Monday, 27 February 2017

Fairytale in the Supermarket

What's the best way to pack a shopping bag at the supermarket?  Hands up, please. Yes, you at the back with the purple shirt and the glasses.  Hold on, can you speak up a bit please?  Well done, that's exactly right:  pack the bulky items first and then add the smaller items later.  Why do we do it this way and not the other way around?  How about the lady with the exquisite hat and glove ensemble?  Wow, that is a fantastic answer.  Adding the bulky items first is the optimum solution because the cost of moving a bulky item is much larger than the cost of moving a smaller item. It makes sense, therefore, to put the bulky items in first and then experiment with moving the smaller items around until they all fit in the bag.

Why am I banging on about packing bags at the supermarket?  Don't worry, I've not started a blog on well-known constrained search problems in computer science.  It turns out that packing a bag at the supermarket is a similar problem to signing multiple trade deals after you've just had a dizzy turn and exited the biggest trading block on the planet.  Let's look at this in a bit more detail.

Signing a really huge trade deal with your closest trading partners involves the biggest gain but also comes with the largest cost. The gain, of course, is that more trade means more profit. What about the cost?  The cost here is specifically the set of compromises that are required to overcome technical barriers to trade.  Imagine two countries A and B enter a trade deal but hit a bit of a deadlock on paint additives. Maybe country A has very strict rules, while country B is happy to poison its population and contaminate the countryside. To proceed with the negotiations one side or the other will need to compromise.  They might do that by using their willingness to compromise on one issue so that they force the outcome they want on another. This kind of horse trading leads to each side making a profit gain through increased trade but at the expense of legislative compromise.  It stands to reason that countries will only be prepared to make significant compromises when the trade deal is a huge prize.  The European Single Market is such a trading relationship.  After all, it involves singing up to all sorts of directives and regulations (compromise cost) in return for frictionless trading with some of the wealthiest countries on the planet (financial gain).  The UK Government, in all its wisdom, has decided that the cost of compromise that comes with EEA membership outweighs all the obvious gains. 
The good news is that Liam and Boris and David and all the lads and lassies from Brexit HQ have been busy preparing all sorts of trade deals.  It's our job to pack them away so let's get busy.  First item down the chute is a UK-US trade deal. It's just a tiddler so let's put it in the bag. Is that a UK-Thailand trade deal I see coming up next?  Right, another tiddler so let's bung it straight in the bag.  Argggh, what is that monster coming down the chute?  Oh my giddy Aunt, it's blocked out all the light.  Careful back there, this is going to buckle the whole mechanism.  1, 2, 3, heave.  1, 2, 3 heave.  Uh oh, it won't fit in the bag unless we take out all the other deals.  What the hell is this, anyway?  Oh, it's the UK-EU trade deal.

What did we do wrong? Of course, we didn't pack the largest trade deal in first and then sort out all the tiddlers later.  Why didn't the UK-EU trade deal fit in the bag?  Forgive my computer science joke but there wasn't enough phase space.  Ha ha ha ha.  Ha ha ha ha.  Oh dear, that is a terrible joke that will only appeal to other losers with a STEM mindset.  There are all sorts of reasons why the UK-EU deal didn't fit in the bag but let's just focus on one to illustrate the way in which each trade deal forces constraints on all subsequent trade deals.  A US-UK trade deal might result in the UK making compromises on the list of paint additives that may be sold in UK stores.  This will become a problem if the UK subsequently tries to sign a trade deal with the EU that expressly forbids the sale of those paint additives. The UK can't simultaneously ban and allow paint additives so it has to choose one deal over the other.  There's no way around the simple fact that two items can't occupy the same physical space in the shopping bag.

Life is a lot easier if all items are the same size.
 Just like packing away the shopping at the supermarket, the UK should start with the biggest item; that is, the UK-EU trade deal.  The biggest trade deal will demand the largest amount of wiggle-room be made available for compromise so it makes sense to start there before all that wiggle-room is eaten away.  The advantage of this strategy is that the UK spends its available compromises on the most valuable deals.  With the biggest deal in the bag then UK can then start to look at the second largest trade deal.  The UK has less flexibility to make compromises at this stage but that's ok because there is also less gain. As the UK works its way down the list of trade deals (ordered by size) it will start to discover that the limited remaining wiggle-room that is available for compromise limits the extent of the trade deal.  This is perfectly acceptable because it spent all its wiggle-room on the prizes it really wanted. There is no point, after all, in spending all the wiggle-room on the smallest trade deal and then finding that it diminishes the potential value of the largest. That would be exactly the same as packing the smallest items first and then discovering that the largest item doesn't fit around them.  It's far better to pack the largest items first and then work out how to rotate and twist the smaller items so that they find a slot where they fit.  Any other strategy is a waste of (phase) space.

They keep "Amateur Trade Deal" on the top shelf these days.
 What have we learned?  Trade deals should be negotiated sequentially starting from the largest and ending at the smallest. Keep that in mind the next time David Davies or Nigel Farage make outlandish claims about the speed of a UK-US trade deal.  If the UK Government starts to negotiate with Trump before concluding its business with the EU we know they are spending our finite ability to conclude trade deal negotiations as inefficiently as possible.  Brexit is just the start of a long and arduous process to even bring the UK's trading relationship back to parity with its current status.  With idiots at the helm hell-bent on favourable news headlines, they are going to mess it up completely by attempting it all once in the wrong order.

This can all be avoided by voting Yes in the next indyref,


PS Next post will be the start of a short series about Scotland in EU.   Can it get any more exciting?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Help the aged

In the absence of a hi-tech elixir breakthrough, I hope I'll live to be old.  I hope readers of this blog lead healthy and productive lives and live to be old, too.  I mean, nobody really wants to die young, except the young themselves. Once you're too old to die young and pretty you might as well live as much as you can and die elderly and decrepit.  That is certainly my plan. To be honest, I was never really into nihilism so it's been my plan to live on as long as possible for as long as I can remember. 

