear more interested in their mantras than in practicalities. But elimination on the basis of undeclared prejudice is not acceptable.

Clearly, the IEA is entitled to set up the competition in any way they choose, and pick the winners they think fit. But what they had no right to do was bring people into the competition under false pretences, and expect them to do a great deal of work, when they had no reasonable prospects of winning. 

Sadly, therefore, I cannot leave it there. For any of us to submit work and then not be selected even for the final six, makes a statement, however unwittingly and unintended. If the positioning fairly reflected the quality of the work, then there would be no problem. Had they stuck to announcing the first three, as originally planned, it might just have been tolerable. But they could resist messing, coming up with their fatuous short-short list of six.

This, none of us signed up to at the beginning.  That was sprung on us by the gifted IEA press team. Not being in the top three was troublesome enough for any of us. But I don't begin to believe that there were at least six better submissions than  mine, which is effectively what the IEA judges are saying.

Since I genuinely believe that selection was not made exclusively on the grounds of merit, I now really have very little choice. I have to speak up, and protect my own work, despite the obvious and easy charge (for those who did not commit to four months of gruelling work) that this is simply "sour grapes". If I don't speak up for my own work, who else can?

Thus, for the reasons set out, I fully expect the IEA awards on Tuesday to be a charade, with six "beauty queens" lining up to hear - in reverse order no doubt - who is going to be "Miss IEA" and the runners-up. All they need is swimsuits to complete the ghastly affair.

On the other hand, I am always open to being surprised. Maybe there will be a stunningly good submission, from which we can all learn. But the unguarded statement by Mr Littlewood in today's Mail does not exactly inspire confidence. At the very best, Littlewood was thoughtless, and a poor reflection on an organisation that still has some residual prestige.  

Even if I am completely wrong in my assessment, the Institute, in my view, has some serious explaining to do, if only to reassure all the competitors that they were treated fairly.






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