Thursday, 31 January 2019

Brexit: WTO Terms Are The Chasm, Not The Bridge!

Leave Means Leave campaigners like to say that "trading on WTO terms" is a "bridge" from EU membership to an EU free trade deal. 

Not true. But this helps paint a picture of exactly what Brexit really means.

The WTO was set up in 1995 as a way for all countries to agree ways to trade more freely with each other ("trade deals") and some very basic rules for fair trade if they cannot agree a trade deal ("WTO terms").

So think of "WTO terms" as the chasm or valley between two countries who want to trade with each other. 

It's a long way down, because those are the best/worst trading terms that all countries say should apply where there is no other deal agreed.

In other words, to improve on WTO terms, you need a "trade deal" between countries - like membership of the same regional or other type of free trade bloc (like the EU, for example) - or a "free" trade agreement between the trade bloc and a non-member country (like EU-Canada).

The free trade agreement or treaty (such as EU membership) is the bridge, and WTO terms is the chasm that the countries are trying to get their goods and services across. 

Right now, the UK's goods and services are trundling to and from the EU across the WTO chasm via the bridge of EU membership. And a wise government would not remove the bridge of EU membership without building an alternative bridge over the WTO chasm.

It takes 5 to 10 years to build a bridge over the WTO chasm. But after nearly 3 years of negotiation, Theresa May only managed to get until the end of 2020 - not long enough to build a new bridge, even if she had any real idea how to build it.

So, May's deal and No Deal both involve the UK not so much "driving off a cliff" but "falling into the WTO chasm" as the bridge of EU membership collapses.

The only way to avoid this is to revoke (withdraw) the Article 50 notice before it expires on 29 March and try to leave again later (if anyone can figure out how to do that safely).

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Marriage Of Patriotism And Intelligence: Low Expectations With A Chance Of Delight

I can't recall starting any year with lower expectations than I have for 2019.  But the Sun is up there somewhere, and may yet delight. We might even see a decent wedding for a change...

At any rate, 2018 ended so badly that I snatched up a book of Orwell's essays at the bookshop till for light relief. The essays included the excellent pieces Why I Write and Politics and the English Language. The latter should be required reading for Messrs Rees-Mogg and Hannan, by the way. Two of the most pompous people on Earth for whom Orwell may as well have written his essay while watching their lips move: 
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink... Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Nestled between these two venomous little works is Orwell's suggested antedote to fascism, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, written in February 1941.

At this point, Corbynistas will hastily point out that Orwell's real name was Blair and he went to Eton. True enough, but you've already seen his opinion on the Rees-Moggs of his era; and in 1937 he was among the first to actually fight against fascism in Europe and later to advocate the kind of socialism that gripped Britain for decades after the war. Reality is too complicated for dogma.

It's also ironic that given the lengthy socialist experiment that occurred in Britain after the war, UK politics today should so clearly echo Orwell's 1941 view of UK politics in the 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini have been replaced by a wave of American-style Alt-Right Christian fundamentalist populists, while Putin looms out of Russia on the far left and various Islamic potentates ply their trade. UK foreign policy riven with appeasement, inconsistency and conflicts of interest - historically, backing Franco in Spain, arming the Italians and ignoring German rearmament and dithering until too late; now May rushing to hold hands with Trump and Erdogan, arming the Saudis and delivering on Putin's disruptive agenda, not only by pursuing Brexit and ignoring foreign political interference in UK politics from both left and right, but also by being the only conservative EU government to back Hungary's alt right leader. Meanwhile, in the UK, Orwell's "Blimp class" - "the halfpay colonel with his bull neck and diminutive brain, like a dinosaur..." has evolved into our gammon-like 'Brexiteers' and 'Leavers', while the left wing "Bloomsbury highbrow, with his mechanical snigger, is [again] as out-of-date as the cavalry colonel...".