This post is going to be about pensioners.  The pensioner demographic completely swung both the EU referendum and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.  If a 2nd indyref is going to be successful before the door slams on the EU someone is going to have to convince the Scottish pensionariat that independence is the correct choice.  (Yes, I did say "pensionariat". A secondary aim of this blog is to invent stupid words and furtively spread them through society so that I may laugh like a hyena at my handiwork.)  That means convincing them that EU membership is more important than being in the UK.  This is going to be a hard sell.  It is doubly hard because neither side is listening to the other.  I'll explain that with a not-hilarious personal anecdote involving Entoure Snr.

I was back in Scotland over Christmas and obviously spent some time meeting up with Familie Entoure. Herr and Frau Entoure are very, very old.  Entoure Snr asked me if the EU referendum result affected me and I told him that, yes, this could have a profound effect on my future.  After all, my rights to live and work in the EU will likely be curtailed by Brexit and the ensuing negotiated settlement.  Entoure Snr was surprised to hear this, probably because the rights of UK workers in the EU is not exactly a hot topic.  This is not the sort of thing that troubles the editorial team on any daily newspaper.  WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THIS AND MAKING IT A TOP PRIORITY OH WHY OH WHY OH WHY DO THEY EVEN LISTEN?  We then chatted about Scottish independence and how that was the only remaining route that guaranteed my rights to live and work in the EU.  He presented the usual worries that were easily debunked: EU membership for an independent Scotland, walls at the border etc.  Anyway, it occurred to me that we got our information from completely different sources. Twenty years ago we would have read pretty much the same newspapers and watched the same news programmes, even if we had formed different views from the same information.  Today, we have almost no news sources in common and our opinion on each other's reading habits is divergent, to say the least.  What happened?

The Entoures at home in 1998 watching Panorama.  That's me at the front aged 27. Still got the shorts.
If you are a member of the pensionariat then you probably read a newspaper.  Remember them? They are printed on paper, appear daily, and have a defined editorial policy that permeates through every single page.  Before this turns into one of those remember-the-recent-past clips shows with Stuart Maconie, let's just remark that I don't read newspapers in any traditional sense. If you are reading this then you probably don't read them either.  Without going full-on Chomsky you might even think that newspapers represent an establishment view and thereby fail to represent the spectrum of public opinion.  That might include attitudes to Israel and Palestine; the UK's semi-permanent war footing; Scottish independence; immigration; or the EU.  Remaining in the EU had 48% support but does anyone think there was a commensurate fraction of pro-EU newspaper output?  The Scottish independence referendum had an even larger disconnect between voting outcome and editorial policy.  Luckily, the information super-highway, as we used to call it in the 90s, has led to an explosion of not-so-alternative views that do actually represent wider public opinion.  These outpourings of fact and opinion are indeed often produced by the wider public.

The emergence of two very separate readerships is remarkable and might even reflect something deeper happening in society.  If I worked at the BBC as head of digital strategy I would write a white paper on this exact topic. It would bang on about platforms, content delivery, diverging value systems, and the Terry Wogan demographic in a post-Terry Wogan world.  It would be a work of content-free genius that might even land me a promotion to a post with an even longer job title.  Happily (for you, for me, for everyone), I don't work at the BBC in any capacity so I'm not going to attempt an answer to this conundrum because a) I no longer live in the UK and b) I live in a bubble world of my own construction that involves a lot of ukulele playing and German verb conjugation.

What got me thinking about all of this is that Entoure Snr defends The Glasgow Herald as a newspaper with an editorially neutral stance on Scottish independence.  It might have a more nuanced view than The Daily Record or The Scotsman but it could hardly be described as having a neutral stance, at least not by you or me.  He is kind of correct, though, because on the limited spectrum spanned by daily newspapers it probably could be described as somewhere near the centre.  If you spent your entire life reading newspapers then it is hard to realise that they are now clustered at one end of the spectrum on a whole list of issues, including attitudes to independence.  In fact, it is almost impossible to realise that if you mix with other pensioners who read the same newspapers and have the same life-long beliefs in the benefits of being in the UK. If I was a pensioner today I would likely be no different.

It strikes that there must have been a time when Fleet Street managed to promote a wide range of popular views.  After all, where there is competition, there is also diversity.  When Entoure Snr was young, however, independence really wasn't a popular view.  There would have been no commercial sense at all for any daily newspaper to take on a separatist stance because they would have found very few readers.  Let's not forget that the post-war consensus of state health care, jobs for all, nationalised railways and council housing had a powerful effect on Entoure Snr's generation.  Back then the Union was a generally popular concept that was rarely questioned or challenged.  It's not surprising that today's pensionariat have warm, fuzzy feelings about the Union because for a significant period of their lives they either benefited from it or felt that they did.  Even if you don't believe that newspapers are the voice of the establishment it is still the case that they need to tailor their output to the remaining demographic that buys their daily wares in large numbers.

This is all a bit worrying for democracy because the political class is most definitely influenced by news headlines, which are now skewed towards a singular age demographic.   Who is it that gets invited for cosy chats at Nr 10 in return for exclusive interviews?  Who invites whom to celebrate their nuptials?  Even post-Leveson these links have not been broken.   More worryingly, I believe the BBC even analyses news coverage to help decide their running order when compiling their bulletins.  They do this in the interests of neutrality and impartiality so that they cannot be accused of setting the agenda.   This would be fine if the agenda was statistically balanced and mirrored the full spectrum of popular opinion.  What happens instead is that they reinforce an imbalanced view.

What about all this new media? What if we all  pointed our parents and grandparents to all of these shiny new internet thingamabobs on the super-highway?  The problem is that I'm not going to point my Dad at WoS or CommonSpace because he's not exactly what you might call an internet pioneer.  Moreover, these sites are aimed at a significantly younger demographic.  I really don't think any of the content is produced with him in mind.  Sometimes, I even wonder if it is produced with me in mind;  this blog, in particular.

