Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Goedel's Dilemma And Recursive Meaning In The Brexit Era

Did you enjoy the post-modern title? I enjoyed making it up on on the short walk home from work and I'm still enjoying it now after eating a splendid dinner of haloumi salad.  I spend so much of my time with mathematical equations, technical specifications and boring old facts that I often like to get stuck in to sentences that appear to have convey meaning but don't actually have any information content whatsoever.   Do you want to know the thing I hate most about facts?  What I hate most about facts is that they are exactly the same tomorrow as they are today.  The day after that they remain exactly the same, too.  And the day after that.  Jeez, they are just so dull and unimaginative.  Dull, dull, dull.  The other thing I really hate about facts is that they are quite difficult.  They can be difficult to find, difficult to prove, difficult to understand. After all that effort all you end up with is some dreary data.  That would be just about tolerable if facts weren't always to be found resting on a huge pile of other facts.  Just to get at the fact you're interested in you need to wade through facts even more boring than the one you're trying to find, each fact bringing you ever closer to a permanent catatonic state.  Oh sure, facts underpin our knowledge of the observable universe.  I know that facts brought us cancer treatments, communications systems, worldwide travel, the printing press, systems of written language, lunar landings, and lasers. I know all that but can't someone jazz them up a bit? Just for me?

I think my complicated relationship with facts is why I'm so fascinated by Brexit.  On the one hand, we have the UK weaving stories out of thin air until it forms this huge dramatic arc.  There are occasional glimpses of self-awareness but mainly it jumps from one fantasy to the next like a pixie leaping over toadstools.  The other side to the coin, of course, is the EU.  God, the EU is boring.  Honestly, it bores me to death with its consistent fact-based analyses.  It's always just sort of standing there, stock still, always consistent with its boring facts.  Oi, mate, I've heard your story, and it's boring!  Boring, boring, boring.  It's just the same story week in, week out.  Month after month of dreary facts about treaties, contracts and points of law.  On and on it goes, always the same facts told at the same moribund pace with the same soporific voice.  There's just this constant stream of tedious facts spewing out from the mouth of the EU.  Will it ever end?

The UK has been on an incredible Brexit journey and I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the highlights.  The EU, meanwhile,  hasn't given its citizens even 1% of the entertainment that we've had.  We've had twists, we've had turns, we've had slogans, we've had retractions, we've had story after story after story.  Let's start right back at the beginning to see what I mean.

This is probably my favourite Brexit yarn.  David Davis, just 1 month before taking up the post of Minister for Brexit, thought that the UK could negotiate bi-lateral deals with European partners.  He really thought that.  He thought it was such a good story that he shared it on twitter for everyone to see. Obviously, his journey of personal discovery meant he had to put an end to his old life of creativity and imagination. Still, it was good while it lasted.

Boris Johnson came up with an even better wheeze just a few months later.  He invented a tale that involved Italians being so short of buyers for their prosecco that they would give the UK pretty much anything they wanted in the Brexit negotiations.  It was a great story while it lasted but the great thing about stories is that the next one can build on the last and take us to even higher drama.

The whole food and drink theme really took hold at one point.  Anyone remember the period of "cake and eat it" Brexit? This was the idea that the UK could remove itself from all the obligations from EU membership without giving up any of its advantages.   Like all good yarns, it rumbled on until we all tired of it and waited for an even better one to come along.

And here, bang on time, is a beezer.  It didn't last long but it hit all the right buttons   You know, you can never trust Europeans because they either lost the war, surrendered to the losers of the war or collaborated with the losers of the war. And their kids and grand-kids.  Yeah, they're just as bad. They're all bad.

 To be honest, I'm not all that into poetry but I've always enjoyed phrases that suggest other ways of thinking.  I mean, I'd never even considered that Brexit could have a colour scheme.  I'd certainly never contemplated the properties of the tone palette that might be most suitable for the legal process of exiting the European Union.  Luckily, the Prime Minister stepped in and showed me how to turn Brexit inwards rather than outwards,  how to apply the phenomenon of synesthesia to find a personal resolution to the Brexit conundrum.  Thanks to the PM I know what Brexit looks like but what does it sound like?  It is a low rumble like thunder or a high-pitched whine like that made by a V2 rocket just before it explodes? 

