Defining Terms

One of the odder characteristics of what is called the Brexit debate is the tendency of people to adopt alternative definitions for familiar terms.

The sui generis example must surely be Mrs May’s circular, “Brexit means Brexit”, which, taken seriously, can only mean, “Brexit means what I tell you it means”.

Picking up that particular baton and running with it, several politicians and journalists have taken to saying that, “hard Brexit” means Brexit but “soft Brexit” means Remain. When is a Brexit not a Brexit? There is a joke in there somewhere.

So, instead of discussing the various important issues relating to Britain’s future relationship with the EU and EU Member States (not to mention the rest of the world), politicians, journalists and academics seem to be more interested in divining the Platonic ideal of the one true Brexit.

That is precisely what the Flexcit plan attempts to avoid. In order to decouple UK administration from EU institutions, policy will need to be flexible and open. In the short-term that means prioritising leaving the EU.

It seems remarkable that the above should need to be said, yet there is a strange alliance of former Remainers and a small fringe on the Tory Right, who, although they would deny that they have any shared aim, assert that remaining in the EU after the Article 50 talks have concluded would be a viable approach.

In the case of the Tory Right, I would refer you to Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech, and the idea of an indeterminate “implementation phase” following the current rounds of negotiations. How that would be achieved or what that would mean in practical terms is not something I have heard anybody address. For the former Remainers, the idea seems to be to remain through courting catastrophe.

If we could adopt and agree upon a clear definition of what Brexit means, much of this nonsense could be avoided.

In the blogosphere, it turns out that this is a solved problem. In January 2016, Bill Seddon coined what I have since regarded as the canonical definition of Brexit and, in my opinion, the basis by which the UK-EU negotiations should be judged:

Brexit = Withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representation: “Not A Penny More And Not A Penny Less.”

Viewed in this particular context, the confusion that the legacy press tends to foster, simply falls away.

The Paranoid Style Of Resentful Remainers

I have just read Carole Cadwalladr’s strange fever dream of an article, published in the Observer today. Britain’s vote to leave the EU was not a legitimate expression of the popular will—a culmination of years of condescension and neglect from an increasingly discredited political class—it was instead the result of a right-wing plot peopled by billionaires and “data scientists” (“You’re a wizard, Harry”) who used “sophisticated algorithms” (not spells?, ed.) to target and subtly coerce a small but significant number of credulous Facebook users to shuffle to the voting booths on June 23rd and mark the box labelled “Leave the European Union” with an “X”.

That may sound like the backstory for one of the lesser Bond films (maybe something from the Pierce Brosnan era), but Cadwalladr would have us believe (I’m sure that she believes) that “it were the big data wot won it”.

The story she tells is not wholly inaccurate. Cambridge Analytica is a real firm. The company may have done work (in some capacity) for Leave.EU and (probably in a much more significant capacity) for Donald Trump. But “big data” (or “data”, as it was known before the marketing bods got to work) is not magic. Nor are the techniques that campaign groups employ anything particularly new, as Conservative Councillor, Simon Cooke, explains here.

However, a simple narrative and a journalist who wants to believe are not easily parted. Ironically, another true believer (at least that’s how it appears to me) is the former Campaign Director for Vote Leave Ltd., Dominic Cummings.

Cummings has made several big boasts about his campaign “do[ing] things in the field of data that have never been done before”. That includes the Voter Intention Collection System, or VICs, about which Cummings wrote a long blog post. This is why I can only assume that Cummings is as ignorant as Cadwalladr. If he knew what he was talking about—unless he is playing an extraordinarily elaborate joke of Andy Kaufman-esque proportions—he would be embarrassed to share such shoddy work.

If the appalling campaign were not evidence enough, the VICs project ought to disabuse anybody of the idea that Vote Leave was the product of a strategic mastermind, using the remarkable power of big data analytics to get one over on “the establishment”.

Not only did Cummings write a self-aggrandising blog post about the system, he also published the VICs source code on GitHub, prompting no less a figure than the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, to write a laughable puff piece, repeating several of Cummings’ claims.

As an aside, given the very high regard the BBC has for itself, Kuenessberg should know better than to take Cummings’ assessment of his own work as gospel. The BBC must have people on its staff who could have looked over the code and provided an expert opinion, if requested. Failing that, the BBC political editor could have called any university computer science department in the country and asked any one of several hundred (thousand?) professors to give their opinion of what was published.

For what it’s worth, I did have a look at the source code, and to say that what I saw was unimpressive is an understatement. The parts of the VICs system that can be viewed on GitHub amount to little more than a half-finished web app. The idea that this was the “data analytics” tool that gave Vote Leave an edge in the campaign is ridiculous.

How ridiculous is summarised in this piece by Joshua Carrington, who went to the trouble of building the various dependencies and compiling the source.