And both eras share the same political stalemate:
Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence [but] a modern nation cannot afford either of them. Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible.
In recommending a solution in 1941 that might win the war, Orwell doubted that Britain would be able to fuse patriotism and intelligence in order to resist fascism unless it fought a "revolutionary war" and became a "socialist democracy". He advocated six political goals that he thought would probably take decades to achieve but provide enough incentive to enough people to effectively unite the population (ignoring the small proportion of 'mere owners' of land and capital). Only the first two of his suggested goals are offered by anyone as policies today - namely, nationalising "land, mines, railways, banks and major industries" and limiting incomes so that the "highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one" - but everyone except the Corbynistas has learned from Britain's own disastrous post-war policies, as well as the unfortunate aspects of Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Venezuelan experiments that those goals are economically suicidal.

It remains true, however, that although the NHS is all that's left of its socialist experiment, Britain is much more of a socialist democracy than before the war. And Orwell was probably right about nationalisation to the extent that private sector control of the UK's major industries had to be made temporarily subject to the state's war effort and subsequent reconstruction programme.

Yet 80 years later we find that the apparent marriage of patriotism and intelligence for at least some of that period has ended in divorce.

I am not alone in thinking that the term "patriotism" in that context was misunderstood. Writing The Lion and The Unicorn in 1941, Orwell himself merely referred to patriotism as "national loyalty" and considered that Hitler and Mussolini rose to power because they recognised it as being a greater "positive force" than Christianity or socialism. But by 1945 their downfall had clearly caused him to consider the difference far more carefully (my emphasis added):  
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism... two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one's own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling...
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade.
But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right...
From this description it is suddenly easy to see why "nationalism" - whether in the form of religious fundamentalism or a passion for a post-Brexit Britain - is not enough to sustain a marriage with intelligence, if they ever become truly married at all. Intelligence heads for the door as soon as nationalism is exposed by the facts and becomes dishonest. Intelligence cannot live with a lie. That process of exposure can take time, but it is inevitable. By contrast, "patriotism" does not involve any collision with the facts because it is not a quest for power and there is no need to impose a strongly held view on others. Plenty of happily married couples differ in their likes and dislikes - even find their differences funny - but the fun stops when one imposes a preference on the other.

Orwell avoided the question of how nationalism takes hold, although the fact that he was concerned to expose it as a writer spoke volumes, as it were; and later studies of German propaganda in the 1930s and modern day 'fake news' of the kind distributed in the 2016 Leave campaign - and even by the Tories in 'selling' Theresa May's Brexit 'deal' - show quite clearly how nationalist beliefs can be encouraged and spread widely where the facts are less available or less attractive.  Indeed, both Britain's main political parties are dominated by extreme "nationalists" who are holding the UK economy - and voters' own wellbeing - hostage to their own political views. Both seek to impose Brexit in the face of widespread agreement that even after 15 years of trying to put the impact behind it Britain will produce less than it would have by remaining in the world's largest trade bloc. "Fuck business!" says one Brexiteer, "people have had enough of experts" says another, while the 'opposition' even sought to ignore Brexit as an issue altogether - as if a smaller economy could magically spend more on neglected public services. If they succeed at this, their supporters will believe anything. Intelligence will be banished from the family home.

But I think Orwell's key insight was that nationalistic beliefs exist in everyone, and it takes moral effort to think clearly. 
The ...nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of... are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality.
In other words, it is fine for you to believe that London is "the best city in the world" to live in, for example, but you must accept that others' opinion and passions may differ in terms of their own experience of London, preference for other cities or indeed no city at all. You do not need to see the downfall of Leeds or Paris, or ensure the good residents of Scunthorpe are much worse off, in order to enjoy living in London (or indeed, the other way round). Equally, however, you must recognise that if the majority of people with day-to-day business responsibilities within the UK's financial, medical, pharmaceutical, scientific, automotive, aerospace, creative and other industries generally agree with the senior civil servants who have responsibilities in those areas that Britain will be worse off under any form of Brexit, then you must resist the temptation to keep insisting that Britain will somehow be better off...

On that note, I wish you a happy and prosperous 2019.

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