Richard North, 17/11/2015  

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Anything as complex and challenging as leaving the European Union will present significant problems. Therefore, you do not need a focus group to tell you that, when confronting the prospect of an EU referendum, voters will need to be reassured that a choice to leave is not a leap in the dark.

That much has been obvious to anyone who has even begun to look at the issue. More specifically, I have long argued that we would need to produce a credible exit plan. Without that – as I was writing in May 2008, over seven years ago – our opposition would rely on the status quo to support their case and, in particular, the assertion that there is no alternative (TINA) to our membership of the European Union. At that time, I wrote:
… what few people even begin to realise is the depth and complexity of our entanglement with the EU. After 36 years of membership, imbibing fifty years-worth of integrationist measures, our administrative and legislative systems are so interwoven with the EU that to remove them would be equivalent to dealing with a metastatic cancer with a surgeon's knife. In theory, it could be done – but it would almost certainly kill the patient.

This is actually what presents itself to anyone who has seriously examined the reality of leaving the European Union. If team Cameron ever get down to such an examination, its thinkers will come to the same conclusion. They would also discover that, such would be the complexity and political capital expended, it would neutralise the political process for years to come, entirely frustrating any attempts the Conservatives might have to develop a distinctive domestic agenda.

So fraught with risk would be such a process that, wisely, any sensible politician (i.e., one who wishes to remain in office) would run a mile from it.

That is not to say that the complexity could not be addressed and overcome, but the word means what is says. Complex is, er … complex. To come up with a well-founded strategy for leaving the EU – and thus replacing the web of EU policies with distinctive national policies of our own – would take a massive amount of work, requiring a huge team of experts familiar with every aspect which the EU touches.

That work has not been done – there is no likelihood of it being done in the immediate future. Yet, unless and until the British public (and the politicians) can be offered a reasoned and better alternative to the EU, like it or lump it, TINA lives.
It actually took five years, until June 2013, for the IEA to trigger the process of producing an exit plan, with its Brexit Prize. But so badly managed was the competition – and then ultimately rigged – that the winning entries added nothing to the debate and have disappeared into the obscurity they rightly deserve.

The one happy outcome of the competition, though, was the emergence of Flexcit, a "crowdsourced" exit plan running to over 400 pages. Available online, it has now been downloaded more than 35,000 times.

In 2014, a year after the IEA had announced its competition, we got useful confirmation from market research carried out by Dominic Cummings that the fear of leaving would indeed be a significant factor. And in my assessment of his work, I concluded that the primary role for Flexcit would be in countering the fear factor. It would provide reassurance that all the necessary issues associated with our leaving the EU had been explored and could be dealt with. Of this, our exit plan, I wrote:
Not one in a thousand will read it, any more than many Christians read the Bible or the average football fan reads the 148-page FIFA manual on the laws of the game. But, if FIFA needs 148 pages to play football, to deal with something as complex as leaving the EU is going to need a lot more.

Then, and only then, will we know where we stand, and have the wherewithal to devise a strategy. And only then can we simplify the case. But having a full version as backup means we will have all the important angles worked out. We will rarely, if ever, be caught out and, as far as the Europhiles go, we will be ahead of the game. Meanwhile, campaigners will benefit from the knowledge that their campaign has substance, and will derive their confidence and will to win from that.
All Cummings could offer, though, by way of an "obvious idea" was a suggestion that we "develop a roadmap and the framework for a new UK-EU Treaty 'Wiki-style'". Such decentralised movements, he said, have achieved astonishing things in science and could in politics.

We were not impressed, and nor was I able to show much enthusiasm for his later solution. After a successful vote to leave, he decided the government would produce the exit plan, followed by a second referendum to approve it. This, it was held, would "de-risk" the choice and thereby remove the fear factor.

That this has been unequivocally ruled out by no less a person than the prime minister saves us from having to discuss it in detail. But it is worth rehearsing the reasons for this strange choice, even if there is no straightforward explanation. The essence starts with the simple proposition that no credible plan can be produced without the effort of many minds, and the applied skills and knowledge of many people, all on the back on an open and prolonged debate.

For more than forty years, though, that debate hasn't happened. This is largely due to the malign grip of a small number of individuals – mainly London–based, who dominate the public arena. These are the so-called eurosceptic"aristocracy", currently including the likes of Bill Cash, Daniel Hannan, the self-styled David Campbell Bannerman, Roger Bootle, Lord Lawson and Ruth Lea – as well as the two co-directors of Vote Leave Ltd, Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings.

These people regard "euroscepticism" – insofar as it is an intellectual movement – as their own personal domain. They believe they "own" it. And, far from fostering the widest possible debate, they try to contain it – to keep it to themselves and thereby block others from taking part in it.

This floating group of members acts as a malign praetorian guard, defending the orthodoxy and sustaining a litany of stale ideas and clichés which has changed little over forty years. New ideas are rigorously excluded and outsiders who seek to widen the debate are variously ignored, scorned, denigrated and excluded.

In that context, Flexcit is not seen as a plan. It is treated as something close to heresy, on a par with an unauthorised version of the Bible in medieval England - something that should be shunned by any God-fearing eurosceptic.

As a result, the plan has been studiously ignored by the "aristocracy". With lofty contempt for our efforts, they have gone out of their way not to mention it, even though its influence is clearly evident in the way that it is forcing the debate into areas they would rather avoid.

Ironically, many of the "aristocrats" claim to be free marketeers, and all would claim to support free speech. But in their world, there is no free market in ideas and freedom of speech does not extend to their critics. The closed self-referential circle prides itself in defending the orthodoxy, and the aristocracy considers it should be immune from and criticism.

