by Martin Odoni

On analysis of the proposal mooted by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for a solution to the border problem in Ireland created by Brexit, I can see three possible explanations, and only three. Here they are, in order of likelihood; –

  1. Johnson is ‘tabling a Habsburg ultimatum’.
  2. Johnson is trying to get around the problem by playing word-games, proposing a solution that plainly fails the purpose, but produces an outcome that is not word-for-word the same as what must be avoided.
  3. He really is as incredibly stupid as he looks.

To explain; –

The proposal is inherently absurd. The requirement of the Good Friday Agreement is for there to be no ‘Hard Border’ between Eire and Northern Ireland, which, as is well-recorded, rather clashes with the Brexit aspiration of ‘the UK controlling its own borders’. Johnson therefore wishes to impose a temporary ‘buffer-zone’ from the start of 2021, with its boundaries approximately five miles either side from the border itself. Customs checks would be carried out at these buffer zone boundaries instead of at the border, and this arrangement would carry on until a joint Anglo-Irish council arranges a final settlement in 2025.

So in short, Johnson’s answer to the requirement for there to be no active border between Northern Ireland and Eire is for there to be two active borders between them.

Proposed Irish border-buffer zone

Boris Johnson is proposing a ‘Brexit buffer zone’ around the Irish border for four years. In effect, this will mean TWO borders in Ireland.

This proposal is one of the daftest yet, and not just because it violates the Good Friday Agreement. In the long term it will violate the Act Of Union 1800 as well, which guarantees a Customs Union between Great Britain and all British-held territories on the island of Ireland. This requirement is undermined by the fact that trading conditions in Northern Ireland will quite explicitly cease to be aligned with the rest of the UK, especially after 2025.

Setting the deadline to 2025 is a very long-winded way of saying, “Let’s just kick finding a permanent solution to the problems of the border-in-Ireland into the long grass for five years, by which time, all the people who made this mess will probably have moved on anyway”.

It is a worst-of-all-worlds proposal.

Note the arrogance of putting the ‘buffer zone’ so far into Ireland’s sovereign territory for Brexit’s sake. This is not an Irish policy, it is a British one, so if Johnson wants a buffer zone, he should put it entirely on the UK side of the border. (Even then, it would still be an awful thing to do, as it creates serious freedom-of-movement issues for those living inside it – any buffer zone would in a sense become a third Ireland. But at least it would be the British accepting the price for a needless problem the British have created.)

So reflecting on all of this, here is what I mean by the three possibilities mentioned above; –

  1. Johnson is deliberately putting forward a proposal that is designed to be rejected, so he can claim that he came up with a solution but others are not co-operating with him. (Like the preposterous demands the Austro-Hungarian Empire placed on Serbia after the assassination of the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 – hence my coining the term “Habsburg Ultimatum”.)
  2. Johnson imagines he has found a loophole in the description of the problem Brexit has created. He is thinking, “Well, they’re saying a Hard Border, which is to say one Hard Border, is unnacceptable, but they said nothing about more than one, so let’s go for two!” as though quibbling over the precise wording of the problem will be enough to make the ‘solution’ acceptable to Republican and Unionist communities alike.
  3. Johnson genuinely means this proposal as a way of reconciling Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement. Because his ‘lovable clownish buffoon’ image is not an act after all, and he really is that much of a congenital moron.

Loopholes are dirty tricks, every time. and they can get people around the letter of an agreement. But the desire to keep the Good Friday Agreement intact is no procedural quibble, trying to keep the paperwork valid merely for the sake of it. There is a purpose behind the attempts to make sure Brexit does not violate the Irish peace process – to prevent a resumption of the civil war known as ‘The Troubles’. The success or failure of that purpose is what will count. Not whether the solution just about fits the wording, but whether it is acceptable to the people whose futures will be most affected by it. To shift blame, to play word games, to mess around with loopholes, or just to behave with reckless, ignorant stupidity over the peace process is absolutely certain to harm it, when lives depend on its continued success.

This is yet another example of Johnson’s manipulative cynicism, of which we have already had too many in just the two months he has been Prime Minister. With his already relentless displays of blustering and deceit, I do not think I am being especially hyperbolic when I suggest that Boris Johnson could be the death of us all.

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by Martin Odoni

‘Every silly bastard’

“The trouble with democracy… is every silly bastard gets a vote.”
Rimmer, Red Dwarf: Backwards, by Rob Grant, publ. 1996.

I tire of hearing many a relentless chorus of unthinking protest from Brexit supporters.

What part of ‘we’re leaving’ don’t you get?!?!?

We won! You lost! Get over it, Remoaners!

We want control of our borders back!

We want to make our own laws!

We hate Europeans because we’re racists and xenophobes!” (NOTE: This is not one they really say, but in a lot of cases, that is only because they have no wish to admit it.)

The one I am most fed up of hearing at the moment is that, “If we stop Brexit, it will destroy the credibility of British democracy.” I have heard many euroskeptics on both the right and the left raising this objection.

Protecting a credibility already destroyed

Are these people serious? They think stopping Brexit will destroy the credibility of British democracy? Have they simply not been paying attention for the last three years and more? Everything about attempting to carry out the Brexit process has destroyed the credibility of British democracy!

Most particularly, it has highlighted all of the flaws and weaknesses in a direct democratic process of consultation, and has all-but-guaranteed that no future Government will ever use such a process again. (Or at the very least it will give a powerful pretext to any future Government that wishes to avoid resorting to it.)