Poetry sometimes isn't enough so we often need to turn to philosophy.  This time we were invited to view Brexit as a testing ground for Gödel's theorem of incompleteness.  Brexit means Brexit.  Can it?  Does it?  Can something mean itself or even understand what it means to objectively describe itself?  Can systems understand themselves at their own level or can they only ever dare to understand lower levels of the hierarchical knowledge structure?  The consequences of this experiment will sweep through 21st Century philosophy for years to come.  What does Brexit mean now?  It means anything you want to mean and that is why it is so resilient.

I like this one because instead of focusing on the story itself we are invited to shift our attention to the writing of the story, to the technical aspects of story order.   This meta-analysis first appeared in the Government's White Paper on Brexit back in February.   The EU, boring as always, rejected it on the grounds that it violated these stupid things called treaties.  There's those stupid facts again, getting in the way of a perfectly good myth.  Luckily, this one was so powerful that it simply refused to die.  David Davis, of course,  brought it back to life in an interview with Robert Peston and Theresa May subsequently thought she'd run it run it up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes it. Nobody did salute it, if you're interested, because the EU has not granted Michele Barnier the power to discuss trade.  In fact, the limits of his powers are clearly laid out in the EU's legally binding negotiating guidelines.  They don't include trade.  Michele Barnier cannot discuss trade because he has no legal powers to do that.  I know it,  you know it, the world knows it.   Theresa May doesn't yet know it.  Watch this space because this one will just keep on bouncing back.

I'm going to finish up with the sturdiest addition to the Brexit lexicon: "no deal is better than a bad deal".  This one first appeared back in the wintry gusts of January and here it is, still going strong, after almost every other contender came to a miserable and lonely end.  We'll never, ever hear about cherry-picking from the EU buffet ever again.  So sad.  Liam Fox never wheels out his vision for a global Britain revolutionising world trade by ripping up the old ways of the EU.  He is now a shell of his former self, obsessed with replicating those old EU ways in as much detail as he can manage.   I doubt he'll ever call UK businessmen fat and lazy ever again. Another light snuffed out.  We don't even hear about all the trade deals the UK is about to sign.  That one was sent off to the knackers yard with all the other failed memes. All we're left with these days is, "no deal is better than a bad deal".  I liked it at the start but they need something new, something catchy.  Maybe we'll need to wait till after the election.  Maybe we'll need to wait for the icy blasts of winter but another one will come along. They always do.

This can all be avoided by voting Yes in a second independence referendum,


PS Why did I write this?  Well, I was looking once again for Brexit manifesto pledges.  I  know they should have been in the manifesto of the main parties but they don't seem to have bothered with that. Instead, I was hoping that a keen journalist would have asked a perspicacious question about Theresa May's response to the EU's insistence that the ECJ regulates the Brexit deal; whether May or Corbyn support the principle of lifelong residence rights; about the policing of the NI border in the event that no deal is better than a bad deal; how the next government will keep UK travel industry afloat after it withdraws from the Clear Skies initiative; how much will it cost to set up customs controls at the UK border after it leaves the Customs Union.  The UK is about to face a genuine crisis and nobody is talking about it, nobody is planning for it and nobody seems to even understand that it is about to happen.  All we have is a government that has spun slogans to match whatever fantasy it believed in at the time.  It is fascinating to watch and a must-see for post-modernists, especially in the way that the story of the storyteller is more interesting than the story itself.  This is a a General Election entirely about Brexit that never, ever mentions Brexit.   I don't get it.

PPS While the UK avoids the topic, the EU is busy publishing even more detail about how it intends  to implement the UK's exit  from the EU.   They just released two new policy papers describing in glorious detail the technical aspects of protecting citizens' rights and the calculation of the Brexit bill.  The UK, of course, has no policy at all on any of this.  Talks begin in about 3 weeks time.


  1. All you say is true, and nobody in the main UK parties wants to talk about it, or possibly even to think about it. I sometimes feel as if I've been transported to an alternative universe which has different rules and thought processes from the ones I believed existed and no one has told me what they are.

    Ruth Davidson has just said that even if the SNP got 50% of the popular vote in the upcoming election it would not be a mandate for a second Indyref... Even though it comes after the parliamentary vote and clear wins in GE 2015 and the Holyrood elections. What planet is she on?

