Sunday, 14 January 2018

Ask me, ask me, ask me

The prospect of a second referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, or on the nature of its future relationship with the EU, has been on many a lip and TV show since Nigel Farage suggested he might be open to the idea in order to kill off the question for a generation.

One pretty common reaction is demonstrated by the guy 40 seconds into the above video - asking how many referendums there might be, or whether there should be a "best of five", etc.

For many people, the idea is a bit like this scene in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, where our heroes are aggrieved to have to play the Grim Reaper over and over again having already beaten him at Battleships:

But the EU referendum differs from this in crucial ways, as Farage has recognised. Firstly, the result was ridiculously close. Farage even said before the referendum that if the outcome was split 52%-48% (he was assuming that would be in favour of Remain), there ought to be a second ref.

Requiring a straightforward majority is standard in referendums internationally. However, "supermajority" requirements of say 60% and double majority requirements (meaning both an overall majority and a majority backing of, say, in the UK's case, all four of its component nations), are far from unknown (PDF and article).

Furthermore, in this instance, almost every promise made by the winning Leave campaign has now been reneged upon. There will be no £350m per week for the NHS, economic growth will be lower outside the EU, migration will need to remain high, sovereignty will be relinquished to the US, China and India rather than to an entity over which the British people have a substantial degree of control, etc etc.

All of which favours a second referendum. Ideally one in which the options are clear and the campaigners are held to account for what they say.

Personally, I'd be in favour of taking no drastic action - neither leaving the EU nor lending British backing to further EU integration - unless there is at least a 55% majority, and ideally a 60% majority, one way or the other.

One objection that is often raised is that the British people will feel like they've been betrayed if there's a second ref. This tends to go hand-in-hand with the suggestion that the referendum will be repeated until the "elites" - whoever they are, given that the Leave campaign included the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg - "get the result they want".

This is ridiculous. People don't collapse when they're asked the same question more than once. Remember Ed Miliband?

Nor are people like fruit machines that spit out different answers at random. If people feel strongly one way or another, they'll turn out again and vote in accordance with their feelings. If they don't they'll stay home, and will have no right to complain.

And if the answer isn't clear cut, the political outcome should be one of compromise that pays heed to the closeness of the result.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Winner takes all, but victory is Pyrrhic

Theresa May's Brexit plan, which entails leaving the EU's Single Market (which the UK itself essentially created) and not being part of a customs union with the EU, is the most extreme form of Brexit shy of a "no deal" situation (which would be utterly disastrous).

In pursuing this hard Brexit, May is ignoring the views of the 48 per cent of referendum voters who backed Remain. She's also ignoring the narrowness of the result, the vagueness of the referendum question, the many lies told by the Leave campaign, the likely preferences of EU citizens resident in the UK, the Remain majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the preferences of most businesses and, last but not least, the fact that young people, who will have to live with the effects of Brexit the longest, overwhelmingly favoured Remain.

Why is May doing this? She was herself a remainer, after all, albeit not a very effective one.

In large part, she's probably doing it because she's wanted to be prime minister all her life, and she knows that she would face a leadership challenge from hard-core eurosceptic Tories if she pursued a softer Brexit. She's putting her career ahead of the country.

But it seems to me she's also probably been enabled and emboldened by the standard model of British politics, which is the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Under FPTP, the party that wins an outright majority can implement its manifesto in full - or in practice can do whatever the hell it likes - with no regard to the extent to which any given policy was emphasised in the election, the level of support for it among its own voters, the divergence on that issue in the opposing parties' manifestos, or the level of support for those policies among the opposing parties' voters.

The public mostly puts up with this, in part probably because people hope that their party will win next time, and in part probably because people are now so weary of politics in general that they can't be bothered to kick up a fuss.

But Brexit is different, or ought to be. First, the closeness of the result and the preference for Remain among young people make it very likely that there will be an outright majority in favour of Remain in the near future. That's assuming that there isn't already such a majority, which there might well be given the number and importance of the Leave lies that have now been exposed. Is it really wise to go through the horrendously costly and time-consuming process of leaving, only to then attempt to reverse that process in a few years' time?