Just look at the Referendum in June 2016. Has there ever been a more disastrously bad advert for the notion of Government by the people? Look at the undercurrents of nastiness, hyper-aggression, racism and divisiveness it dragged to the surface of British society. See the grotesque right-wing populism it has validated. Within days, in various parts of the country, people born outside the UK, or even just people of colour, were being targeted by right wingers demanding that immigrants should immediately leave the country. It is hard to imagine any clearer example of being a chaotic, un-free society than one where people are chased out of it on the basis of their birthplace or their skin colour, and yet that is what right-wing Brexiteers have done in the name of ‘democracy’.

But more than that, the Referendum reached a plainly incorrect decision, as can be measured by all the political developments have gone wrong subsequently. More telling though is the reasons that are routinely given for leaving. Again, this is true from Leavers on both right and left. From the right, the above-mentioned demands to control our borders and make our own laws betray a complete ignorance of the relationship between the European Union and its constituent countries; the UK has control of both its own borders – it is not a member of the Schengen Area – and its laws – no law passed in Brussels has any force in the UK without ratification from the Parliament at Westminster, and no law passed in Westminster has to originate in Brussels.

There is no ‘Lexit’ on the horizon

But there are also questionable arguments from Brexiteers on the left. A popular claim is that European Union laws prevent its member nations from having state-run industries. This is not strictly true though. EU rules forbid monopolies, which admittedly makes it more difficult to nationalise industries. but, while it could be argued that some industries are natural monopolies, there are ways, even with, say, a rail network, to have private firms competing with a public firm. For instance, many cities have more than one railway line directly running between two destinations. (Take my own local line, Manchester-to-Liverpool, which has one line travelling via Newton-le-Willows and St. Helens, and a more southern line going via Warrington.) It would be perfectly possible to allocate primary routes to a nationalised service, and all the secondary routes to private firms, giving adequate numbers of privatised lines to meet the needs of EU competition laws.

Left-wing Brexiteers (‘Lexiteers’) also campaigned very much on the grounds of wanting to release the UK from the shackles of EU neoliberalism. There is considerable merit in that argument, as the peoples of Greece and Spain, among others, can attest. But the Lexiteers seem to believe with unshakable certainty that leaving the EU on any basis will make a more socialist future likelier, and promoted the idea keenly during the Referendum campaign. In reality, as matters stand there is no prospect of a ‘Lexit’. Left wing politics and economics are never going to happen so long as the Tories are running the withdrawal process, and it seems alarmingly naive that many Lexiteers imagine otherwise. Should a Labour Government be elected before departure – at least with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister – we can start talking about a ‘Lexit’ then, and genuine benefits for ordinary Britons might even follow, at least in the mid-to-long term. But in spite of what a chaotic horlicks both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have made of the last couple of years, Labour have not yet been able to force a new General Election. Until they do, and win it, Lexiteers really should be hoping that Brexit continues to be delayed. If the Tories are allowed to carry out the departure, they will do it in such a way as to make it even more difficult to implement left-leaning policies.

Ignorance drives the policy

Both right-wing Brexiteers and Lexiteers are therefore not particularly well-informed on the realities of this subject, and yet they were among the most active proponents of leaving the EU. When confronted on immensely difficult issues Brexit creates, which are proving impossible to resolve, such as the border in Ireland, it is noticeable that Brexiteers on either end of the spectrum always talk around the questions, and never have any positive suggestions to offer. The standard response from Lexiteers is to change the subject back to generalities about the evils of EU capitalism. These arguments, to repeat, are accurate more often than not, but irrelevant. Meanwhile right-wing Brexiteers usually just sneer impatiently and keep saying they are not interested and just want the Government to get on with Brexit. Neither of these responses are of any use or will speed up departure, because the Brexiteers’ wishes, whether they like it or not, are not the only ones that have to be respected and addressed.

When uninformed people with no plan are driving the narrative of a public vote, that vote is bound to be distorted and corrupted by it, and will thus lead to the kinds of comical havoc we have witnessed, and that has startled the world, over the last three years. And that same havoc will always be a powerful propaganda weapon for those who oppose democracy. “See what happens when we let the public try to govern directly! Years of chaos and gridlock! We should get rid of democratic processes.”

To be clear, I am certainly not arguing for a scale-back of Britain’s creaking old democratic institutions. On the contrary, I want them modernised and much-enhanced, with stronger safeguards and closure of a lot of loopholes. But there are reasons why we have a representative democracy and not a direct one. While there is a lot to despise about actual ‘career politicians’, legislators who do the work professionally can devote their entire work-time to studying policies and their implications, to iron out flaws and loopholes in them, and to identify any dangers therein. The man-in-the-street may or may not have the ability to do that too, but if he has another full-time job, it is very difficult for him to find the time to do it, or even to search for the information needed. This is why it was unwise to put the question of leaving the EU to the public, at least when the question was put in such a simplistic, binary “Leave or Remain” form. Way, way too many people being asked about it simply did not have enough information, for the simple reason that there was so much of it, and they would not have had the time to find it all, read it all, or digest it all. That last one is particularly awkward, as much of the information would be written in complex legal language that most people find incomprehensible. Referendum voters were therefore unaware of the enormous implications, and equally-enormous complications, of the withdrawal process, or the very clear need for a thoroughly well-worked-out plan for carrying it out. (The absence of which was my main reason for voting Remain.)