    It's in the manifesto. A simple majority of MP's is enough to confirm the mandate, if that were required, which it isn't as the parliamentary vote is enough.

    With regard to the EU, the Tories and Slab don't want to talk about Brexit at all, and Wee Willie Rennie is in a fantasy world where he can be in the EU and the U.K. At the same time.... Maybe he's hiding in a box, a sort of Schrodinger's Lib Dem.

    They've even stopped talking about it round at the Pub.....I'm seriously worried now.....

    1. Ruth Davidson is on planet politics. She has to put a public face to all policies put before her by her party. It's not her fault that they don't have a consistent policy on the EU or Scotland or the cost of healthcare. I'm always amazed that a real human being, probably quite an intelligent one, could do what she does for a living. Her policy commitments represent inhuman levels of irrationality. One month she supports a 2nd indy ref under the agreed protocols, then the next she is vigorously opposed to it no matter what. Astonishing stuff. Dugdale is no better, by the way. She is in exactly the same position. Political survival.

      It is weird that nobody seems all that bothered about Brexit. It is the single biggest crisis to hit the UK in my lifetime. Every decision made will shape the lives of every UK resident for decades to come. It will influence what you eat for breakfast, the clothes you wear, personal freedoms, the cost of travel, the ability to freely travel, rights at work, rights at home, marriage, divorce and dating websites. Yet hardly anyone talks about it. An election called because of Brexit barely mentions it at all. ???

    2. In the past year or so I have been in five different EU member countries, not counting here. The thought of trying to sort that stuff out after Brexit is deeply depressing, before we even start on all the other stuff you mention.
      Why is nobody interested? I've tried, but even people who should be worried seem to be thinking it'll be alright. Eejits.

    3. Maybe Brexit is so troubling to people that they'd rather pretend it wasn't happening. I'd like to be able to pretend it wasn't happening but I don't have that ability.

  2. It seems nobody wants to face up to reality. However, the real world never stops and reality will slap us in the face very shortly.If I wasn't going to have to live with the consequences it would be quite entertaining.

    The silver lining is that the reality of Brexit should make a lot of Scots decide they'd be better leaving the sinking ship that is HMS UK and vote for an independent Scotland.

    1. I wonder what will happen when the EU starts publishing interim results of the Brexit negotiations. How will the UK react? I would guess it will react exactly the same as it does now - faux outrage, blame, anger, ban immigrants, lies and more lies, up yours Delors.

      The timing of the second indy ref is really important. I'm not sure if the public will have grasped the consequences at or before the time of departure. It will take time - the first time someone has to apply for a EU visa, the first time the EHIC card is no longer valid, the first wave of businesses to offshore to the EU, the first budget with a much reduced tax intake, the first time that goods are held up at customs with a £20 surcharge. I think Nicola Sturgeon might take that view too because she seems to be pushing for a slightly later referendum than earlier. It is a bit of a juggling act but I am very hopeful.

  3. You have to give it to the UK, it lives in a much more colourful world than the EU.

    It's a world of kings and queens and beautiful princesses, well, princesses anyway, and magical palaces (albeit that they need billions of taxpayers' money spent on them). That last bit was written for the palaces, but in fact applies to the princesses too.

    Facts are, as you suggest, consistent and thus dreary. But no one could ever accuse our politicians of being consistent, although to be fair, I have frequently heard them described as dreary.

    If there is any predictability about them at all, it is that they are almost uniformally appalling.

    I keep reading about the mess that they are making of this and thinking... No, surely I'm wrong. I mean, they couldn't be this inept. Someone would step in and do something about it... wouldn't they?

    It's like watching a bus driver driving your bus down the motorway whilst swigging from a bottle of whisky. You'd look on in horror for a little while, but eventually you and a few others would get together and wrest the wheel from his hands, either that or jump off.

    There were 18 months to negotiate a deal starting on March 31. Two and a half months into this limited time frame, nothing has happened. Nothing, except a load of comedy politicians continuing to repeat tired slogans... oh, and the prime minister making disparaging remarks about the leader of the opposition with his clothes off.