If Stronger In did not have an equivalent, or even a superior system, I would be surprised.

As far as I was concerned, Cummings’ blog post read like a pitch for work. But the journos bought it, so I guess it did its job.

Similarly, this line from an anonymous source, referred to only as David in the Cadwalladr piece, made me laugh out loud:

Robert Mercer did not invest in [Cambridge Analytica] until it ran a bunch of pilots – controlled trials. This is one of the smartest computer scientists in the world. He is not going to splash $15m on bullshit.

Have these people never heard of the dot-com bubble?

In closing, this is yet another article aiming to identify a “prime mover” responsible for a result that caught the legacy press and the political parties off guard and which many among that demographic have not yet come to terms with. The fact of the matter is that the EU is not very popular in the UK and it never was. The lie that says the EU is primarily an economic rather than a political project is increasingly difficult to maintain. The British electorate never felt that they had given their consent for their nation to be merged with other European states and subordinated to a supranational executive called the Commission. The ongoing disaster in the eurozone and the fact that the Armageddon we were promised if Britain did not join the single currency never arrived also emboldened people. I could go on.

Success may have many fathers while failure is an orphan, but it does not seem that any paternity test will soothe the paranoids who write this drivel for the Guardian and the Observer.

No Maps For These Territories

During the referendum campaign, Stronger In said that seeking to rejoin EFTA in order to participate in the EEA agreement would leave the UK, like Norway, with “no say” over “EU rules”.

Post-referendum, that mantra was taken up by the “hard Brexit” crowd. Am I the only person who finds that strange?

The pretexts that are offered for opposing an EFTA/EEA transition now are practically identical to those that were offered during the campaign: money, regulation and immigration.

The “hard Brexiteers” say that participating in the EEA means paying into the EU budget, which it does not. Called on that one, they shift to saying that the EEA costs too much and that the UK would be better off without the “burdensome” regulation they associate with the Single Market. Presumably, these people are proposing a cost-free alternative? It is impossible to know; the “hard Brexit” crowd are long on criticism and short on ideas.

Free trade agreements, especially those of the “deep and comprehensive” variety apparently favoured by the May government involve shared bureaucracy, for which somebody has to pay. Furthermore, Britain’s domestic regulatory and administrative agencies will almost certainly have to expand as policy-making powers are brought back under the UK umbrella. Those also cost money.

In short, any cost-savings that accrue from not having to pay directly into the EU budget will not be saved or made available for spending on the NHS. They will have to be reinvested in many of the same activities that are currently outsourced to the EU. Indeed, many of those activities would be even better handled at a local level. What and how powers should be dispersed is the kind of question Brexit demands that we discuss.

The sterile non-debate, hosted in the legacy press, in which the usual eurowhingers drone on and on about their opposition to any remotely realistic proposals, while offering no alternatives of their own, is of no use to anybody.

International co-operation costs money. That’s a fact. But, supranational EU institutions are far from the only, let alone the best or even most appropriate means to facilitate cross-border collaboration.

Technical standards for trade are another area where the conversation has been allowed to become much too narrow. Leaving the EU demands (that word again) that the British electorate think about and discuss what an independent trade policy can deliver. The UK market is not big enough to create an alternative centre of gravity and compete head-on with the so-called “Brussels effect” (formerly the California effect), and nor do we need to. Greater agility and enhanced accountability will enable us to build new alliances, work to embrace and extend the multilateral trading system, and also encourage new voices to have their say.

Accepting an EFTA/EEA interim would near-enough guarantee that the UK is in a position to leave the EU once the scheduled Article 50 timeline expires. The UK could immediately jettison two-thirds of the EU acquis and start to look to the future, working to rebuild our long-neglected national and local governance. An imaginative approach to areas such as agriculture, fisheries, environmental and energy policy has the potential to yield significant gains.

Contrary to establishment myth-making, neither does the EFTA/EEA route involve accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ. The EFTA Court is an existing entity with an independent track record which, crucially, unlike May’s promised “deep and special partnership”, actually exists. Who knows what the Tory Party will assent to given the option to present us with their version of “Brexit”?

Finally, the EEA agreement also includes safeguard measures—a standard feature of almost every international treaty (the supranational EU is very much the exception in that regard)—which Lietchtenstein was able to leverage to negotiate a permanent opt-out from freedom of movement while also retaining participation in the Single Market.

In brief, an EEA type deal offers a stable path out of the EU, would not involve paying into the EU budget, would not involve accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ, and need not necessarily involve full freedom of movement. None of the three pretexts offered by the politicians and the legacy press are true. Yet, the UK government has already said that the rate of immigration may increase after Brexit and that they would be willing to accept the continuing jurisdiction of the EJC for the duration of an (as yet unspecified) “implementation phase”. Perversely, the people who attack the EEA agreement do not attack the government for making proposals which are ostensibly much worse and a lot less “hard” than the “hard Brexiteers” present themselves as being.

