Richard North, 14/12/2020  

I think I've used up all the allegories I want to, in describing the various delays to the "future relationship" talks, but none gets better than the Grand Old Duke of York, marching his men to the top of the hill and marching them down again.

So here we are again, cranking up the expectations to a resolution on Sunday, and now cranking them down again. And now we have a not-a-deadline, with the parties prepared to "go the extra mile" without specifying an end date.

Nevertheless, we still have the fool Johnson saying that businesses should continue preparing to leave the Single Market without a deal, burbling about there being "a clarity and a simplicity in that approach".

Actually, there's a clarity and a simplicity in jumping off a cliff, but I wouldn't recommend that either. It's not simplicity that businesses want but direction. Only with that will come clarity, and that's the one thing Johnson won't give them.

This, of course, is an insane position, but we've said that as well, so there's nothing much more to say there, any more than there is value in speculating about the nature of any final deal, which seems to change almost hourly. It'll happen when it happens, if at all, and we'll know what's in it when it's published, assuming there is a deal.

Predictably, we are not alone in our view of the disutility in not knowing the trading situation, only days from the end of the transition period. Business, food and farming leaders are saying that a no-deal departure would be "catastrophic" for employment, supermarket supply chains and farming.

These people are imploring Johnson to rule out a "no-deal", but one is never sure with them whether they haven't somewhat unrealistic expectations of any deal, given that the end of the transition period is going to be a "catastrophe", come what may. The only variable is the extent.

That is rather confirmed by Sky News, with regard to my piece covering the consequences of "no-deal", where we have Steve Bush, Unite's national officer for the automotive sector, warning that we may potentially see an issue where car production is shut down because there's a backup at Dover.

"Even if there is a deal, you've got to look at the technical elements", he adds, referring specifically to rules of origin. He does not, however, refer to type approval certification, or production monitoring, neither of which will necessarily be settled with the agreement of a deal, but which will probably be fatal in the absence of a deal.

Then we get Ed Miliband on the Marr Show and, although he is shadow business and energy secretary, we get the same limited perspective. "What do we know about no deal?", he asks rhetorically, telling Marr: "We know it would slap tariffs on our car producers, we know it would slap massive tariffs on our farmers and will be a disaster for them".

After all these years, the focus is still on tariffs, with very little thinking beyond that. Although, as a rule of thumb, tariffs average out at about 3 percent, non-tariff barriers are in the order of 20 percent. And some of those barriers will render trading uncompetitive, effectively closing down sectors of our economy. For them, tariffs are the least of the problems.

We're too far gone, though, to expect anything better of our media or politicians. They have crafted their narratives and dug themselves into their comfort zones, while the Twitterati can devote themselves to the admiration of a post about a chip butty.

Meanwhile, as much for entertainment as any expectation of learning anything, I've been looking at Ed Conway's piece in the Sunday Times on sovereignty, under the title: "What does sovereignty mean?", with the sub-heading:
Brexit may give parliament a bigger say, but to make our way in a globalised world, some power always has to be ceded. We should have agreed on a definition of "sovereignty" before we started arguing about it.
Seen there is the classic confusion between power and sovereignty, the one think Conway doesn't do in his piece is define the term. All he manages to do is conclude that "no one can quite agree what the word actually means", without attempting to clarify the issue.

This is typical of modern journalism, where a great number of words are expended to no great effect. In between getting us nowhere, he tells us that because of our membership of the EU, "for the first time in modern history, Britain was no longer writing its own laws". Sovereignty, at least in the traditional sense say Conway - had indeed been eroded.

Watching the great intellect at work, one can easily see why we have so many problems. He adds:
It's worth noting that this is not the way international arrangements typically work. When countries sign a trade deal or join the World Trade Organisation they make certain commitments but - and this is the crucial bit - they invariably retain a sovereign right to write the relevant laws and regulations. The EU has always been different, especially since the 1990s.
There speaks a man who has never lifted the bonnet of a modern trade deal, where section after section commits the parties to the harmonisation of laws, and to the maintenance of common standards, such as Codex labelling requirements or UNECE vehicle construction regulations.

And then, where is the "sovereignty" when we are bound by treaty to the rulings of the European Court of Justice, with no discretion as to whether we accept individual rulings directed at the UK.

But, when journalists also rely on academics, you're going to get the worst of all possible worlds. For instance, we get Conway citing Peter Verovsek, assistant professor of politics at Sheffield University.

He says that these days "sovereignty" should really reflect the interconnectedness of a given country. "This notion of absolute parliamentary sovereignty – it's just anachronistic", he avers. "It's from a time before you had global supply chains. Today, sovereignty is about having a seat at the table".

Thus, we are told that "it's not so much about who is writing the laws, but the degree of freedom and influence one has when deciding what goes into those laws".

Quite evidently, there is no room for the thesis that an individual may have no influence at all over the promulgation of a specific standard. Quite often, even in intergovernmental organisations, technical content is agreed by majority vote. The flexibility comes – if at all – in whether to adopt the standard once agreed.

In the round, there is no single definition of sovereignty which survives intact, once you break away from the concept of "an absolute right to govern" (within a defined territory). As long as that right extends to the abrogation of treaties, sovereignty survives, unless you start factoring in the idea of "customary law" which has international law applied, outside the framework of treaties.

However, after rambling unsatisfactorily through the subject, Conway poses the situation of "millions of households and businesses" wondering "whether they will be able to trade after 31 December".

These, he suggests, "might reasonably ask whether this country really wants to crucify its economy on a cross of sovereignty". But they might also ask – or might do if the question was properly framed – whether they wanted a prime minister to reject a trade deal on the basis of a flawed understanding of the term.

But since we no longer seem to have any institutions left in this country which are capable of leading an intelligent debate, that question is not going to be asked, any more than they will ask about the real effects of ending the transition period without a deal.

We have it seems, entered a new Dark Age, where amid an unprecedented flow of information, ignorance stalks the land and shapes our most important policies.

If no one is calling this particular phenomenon the "information paradox" – where ignorance prevails despite plentiful information – perhaps it's time they did. We seem to have a virtual world, which sucks knowledge out of the system, leaving intellectual poverty in its wake.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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