Yet, for all that, it is an intellectual cul-de-sac. It is not the creator of new ideas. Few of this self-regarding élite do any serious work, or undertake original research. Those that do often produce low-grade and derivative work of little value.

The culture relies main on the oral transmission of information – mainly though gossip circles. It is heavily influenced by prestige. Its doyens are treated with reverence of the like accorded to the High Priests of some ancient religion.

But this is not a monotheist creed. It has many gods – many different versions of how Britain should stage an exit. All are superficial, and the group tends to cycle through them as ideas become fashionable and then drop out of fashion, only to re-emerge later in a slightly different form.

Therein lies the ultimate problem – which Cummings found to his cost, and was not honest enough to address. Between the different factions in the "aristocracy", there is never any agreement at any one time as to what a plan should be. No sooner does one variation become fashionable and take root, then another is already vying for attention.

As a result, the team most favoured by the élites, Vote Leave Ltd, have opted for cowardice. To avoid argument and recriminations, they have gone out of their way not to have a plan. There only plan is not to have a plan – not for any sensible reason but simply because there is no agreement amongst the aristocracy as to what the plan should be, and they are not prepared to force the issue.

As nature abhors the vacuum though, this poverty of ambition opens the way for any number of charlatans and publicity-seekers to peddle their own personal nostrums, most often without any concern for the effect that they might have on the campaign, and the damage they might do by offering hostages to fortune that can be unpicked by the opposition.

Latest of a long line of such charlatans is David Campbell Bannerman, two-times a renegade, having come from the Conservatives to become a Ukip MEP, then to desert the party and take his seat back to the Conservatives.

Until recently peddling a plan he called EEA-lite - an option so lightweight that it almost completely lacks substance – he now pops up in the Telegraph trying to convince us that the EU could arrive at a withdrawal agreement - a deep and comprehensive trade and political agreement – under Article 50, within the space of two years.

If we didn't get an agreement, he then avers that we could rely on "an automatic deal under the all embracing World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules". Combined with trade deals with third countries, Bannerman asserts that, with what he calls "WTO Plus":
… we'd retain access to the "Common Market" and without barriers, but save the £20 billion membership fee (£12bn net would build 80 new hospitals or 400 new schools a year) and take back control of whole swathes of policy that we have willingly or unwittingly given up from Westminster to the EU: control over our own trade deals, of fishing, farming, financial services, energy, transport, foreign affairs, defence, and of course border control/immigration.
On top of all this, says Bannerman, as only eight percent of the UK economy trades with the EU and just five percent of UK businesses.
… we could strip out in theory the overburdensome and job destroying EU red tape on 92 percent of the UK economy and 95 percent businesses, whilst also saving every household in the UK nearly £1,000 a year. We'd be Big Globalists not Little Europeans; and be better able to capitalise on the reality that 90 percent of economic growth in the next 10-15 years will take place outside the EU.
Such, of course, is nursery-level fantasy. Carefully, we have debunked such facile, low-grade assertions in Flexcit, and carefully, and meticulously on the blog, on several recent posts, including this one and this on the ruinous effects of the so-called WTO option, plus this on the "better deal fallacy", of which Bannerman seems completely unaware.

On regulation, Pete has put in some painstaking detail and drawn attention to the flaws in his work, but this has no impact whatsoever on Bannerman.

His attitude seems to be that it is perfectly acceptable for him and his ilk to undermine our work. But we are not entitled to draw attention to the poverty of their work or its potential for damage. They are permitted to snub us and detract from our efforts. We are not even allowed to complain.

Yet, even if he is disposed to ignore us – and run away from any debate (as he always does), with threats to report us to the "authorities" - Bannerman also ignores weighty input from the other side, such as the article in the Sunday Times by David Smith, which easily demolishes his more ludicrous assertions.

Then, when it comes to Cummings, he mounts a defence of Bannerman that can only be described as dishonest, delivered with a combination of patronising arrogance in which he specialises. It is that which announces that he is the only one in this world with anything of value to say.

However, when the Vote Leave Ltd strategy is stripped down, it reveals that Cummings has no mechanism for projecting reassurance to voters. Even if he could prevail on his own people to produce an exit plan, he does not have the confidence to defend it against all comers, notwithstanding that he will stand by the Bannerman fantasies. Consistency does not come easy to Vote Leave.

Thus, we are in the position where the self-proclaimed front runner in the designation stakes lacks one of the most important tools in the armoury – a credible exit plan. Without that, he cannot reassure voters that we are on top of our game., the other major contender, seems to be in a similar position. Their associate, Global Britain, through co-founder Richard Tice, delivers a similar, incoherent mish-mash of ideas in a sparse 18 pages that cannot even begin to do justice to the issue.

The reluctance of either group to commit to a sensible and workable exit plan does neither of them credit, and is a betrayal of the campaign as a whole. Without such a plan, we will find it extremely difficult to convince voters that leaving is a risk-free option and, as long as the Bannerman style of fantasy is allowed to prevail, the failure will undermine our efforts.

And there we finish on a personal note. Despite having devoted thousands of hours to producing Flexcit, with help from hundreds of readers, one is sometimes made to feel almost like a criminal for daring to embark on such an ambitious task. Yet, for all its many flaws, there is nothing anywhere which gets close to it, in structure, depth, clarity and practicality.

We will not sit quietly while others damage the campaign with their shoddy work and can confidently assert of anyone who has not read Flexcit that they are not even in the game. And that applies to the bulk of the "aristocracy" who are far too grand to soil their brains with the efforts of us mere plebs.

But, we are still here, and this issue is not going to go away. A strategic approach demands a proper, honest debate about where we are going, a commitment to agree a common exit plan, and the discipline to stand behind it when it is produced, with the aristocracy burying their egos. It is either that, or the opposition will bury us.

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