When I am old whatever replaces all of this will scare the bejeezus out of me. Glog?
I think this is a real problem for the independence movement: elderly people are simply not connected with the arguments for independence and at the same time have a strong emotional connection to the UK.   The BBC, charged with neutrality, then promotes the idea that believing in the Union is a neutral position, one that is almost unchallenged in wider society.  Notwithstanding the reality of news coverage in 2017, undisputed facts alone might not be enough to change minds.  Just as I view EU citizenship as part of my identity, Entoure Snr has a similar relationship with the UK.  I don't mean that either of us is waving flags around , putting up bunting or saluting Her Majesty/Jacques Delors but these allegiances do quietly influence our identity in a way that only really becomes apparent when they are under threat.  My relationship with the EU is really just the same as my Dad's with the UK:  we basically like what we like because it was good to us.  The difference between our views on independence is just timing and circumstance.  

Jacques Delors is very specific about the length of bunting to honour his presence. Just saying.
It would be true to say that the explosion of alternative media had a profound effect on my views on independence.  Go back 25 years and I would have never been pro-independence.  I probably wasn't ashamed to be British back then, either.  Around 10 years ago I had no fixed opinion either way but in the last few years I moved very rapidly towards independence.  Alternative/new media played a strong role in that change. I'm sure many people of my age followed a similar trajectory.   The crux of the problem is that Entoure Snr's generation aren't going to listen to any of that and probably don't even know it exists beyond vague notions of cybernattery.

Entoure Snr is a rational human being.  He is also a human being with all the attendant paradox and inconsistency that happily differentiates us from automatons.  He will listen to the arguments where he finds them.  They might change his mind.   If he felt connected to the arguments he would be far more likely to change his mind, just like all of us humans here on planet earth.  Despite some really excellent blogs and journalism out there, almost nothing I've seen on the internet is going to draw in Herr and Frau Entoure.  What is the solution?

Over and out,


PS Pensionariat is a truly terrible word.  Let's keep it to ourselves and never mention it again.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Normal Service Will Soon Resume

There's been this incessant, whiny noise buzzing around my ear for the last six months or so.  In the last two weeks, though, I've noticed that it has miraculously disappeared.  I've heard lots of people who regularly read this blog reporting the exact same phenomenon. What on earth is going on?

Of course, that incessant buzz was me merrily pontificating away on all matters Brexit.  It temporarily stopped because, just occasionally, I have to up my game at work and earn my salary.  When that happens I'm left with with no spare time or energy for this blog or for my ukulele addiction.  It's a complete outrage if you ask me but these are the rules and I just have to live with them.  Luckily, the current outbreak of work stress is almost at an end and I can start to think about getting my life back to normal.  That means blogging about Brexit and Scottish Independence and playing jaunty, shrill tunes on the banjo ukulele.  Don't worry, I'm not asking anyone except for my long-suffering neighbours to listen to my unique rendition of "In the Ghetto" by Elvis Presley.

Normal blogging service will resume in just a few days.   It's been my aim for some time now to post twice a week.  I fully intend to get back up to that rate as soon as possible.  There is just so much to write about, even though planet Brexit is a barren and featureless landscape at the moment.  Before I do that, however, I just need to catch up with whatever cowpat is currently bothering Jeremy Corbyn's two left feet.

In the meantime, I can't recommend Craig Dalzell's article on EU membership highly enough. I've been brewing a post on a similar topic but now I don't really need to bother because someone else got there first and made it as clear as it could ever possibly be.   In case anyone thinks the EU isn't sympathetic to Scotland's future there is also plenty of evidence out there that Scotland has plenty of support where it matters.

Anyway, rumours of my demise are much exaggerated.  Hah, I've always wanted to say that!  And now that I have I realise it is quite pompous and self-regarding but that's exactly why I've always wanted to say it.

Over and out,



Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Anyone Know A Good Technical Writer?

I bet everyone reading this has worked on a project at work that turned into a giant disaster.  I've been starting to wonder if I'm working on one right now. This is how it typically proceeds. A tiny research project from a lone developer piques the interest of senior management. This could have all sorts of fantastical applications and even revolutionise product development itself. Naturally, they start to chip in with their differing views on its future direction. Let's speed this along a bit with a few extra people. One person becomes three. Colleagues from different teams start to hear about this project and its amazing potential. Everyone wants to be involved. Three people become eight. This is now a hot project with proposals for research papers, shared frameworks, products in all sorts of different fields, multiple code repositories. There are internal chat rooms devoted to this project, even time-consuming debates and pointless threads about its philosophical consequences. Eight people become twenty. Then thirty. Four separate business units are now contributing, there are layers of middle management, the CEO has taken a personal interest. This is peak project. How's that lone developer getting on? Oh yeah, he just found out that it isn't quite what he hoped but nobody is listening any more. On it trundles, month after month, a mini industry devoted to an idea that should have never proceeded beyond that lone developer. Group think founded on a wisp of an idea got the better of due process. How is that Government White Paper on leaving the EU? I know it's a bit late in the day but we ought to take a look.

If you thought the UK Government might reveal their plan then think again. The White Paper on the process for leaving the EU contains no details whatsoever. There is no plan, no attempt at solving imminent technical issues, no costings, no economic forecasts, no schedules. There is nothing at all in this paper that suggests the UK Government is making appropriate preparations to leave the EU.   There is plenty to suggest that they still don't understand the scope of the problem and have turned to empty campaign slogans to cover up the gaps in their knowledge. More worryingly, they assume that the interests of the UK Government exactly match those of the entire EU and rely on this to assert that very real problems will magically sort themselves out. I'm not even sure if I would describe this White Paper as idiotic or contemptuous. Could it be both? I guess it could.

This post is going to dissect that White Paper in all its glorious lack of detail.  It is quite a long post  so I recommend just picking a couple of sub-sections that catch your attention.  You'll get the gist soon enough. I've not included every possible topic, I'm afraid. I do take requests, though, so I'm open to suggestions for a follow-up post.   Enjoy. 