‘Prorogation’

Now, this week has taken this credibility-destruction of democracy by Brexit to new and terrifying levels. On Wednesday, the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, formally requested that the Queen suspend – or ‘prorogue’ (to use the silly ancient language of the British state) – Parliament for five weeks between mid-September and late-October. The Queen acquiesced. This will almost certainly leave too little time for Parliament to put through any legislation to delay Brexit again before the current departure date of 31st October. The move is widely, and I am sure correctly, seen as a very cynical way for Johnson to force through Brexit on that date, even without a withdrawal agreeement with the EU. It even goes beyond the loathsome tactics employed by Theresa May before him.

Many Brexiteers have come out unashamedly in favour of this move, complaining that Parliament has been “trying to reverse the result of the Referendum”, which they claim is a “refusal to accept democracy”. This is not really true, as there has been no attempt within Parliament to reverse the activation of Article 50, which is the only way to accomplish it, but more importantly, the complaint about refusing to accept democracy has been shown this week to be disingenuous. I am not the first to point this out, nor I suspect will I be the last, but what we effectively have is this; –

A Prime Minister, voted for by well under 100,000 people, with no majority in the House of Commons, and with no popular mandate at all, has asked an unelected Head of State to suspend the country’s only National forum for the People’s elected representatives, in order to force through a policy that causes a Constitutional change that no one has voted for.

NB: Before anyone comments to dispute this, no, it was certainly not what anyone voted for. Brexiteers, again disingenuously, have tried to claim for the last few months that ‘No Deal’ was the only form that a Leave vote in the Referendum would mean. But Vote Leave quite explicitly campaigned on the assumption that a deal would be negotiated before departure began; –

Vote Leave campaigned for a Soft Brexit

The Vote Leave campaign explicitly argued for Brexit on the grounds of a new deal. They did not specify whether it was a withdrawal agreement or a new trade arrangement, but as they were promising it would be negotiated before activating Article 50, it is entirely proper to assume that both would be incorporated in one package.

Vote Leave may not have been the only campaign in favour of Brexit, but the fact that it is not a definitive policy only serves to underline that ‘No Deal’ is not the only reasonable or ‘default’ interpretation of the Referendum question.

In other words, the unelected are trying to bypass the elected to force an unendorsed policy into law, and Brexiteers are genuinely acclaiming this move in the name of ‘democracy’.

Prorogation summarised

Prorogation is NEVER democratic.

Protecting democracy requires protecting Parliament, not suspending it

This is actually a far bigger and more fundamental issue than Brexit itself. Recalling Theresa May’s sordid machinations in trying to activate Article 50 without Pariament’s approval early in 2017; the Constitution has stated firmly and explicitly for over a century that any amendments to it must be approved by Parliament before they can take effect. (This is the very sovereignty that Brexiteers have insisted they want to ‘restore’ to Westminster, a sovereignty it never lost.) To allow a Prime Minister to make changes to the Constitution without endorsement from the People’s Representatives would be enormously dangerous. For the Constitution is also what places limitations on the Prime Minister’s power. If the Prime Minister is allowed to make Constitutional changes without requiring anyone’s permission, then he/she will be able to remove those limitations at will. He/she would effectively be allowed to do absolutely anything by decree. It would be the single largest step towards a dictatorship.

Proroguing Parliament

Democracy seems to mean “Anything Brexiteers want”.

And the form Brexit takes will also make significant changes to that Constitution. Let us suppose that the UK is allowed to ‘crash out’ with No Deal, and Parliament is deprived of a chance to intervene by the Prime Minister suspending it without its approval. The country will have taken a small but crucial step towards accepting that the Prime Minister has powers as absolute as the occasional Lord Protectors of England’s unhappy past. The only real way now of stopping this is for there to be a successful Parliamentary Motion of No Confidence in the Government before the prorogation takes effect. Brexiteers will almost certainly oppose such a Motion, but that is foolish. They seem not to realise that their own rights are at stake, and that they are fighting on the side of those who wish to take them away.

Too many people have forgotten what Parliament is there for. Its first duty has always been to protect the rights and liberties of the people from the tyranny of unaccountable power. In fairness to the public, that forgotten legacy is partly the fault of MPs themselves, especially the aforementioned ‘career politicians’ who are generally only really interested in ‘job-for-life’ self-enrichment. There have always been sadly too many of them. But that duty is still very genuine, because the truth is, there really is no other institution in the British state that serves that purpose. The relish displayed by Brexiteers at seeing Parliament suspended in this manner is naive and myopic. They are assuming that a Referendum, which is non-binding in law and is only ever called on an ad hoc basis rather than on a compulsory one, is somehow more important to ‘democracy’ than the legal structures that define it.

The Conservative Party leadership are now openly discussing summary deselection of any Tory MPs who rebel against No Deal, without any consultation of the party membership or local constituents. Deselection by that approach is just rank authoritarianism, and stands in horrifying contrast to Labour’s planned reselection process by unswervingly democratic means.

Not democratic principle, but emotional blackmail

The dismantling of the UK’s post-war social democratic institutions in Margaret Thatcher’s time was the start of a long, slow process of de-democratising the country. The more that state industries and structures that were sold off and privatised, the fewer authorities and services there were that were democratically accountable to the public, and the more there were that were answerable to consumers instead. This in effect upped the amounts of power that were allocated according to money; the more money you had, the more you could buy, and the more the nation’s services would therefore answer to you. Since the 1980s, plutocracy has advanced, and democracy has retreated. The latest ‘castration’, as it were, of Parliament, prising it away from its Constitutional authority, is a logical onset of that same process, even if it is not consciously devised as part of it. It is a blow against the rights of British citizens, and yet Brexiteers are cheering it as a triumph for democracy.