For the time being, however, the legacy debate is mired in a tussle over who is more obnoxious, Theresa May or Jean-Claude Junker…

Live And Learn

Pete North recently wrote a series of tweets about the virtues of blogging. What I found particularly interesting were the characteristics he described which distinguish blogging from legacy journalism.

The idea that “learning is a collaborative effort” and that “blogging is opening up a dialogue for cross-pollination of ideas” particularly chimed with me.

In the past I have drawn comparisons to the collaborative style of communication blogging encourages and the open source software movement.

This is another tricky subject. The “technology industry” as people now call IT (roads and writing are also technology, ed.) is full of techno-utopians who appear to think that applying Silicon Valley fads to subjects outside the domain of software design will solve all of the world’s problems.

I appreciate the danger of taking ideas from one domain and using them to describe another, but in the case of blogging and open source software I think that the domains are (or can be) quite similar. The similarities are especially apparent when you are writing about technical subjects or matters of fact and you are aiming for accuracy. Comments can help you debug your blog posts.

To that end, my previous blog post has so far prompted two responses. The first, a pertinent question, with a (hopefully) clarifying answer.

The commenter asks, “In the EU Treaties does the term “third country” not relate to a country which is not a member state of the Union?” In this particular case, I am nearly certain that the commenter in question already knows that the answer to that particular query is, “yes”. In the context of the EU treaties, the term “third country” is used to refer to any sovereign state that is not also an EU Member State.

Fine. That’s nice and clear. This being the EU, however, the matter does not end there.

As I wrote in my previous post:

To clarify, “third-country” is a value-neutral term, used by the EU to describe any country that does not participate in the Single Market. If the UK leaves the EU and does not negotiate to join EFTA, so as to participate in the EEA agreement, the UK will become a third-country.

At the risk of belabouring the point, I will note that, as already mentioned, in the EU treaties the term “third country” is used to describe an non-EU Member State, whereas above, I am using the term “third-country” to describe any state that does not participate in the Single Market.

So, was I wrong to use the term “third-country” in that particular context? The short answer is, “I don’t think so”. In all honesty, the division is not as clear as one might like, although I do think it is possible for people of good faith to agree a common understanding of the term, thereby allowing debate to move forward.

The complication stems, at least in part, from the fact that the European Commission uses the term “third country” to mean both countries that are not in the EU and countries that are not in the EEA, which also includes three EFTA members (namely, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein).

One such example is the Data Protection Directive, guidelines for which are provided here. The discrepancy arises, I suspect, from the fact that the three EFTA countries that participate in the EEA agreement are not considered “third countries” in matters covered by the EEA (Single Market) acquis.

Even the way in which the term Single Market is used is something of a movable feast. Amidst this confusion, however, lie the seeds of a solution. The fact that even the EU struggles to clearly articulate a coherent vision of its neighbourhood policy would appear to indicate that a British government imbued with a proper sense of purpose could present Brexit as an opportunity to build something much better.

Opinions Are Like

I cannot recall ever feeling so disconnected from the political process.

Since becoming politically conscious, I have always enjoyed thinking about and discussing political issues.

For a long time, I used to watch Question Time every Thursday and listen to Any Questions every Saturday. I don’t think that I have tuned into either show for at least the last three years now.

As a result, I am sure that I miss some things. But, once you acquire more than a surface-level knowledge about a topic, you quickly discover that politicians and journalists rarely know very much about the topics they discuss on programmes like Question Time and Any Questions.

Of course, politics is a vast subject and politicians, especially those who appear regularly in the legacy media, are invited to talk about all manner of things. However, I do not think it is unreasonable to expect a basic level of competence and a willingness to learn more—and it is in terms of that willingness to learn more that our national debate is really lacking.

Nearly one year after the EU referendum and nearly two years since the David Cameron led Conservative Party won an overall majority in the House of Commons, committing the then Prime Minister to honour a very firm manifesto commitment to give the British electorate the option to vote on whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union, I am still seeing the same few slogans and talking points repeated.

Even the invocation of Article 50 does not appear to have triggered any significant degree of self-reflection.

Every few days, I will see a former Remainer say that Norway has “no say” over Single Market rules. That lie has been comprehensively debunked on this and related blogs more times than I care to consider. Demonstrating that the nations which comprise the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement have a say in the formulation of Single Market rules sets an extraordinarily low bar.

The necessary information is prominently displayed on the EFTA website, which, one might think, would be a good place to look for information about EFTA. In what universe is it acceptable for politicians, journalists and even academics—some of which claim to be subject matter experts!—to not know this stuff? The people who now occupy those roles are failing in their responsibility to shape, guide and inform public debate.