There are several instances of utter nonsense in the White Paper. In many cases, entire sentences stick out and aggressively poke me in the face. I wonder who wrote it and why did they write it and why did nobody pick up on these sentences and remove them before publication. I reckon I will have spent more time editing this post than the entirety of Whitehall managed before publishing their White Paper.

Let's start with a right old howler. I would imagine that everyone has already seen this but let's wheel it out one more time for a bit of fun.

Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.
Without the context of the last 12 months of verbiage from the Leave campaign this sentence might lead the reader to all sorts of wrong conclusions. It might, for example, lead the reader to the belief that leaving the EU is all to satisfy a nebulous feeling entirely out of step with reality. I do not believe this reflects the position of the UK Government. After all, they've collectively made far too many speeches about "sovereignty" and "bringing it back". The truth here is that the UK Government couldn't be bothered reading or correcting their own document, even when that document will form the backbone of the largest and most complex legislative overhaul of the last 50 years. Carelessness or contempt?
 At the third meeting in January, the Scottish Government presented its paper on Scotland’s Place in Europe and the Committee agreed to undertake bilateral official-level discussions on the Scottish Government proposals.
Ha ha ha ha. The proposals outlined in "Scotland’s Place in Europe" have already been rejected. In fact, they were rejected within hours of its publication. They've been subsequently rejected multiple times in the glacially slow passing of Brexit time, most recently by David Mundell in an interview with Gavin Brewer.  This is a lie.
The Great Repeal Bill will maintain the protections and standards that benefit workers.
Oh dear, this is a schoolboy category error. The Great Repeal Bill only concerns EU Regulations. Workers' rights, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly the concern of EU Directives and are already enshrined in domestic law. They might as well have written that stricter monitoring of driving instructors will ensure the protection of rare owls.
The extent of EU activity relevant to the UK can be demonstrated by the fact that 1,056 EU-related documents were deposited for parliamentary scrutiny in 2016.
This is a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth because it includes all sorts of EU publications on all sorts of areas of policy that have no bearing on the UK Government.  A fairer take on this is that the EU is a transparent organisation and keeps the UK abreast of its activity with timely communication. A more representative number would have included only Directives and Regulations.  Nobody, of course, knows what that number is, even though it might have formed a useful estimate of possible costs and savings arising from leaving the EU. Another missed opportunity.
There may be European programmes in which we might want to participate. If so, it is reasonable that we should make an appropriate contribution. But this will be a decision for the UK as we negotiate the new arrangements.
Right, so we may be contributing to the EU budget and we might be participating in organisations accountable to the European Parliament.  That's slightly interesting in itself but which ones?  We'll tell you later.  The point of this White Paper is that they tell us now.  Words like "may", "might", "appropriate", "commensurate" are all over this document.  What they're telling us is that they have a plan to work all this out at a much later date.  Yup, the plan is to make a plan.  If you're of a more conspiratorial bent you might think they just don't want to announce their proposals so they can keep it away from all those bothersome MPs in Parliament. I honestly don't know what to think.


Workers' Rights

The protection of workers' rights is so poorly detailed that I wonder why anyone bothered to include anything on it at all. What they've written is actually just embarrassing. We've already seen this category error:
The Great Repeal Bill will maintain the protections and standards that benefit workers.
so I won't comment on it any further. Not the best start but it turns out that is the most sense we'll be getting from them any time soon. They really don't know how to protect workers' rights and they're determined to let us know that fact.
As we convert the body of EU law into our domestic legislation, we will ensure the continued protection of workers’ rights. This will give certainty and continuity to employees and employers alike, creating stability in which the UK can grow and thrive.
The first sentence repeats the category error.  It then reasserts the intention to uphold rights, even though they are grasping at the wrong mechanism to do that. How do they actually intend to make this happen? No mention is made of this at all. That last part about "creating stability", for example, is no more than a campaign slogan. The stability is already there and is a direct consequence of the EU's efforts to protect workers' rights. Nothing is being "created" in any sense at all.   In fact, leaving the EU could only ever be described as a threat to the rights of workers. How do I know that? Well, the UK Government helpfully wrote it down elsewhere in a single sentence.
Once we have left the EU, Parliament (and, where appropriate, the devolved legislatures) will then be able to decide which elements of that law to keep, amend or repeal.
Oh dear, all those workers' rights can easily be amended by the Conservative majority in the House of Commons.   That, after all, is their intention. 

Phased Withdrawal

The White Paper makes several mentions of a phased withdrawal from the EU but without providing any details of how this might be achieved. How long will the phased withdrawal last? What will be the interim measures? Which areas of EU policy will be subject to a phased withdrawal?
Implementing any new immigration arrangements for EU nationals and the support they receive will be complex and Parliament will have an important role in considering these matters further. There may be a phased process of implementation to prepare for the new arrangements. This would give businesses and individuals enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements.
I don't know about anyone else but I reckon it is already too late to talk about the possibility of a phased implementation of new immigration arrangements. Businesses and individuals need to know right now. Does the UK Government have the intention for a phased withdrawal from the freedom of movement of people in the EU or not? The answer should be written somewhere in the White Paper but it's not. I would guess they haven't yet decided.
It is, however, in no one’s interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability, as we change from our existing relationship to a new partnership with the EU. Instead, we want to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two year Article 50 process has concluded. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which the UK, the EU institutions and Member States prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us, will be in our mutual interest.
They can't decide on trade and they can't decide on immigration. Honestly, they can't decide on anything.   Are they just going to let the EU decide for them? 


What does the White Paper have to say about Scotland? Nothing. That's right, nothing at all. I'll concede there was that bit about pretending to listen to the needs of the devolved parliaments but I've already dealt with that. Oh yeah, there's also some waffle about strengthening the Union but that is just a slogan in the introduction.

What could we have expected? Well, I would have expected some detail about the repatriation of EU powers to the devolved parliaments. The UK Government needs to plan for this right now. Time is short and there's a lot to be done. I can only assume there is no plan to repatriate powers to Scotland because they don't plan to repatriate powers to Scotland. If that isn't the case then there is simply no excuse for this lack of foresight. They can't even hide behind the argument that they don't want to show their hand because after repatriation these powers have nothing to do with the EU. This is an internal matter that has no bearing on the Article 50 negotiations.