It is now unmistakable that, despite right-wing Brexiteers’ pompous rants about “the will of the people”, their desire to drive home Brexit has little to do with democratic principle. They never show remotely this passion, or even interest, when any other Manifesto policy is shelved or delayed, and they will accept any cost, even destroying the foundations of what democracy the UK has, to accomplish this one policy, suggesting they have an infantile tunnel vision. The foaming-mouthed demands for Brexit’s enforcement are about a selfish, ill-informed wish to leave the EU for its own sake, and the cries of, “You don’t believe in democracy” are an ugly attempt to silence honest opposition with emotional blackmail.

by Martin Odoni

Remember this?

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Click here for a reminder.

The first action the Conservatives took in the spring of 2017 after activating Article-50 was to threaten war against Spain. This diplomatic masterstroke to precipitate negotiations with neighbouring countries, as the UK prepares to withdraw from the European Union, has rather set the tone subsequently. The Tories have blundered, fumbled, thrashed around, struggled even to come up with a starting framework for creating a new trading agreement, and repeatedly and predictably then tried to blame the repeated logjams on the EU. So much of the eighteen-months-plus since activation of Article-50 has been wasted, and now, alas, we are at the proverbial ‘crunch-point’. Although our official leaving date is 31st March, the effective deadline for completing the broad strokes of negotiations really is this month; the final six months or thereabouts are about fine-tuning the (very, very many) inner details of a new trading arrangement with the EU. We need to get the overall structure of the deal sorted out right now, and I am sure I do not need to tell you that we are clearly not at that point. Workable settlements for the Irish and Gibraltar border problems still have not been found, and negotiations over a new actual trade deal between the UK and the EU have therefore barely got off the ground.

The likelihood is that at some stage over the next six months, the British Government is going to have to ask for an extension to its withdrawal period. I know foam-at-the-mouth Brexiteer fanatics will play merry hell over such a move, insisting it is a cover for cancelling Brexit altogether, but the reality is that we are not going to be ready at the end of March. If we proceed as we are now, the UK will have two options, and both are bad; –

Either the UK crashes out of the EU altogether, and then has to experience the grinding, expensive, bureaucratic frustrations of trading with Europe on World Trade Organisation terms, while having a hard border in Ireland by default, which could trigger a war. Or the UK accepts a bad, under-cooked deal, with an awful lot of kinks and confused minutiae, from the start of April 2019.

The UK really needs to seek an extension, probably at least eight months, before it will be in a position to swallow Brexit without suffering a serious economic ‘choke’. And this, sadly, is where I fear that the UK’s ‘gunboat-diplomacy’ approach to Gibraltar at the outset may come back and bite the Government hard.

If the UK asks for an extension, it can be done, but it needs unanimous approval from the other countries in the EU. Unanimous. As in, agreement by all of them.

Therefore including… Spain.

Now I am not saying that the Spanish Government will definitely be vindictive over the threatening noises made by Michaels Fallon et Howard last year. Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, is arguably more grown up than the average Tory, and may well choose to be magnanimous. He is an experienced economist moreover, and will know that a deal between the EU and Britain will be in his own country’s interests – especially after years of pointless damage caused to Spain by toxic Austerity. But at the same time, Sánchez might also see an opportunity to ‘strong-arm’ the UK over Gibraltar, knowing as he will that the pressure-of-the-clock is heavier on the British than it is on the rest of the EU.”You want an extension? Okay, give us such-and-such over Gibraltar and I shan’t veto it.” And if the British protest at such opportunism, he can simply shrug and say, “Well, you guys started it!” And he would not be altogether off-his-head to say it.

The stupidity of Conservative rhetoric over the last two years has been a constant nagging worry for anybody following Brexit’s progress. Now the Tories may be in danger of reaping what they sowed. For certain, the Tories deserve no better than to be thrown around in the gales of someone else’s anger. But given the way many in this country have behaved over Brexit over the last three years – some Remainers as well as many Leavers – it is hard to argue that the UK more widely deserves any better either.

The folly of the DUP

March 1, 2018

by Martin Odoni

The current state of Brexit has its ironies, the most nauseating probably being this week’s one-hundred-and-eighty-degree U-turn by Boris Johnson. A bare three months ago, the Foreign Secretary was publicly attacking the notion of a fully-enforced border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a result of withdrawal from the European Union as ‘madness’. But it has now emerged that Johnson has been advising the Prime Minister not to try and prevent a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Typically, almost no one in the media has bothered drawing attention to his total reversal.

But perhaps the most tragic irony of the current state-of-play is the stance of the Democratic Unionist Party. It is brought into focus by today’s publication by the European Union of a default fallback plan, to take effect should negotiations for a trade deal for the UK break down once and for all. The plan suggests that when Great Britain withdraws from the EU completely, Northern Ireland would be the sole part of the UK to remain in the Customs Union.

