Tuesday, 25 October 2016

What is Theresa May doing?

What is Theresa May doing?

She backed the UK remaining in the EU, but took on the role of prime minister after the country voted to leave and - if "Brexit means Brexit" can be taken to mean anything at all - appears to be prepared to lead the country into an action she thinks is folly.

So what's going on?

I can think of several possibilities:

1. She never thought remaining was the right option for the UK, but thought the remain campaign would win and that it was therefore the most politically smart position in that it would ally her with David Cameron, who would have stayed on as PM. Now she's going for a hard Brexit because Brexit is what she's always wanted.

2. She's a barely competent opportunist who is prepared to do almost anything - including commit the country to folly - in order to further her own career. In becoming PM she learnt that she benefited from not having campaigned vigorously for remaining, and now she's playing her cards even closer to her chest over what she wants from the UK's negotiations with the EU because a) she can't do any better and b) she can claim whatever outcome results as being the one she wanted.

3. She always wanted the UK to remain in the EU, but didn't campaign hard so that if the leave vote won she could try to steer the UK towards the best outcome. Now she's playing hard a) to keep the leave campaign off her back and b) to convince the EU that she'll really go through with a hard Brexit and that all of Europe will suffer from the UK's loss unless the EU caves on its principle that the free movement of goods, capital and services must necessarily go hand-in-hand with the free movement of people, which - let's face it - is a political conviction rather than an economic one.

Where I come up short is in picking the possibility I think is most likely. The evidence to date means any of them could well be. May was an ineffectual Home Secretary who has nevertheless managed to craft an image of steely competence. She's presided over a horrifying series of policy suggestions that have kept the right wing silent while making the left more convinced than ever that Brexit is a terrible idea. And she's picked the worst possible timing for triggering Article 50.

So your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The week's best reads #4

A pretty narrow selection this week. Use the comments to let me and the world know what I missed.

Ryan Avent in the Guardian on how the digital revolution is linked to rising nationalism:

"Moderate reformers will find themselves losing ground to politicians keen to unpick elements of the era of moderation ..."

Related, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian on the UK Tory government's sharp swerve into populism:

"The only instruction the British people gave on 23 June was to leave the European Union. They did not issue an edict demanding the most extreme rupture possible..."

Adam Phillips in the Guardian on how we lose out by solidifying our sense of self:

"Taste is problematic when it is a militant and aggressive narrowing of the mind..."

Alberto Nardelli for Buzzfeed on how common extremism now is in Europe:

"Almost half of the adults in 12 European countries now hold anti-immigrant, nationalist views..."

Tim Harford in the FT on the efficiency of being disorganised:

"Your desk may look messy to other people but you know that, thanks to the LRU rule, it’s really an efficient self-organising rapid-access cache."

How to tell if you're foreign, by The Poke:

"Democracy is a key British value, and democracy means that the majority can vote to strip rights from the minority..."

The problem with the public

People living in poorer areas of the UK were more likely to vote to leave the EU. This wasn't the strongest predictor of voting Leave, but it was pretty strong.

A question many people, particularly pro-Remainers, are asking is why this should have been the case, given that most economists predicted that leaving the EU would be financially damaging, and given that the EU has been better than the UK government at redistributing funding to poorer areas (and not in the form of soul-destroying benefits handouts, but in the form of large-scale infrastructure investment).

Any suggestion that people were ill-informed in voting to leave the EU will be met with accusations of condescension from pro-Leavers. But some statistics in Andy Beckett's excellent history of early 80s British politics Promised You a Miracle provide an eye-opening illustration of how difficult it can be to deliver information to the public.

In a section on the 1979 Tory government's Right to Buy scheme, which enabled council tenants to buy their homes at a discount of between 33 and 50 per cent, Beckett relates how a 1988 report found that, five years after the scheme had been in place, and had been advertised on TV and via posted information leaflets, 45 per cent of tenants who knew about the scheme didn't understand whether or not they qualified (the vast majority did) and 10 per cent of tenants "were completely unaware of the scheme at all".

This is a scheme that could have saved tenants up to half the cost of buying their home, and 10 per cent of them were unaware that it existed.

In light of that, does it still seem unlikely that a large proportion of people who voted to leave the EU were unaware that trading with it from outside the single market could mean having to adopt many of its rules while relinquishing any say in what those rules would be, for example?

The right balance of representative and participatory democracy is difficult to find. But reducing a question as complex as a country's membership of the EU to a binary choice is certainly looking to have been a horrible misstep.