Second, while we can probably assume that most Remain voters would favour staying in the Single Market and joining a customs union, while most Leave voters wouldn't, we don't really know. Certainly there are some Leave voters who favour those softer Brexit options.

So the fairest, least divisive, least disruptive options would be to recognise the closeness of the result and pursue a compromise remain or compromise soft Brexit, or hold a second referendum on the nature of the Brexit.

Unfortunately, the Labour opposition leader is an undercover leaver, and has done little if anything to oppose May's damaging actions, just as he did so little during the referendum campaign.

Hence it's fallen to rebels in both parties, like Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, to provide the checks and balances that have been so sadly lacking.

Charles Tannock was one of three rebel Tory MEPs among 20 who signed a letter last week calling on May to remain in the Single Market and join a customs union with the EU.

As the Guardian reported, he "described the 52% victory for leave in the EU referendum as a margin “not convincing for Brexit, let alone the hardest of Brexits” given the scale of constitutional change".

Or as Andrew Adonis put it in his letter resigning his position on May's cross-party infrastructure commission:

“If Brexit happens, taking us back into Europe will become the mission of our children's generation, who will marvel at your acts of destruction.”

Monday, 1 January 2018

Book review: On Europe, Margaret Thatcher, 2017 (2002)

This extract, published this year, from a book Thatcher wrote in 2002 is interesting to read today for several reasons, foremost among which is the extent to which the arguments she advanced for reforming or terminating the UK's membership of the EU, and for the likely success of that endeavour, were adopted by the Leave campaigners in the UK's 2016 EU referendum, warts and all - and warts there are in plenty.

Take for example "The rest of the EU needs us more than we need them" and "EU workers are going to bring pressure on them [EU politicians] to keep our markets open". Both of these were uncritically parroted by the Leave campaign, and both are utter nonsense.

In support of the former assertion, Thatcher cites the fact that the UK is a "substantial net importer from the rest of the EU". Well, as well as this ignoring that British consumers want to purchase these EU goods, and would be unhappy at not being able to do so, it also ignores that the proportion of UK exports to the EU is much higher than the proportion of EU exports to the UK. Meaning the EU has the UK by the short and curlies. The latter assertion has now been disproved by history, as Germany's car manufacturers have lined up to emphasise the importance of the integrity of the EU's Single Market.

Indeed, On Europe is full of the kind of subjectivity, hypocrisy, wishful thinking, woolly logic, appeals to authority, and outright falsehoods that characterised the Leave campaign. For example, Thatcher complains that when she became PM, the UK was "on the verge of becoming the EEC's largest net contributor, even though we were then only the seventh richest nation per head". This of course is comparing apples with oranges: the net contribution of the UK, which is a total for the country as a whole, and therefore dependent on population size, and the UK's wealth per head, which is an average. To give just one more of the many examples of unsound argument, Thatcher compares unemployment in the UK, USA, Germany, France and Japan in order to attack Europe's stronger social protections, which she says hinder job creation. But she does so for just a single time point, rather than over a prolonged duration, and she ignores any consideration of whether, for example, France's citizens might prefer early retirement to low national unemployment.

But the book's biggest problem is its near-complete failure to engage with what ought to be the main question of any debate about the EU, which is: what is the ideal scale at which democracy should take place? Thatcher does make the occasional baseless assertion that, for example, the EU is inherently undemocratic purely because "there exists no pan-European public opinion", or that Europe is inherently divided because "it makes no sense at all to lump together Beethoven and Debussy, Voltaire and Burke, Vermeer and Picasso, boiled beef and bouillabaisse". But she makes no attempt to set out why it makes more sense for, say, defence policy or interest rates to be decided at the scale of the UK rather than that of Europe, or why Westminster should have total sovereignty but not Scotland, or why decentralisation is a good thing when it entails more power for nations but a bad thing when it means more power for regions (e.g. through the Committee of the Regions).

There may well be answers to these questions that make EU membership less attractive - it's a fascinating thought - but Thatcher didn't provide them, and nor has anyone else that I've seen, either prior to or since the referendum. Thatcher's arguments were a thin tissue full of holes that ought to have been shredded in the referendum. That they weren't says more about the nature of human decision-making and the state of British politics and journalism than we have yet dared to admit.