Were this plan to be put into effect – the EU have no particular wish to do it but may be forced to pursue it – it would effectively mean Northern Ireland is reunited with the Republic in all-but-name, and becomes divided off from the United Kingdom, again in all-but-name. This would be because, while there would be no active border between the two Irelands, a boundary would have to be enforced at the coastline. That would mean that there would be a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. (Not placing a border either inland or at the sea would mean that the UK would continue to have an open border with the EU. This would surely defeat one of the main, most-often-cited reasons for Brexit in the first place of “the UK taking back control of its borders” – the untrue assumption being that the UK’s border controls are forcibly dropped by EU membership.)

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has clearly felt compelled to come up with this plan for Northern Ireland, as the British Government seems incapable of getting its act together and coming up with a plan of its own before the deadline in October. The difficulty the British Government has is understandable. A ‘Hard Brexit’ i.e. total severance from the EU would put the peace in Ireland in jeopardy, for reasons I have outlined before. Keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union, and even in the Single Market, while the island of Great Britain withdraws, might well keep Republican and Nationalist resentment in check.

But if the Government lets this plan proceed, it would be no guarantee of peace. On the contrary, it would be an effective Conservative Party sell-out of the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP’s support is all that is propping up this shambling, stumbling Government, but being Unionists, the DUP is precisely the last party in the House of Commons that could stomach the idea of a border at the sea, and of Northern Irish citizens requiring passports to enter the rest of the UK – doubly so when there is a relaxed border at the Lenamore Road.

Having finally received the ‘offer’ she had been demanding (and logically had no particular right to expect – so much for her pre-election boasts about her negotiation skills), Theresa May sneered at Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon that no British Prime Minister could accept Barnier’s plan, as it “threatens” the UK’s internal common market and its constitutional integrity. But as the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has publicly noted, May’s sneers are no more than sneers; if she does not come up with an alternative plan – one that is somehow acceptable to Nationalists/Republicans, Unionists, and Brexiteers alike – then she will probably end up allowing Barnier’s plan to happen by default. At which point, Northern Ireland will in every practical sense cease to be a real part of the United Kingdom, and be more strongly re-aligned to the South than it has been since before the Irish Civil War. That is absolutely not what Unionists in the province will have expected or wanted to result from the alliance between the Tories and the DUP.

Herein is the bewildering contradiction; the DUP, the most hardline, right-wing, Unionist political party, is propping up the very Government that could be about to allow Northern Ireland, effectively, to be joined-at-the-hip once more to Dublin.

Whatever people elsewhere in the UK might feel about that – in most cases probably nothing at all –  a hard sea border between Ireland and the UK would create the exact mirror-image of the problem a hard inland Irish border would create. An inland border would revive Nationalist resentments, potentially even seeing a resurgence of the militancy of the 1970s-to-the-1990s. But a sea border instead would generate resentment on the other side of Northern Irish society; former Loyalist paramilitaries will be watching the next few months with deep feelings of suspicion, resentment, anger, and, should Barnier’s proposal be adopted, ultimately betrayal. And when militants feel betrayed, violence usually follows. They may attack DUP members who have ‘let them down’. Or they might look further, and feel that it is the Tories who have abandoned them and deserve ‘comeuppance’. Not a happy prospect, but a realistic one.

Either way, there are those in the DUP who must now be feeling a little foolish. They have allowed themselves to be trapped in the same needless ring-of-fire that the Tories lit by starting the Brexit debacle to begin with.

That ring-of-fire, it seems, is the figurative circle that cannot be squared.

by Martin Odoni

The European Union has every right to run out of patience with the United Kingdom over its meaningless negotiating position on ‘Brexit’, including the decidedly indecisive stance on the fate of Northern Ireland. Sure enough, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is drafting a formal ultimatum for the British Government to make a decision on what Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland will be after Brexit. The lack of clarity or conviction from the British so far in negotiations has probably been the biggest sticking-point in the whole process, and is doubtless maddening to many in Brussels.

However, I am going to offer a rare moment of sympathy – or at least understanding – to our embattled Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her Brexit Secretary David Davis. In truth, the Conservative Party as a whole has brought the logjam on itself, but however one might get there,  it is never pleasant being in a no-win situation. And there is a possibly insurmountable problem over settling the Irish border that I do not envy them the task of untangling.

BS-3

The Good Friday Agreement is irreconcilable with a ‘Hard Brexit’

The six counties of Northern Ireland endured nearly three decades of Protestant/Catholic sectarian conflict – frankly civil war – from the late-1960s to the late-1990s. Although a complete peace has never really been achieved, the province has had two decades of unusual stability, and remarkably little bloodshed, thanks to a treaty agreed between the UK, Eire, and the various factions representing the (mainly Protestant) Unionist and (mainly Catholic) Nationalist communities in 1998. That treaty, known as The Good Friday Agreement, was one of the finest triumphs of European diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. It found a workable process for serving the interests of Ulster communities, those who wished to remain British, and those wishing for unification with Eire, including a devolved power-sharing Assembly of elected representatives at the Castle of Stormont. The details of the GFA are quite complex.

The problem that may prove insurmountable is that a total breakaway from the EU by the UK appears completely incompatible with the GFA. Literally, the two policies cannot exist side-by-side; they actually contradict each other.

One of the rules of the GFA was that trade conditions on both sides of the Irish border have to be pretty much identical, mainly to deter smuggling. Whatever the British choose to do, the Irish Republic does not want to leave the European Union. Whether we think Eire would be better off outside of the EU, as some suggest (it would not), is neither here nor there; they are not leaving the EU any time soon. So this means that, in order to maintain cross-border market-harmony, Northern Ireland has at least to stay in the EU Customs Union.