    They still seem to be living in the fantasy world where presumably one of the beautiful royal by birth princesses (that'd be Beatrice or Eugenie, none of yer Kate Middleclass here) will prick the EU negotiators with her bodkin and they will all go to sleep for 100 years while Davis works out what the letters E and U stand for... then Mrs May will come along and wake them with a kiss, while spinning gold from her very own Lynton Crosby spinning wheel.

    Well, that's how Munguin and I see it anyway.

    Did I mention he likes his new hat?

    1. Brexit is certainly colourful. Tory and Labour have leapt from fantasy to fantasy, slogan to slogan over the last year. I just don't understand why a keen journalist doesn't pick any of them up on the falsehoods they were spreading just two or three months ago. The politicians worked out their story only had a finite shelf-life so switched to a new one, yet they are never challenged on this. The press just accepts the new fantasy and prints that without wondering what happened to the old one. The lack of a credible media is truly worrying.

      That 18 months limit became 16 months due to the insistence of Theresa May to have an election right now. A window of opportunity was completely missed. A smarter move would be to have had the election complete just before the French election because it would have given us more time. It is almost summer and the German elections will take place in autumn. Nothing serious will happen until then. Until then I can't imagine anything except for administrative tasks that provoke no controversy and setting out a timetable. Still plenty of room for misunderstanding and general confusion, though.

      It is like watching a bus fall off a cliff. I just hope astronomers never discover a meteor is hurtling towards the UK. David Davis would tell us all it is definitely going to miss, then he'd tell us it is soft and fluffy and harmless, then he'd tell us it was sent by the EU to punish us, then he'd say that the UK is prepared for the impact despite there being no visible signs of preparation, then he'd just pretend it wasn't happening at all, then he'd buy a plane ticket to somewhere safe and let someone else deal with it. I'd rather not know about my impending doom.

      Glad he likes his new hat. Everyone needs a summer hat that's strong and stable.

  4. Excellent piece of writing.

    It is left to great blogs such as this to point out the hazards ahead. Unfortunately, not enough folk see your analysis.

    Small step.

    I will try to link this on 'Pensioners for Independence'.

    1. Thanks!

      This turned out to be a very niche blog but its definitely not exclusive.

  5. You may be niche but by far the best on Brexit.

    I can't get over May going round saying Britain will be far better off after Brexit but never saying how this can be the case and never being challenged to explain why we should believe her

    1. Thanks!

      I don't get it either. Nobody ever seems to challenge May on how Brexit will make things better. Brexit raises conundrum after conundrum but nobody is ever challenged to exlain. Where are all these "opportunities"? Where is the press in all this?

      I was researching another post and came across the European Arrest Warrant. The UK had an opt-out but Theresa May (as Honest Secretary) decided to opt back in. The UK will now need to leave the EAW because we are leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Is this now a good thing. In a space of less than years the EAW went form a must-have to a must-not without any explanation. Nobody challenges her on it. Mystery.

    2. umm, I meant Home Secretary. There was nothing honest about her time as Home Secretary.

  6. Brexit is like an iceberg. It's so vast and the surrounding issues swirling around it so complex that most people can only see a small part of it at any one time.

    Each bit that comes into view seems like a doddle. But it obscures the other bits. So it's very difficult to put together a complete picture of the implications.

    Especially for the contradictory bits. Like where they plan to create a free trade deal whilst disentangling from various european courts - some of which are separate from the EU.

    It's because this thing isn't a simple matter of 2+2=4. It's more like 2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2*2^2=1,048,576. Too easy to focus on the 2^2=4 bits and forget to multiply them all together.

    1. In software we call these things dependencies. A tiny change to fix a tiny bug might look innocuous but when you start digging around you find out that it has all sorts of serious consequences in other components that require hundreds of other changes. Those changes then trigger other changes until in the end you decide that the original change isn't worth the effort or risk. At that point it's best to seek out a compromise fudge that works around the original problem. You might be adding some dodgy code to the project but that is better than trying to deal with the consequences of the "proper" solution. Pragmatism is a great human quality but never, ever applied to Brexit.

      I honestly don't think May of Davis have got their heads round the consequences of their actions. They've just about worked their red lines and how to leave the EU without crossing them. Leaving the EU, though, is the easy part. The EU are even there to lend a hand. I haven't seen anyone in power get to grips with the consequences of leaving the EU and what comes after. That is the really hard part. The combinations are just mind-boggling.

      Nothing positive can come from any of this.


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