Single Market

The White Paper does a slightly better job on the Single Market but only relative to the woeful attempt at outlining their strategy on other key areas of policy. As everyone expects, the UK Government intend to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the EEA. They manage, of course, to tie themselves up in knots trying to describe what they really want to achieve. What is wrong, for example, with the following sentence?
That agreement may take in elements of current Single Market arrangements in certain areas as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when the UK and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years. Such an arrangement would be on a fully reciprocal basis and in our mutual interests.
Phrases like "may take in", "elements of", and "certain areas" are so vague and meaningless that I wonder why anyone even bothered to write that sentence at all. It tells me nothing. This kind of "wait and see" hopefulness is to be found all over the White Paper. In order to get what you want you first have to work out what you want and then how to get it. I thought everyone knew that but it turns out it is a lesson in life not yet learned by David Davis.

What else is wrong with that sentence? Well, we're back to that confusion about sovereignty again. Adhering to the rules of the Single Market and its arrangements means exactly that. It means that we can't just make up our own rules and do what we want. It means we have to behave in a way that encourages reciprocity, we need to do everything required of the other members of the EEA. We want to retain the benefits of the Single Market and are happy to make positive noises about it but nobody really knows which of its obligations we will accept. I would have hoped for some detail on that here because it would quickly narrow down which components of the Single Market remain available. I would guess a number close to zero.

This sentence is actually really terrible so I'm going to bang on about it a little longer. I could have picked almost any sentence to bang on about but I picked that one and there's nothing I can do about it now. The UK Government are still proposing to cherry-pick the components of the Single Market that they find appealing, even thought they aren't able to specify what those areas might be or if they would be politically acceptable. The EU, on the other hand, has been very clear that Single Market membership is a binary choice. They've been utterly consistent on that point. All or nothing, in or out, fish or foul. Ok, fish or foul doesn't really work but you get the idea that the UK Government are guessing at those mutual interests. They are guessing that the interests of the UK are also the interests of all 27 EU nations and all 30 EEA nations. They are guessing that the EU will compromise on long-held principles echoed repeatedly all over Europe so that the UK can achieve an unspecified outcome with details to follow. Good luck with that.
We have an open mind on how we implement new customs arrangements with the EU and we will work with businesses and infrastructure providers to ensure those processes are as frictionless as possible, including through the use of digital technologies.
This is the politics of Rumpelstiltskin.  If we say his name out loud enough times, it will all magically take care of itself.  Digital technologies, indeed.  I could organise my sock drawer with higher efficiency if I had digital technologies.  Which ones?  You know, the digital ones. They've got digits in them, even though they're for feet.  I used to own a digital watch.  Maybe it had a setting for frictionless borders.  Someone should tell that to Theresa May.

Dispute Resolution

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the UK Government finally understands that Free Trade Agreements require a legal mechanism to resolve disputes. Bravo! I'm going to give them some praise here because they do lay out all the options in a handy Appendix. These options include the Swiss model, the NAFTA model, the CETA model, as well as models involving representations to independent arbitration panels. It is certainly a wide spectrum of options. Some of these options require legislative solutions; some allow broken agreements to be traded for other broken agreements; some allow broken agreements to be traded for money; some are transparent; some might be described as furtive and secretive. If I want to find out how investor-state disputes are resolved I'll get myself a book on international trade and read it from cover to cover. Why are they telling me all this? Why aren't they telling me how they intend to resolve disputes with the EU? Wait, what's that you're saying? They haven't decided? No, that surely isn't the case.

International Trade

Here is everything the White Paper says about international trade.
The UK is proud of its long and successful history as a trading nation. As Chart 9.1 shows, the UK has seen steady growth in overall trade as a percentage of GDP in the entire post-war period.69 We have long been a strong supporter of global trade liberalisation and of the rules based system for trade. An international rules based system is crucial for underpinning free trade and to ward off protectionism.
That's yer lot on international trade. No more to be said, apparently. A definitive and timely statement on the topic, leaving no stone unturned. It's almost as though they asked the intern to write a section on international trade without first giving them a detailed brief. A lot of the White Paper reads like that: bizarre paragraphs on nothing much at all, short on detail, lacking precision or intent.  I don't get it.


If you've been following this blog the following will not be a surprise:

Our aim is to establish our schedules in a way that replicates as far as possible our current position as an EU Member State, thus creating a mutually beneficial, simple and inclusive outcome, so that the interests of the UK and other WTO members are protected.

Sort of makes you wonder why we're leaving.  What is the point, exactly?

Great Repeal Bill


Great news if you're getting bored reading this because nothing substantive at all is said about the Great Repeal Bill.  No costings, no schedules, no plans for the legal and technical challenges arising from bringing EU Regulations into domestic law. There is a lovely nostalgic section on the UK being a founding member of the European Space Agency but we'll be leaving that now, along with Euratom and every other technical agency under the auspices of the European Parliament.  Why even mention it?  So we know what we'll be missing? Bloody heck, what a mess.
The UK was a founding member of the European Space Agency, to which we recently committed €1.4 billion in cutting edge research and development over the next four years. The UK has also been a driving force behind European and international research on nuclear fusion.
Well, that was a  nice trip down memory lane for everyone concerned.  Remember the good old days when we were a driving force in international science collaborations?

If you're wondering why there isn't a section on science wonder no more because that little bit of nostalgia is the highlight.  Blah blah blah being in the EU was great for UK science and we thought it was great but now it's all over and we need to keep our own company from now on isn't life cruel sometimes it's a shame the old days were better blah blah blah.  There is nothing at all about the UK's plans for participation in EU science and technology projects.  Do you still want me to add a science section?  Alright, here it is.



There is nothing at all about the UK's plans for participation in EU science and technology projects.


