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EU Referendum: the pretence abandoned

2016-05-18 03:46:40

Even the meanest intellect might dimly understand that Brexit is a complicated process and that negotiating a new trade deal with the EU presents more than a few problems.

However, it seems that the "eurosceptic" way of dealing with these problems is simply to ignore them. Instead of exploring the issues and developing solutions, one simply pretends that a new deal isn't necessary. One asserts that the UK can trade equitably with the EU without a specific trade deal, relying entirely on the framework of WTO rules.

In support of this legend, it is then claimed that any number of our major trading partners – most notably the United States and China – and such countries as Australia, freely trade with the EU without the benefit of trade deals. And thus the argument goes, if they can do it, we can do it.

To sustain these intellectual contortions, the "leave" camp relies on several things, but mainly on having a cadre of prestigious High Priests who will hold on to the doctrine and repeat it endlessly, without deviation. They are supported by their acolytes who will imbibe the Word as handed down, with not the slightest attempt at critical appraisal.

The quasi-religious aspect of this doctrine owes much to the phenomenon of group think, with the added, if not delicious twist that those afflicted by it complain that others are in its grip.

The crucial element here is that there isn't a single group-think, any more than there is a single group. And each of thee groups have their separate doctrines, with their High Priests and their enforcers. Each have their own ways of imposing sanctions on dissenters, and each treat them with exactly the same disdain.

Unfortunately, the driver of the group mind-set is enforced ignorance, which means that anyone with an open, inquiring mind is inevitably going to fall foul of the orthodoxy. And since the High Priests rigorously protect their doctrine, and brook no dissent, there is no mechanism for resolving disagreement.

Essentially, the only way the High Priests will accept a resolution is for the dissenters to discard their own views and conform with the group. Conformity is a mandatory requirement. Thus, there is no obvious solution to what is commonly described as infighting between eurosceptic groups. Merely to exist is to create a schism.

But then I am no more going to abandon the fruits of my research than Dominic Cummings is ever going to admit that he is wrong, or that Daniel Hannan will admit that he is an ideas-thief, with only a slender grasp of the workings of the EU. These, the High Priests, can never admit they are wrong about anything. The likes of Patrick Minford, Gerard Lyons, Tim Congdon, Matt Ridley, Mark Littlewood, Roger Bootle, Ruth Lea, and Campbell Bannerman are the protectors of the sacred flame of ignorance.

Analysis, therefore, can only take us so far. Better understanding of the problem has, so far, brought us no closer to any solutions. Certainly, others bleating to us "dissenters" that we must end their infighting and "unify" is going to have no more impact now than it ever has. 

However, in his book on the subject of group think, Irving Janis offered some advice on preventing this "pollution" in the form of three prescriptions.

First, he suggested that the leader of any policy-forming group should assign the role of critical evaluator to each member, encouraging the group to give high priority to airing objections and doubts. The practice, he wrote, needs to be reinforced by the leader's acceptance of his or her own judgements in order to discourage the members from soft-pedalling their disagreements.

Secondly, the key leaders in an organisation's hierarchy, when assigning a policy-planning mission to any group within their organisation, might adopt an impartial stance instead of stating preferences and expectations at the outset, so allowing the development of an atmosphere of open inquiry.

Thirdly, the organisation should routinely follow the administrative practice of setting up several independent policy planning and evaluation groups to work on the same policy question, each carrying out its deliberations under a different leader.

Each of these prescriptions is proven in action, but one sees no obvious way of enforcing them within the eurosceptic "community". The High Priests are not about to release their grip on their doctrine. We know of their behaviour that criticism is actively discouraged and that anyone offering criticism is shunned.

Likewise, the way "research" functions in the political environment is the antithesis of open inquiry. A "line" is most often dictated by the leaders, whence hapless researchers are instructed to find factoids to support the already pre-determined argument. This is not research, as such – it is fact-picking.

As to the idea of there being several independent policy planning and evaluation groups, this again goes against current practice, in which conformity and "consensus" are the drivers. Independent groups find funding almost impossible and are shunned by the High Priests.

Such is their grip that, if we do not win this referendum, their refusal to adopt a coherent, research-led exit plan will have been a major contributory factor. That is not to say that it should have been Flexcit, as such. But any research-led plan would have been very similar, in several key aspects.

Firstly, it would recognise that leaving the EU could not be achieved in a single hit, so a multi-phasic plan would have been adopted. Secondly, the first phase would almost certainly have been based on the Efta/EEA option, as an interim solution. This is really the only sensible way of protecting our participation in the Single Market and reaching an agreement inside two years.

Since this option requires the maintenance of freedom of movement, dealing with immigration issues would have to comprise a separate phase, and any coherent plan can only have adopted a holistic approach similar to ours.

Whether an alternative plan would have shown the same enthusiasm for UNECE as the coordinator of a genuine European single market one cannot say, but again any plan would have had to specify an end game which involved either reform of or winding up the EEA.

Restoring UK policies, dealing with global trade and domestic reforms are also logical components of any exit plan, but none of these issues are even being discussed in the current campaign. Instead, we get Mr Johnson prattling about EU regulations on bananas and – as always – getting it wrong.

But then, this is just another example of how things are deteriorating. When it comes to the post mortem after the referendum, Mr Johnson's crass comments on Hitler will be seen as the turning point - the point at which Vote Leave admitted to themselves they weren't going to win and abandoned any pretence of fighting a coherent campaign.

That much is evident to an increasing number, although few dare say so for fear of creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. But one with the courage to do so is Mary Ellen Synon. "Cameron is not winning this campaign. The Leave campaign is losing it by being unthinking, uninformed, and unorganised", she says.

There is time yet to turn the campaign round, and the Leave Alliance is doing what it can. But there are limits to what we can achieve against this tide of ignorance and the malign stupidity of Mr Johnson. Without fundamental changes to the way euroscepticism organises itself and looks at the world, we are going to struggle.

It looks, though, nothing is going to happen this side of polling day. Then, if as Pete writes, we are going to win eventually, things really are going to have to change. A great deal of rubbish will have to be cleared out of the system before we can reconstruct the campaign.