Instead, what passes for political debate in this country is dominated by people with opinions. I suspect that I could make a coherent argument explaining how this absence of aptitude is born of so many years of politicians, journalists and academics being at least partially shielded from the realities of governance as a result of the presence of supranational EU institutions, which have been invited to do so much of this necessary work on behalf of the “political class”.

I could do that. But that would require evidence and, why bother, right? People don’t appear to be able to tell the difference between evidence and opinion, regardless.

A good case in point is Angela Merkel’s assertion that, upon leaving the EU, the UK will become a third-country. A standard response I have seen in several places says something along the lines of, “Who can say? Maybe we will, maybe we won’t, that will depend upon the negotiation”.

That way of thinking betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. In fact, the misunderstanding is so fundamental that it is difficult to correct. One finds oneself merely repeating the same words over and over again (sometimes in a slightly different order).

To clarify, “third-country” is a value-neutral term, used by the EU to describe any country that does not participate in the Single Market. If the UK leaves the EU and does not negotiate to join EFTA, so as to participate in the EEA agreement, the UK will become a third-country.

See what I mean about repetition?

This is not a matter of opinion, something that is “up for grabs” or “subject to negotiation”. Presently, there are only two ways to avoid third-country status; one is to be in the EU, and the other is to be in EFTA. However, because Theresa May has “ruled out” that course of action, the legacy media does not see fit to provide any of that context.

Instead, we have severely under-informed and ill-informed people offering opinions with little or no basis in fact and as far as they are concerned their opinion is as valid as any other because who knows how the negotiations will go or what we can agree with the EU as part of the Article 50 talks, it’s only a matter of opinion after all.

Not Whether, But How

Here are a few of the responses I observed from Remain-minded individuals, reacting on Twitter to the parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s Article 50 bill.

This is Guardian reporter, Ian Birrell:

“Why respect people betraying their principles & voting for something they know is damaging for their country?”

Nick Cohen, columnist for The Observer and The Spectator:

“We have just seen hundreds of MP’s ‘restore trust in politics’ by voting for a measure they know to be against the national interest.”

Robert Harris, author:

“It is staggering, when you think about it, that the Tories, who took us into Europe, could muster only ONE MP to vote against leaving.”

What can one say when confronted with this level of wilful self-delusion? Europe is not the EU. I will keep saying that because it is true and because anybody who attempts to muddy the water on that particular issue is either being manipulative or is so stupid as to warrant no further attention. Many of the people who refer to the EU as Europe are both.

These are not knowledgeable people. These are people who have not troubled to learn anything new since the vote. Their arguments, if one can call them that, are stuck in the past, wishing after a referendum outcome that the British people declined to deliver.

Not to say that the legacy Leavers have covered themselves in glory. The usual ya-boo histrionics from Theresa May—thumping the despatch box and declaring, “He’s leading a protest, I’m leading a country”—do not disguise the fact that the Tory Party is woefully out of its depth. The moderate expectation that the government should be able to answer questions about legitimate issues is greeted with howls of outrage from people who, like their Remainer counterparts, are not minded to move forward.

The air of unreality that permeated the referendum debate is more apparent now than at any time since the vote. The activity that we see in Parliament is a continuation of the vapid campaigns and, if the government’s White Paper is any kind of a guide, the understanding of what will be required to secure a negotiated settlement is pretty scanty amongst the Rolls Royce minds of the British civil service too.

I did not think that my opinion of politicians could sink much lower, but this level of ninnydom is apparently the new normal. It is particularly disheartening to see people, like Owen Paterson and Nick Clegg (to name one individual from either side of the debate), who have, on occasion, demonstrated knowledge above and beyond that of the average MP, descending to the same level as their parliamentary brethren.

Prior to the vote, I honestly thought that somebody with some knowledge of the EU would restrain the Tories and, given the general disdain that Parliament typically exhibits for public sentiment, I also anticipated significant push back on the matter of leaving the Single Market without any alternative arrangements in place. Failing that, I thought that the public at large would demand something more substantial than the aspiration to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement before the Article 50 process was started. It appears that I was wrong on all three counts.

Rather than recognising reality, the various Remainer and Leaver tribes have retreated even further into their comfort zones, refusing to engage in anything even resembling reasoned debate regarding how the UK should leave the EU and what form our relationship should take thereafter.

The pretence that EU withdrawal is all about negotiating an FTA is, in many ways, a continuation of The Great Deception, which would have us believe that the EU is little more than a trade bloc and that EU institutions are so entwined with UK governance that to even attempt a separation is impossible.