Some MPs were understandably unhappy that the Article 50 vote was scheduled before the White Paper.  I would guess they are a bit less unhappy now because it's not as though anything in the White Paper could ever have helped anybody make up their minds about the challenges involved in the Government's proposals for leaving the EU. Well, not in the way you might hope. Let's face it, this is not a very professional document, is it?  It reveals nothing of the UK Government's plans at all.  All it manages to reveal is that they are still woefully unprepared for the UK's imminent departure from the EU.  You can't use this document as a template for leaving the EU because it contains no relevant information whatsoever.  Are they just going to make it up as they go along?  I think they just might.

There's a deeper message in all of this about staffing quality and recruitment levels in the corridors of Whitehall, Parliament and Government.  I'll leave that for others to ponder because I only know about staffing on software development teams.  I do know that if I was to produce such an empty and vacuous proposal at my work it would be immediately rejected with prejudice. I wouldn't exactly get sacked or anything drastic like but they probably wouldn't ask me to write another.  The Governent's White Paper was much, much more important than any proposal I might make at work but they either couldn't be bothered or don't possess the basic skills required to make progress and then report on it. How do they get away with it?  Take one look at the Labour Party and there's your answer.

This can all be avoided by voting Yes in indyref2,


PS I left out Northern Ireland, crime, education, financial services.  These are all very, very short on detail but with less entertainment value.   Financial services, in particular, must surely be making urgent approaches to the Government for clarity.  This was the perfect opportunity to provide that clarity.  Another opportunity missed.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A Whine And A Moan

I don't know about anyone else but the last few posts have been a bit heavy going.  Pulling all that information together and trying to weave a path through it all made my head hurt.  I'm not a professional writer so I can easily imagine that trying to understand my scribblings was a bit of a challenge, too. Isn't it time to put up our feet for just a few days?  That might seem odd given that there's just been a huge vote at Westminster to trigger Article 50 but, you know what, I really don't care about that at all.  The outcome had been certain since last August so it barely even bleeped on my Brexit radar. It might seem even odder given that the UK Government just released their White Paper on leaving the EU. I did read it but it is just filled with the same non-committal sophistry that they've been emitting on a regular basis since the middle of last July. I think we can take our foot off the accelerator pedal for a couple of days and just have a bit of a whine and a moan.  Yes, let's have a right old moan.  There is a particularly dry joke at the end so watch out for that.  Can't wait that long for a joke?  Well, here's a pop pun right now.  Enjoy.

This whole Brexit malarkey is really shit, isn't it?  Right from the beginning and all the way to the bitter end it has shown the UK in the worst possible light. We've had outright lies from both sides of the debate; the rise of an inarticulate right wing; the normalisation of xenophobia and racism; more lies from media barons counting their cash in tax exile;  a supposedly liberal media staffed entirely by interns who can't tell a trade tariff from a treaty; a Labour Party led by a spineless buffoon trapped in a 1970s Bennite fantasy; the revelation that the Scottish Parliament has no actual powers; myths becoming facts by sheer repetition; demagogues and narcissists appearing on the TV without critique at every opportunity; national registers of foreigners; MPs silently dropping manifesto pledges steadfastly held by their parties for 50 years; statements redolent of Nazi Germany like "the will of the people"; the UK Government refusing to stand up for the rights of refugees under the Geneva Convention.  I could go on and on but we all have lives to lead.  It's of interest to nobody but me but I find this enormously depressing.  It is depressing.

An emoji is highly inappropriate given current events but, hey, it's 2017 and this is how we communicate now.
While I'm moaning I might as well carry on and get it out of my system.  What else is profoundly depressing about Brexit?  On a few occasions of misguided optimism I've tried to engage with Leavers and convince them that a specific assertion they made is false.  I know twitter is a poor platform for debate but it's enough to learn that the divisions of Brexit are a modern day manifestation of CP Snow's "Two Cultures".  The UK is most definitely split into two opposing political groups:  those who look at a scatter plot and ask questions about the data gathering methodology and those who don't know how to interpret a graph in any meaningful way at all.  Group A supports their arguments with peer-reviewed research; Group B argues back with personal anecdote filtered through their own prejudice.  Group A post links to government data; Group B respond with a link to a mercifully short youtube video of a pro-Leave MP tutting at a Civil Servant. Group A discuss the merits of extrapolation and the error bars in trade statistics; Group B label domain experts as members of a shadowy liberal elite.  These two groups have no idea how to talk to each other.  We are lucky to have an abundance of cheap technology that allows us to reach out and connect with all sorts of different people.  When we do that, however, we realise that half of them have only a slender grasp on the concept of numbers but also possess the arrogance to think that what they don't understand is of no value.  These are the people who hold power right now in the UK. Everything is going their way.

I sometimes wonder where this will all end up. I know I don't live in the UK but I have friends and family there and still feel connected to it, especially to Scotland.  Where will it all end up?  Thinking too long about the direction of today's politics can make me momentarily fearful. Thinking about how quickly it turned makes me momentarily fearful, too.  The real fear is that leaving the EU won't solve the problems that led to the EU referendum in the first place. Leaving the EU won't increase the hourly rate of low-skilled workers; it won't build social housing; it won't reduce unemployment; it won't lead to a generation of benevolent employers intent on improving working conditions; it won't give the UK fresh powers to solve its very real problems.  Where will all that anger go when the UK finds itself in a worse position, when it's tied to the cut-throat economy of the US? I can't see the UK realigning itself to the progressive politics of the EU any time soon.  How much further to the right can a country shift before democracy itself is under threat?