Northern Ireland must share market conditions with Eire

But if the UK opts for a ‘Hard Brexit’, that means, by definition, detaching from every feature of the EU, including the Customs Union. So to maintain the harmony with Eire, Northern Ireland would have to leave the UK. But that cannot happen either, as the GFA also guarantees the right of Unionists to remain British if they so wish. The majority of Unionists remain ‘loyal to the crown’, so to speak.

One idea that is sometimes floated is that Northern Ireland should remain in the Customs Union while the rest of the UK does not. Sadly, this also looks unworkable, as there would have to be border controls between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. That would violate Article VI of the Acts of Union of 1800. The whole of Ireland, under these Acts, became part of the UK, and, despite the secession of the rest of the island in the 1920’s, the Act still remains in effect in the north today. Article VI created a British customs union, one that would be violated by introducing border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, not imposing such border controls would defeat one of the stated objects of Brexit, which is to “take back control of our borders.” It is a nonsense platitude anyway, but the pertinent point here is that anyone wanting to sneak into the UK could just enter unchecked through Ireland.

Border tensions

A hard border within Ireland will cause a lot of anger for social reasons too. Nationalists and Republicans will be rightly outraged if free access to their fellows in the south is curtailed, and will feel that they are being forced back under direct and exclusive British governmental control. It is therefore no exaggeration to suggest that there is a real danger of a ‘Hard Brexit’ restarting war in Northern Ireland.

These problems would be largely avoided if the British Government opted for a ‘Soft Brexit’ i.e. to stay in the Customs Union. But of course, that looks a remote possibility at best too. The lunatic fringe of the Tory Parliamentary Party, and the extremist Brexit supporters around the country, appear unwilling to tolerate anything less than a complete British severance from the EU, and any attempt May makes to move away from that will trigger a rebellion in Parliament, and probably the collapse of her Government.

One cannot please any of the people all of the time

Hence the ongoing deadlock over finding an Irish border settlement. It is almost impossible to find a solution that will please enough people, and is just one of the many reasons why the ‘Brexit genie’ should never have been allowed out of its metaphorical bottle. The Conservatives created this mess, largely for internal party reasons, so it is right that they should be the ones to have to clean it up. But it is also wrong that they are, because they show such profound inability to carry the process out in a competent fashion.

by Martin Odoni

A rather misleading introduction to an article by the BBC (surprise, surprise) suggests that sterling’s value is rallying quite healthily, implying that ‘Brexit‘ is not necessarily the fatal wound that occasional slumps over the last eighteen months had indicated. With further encouraging news today of improving unemployment figures, the pound’s value has risen against the US ‘greenback’ to $1.42.

Now, in fairness, there was never any certainty about post-Brexit financial armageddon anyway, merely a considerable danger. And that danger has far from gone away; until a healthy severance deal for the UK for leaving the European Union is secured and its details published, another slump could happen at any moment. More significantly – and this is sort-of admitted later in the article – the pound is not really ‘rallying’. At least, it is not rallying nearly so much as the US dollar is slumping. That the pound has hit a reasonably stable level for the time being is undoubtedly good news, all-things-considered, but it should not be announced as something it is not.

The reason to doubt that sterling is strengthening particularly is that the status of a currency cannot be measured against one other alone. For instance, when measured against the single European currency, the euro, the pound’s value is not nearly as exciting; it has hovered around the 1.15 mark for around four months now.

The US dollar has been weak for well over a year, and the slump in international demand for the greenback – European activity is seen as more appealing among speculators right now – has meant its value is taking a bit of a kicking. The Donald Trump administration in Washington claims that this is precisely the plan; with the dollar continuing to depreciate, US exports become more attractive to foreign markets as sufficient dollars to afford them can be purchased more cheaply. And in fairness, US exports have risen fairly sharply since mid-2017; –

united-states-exports@2x

But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that this depreciation is a deliberate plan, and not just the inevitable ‘closing-down-sale’/bright-side-accident effect of a slumping currency.

Firstly, the Trump administration has a certain track-record of (what would be a nice way of saying this?) not remembering the recent past with sharp accuracy. When presented with inconvenient facts and incontrovertible evidence that these facts are true, Trump and his cronies tend just to cry, “FAKE NEWS!” and run away. It is quite possibly the crudest, most infantile form of propaganda seen in a major country since the First World War, and claiming bad-news-is-good-news would fit that same pattern very neatly.

Secondly, the rise in exports was visibly part of an on-off trend that had started early in 2016, when Barack Obama was still at the White House. Furthermore, that trend more or less stopped for some months after Trump was inaugurated last year. It only really picked up again about halfway through 2017.

Thirdly, were the aim of ‘deliberately’ letting the dollar’s value slide really to boost exports, why did Trump not just devalue the dollar and keep the process under some measure of control? Letting it happen more or less naturally is far more dangerous, as speculators may respond by dumping dollars at runaway increasing speed. Indeed, that makes the claims of Steve Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary, doubly dangerous. If he declares that he will deliberately make the dollar weaker and weaker, he will encourage speculators to dump greenbacks in a panic, as they will know that they cannot expect to make a profit on them. There comes a point where even an export-loving economy cannot afford for its currency to drop any further i.e. when it gets so low that domestic prices become unaffordably high. A flat devaluation at the outset would probably have avoided that danger.

