Richard North, 15/03/2017  

When in October 2013 I began the process of writing what was to become Flexcit, I quickly concluded that the so-called "WTO option" was a non-starter.

In my submission for the Brexit prize, I thus dismissed the idea, stating that a strategy based on an expectation that Britain can rely solely on WTO agreements, without securing direct agreements with the EU, would not be well-founded. Britain, I wrote, would struggle to maintain its current levels of external trade.

Of my various objections to the option, I specifically pointed out that the major problem was the proliferation of non-tariff barriers. As time has progressed, I have been writing more and in greater detail about the flaws in the option, to such an extent that you would think there was nothing left to say.

That was three years ago and so transparently obvious are the drawbacks that, had there been even a halfway intelligent debate, the WTO option would no longer be an issue. It would have been ruled out of the political discourse as too hazardous and damaging. The discussion would have moved on to more profitable and realistic areas.

But, not only has the matter not been settled, we have to suffer the low drone of ill-informed commentators such as Matt Ridley adding their ignorance to collective. Now we have a further offering, this one from Douglas Carswell, the lingering remnant of Ukip's Westminster ambitions, soon to be rejoining the Tories if some rumours are to be believed.

One would have thought that the very least our MPs could do on this issue is keep themselves properly informed, except that experience tells us that such an expectation is hopelessly naïve. Generally, we find our MPs to be the repository of ignorance, less aware of the issues than many of their constituents and often handicapped by their complete inability to learn.

So it is with Carswell who, after all this time, hasn't risen above kindergarten level on EU matters. Yet, as is common with his ilk, he feels qualified to instruct us mere mortals on what he thinks to be right. 

It would be nice to think that we could get all these people locked in a room and forced to thrash out the issues, until the matter was satisfactorily resolved. But, as we all know, the world does not work that way. MPs, in particular, defend and nurture their ignorance with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cubs.

The problem, though, is that ignorance has consequences. If – as we are currently seeing – it pervades the highest levels of government and there are no MPs capable of imposing a corrective, vital policy decision will be made on false premises. The wrong decisions will be made, with devastating consequences.

We do our best on this blog, and yesterday – with others – lodged with The Times formal complaints about Ridley's piece. None of us, though, have any expectations that the complaints will be dealt-with fairly or sympathetically. The establishment always looks after its own.

This leaves us in a frustrating void, where there are so many thing which should be on the agenda to discuss, but where we are constantly dragged back to rehearse arguments on issues that should long ago have been resolved.

On the WTO option, in my first few versions of Flexcit, I did not devote a great deal of space to it, as I thought the problems would be obvious to the meanest of intellects. How wrong I was.

Helpfully – despite publishing Ridley – The Times did at least publish a report from Marcus Leroux, the newspaper's trade correspondent, which built on the Booker column of last Sunday, on the problems facing the customs service.

This gives us a taste of what things might be like if the UK falls back on the WTO option, but the interesting thing is that, in contrast to the 500-plus comments on the Ridley piece, Leroux only attracted 16. It is as if readers simply cannot visualise the enormity of the peril they face. They do not seem to be able to cope with the idea that the entire trade system would grind to a halt, so they opt to dig their heads in the sand. 

Nevertheless, one is further encouraged (if only slightly) by another report, also in The Times, which tells us that the Government has been told that at least seven separate bills must be passed, in addition to the Great Repeal Bill, in order to set the legislative infrastructure of a post-exit UK.

The list covers immigration, tax, agriculture, trade, fisheries, data protection and sanctions, but also includes the customs regime. This would appear to recognise that the EU's UCC simply cannot re-enacted by the Great Repeal Bill and that we will need our own dedicated customs code.

Concern, however, is also being expressed at the shortness of the timetable, which also suggests that the reality of their predicament might be beginning to dawn on ministers. Something as complex as a brand new customs code might, in normal times, take five or more years to produce.

Now it has to be squeezed into a mere two years, with the added complication that cooperation with our trading partners must be built in, which will require intensive, and successful bargaining in Brussels.

Despite this, one cannot escape the impression that this is too little, too late. One fears that "Team Brexit" will be going to Brussels to experience the negotiating equivalent of the first day of the battle of the Somme, with our delegates staggering out at the end of the day wondering what hit them.

This is where the lacklustre performance of the likes of Carswell really is unforgivable. Such people are paid handsome salaries and are given generous expenses. For that, they should be giving value for money. Parading their ignorance doesn't cut it. They are public servants, paid to do a job, and the need to be doing it properly.

The same, incidentally, goes for the media. As long as newspapers claim special rights and privileges, theirs is the duty to keep their readers properly informed – a task in which they are lamentably failing. As for the BBC - don't even go there. They are a lost cause, along with the other broadcasters.

Where then that leaves ordinary people is not clear – even less so those who have devoted the time and energy as responsible citizens to keeping themselves informed. It is doubly frustrating to be treated with disdain by the public servants whose salaries we help to pay, only to find they are less knowledgeable than we are.

To this, I am not going to pretend that there are any easy answers. But it must be the case that the burgeoning "conversation" on this blog comments is attracting attention. In fact, I know this to be the case, and as long as we have here a civil and good quality discourse, it can do nothing other than grow in influence.

The essential thing here is that, collectively, there is a better sense here of the difficulties involved in Brexit than you will see anywhere else, with more detail than the entire output of Parliament and its lamentably poor succession of select committee reports.

But it is not only difficulties of which one needs to be aware. There must also be solutions on offer. In Flexcit, we have some, but that has always been a dynamic document which grows and progresses over time. To deal with the new realities, a new version is probably required, but even as we write, we are overtaken by events.

There are, however, solutions to be had. They are being explored, even if they are not being publicly aired. Some will come from this tiny haven of sanity, funded exclusively by donations from its readers, for which we are eternally grateful, powering an operation which costs only a fraction of the salary of one MP. The irony is that it should be needed at all.

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