That cognitive dissonance was nowhere more apparent than in the comments of the honourable member for Rushcliffe who said that “the nature of the debate”, orchestrated by the appointed campaigns, demonstrated why the question of EU membership was unsuited to a referendum. The fact that those campaigns were run by and for the politicians, with nary a peep from the Electoral Commission (nor from Parliament), regarding the appalling quality of their output, appears to have escaped old Clarkey’s attention.

To compound the insult, now we have the leader of Clarke’s beloved Tory Party telling us that the government will strive “to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded” with that to be followed by an indefinite “implementation phase”.

The Tories are engineering a false choice between leaving without an agreement and what will amount to an association agreement. Neither of those options appeals to me and I do not accept that, in a democracy, the electorate should simply accept the will of government as a fait accompli. The referendum decided whether the UK should leave the EU not how.

To that end, practically the only coherent position that establishment leaders and parties have offered is to oppose the idea of using the EEA as a temporary staging-post, pending a longer-term settlement which reorients our relationship with continental Europe so as to recognise political reality.

David Cameron repeatedly misled the House of Commons with respect to Norway’s relationship with the EU and Vote Leave—in the form of Dominic Cummings, Douglas Carswell, John Redwood and sundry others—were quick to affirm their agreement with the then Prime Minister. Much of the Remain campaign centred around the lie that EFTA states have “no say” in the making of “EU rules”.

The latest legacy party mouthpiece to warn against adopting the most reasonable and low-risk exit route—the one most likely to succeed and put us in a positive position to move forward when the time is right—is the avowed EU “federalist” and former Liberal Democrat MEP, Andrew Duff.

Duff has carved out a very peculiar position for himself among the Brexit community, his every utterance being treated with exaggerated seriousness by those who regard themselves as among the smarter, more informed Brexiteers. Duff, no fool, for his part, plays his role with aplomb, subtlety suggesting that people support positions which suit his beloved EU while couching his agenda-driven polemics in pseudo-academic vernacular.

What then does the great Remainer sage of Brexit say about the UK participating in the Single Market as part of EFTA rather than as part of the EU?

The problem is that EEA membership implies the most massive loss of national sovereignty since 1066, carries a large EU budgetary burden and involves free movement of workers — all of which the voters thought they were rejecting in the Brexit referendum.

These are the same three topics that both the eurosceptic and the europhile aristocracy have centred all of their attention on. The apparent concern for the views of those who voted to leave the EU from those who have taken Britain further and further into the EU these past 44 years defies cynicism.

It is always possible that there is some part of this that I am missing, but, for the time being, I can only think that these people want to see the UK fail.

Not that we need accept that the agenda should be determined by the liars and cynics who have precluded any form of debate on the form that Britain’s future relationship with continental Europe should take. There are alternatives to EU membership and an FTA, which preserves the idea of a Europe of concentric circles, centred around the EU, is a substandard end-game.

Embracing and extending the EEA to create a European economic space threatens EU supranationalism. An equal partnership would allow us to co-operate as required in the areas of trade and technical regulation without imposing one-size-fits-all policies on diverse European peoples, countries and cultures.

In recent weeks, Merkel, Verhofstadt and Junker have all been talking about how the EU needs to change—and, if you have followed this debate with any kind of honesty, you will know that can only mean “more Europe”, i.e. more political integration and more power for Brussels. If we’re really serious about EU withdrawal, isn’t it about time we started thinking about and proposing alternative forms for European co-operation?

It’s time to recover Europe from the EU.

The Arrogance Of Ignorance

Britain’s EU referendum was an educational experience in the sense that I no longer have any expectation that people in positions of authority and influence will have any more knowledge or be any better informed than I am.

In many cases, politicians and journalists, in particular, are clearly less informed than they should be. The persistent confusion over basic definitions including the “EU”, “EEA”, “EFTA” and the “EU Customs Union”—even after six months of Brexit topping the political agenda—is too common to be born of anything other than ignorance.

If you know a bit about the organisations and agreements these terms describe, the meanings of the associated labels are unambiguous. Yet the Diplomatic Editor for the Guardian newspaper, the appointed campaign groups (Leave and Remain) and even the Prime Minister herself are apparently incapable of clear communication.

By way of summary, EFTA members, three of which (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement, are not bound by the Common External Tariff or the Common Commercial Policy. EU policies only apply to EU Member States. Outside of the EU, the UK will enjoy the same freedom to negotiate trade agreements as all other non-EU Member States, as well as full self-representation on the global standards-setting bodies which are at the heart of the multilateral trading system.

Even that level of detail seems to elude our politicians and the legacy news-media.

Prior to the referendum campaign, I used to wonder what game people like John Redwood and David Cameron were really playing. Now I just presume that they do not know any better. They live in an unreal world—let’s call it “the bubble”—and their false assertions and poor argumentation are born of that limitation.