Fourthly, the US economy is geared as an import economy, and the depreciation of the dollar makes imports more expensive, as do the new tariffs introduced this week. That would fit in with Trump’s obsolete, protectionist mindset, for sure. But making imports unattractive by artificially making them more expensive ultimately scuppers exports too, as other countries tend to retaliate with similar policies of tariffs and depreciation of their own currencies.

NB: Take China, a country that is export-locked i.e it produces far, far more goods than its population needs, and so has to keep exporting them as much as possible to prevent the glut from making them valueless on domestic markets. China has often deliberately undervalued the renminbi for many years, as its insane over-production levels mean that it has little need for most types of imports, while desperately needing to keep sending goods abroad. A weak Chinese currency means other countries can buy Chinese exports cheaply, while the enormous glut of domestic goods means that the increased price of imports is fairly meaningless. The heavy need for exports and relative irrelevance of imports means the Chinese Government would not be at all reluctant to devalue the renminbi as a response to any deliberate currency manipulation by the USA.

And finally, boosting exports while simultaneously making imports more expensive can be contradictory aims for another reason; if imports become pricier and therefore start to decline, demand for ‘homegrown’ goods may well go up domestically to fill the gap. If that happens, there will, by definition, be fewer homegrown goods available for export, as the home market will consume more of them (unless there is some kind of ‘supply-side miracle’ i.e. a surge in home production – not really something that can be relied upon to happen). Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically, prices at home would very possibly go up even further in response to such a climb in demand, making imports more attractive again, and so defeating the object of the exercise.

For all these reasons, and possibly more, I think we can dismiss Mnuchin’s ‘tweak-of-the-moustache’ claims that “it’s-all-part-of-the-plan!

So overall, the real cause of sterling’s gains against the greenback is that downward pressure on the pound has been overtaken by the downward pressure on the dollar. The stabilisation of sterling’s value against the euro, meanwhile, is likely because, despite Tory attempts to say otherwise, there are signs from the Brexit negotiations that the UK is likely to stay in the Single Market after all, which is improving confidence among investors. This is a symptom of how weak the British bargaining position has been, and how poorly the Government has negotiated, but all-in-all, it would not be bad news were that the final outcome.

Back in Britain, all these (relative) silver linings are happening to the accompaniment of renewed whispers of discontent among Government MPs, regarding Theresa May’s performance as Prime Minister. This highlights an amusing paradox in her position; the better the economic news is for her, the likelier it is that she will be overthrown.

Since the General Election farce last June, May has been on borrowed time as Prime Minister. In a sense, in fact, she has been a Prime Minister in name only, as underlined by the Queen’s Speech being so short and setting out such an unambitious program for the current year. May has so little authority that she is presiding over the Government more than she is governing the country. In most circumstances, she would have been gone within days of the Election.

The only reason no Tory has dared challenge her for the leadership since that time is that the national outlook has, for the most part, looked pretty dire; being Prime Minister has looked like the proverbial poisoned chalice. Inflation has risen to around three per cent – very low by the standards of some decades but high by the standards set since the mid-1990s – the negotiations for Brexit have been messy and have fallen far behind schedule, GDP has weakened, parts of industry still have not recovered to anywhere near the pre-Credit-Crunch levels of performance, the NHS is in an all-time crisis, productivity is low, under-employment remains rampant, public service performance remains sketchy, and is in a fragile shape with the startling news of Carillion’s collapse, which could still drag a lot of other companies down with it. Nobody wants to risk becoming Prime Minister should the time come when all of these underlying problems hit ‘critical mass’.

But now that there are some positive signs (do not get excited, mind, they are nothing to write home about), including a stabilised pound, suddenly the idea of getting the keys to 10 Downing Street does not look quite so daunting. So the usual suspect, Boris ‘BoJob’ Johnson, has been making characteristic noises to undermine May’s position again, and to make his deceits during the Brexit referendum look plausible once more – while of course casually leaking the details of his manoeuvres to the media at the same time. Others on the lunatic Brexit fringe of the party may also be getting itchy feet about the drift towards a ‘Soft Brexit’, and wish to intervene to harden the British negotiating position once more, even though the prospect of staying in the Single Market appears to be precisely what is reviving the fortunes of the pound. Some other Tories are simply fed up with the general listlessness of the May administration.

This is the bizarre position May is in; if she wishes to remain as Prime Minister, she has to hope that the economic outlook does not improve much. If it does, someone will finally see a sufficient reward in replacing her. And Donald Trump is the man who, inadvertently, has created an illusion of British success through economic failure in the USA. He could just have triggered the rebellion that ends May’s premiership.

As for the brightened outlook, on the one hand it is good news, but in some ways it is irritating. This is because the most impassioned and jingoistic Brexiteers are bound to try and present this as a sign that leaving the EU is a good move, and it is not.

Be under no illusions, the improved forecast is because global conditions are looking up. It is not because of ‘good’ Government policy, and it is certainly not because Brexit is not harmful after all. (Brexit has not even happened yet, folks, the really tough times lie in the future, especially if the UK leaves the Single Market in the end.) The optimism is in spite of Brexit and Government policy. There remains, with wages still sluggish and high domestic borrowing, a serious danger of a second Credit Crunch in the near future – no, thankfully it did not happen last year as I had been openly fearing it might, but the underlying problems that make it a likelihood, of household debt rising faster than wages, have not been solved, or even addressed. The increase in interest rates in November, although small, will certainly not help to reduce the amounts owed. Brexit could still go horribly wrong, especially given how little time is left to complete a mammoth program of negotiations for a new trade deal with the EU, if we wish to avoid defaulting to the far harsher World Trade Organisation rules. The issue of a new border settlement in Ireland that will be acceptable to both Unionists and Nationalists has still not been straightened out; if that goes wrong, the repercussions could literally include war. The collapse of Carillion could still lead to a domino-effect of cave-ins throughout the construction industry and across the wider public services sector. Interserve is another big firm caught in the headlights.