Great, two versions of the same song but they sound exactly the same to me.
The stratification of UK society is dangerous. I've started to remember if an actor is a Leaver or a Remainer and I'll turn over the telly if I don't agree with their position.  I know that Johnny Marr voted Remain but I'm led to assume that Morrissey voted Leave. What do I do with my Smiths playlist on Spotify?  Do I just listen to the instrumentals? I know that Michael Caine is a UKIPper but that's ok because I've already seen any of his films that are worth a watch.  Ray Winstone also said he was  a Kipper a while back but I've never had any interest in watching anything he's ever been in. Will Self, of course, voted Remain so I can carry on reading his books.  Hang on a minute, this is no way at all to life your life.  I've fallen foul of a prejudice just as dangerous as the xenophobia of many Leave supporters.  Is it true that voting Leave means you are a xenophobe? An idiot who doesn't understand logic or know how to read a graph?  Someone who thinks refugees are to be expelled back to their own countries? A blind follower of demagoguery and narcissism?  I used to joke with a friend that he couldn't separate artist from art.  To make my point I'd make him listen to "Do you wanna touch me" by Gary Glitter. Now I'm left wondering if Gary Glitter voted Leave or Remain.

 Over and out,


PS I'm glad that's out of my system. 

PPS I have half a post prepared on the Brexit White Paper.   It's actually not quite as dull and featureless as I made out. I just said that for dramatic effect.  What is missing is actually far more interesting than what is present.  More next time.

PPPS "Do you wanna touch me" by Gary Glitter is a brilliant glam stomp but I honestly can't bring myself to listen to it any more. Luckily, Joan Jett did a terrific version so there's always that.  The Human League also covered Rock'n'Roll so that's all the essential tracks covered.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Our Pets Will Be The Eagles, Our Crest A Rampant Bear

When I was young back in the 80s, Germany didn't seem like a very cool place at all.  It was the land of mullets and unironic moustaches and dreadful pop music built on an endless oompah beat. It was also a country that still had political and business leaders tainted by their youthful associations with the Nazis.  It's funny how things can turn around in a single generation.  Nowadays, Germany is seen by many as the leader of the free world.  It acts alone in showing compassion for refugees and standing up to Donald Trump's racism and xenophobia. Less importantly, that 80s oompah beat is now the best thing ever and hipsters the world over have a tendency towards retro facial furniture. All thanks to the Germans.  I haven't even mentioned Kraftwerk yet.

If I had the choice of living in a country more like Germany or one more like the US, I know which one I'd choose.  I'm obviously way out of step with my fellow UK citizens because they chose the US.  The EU Referendum was never presented in those terms but that's exactly what it was:  be more like Germany or be more like the US.  We're going to learn quite soon what it means to be more like the US. We're going to learn that at the worst time possible because being more like the US means being more like Donald Trump's distorted vision of the US.

I've spent far too much time banging on and on and on about how trade deals are concerned with harmonising standards and resolving investor-state disputes that arise from legal interpretations of those standards.  The idea that leaving the EU will grant the UK the freedom to control its own destiny is a fantasy. Membership of any international organisation from the OECD to the G7 to the UN places limits on the power of governments to act independently.  Trade deals are no different.  Trade deals with the US will be no different, either.  A trade deal with the US just means the UK will move away from EU standards and towards US standards.  If it doesn't do that voluntarily it will be forced to but only after losing costly investor-state disputes adjudicated by free trade tribunals. Signing a trade deal with the US will make the UK more like that US.  There is no getting round this fact.
School uniform proposals for Wolverhampton Comprehensive 2019
What does it mean to be more like the US?  What does it mean to be more like Donald Trump's vision of the US?  We've seen some of that already in the way that Theresa May refused to criticise Trump's bizarre border policy aimed at stifling the rights of refugees. Despite the scale of the protests that erupted all over the UK I honestly doubt many people are all that bothered.  I'm bothered by it and I'm sure everyone reading this is even more horrified but we're a minority of people who hang around the internet reading reductio ad absurdum analyses of the UK's indecipherable trade policy.  It pains me to say it but most people really couldn't give a toss about refugees because what they really care about is their own life and their own family.  The rest of this post is aimed at them.  How will a US trade deal impact on their life?


One of the biggest advantages of the NHS is that it negotiates prices on pharmaceuticals as a single entity on behalf of the entire health system.  A market with a single buyer but multiple sellers is heavily stacked in the buyer's favour.  This is great news for the UK because keeping down the cost of life-saving drugs means they are more affordable and more widely available. It's not such great news for those pharmaceutical companies because they're denied the opportunity to maximise their profits. A monolithic NHS is the last thing they want. What do they really want?  Well, they want to neuter the buying power of the NHS to level the playing field of buyer and seller.  That is the only way they can start selling their products at sky-high US prices.

How might the buying power of the NHS be neutered? That is quite simple and would only involve the implementation of a UK mirror of the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act.  This explicitly forbids the federal government from negotiating drug prices and from establishing a list of preferred drugs.   Both of these functions are currently carried out in the UK by the NHS.  The NHS not only negotiates drug prices for the entire system, which pushes down the price, but also establishes a list of drugs that it believes reflects the best efficacy per unit cost.  Drugs companies can be very sneaky and sometimes demand high prices for new products that have much cheaper alternatives.  It requires vigilance and unity to keep abreast of their tactics. Breaking up the NHS and legislating to forbid its component parts from acting in unison is a sure-fire way of improving the stock price of Glaxo.

Why would the UK agree to breaking up the NHS and on what basis would the US demand it?  It's simply a question of symmetry and fairness.  The UK will be able to sell its drugs to the fragmented US market at sky-high prices so it seems only fair that is reciprocated in the UK.  It is a perfectly reasonable demand and it would be hard to resist.  It will also be a top priority for US negotiators because it is the last bastion of state-controlled spending in the UK. This isn't a detail that merely encourages trade or reduces friction in the supply chain. Make no mistake, this will open up the entire UK health system to the free market for the very first time, instantly creating a health market worth hundreds of billions of dollars to US pharmaceutical companies. This is a huge prize.

The UK is struggling to maintain the NHS in its current form.  It's struggling to financially maintain it but it is also struggling politically.  Lobbying forces are hard at work to undermine the system because the spoils are so huge.  A sudden hike in costs is going to make that struggle even harder. What is the alternative?  Well, a US-style insurance system is the obvious alternative.  Make the people pay for their own healthcare.  This is great news for the US insurance market because they can sell us expensive insurance schemes to pay for all those over-priced drugs we'll be taking. Why would the UK agree to this?  Well, it's that reciprocity again.  UK insurance companies will have access to the fragmented cash-cow of the US insurance market so it seems only fair that we open up our system in return.