It was while reading a book about the history of the PC that the idea finally “clicked”. The book was full of lots of details with which I was already familiar, but the story was well told, and then, like a hammer, it stuck me; many of the real innovators in the computer world, aware of Moore’s Law since the 1960s, wrongly presumed that the business and engineering people at IBM were “holding back” PC technology for “political reasons”. The people who the personal computing pioneers presumed were in the best position to understand the revolution that was obviously underway didn’t know what was going on, as IBM demonstrated in its dealings with Microsoft and the “PC clones” later on.

The Altair 8800 was introduced in January, 1975, six years before IBM launched the first “Personal Computer (PC)”. The Apple I followed the Altair to market in 1976, and by the time IBM understood what was happening, the home computer industry had already been largely colonised by hippie-adventurers, operating mainly out of the west coast of the USA.

Ted Nelson, the man who coined the term “hypertext” and envisioned much of the modern networked world before it existed, tells the story thusly:

I’m conspiracy-minded. From 1970 to about 1979, I thought that IBM was deliberately suppressing personal computing. I later learned that they didn’t have a clue. They thought that computers had to be run by big departments. I found this out in the late ’70s when they asked me to consult on whether they should get into personal computing.

Ironically, 20 years later, with the Internet nascent but on a rapid adoption curve due to Berners-Lee’s WWW, Bill Gates found himself in a similar position to IBM. The biggest home software company in the history of the world was not even thinking about browser technology until a group of student programmers at the University of Illinois showed what was possible with Mosaic and, later, Netscape Navigator, introducing arguably the most significant consumer software product of all time, before Microsoft had noticed what was happening. I guess this is a perennial.

With the people who occupy positions of power in state institutions and their media ancillaries demonstrating that they have given up on thinking for themselves, if change is going to come, we will have to look beyond the ideas of bygone eras and start to innovate again. The usual suspects don’t know what they’re doing.

Alternative Exit Options


Theresa May has proposed that Britain and the EU should negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) under the terms of the two-year Article 50 process. The Prime Minister is presumed to have opted for this approach as a means to “take back control” of regulation, immigration and money sent to the EU.

I find it fascinating that the three topics I described in October 2015 as “the unholy and divided trinity of the Brexit debate”, the three topics that Tory “eurosceptics” have been “banging on about” for decades, which failed to arrest, let alone reverse even a single solitary slither of EU integration, are the same three topics that are now being presented to us as the foremost political objectives for the forthcoming exit negotiations.

In that earlier blog post, I advised people to pay attention to the fact that the featured Daily Telegraph article, which noted that “immigration, sovereignty and the EU budget are the main reasons for Britons’ hostility to the EU”, was written by an employee of the Centre for European Reform—an organisation that routinely receives operating grants from the EU.

What I foresaw, and wrote about in more detail elsewhere, was the legacy europhiles and legacy eurosceptics setting us up for a win-lose scenario, whereby, even if we won the vote, we may still lose the battle to leave the EU. In short, Vote Leave proferred a set of undeliverable objectives, which, I am told, must now shape the UK’s EU withdrawal.

That argument necessarily ignores the fact that Vote Leave refused to present referendum voters with a Brexit plan. The fact that the “leave” campaign had “no plan” was a persistent refrain throughout the referendum debate. In the absence of a plan, the now common refrain that both the “remain” and the “leave” campaigns were “clear” falls more than a little flat.

Certainly, the “remain” campaign spent much of the referendum period promoting misleading rubbish about every pre-existing alternative to EU membership. The most enduring legacy of the Vote Leave campaign, it appears, was to aid the “remain” camp in shutting down what Jonathan Lindsell described as the “safest Brexit option”, rejoining EFTA so as to participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement.

To that end, it is worth looking in more detail at what other “alternative arrangements” the Vote Leave campaign promoted. Campaign Manager, Dominic Cummings, repeatedly sought to problematise the idea of a negotiated exit via Article 50, and, in January 2016, Daniel Hannan said that only a “vote to leave” would prompt the EU to offer “proper concessions” and “associate membership”. Why any of this should be regarded as compelling evidence for the UK government to preclude any particular exit route is frankly beyond me.

Indeed, it is worth recalling the other campaign messages which are apparently shaping Mrs May’s approach. The messages fall broadly under three main headings, the same three headings highlighted by the employee of the Centre for European Reform in his Daily Telegraph article, the same three headings I warned could lead us down a cul-de-sac from which there may be no escape; regulation, immigration and money.

Now, let us consider each of these in the context of a comprehensive FTA. In terms of money, obviously the FTA will require administration. That is not going to be free. In terms of regulation, a comprehensive FTA will require an arbitration authority and a commitment to regulatory convergence, which will require businesses that want to sell their goods and services into the Single Market to comply with the appropriate regulation. And, finally, the big one for many people, on the issue of immigration or free movement (it would be helpful if we could start to tease the two apart), any comprehensive FTA, which includes trade in services, will of necessity include provisions for free movement of workers.