There is still so, so much that could go wrong. Just because the situation does not look completely hopeless for the moment, it does not mean the country has made the right move after all. The brighter global outlook would have happened without Brexit, and the UK would probably benefit more from it without Brexit exerting a ‘drag factor’.

Still, there is a very satisfying way of looking at this; even when hampered by Brexit, the UK’s economy is still doing better than Donald Trump’s USA.

by Martin Odoni

Irrespective of whether we think Brexit is a good idea or a bad one, there can be no escaping the reality that its execution is going incredibly badly. After Monday’s utterly shambolic wall-crash over finding a new settlement for the Irish border – perhaps the single most important conundrum that needs solving – matters somehow plumbed even danker depths today. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting The European Union, finally revealed in Parliament what many of us had been suspecting for weeks.

Answering questions from the House Of Commons Exiting the EU Committee, Davis admitted that neither he nor anyone else inthe Government had carried out the so-called ‘Brexit Impact Assessments’ i.e. the many complex and detailed calculations about how leaving the EU is going to affect British society, particularly its economy. This was after over a year of his repeated assurances to the House and the wider country that over fifty such assessments had been completed.

This deceit amounts to Contempt-of-Parliament, and could have dire repercussions for Davis’ future as an MP. Quite rightly, other MPs such as David Lammy, anti-Brexit campaigners such as Gina Miller, mainstream media commentators such as Rafael Behr, and many left-wing bloggers such as my old comrade-in-arms Mike Sivier of Vox Political, are calling for Davis’ resignation, and for the DExEU Committee to press for formal charges of contempt.

Brexit

Yes, David, that’s pretty much everybody else’s reaction, to every aspect of Brexit.

I certainly do not oppose such demands. Davis’ behaviour has been outrageous, and in most industries it would not only mean summary dismissal, but also possible legal proceedings. Thanks to Parliamentary Privilege – neither House of the Palace Of Wesminster is subject to the Law of the Land – fraud charges may not be possible. But the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, does have it in his power to suspend Davis from the House, or possibly refer the matter to the public under the Recall Of MPs Act of 2015.

Parliament is already a bad comedy thanks to its domination for decades by shallow, media-friendly, image-obsessive automata. For it to retain any credibility it has left, it has to sanction Davis, and sanction him hard. If an MP can be found to lie casually within the House of Commons on this scale, after all, what point will Parliament have at all? Its first purpose is to hold incumbent Governments to account, and that cannot happen if the precedent is set that there are no consequences for measurable deceit.

But I would not stop at Davis. Nor would I stop at his department. The entire administration now has to go.

Every MP on the Opposition benches, in Labour, in the SNP, in the Liberal Democrats, in Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, and all the ‘Others’, must now unite to demand that the whole Government of Theresa May resign. The position of the entire administration is untenable, and not just because of Davis’ fabrications. The Government’s position has in fact been indictable since the day Article-50 was activated in March, and so the whole Government has to stand down.

What Davis has admitted is even more serious than some people realise; no one in the Conservative Party has been making necessary assessments of Brexit’s likely effects. The Referendum was effectively called in May 2015 when the Tories won that year’s General Election, including it as a gesture to ‘buy’ up assurances of support from the party’s extremist fringe. Since then, two-and-a-half years have passed, during which the Referendum has been and gone, the Leave vote won, Article-50 has been activated, and we have had approximately six months of fruitless negotiations in Brussels. In all of that time, no one in either Cameron’s Government or May’s has even bothered to assess what the actual impact of Brexit will be?

That admission is even more appalling than Davis’ fictitious boasts about what a thorough assessment his department had carried out. After all, if the country does not know what impact ending the current settlement with the EU will have, how can it know what it will need from the new settlement? Little wonder therefore that negotiations with the EU’s representatives are going so badly, when British officials and politicians do not even know the implications of anything they ask for, or even precisely what they need to ask for, or for that matter what will happen if they do not get what they ask for. They have been driving in the dark without headlights for half a year, which has meant progress has not only been difficult, it has been logically impossible; how can progress be made towards a destination that has not even been identified or defined?

These details were central to everything about how Brexit is to be carried out, and until they were properly calculated, it was insanity on Theresa May’s part choosing to activate Article-50 so soon. It started a two-year countdown, and over half of the first year of precious negotiating time has been wasted on a reckless General Election backfire, and aimless thrashing-about when finally at the table. There is no point in childishly continuing to blame EU officials for the logjams, the fault is entirely on the British side.

Have we ever known chaos in Government quite like this? In living memory, the UK has seen infighting, economic tribulations, weak Governments and social unrest. But the current instability is something of a quite unusual order, and as yet, we have not even withdrawn from the EU. Can you imagine what will happen when we do? Brexit has exposed incompetence unprecedented in any British Government since before the World Wars, and Theresa May’s whole administration is implicated in it from top to bottom.

By failing to carry out the Brexit impact assessment, the Conservative Government is guilty of dereliction-of-duty, and so must resign and call a fresh General Election for early in the New Year.