The NHS as we know it will end the day that the UK signs a trade deal with the US. The principle that everyone should have the same health opportunities will be buried that day, too.  The very last remnant of the post-war consensus will disappear in a haze of big money.  

The Environment

We don't have to guess what effect a US/UK trade deal would have on the enviromment because we only have to look at Canada to find out what happens.  Canada, of course, is the most sued country in the world under free trade tribunals.  Most of these investor-state disputes are attempts to overturn environmental legislation so that Canadian resources can be opened up to US firms.  Here's a single case out of many: Quebec Province banned fracking but that wasn't enough to deter US investors from suing for the right to frack anywhere they wish.

The NAFTA trade deal was signed long before Donald Trump even became a household name as a star of reality TV.  It was signed at a time when environmental protections were an important consideration.  As a consequence, NAFTA has side agreements entirely devoted to the environment.  These side agreements reference international treaties such as the Stockholm Declaration on the Environment.  It is simply not the case that NAFTA cast aside all environmental concerns and left the North American countryside open to any and all exploitation. What about now?  What kind of agreement would Donald Trump sign now?  This is a man who thinks global warning is a lie that only acts to undermine the profit margin of Western industry. Donald Trump campaigned on a policy of rejecting international agreements on pollution and energy consumption. Donald Trump is someone who thinks money trumps everything, even the air that we breathe.  The chances of protecting the UK's most precious resource after signing a US/UK trade deal are as slim as Kate Moss after a heavy cold.


If you think the European Court of Justice is a conspiratorial front for the liberal elite then just wait for the tribunals that will adjudicate on US/UK trade disputes. It is widely rumoured that TTIP collapsed because the EU would not accept secretive courts being appointed to resolve EU/US investor-state disputes. Lacking the transparency of the ECJ, these tribunals would furtively divert taxpayers' money to US corporations and financial institutions. This was unacceptable to the EU, as we'd all hope it would be, who wanted adjudications to be carried out with significantly more transparency.  Would it be unacceptable to the UK?  After all, a mature democracy doesn't let that happen, right?  Think again.  The problem with the ECJ was that it was transparent.  In fact, it was only that transparency that let the UK press pick over its every judgement and misinterpret its findings year after year. The last thing the UK Government wants is another ECJ on its hands because that would endanger all those trade deals it wants to sign. I would guess they would only be too pleased to have unpopular judgements held in absolute secrecy.


Let's take a quick look at disputes lodged by the US at the WTO because this is a good indication of the kind of policy issue that will be a target for US harmonisation.  I've picked out a few choice items from the first quarter of a truly long list. 
It's clear the US doesn't like dealing with countries that subsidise their industries.  If you think that leaving the EU will allow the UK Government to throw money at Port Talbot to secure the scraps of the UK steel industry it might be time to think again.  Farmers that have been protected from global uncertainty by the EU Common Agricultural Policy will now be left to fend for themselves.  Leaving the EU won't make their lives better at all because they'll be left to compete in a race to the bottom of the chemically washed chicken market. Eating all that chemically washed chicken and gen-tech potatoes won't make our lives any better, either.

The US is typically a country that regulates less than we're used to here in Europe.  This is bad news for a country that wants to harmonise with the US because it will have to give up its power to legislate for health and safety, quality assurance, controls on pollution, labelling standards etc etc. Donald Trump thinks the US is a regulatory nightmare and intends to slash regulation after regulation. It's all laid out here.  I can't recommend this highly enough if you've run out of horror movies to watch.  It's a quite terrifying document that manages to count the cost of regulation without accounting for any of its benefits.   Here's a list of the kinds of regulations under threat:
  • Any regulation that encourages investment in renewables 
  • Any regulation that limits the production and exploration of coal, gas or oil
  • Health and safety at work regulations that are deemed to be non critical
All of this is coming soon to a town near you.

Negotiating Imbalance

Here's the real problem with a US/UK trade deal. The issue is that Donald Trump campaigned on a clear message of protectionism.  He immediately cancelled TPP on taking office and quickly followed that up by throwing a tantrum about NAFTA and demanding its imminent demise. If that wasn't enough he is in the process of humiliating one of America's closest trading partners by threatening punitive tariffs to pay for a huge wall to keep all those unpleasant foreign humans as far away as possible.  Donald Trump doesn't want to sign a deal with anyone. He is signalling this as loudly as a boorish oaf ever could by telling the entire world that from now on every US trade deal needs to have a 30 day cancellation policy.   For Donald Trump the status quo of no deal at all has a spectacularly high value.  His policy statement from last September makes for interesting reading for anyone attempting to coax the US into any kind of trading relationship.  The UK, on the other hand, is desperate to sign a trade deal. Moreover, the political survival of the leading Brexiteers is conditional upon them signing trade deals.  Any US/UK trade deal whatsoever would be a feather in their cap because the press aren't going to examine it in any detail.  Walking away from a trade deal is not an option.  The problem is getting Donald Trump to bother picking up his pen.

I don't need to spell out what happens if one person wants to buy but the other doesn't want to sell.   For the UK it means giving up the NHS.  If we're lucky we'll make it to the third or fourth day of talks with our health system in one piece.  Everything else I listed here will be signed away by day three.

Balance of Trade

Here's a fun fact to finish.  The UK generally has a terrible balance of trade but its trade with the US is actually a rare win. That's right, the most recently published trade results reveal that the UK exports more to the US than it imports.  What are the chances that will be reversed after desperately signing a hasty trade deal?  That's a rhetorical question and I leave it to the reader to make up their own mind.

This can all be avoided by voting Yes in a 2nd indyref,


PS Today's post was a bit of a monster. Next time will be nice and short and a bit more frothy.  The last few posts have been a bit fact-heavy so maybe it's time for an update on the Brexit emotional rollercoaster.