It seems to me that in setting her end game as an FTA, nominally as a sop to the Tory right, Mrs May is pursuing a far more risky and uncertain negotiation than necessary in order to arrive at a position that broadly resembles Single Market membership as part of the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement—without the advantages associated with that arrangement—the main difference being that this FTA is being presented to us as our “final settlement”.

The EEA interim would, by contrast, be a temporary staging post, a comparatively safe harbour from which the UK could rebuild its domestic administration and policy-making framework, pending further negotiation to arrive at a much more ambitious final settlement.

The process leading to the establishment of the EEA agreement started in the mid 1980s with EFTA and what was then the EEC agreeing to pursue the creation of a ‘European Economic Space’. Subsequently overtaken by events, the idea proposed by the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, would have entailed new administrative and decision-making structures. To this day, the desire to “regularise” its neighbourhood policy, remains an important EU objective.

That gives us our opening. An imaginative British Prime Minister could present Britain’s EU exit as an opportunity to revive the idea of the European Economic Space (EES) as a means to put relations with our nearest neighbours and strategic partners on a solid foundation. In light of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, as a result of which the EU increasingly adopts international standards as the basis for its technical regulation, and the Vienna and Dresden agreements, which are intended to bring EU and international standards into even closer alignment, the UK could set as its end game, not an FTA, but a new framework for co-operation in the areas of trade and technical regulation founded upon the “International Model” pioneered by UNECE.

This new settlement would extend economic co-operation across the whole of Europe, encompassing not only the EU27 (minus the UK) but the entire European geographical area, with each nation wielding an independent right of initiative and of opt-out. This would also give the UK government a positive objective to work towards and a path to follow as we transition from an EFTA/EEA framework to an agreement which would work longer term.

This is not as far fetched as it may sound. The UK is still an important country and adopting a constructive approach, which offers the EU the opportunity for a win-win in the exit negotiations, could engender the goodwill to work productively with our nearest neighbours and geopolitical allies throughout the withdrawal process and onwards into the future.

By contrast, Mrs May’s desire “to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded” could see the UK locked inside the EU for a God knows how long, pending completion of the “implementation phase”. To quote John Lydon, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

The Debate We Never Had

The Prime Minister has given a speech. What I thought would be nebulous, non-committal and wishy-washy was in fact quite clear. The content, however, was less encouraging. Mrs May shows scant sign of understanding the scale of the task on which the country has embarked.

In a sense, I am glad that she has taken a position. Now we know broadly where we stand. I think that this was necessary and the timing is right.

I am surprised by the positions she has taken. The decision to proscribe particular approaches to exit before the negotiations have begun—and the EU has made its positions known—strikes me as extraordinarily foolish. Why set up such enormous hostages to fortune prior to beginning talks?

Mrs May talked vaguely about a transition, which makes sense, and she set a comprehensive free trade agreement as her end game. As I have argued for the past couple of weeks, the transition and the end game need to be discussed together because of the way in which the two are linked; certain objectives preclude other objectives while certain kinds of interim arrangement are practical and others are not.

To date, the question of whether a free trade agreement proffers the kind of end game that we really want is not even being asked. To me it suggests a somewhat shrunken view of Britain, and our place in Europe and the world. Is a free trade agreement with our nearest neighbours and many of our largest trading partners, countries with which we share the continent and the civilisational outlook that we call “Europe” and “European”, really appropriate? Might we be able to aim for something better?

Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, famously said of this sceptred isle that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. Freeing ourselves from the supranational EU will allow Britain to play a unique role at the global level. We cannot match the USA or the EU or China in terms of market size, but we can compete in terms of ingenuity, agility and innovation, forging ad-hoc alliances and playing ‘honest broker’ to the other big blocks.

If the aim of the UK government is to be a champion of free trade and open collaboration then voluntarily erecting a mass of new technical barriers to trade with several of our biggest export markets sends out all of the wrong signals. Even if a free trade agreement with the EU is to be the eventual end game, the case for immediate withdrawal from the Single Market has not been made.

Indeed, the case for committing to not being party to the EEA agreement is almost always predicated on the notion that the appointed campaigns said so. As Dominic Cummings noted before Vote Leave was formed, campaign groups have no locus for negotiation. I have yet to hear anybody make the case for taking Britain out of the Single Market without an alternative framework for future co-operation to replace it.

Yet, I keep being told that the debate is over. That we had this fight and that people knew they were voting to leave the Single Market. Assertions such as these are false; the case was never made, and telling me to shut up because you cannot win an open debate really doesn’t cut it.

The referendum concerned the binary question of whether Britain should leave the EU. How we should leave the EU and what should follow thereafter was not addressed. People who think that it was are imagining things, inventing post-hoc rationalisations for their favoured outcome.

The fact is I don’t trust the Tories to deliver Brexit, and I find it unedifying to see a substantial proportion of “leave” voters becoming cheerleaders for Theresa May, treating critics with maximal intolerance. We have a way to go if we are going to make a go of this democracy lark.

To those who keep telling me “none of this matters, the decision has been taken”, why don’t you try arguing your case rather than telling me to stop arguing mine? Asserting that you know better than me is not an argument. This is not the end of anything, this is the start of the debate we never had.

The Appointed Campaigns Were Not Clear About The Single Market

On her recent Question Time appearance, Labour MP, Gisela Stuart, insisted that “both sides said a vote to leave would mean leaving the Single Market”. This oft-repeated assertion is deserving of more scrutiny than it has so far received.

First of all, I would be interested to know what Mrs Stuart means by “both sides”. She may mean the “leave” and “remain” campaigns granted “lead campaign” status by the Electoral Commission. To that end, it is worthwhile noting that the appointed campaigns were not the only groups or individuals involved in the referendum campaign. That is important.

Neither does either campaign group have any authority to make policy for the UK. As Vote Leave Campaign Manager, Dominic Cummings, wrote on his blog, shortly after the Tory election victory:

“A Government trying to leave the EU obviously needs an exit plan. The SNP needed an exit plan. But the NO campaign is neither a political party nor a government. It has no locus to negotiate a new deal.”

Ironically, had the “leave” campaign presented referendum voters with a coherent set of policy proposals, “leave” campaigners would now be in a far stronger position to exert political pressure on the UK government. Had that come to pass, it is unlikely that the establishment line would have been that “both sides were clear”. MPs and their friends in the legacy press would instead have argued that how Britain leaves the EU is a matter for the UK government to decide, regardless of what either of the appointed campaign groups may have argued.

In addition to questioning whether the appointed campaigns—both of which published and broadcast enormous amounts of misleading rubbish—are a legitimate authority with regards to determining the UK’s future relationship with the EU, I would also dispute the notion that both sides were “clear” in saying that a vote to leave the EU would mean immediately leaving the Single Market.

On the 19th April 2016, Michael Gove gave a speech in which he said:

“There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will remain in this zone.”

What is that supposed to mean? What “free trade zone” is Gove talking about? Is there some form of agreement connected with this free trade zone that all the countries in it are signed up to? Does this free trade zone have a name and when did the countries of Europe sign up to this agreement?

At best, Gove’s statement is confused. Of the two countries mentioned, Iceland is part of EFTA and the EEA, while Turkey is not part of EFTA or the EEA, but is party to a customs union agreement with the EU. The most generous explanation is that Michael Gove does not know what he is talking about. Indeed, I have yet to hear a single MP provide an adequate description of the Single Market.

Then there is the Vote Leave campaign itself, and the bizarre comments made by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings while appearing in front of the Treasury Select Committee. Asked whether he wanted Britain to be in or out of the Single Market, Dominic Cummings’ first response was to ask the MP asking the question how he would define the Single Market. Asked the question a second time, Cummings waffled about the “costs” of Single Market regulation, according to Vote Leave. Asked the question a third time, Cummings responded again, “What do you mean by the Single Market?”

Asked the question yet again, Cummings asserted that the European Commission defines Single Market membership as including membership of the euro and of Schengen, thereby implying that the UK is not in the Single Market. This statement is so strange one does not really know where to begin. Neither did the parliamentary committee.

The last thing this exercise in obfuscation was is clear. The exchange I am describing begins at around the fourteen minute mark and continues, at great length, with Cummings refusing to provide straight or “clear”, if you would prefer, answers to most of the questions asked.

As for remarks made by prominent “remain” campaigners regarding immediate withdrawal from the Single Market, David Cameron also said that, in the event of a “leave” vote, he would stay on as Prime Minister and immediately invoke Article 50, while George Osborne said that a vote to leave would necessitate an immediate tax hike, spending cuts and job losses beginning on the Friday after the vote.

It is not Gisela Stuart, and the like, arguing that the UK should leave the Single Market at the point of EU exit that I find problematic, it is her and people like her presenting their view as a fait accompli, as if the appalling referendum debate has already decided these matters. If she thinks immediate Single Market exit is the best way forward, she should make that argument on its merits, not call in aid statements made by campaign groups which no longer exist and have no locus of control or responsibility with respect to future decisions.

Brexit is Britain’s withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representations. The referendum result proscribed nothing other than remaining in the EU. In light of the work that lies ahead, additional “hurdles to exit” are unnecessary baggage. Rebuilding competencies as part of the Single Market would allow the UK to leave EU within two years while seeking a “bespoke” deal risks taking much longer.