Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Art of Driving (on the right)

Imagine that the UK decided to drive on the right hand side of the road.  It might take the view that it will save some money by not having to buy specially designed vehicles with smaller production runs. This obviously is never going to happen because driving on the left hand side of the road is a traditionally British habit and what does Johnny Foreigner know about driving cars and Empire 2.0 will see us gleefully exporting our peculiar habits to the savages that inhabit the rest of the world. Despite all that, let's imagine that it did happen. If it helps get in the right (or left) brain frame we can limit this exercise to an independent Scotland or to Wales or any other country you like.  If you want to imagine Germany driving on the left that will work just as well.  The key point is to start thinking about the problems involved.

What sort of challenges are involved in realigning the direction of traffic?  I'm going to start writing some of these down.  You can play along at home with your own list.  I don't have a prize for the best or most comprehensive list or anything like that but I'd be fascinated to read them in the comments at the end. Right, what are those challenges?  Well, all the metal street signs will need to be reversed because traffic will be looking at the reverse of the sign rather than the front that actually contains the message intended for the driver.  Likewise, all the lettering painted on the road will need to be scraped off and replaced on the other side of the road.  Bus companies will need to move all the timetables across the road to the complementary bus stop.  In some instances, that will involve a completely new timetable due to the complexity of one-way streets and the way that they meet up with their two-way siblings.   Those timetables will need to be advertised well before the day they take effect by distributing paper handouts along the route and updating the company website with fresh downloads and information about the change.  It's going to be dangerous having all those cars designed for left hand driving but now driving on the right.  There will need to be an approved mechanism to have cars altered for the new road layout and a cut-off date for the conversion.  Some vintage cars might be exempt from this so there will need to be another approved mechanism for car categorisation and a registry of cars and owners with an opt-out.  Driving tests and all the associated literature will need to be changed so that learner drivers learn about left hand turns across oncoming traffic.   Driving instructors and test inspectors will probably need to go on a conversion course to make sure they understand what they are doing and certificates will need to be issued to the successful participants.  Insurance companies will need to plan for all of this because there is likely to be an increase in the number of bumps and dings and consequent claims. They might even urge drivers to take a conversion course with the lure of higher insurance rates for those who refuse to sign up. Oh dear, what a mess.

Can it get any worse?  Well, I'd guess the to-do list will keep growing day by day -  I don't even drive a car so my list will only scratch the surface.  The size of the list, however, is only part of the problem. The real problem is that everything has to happen at exactly the same time.  There's no point in moving 20 million driver seats from right to left if drivers will still have to drive on the left hand side because there's been a snag with the street signage. There's no point in rolling out the change street by street, either, because it creates a significant safety hazard at the intersection of left and right.  The piecemeal approach would just create a growing problem as the rollout continues with complete logjam forming at the intersection. The problem has to get much, much worse before it gets better to the degree that people might start wondering if the change is worth it.  No, this has to be completed in a single step.  A good time might be between 3am and 4am on Christmas morning when upstanding citizens are either asleep or fallen down drunk.  Would that even work?  Even if everything could be changed in a single hour it would require the complete shutdown of the road network.  How would ambulances and fire engines and police cars operate?  By helicopter?  Hmm, I don't think so.

I'm sure everyone has understood the analogy.   Regulatory alignment is a binary state:  the UK either aligns itself with the EU or it aligns itself with the US. The UK cannot unpick its alignment with the EU piece by piece, month by month, legislative act by legislative act without threatening its entire relationship with the EU and suffering the chaos that would follow.  A single divergence from the EU brings all the Brexit edition Jenga blocks crashing to the floor.  Brexiters, of course, refute this suggestion but they are entirely wrong.  We've been talking about this on this blog ad infinitum for the last 15 months but the events of the last week have finally brought it to public attention, even if the public have conveniently ignored the logic puzzle staring them in the face and mainstream media largely got it wrong.

Why is Brexit a binary puzzle?  It's a binary puzzle because it operates under tight constraints that aren't well understood by the headbangers that campaign for it.  For the rest of this post I want to look at just one conundrum that forces the UK to make a hard choice between left and right hand drive.  The particular legislative nugget I'm going to look at hangs on a US legislative act called the Trade  Promotion Authority.  A quick summary is that Congress holds the power to set import tariffs but is historically bad at negotiating trade agreements.  To solve this problem Congress agrees to temporarily pass the power of negotiation to the executive but retains a binary vote on the final deal.  It does this with conditions attached in the form of negotiating objectives for the executive.   This agreement is often referred to as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) or Fast Track Authority.

The current TPA was pushed through Congress during the Obama administration.  It was, to say the least, controversial and took multiple iterations to reach a majority vote.  Those iterations introduced key negotiating objectives across all sorts of trade areas but the one that interests us is the one that lays out objectives on sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) for agricultural products. The US believes that hormone-injected beef and chemically-washed chicken are perfectly healthy and doesn't understand why other countries continue to ban their import.  Moreover, the US believes that banning their import is a protectionist barrier to trade.  It believes this so strongly that it opened a dispute at the WTO against the EU.  The EU, of course, defended its position with scientific evidence but ultimately lost the case. WTO disputes are typically resolved through consensus so a solution was found whereby the EU increased its tariff-free import quota of EU-standard beef.  That's not a terribly interesting story in itself but it might lead us to clues behind the collapse of TTIP, the abandoned US/EU trade deal.  A key negotiating objective for the US was to get the EU to agree that hormone-injected beef would be  part of the deal.  Obama could not have gone back to Congress with the news that he had ignored its wishes  because if he had done so the deal would have been rejected.  The EU would never have agreed to US SPS so there was no deal.   It follows that the UK is in exactly the same situation.

The Trade Promotion Authority requires any trade deal with the US to include the adoption of US SPS.  Given that the EU lost the scientific case for a hormone-injected beef ban there is no realistic way to opt out of this requirement in a way that will ensure the agreement of Congress. If Liam Fox wants to sign a UK/US FTA he will need to include chemically washed chicken and hormone-injected beef and refrigerated eggs in the package.   Except he can't do that. Michael Gove, in his role as Environment Secretary, has already said that he would not accept chemically washed chicken in the UK.  Now, I don't trust Michael Gove and he can be easily be replaced so this might not be that much of a barrier to Liam Fox realising his nightmare vision.  The real barrier is that Theresa May has just promised to uphold all EU law required to keep the NI/RoI border free of all border infrastructure.  She promised to do this for the whole of the UK in order to keep Arlene Foster on side.  That's right, Theresa May promised that the whole of the UK would be aligned with EU legislation on everything that might affect the UK's land border with the EU. She cannot do that and at the same time adopt US SPS.  It is logically impossible. By promising alignment with the the EU, the UK government has made a public statement that it rejects the conditions of a UK/US trade deal.
Does Liam Fox understand that his dream just ended?  He might but it's hard to say, to be honest.  I don't want to credit him with too much intelligence but he understood as early as October that a US/UK trade deal would require something that didn't focus on agriculture.  At the time the shrieking headlines about mutant chickens would have been ringing in his ears and that was likely the reason behind his pronouncement that he would prefer a UK/UK deal to focus on services.  In any other month it could have been threats to Geographic Indicators, which protect products like Scotch whisky, Scotch beef, Scotch lamb, Shetland lamb, Stornoway black pudding, Arbroath smokies, Scottish wild salmon and Shetland wool.  The problem Fox faces is that FTAs typically don't include services because regulating humans is several orders of magnitude harder than regulating bananas.  In actual fact, it requires the kind of legislative harmonisation we've seen in the EU and the EEA to make it happen.  Just as we saw with agriculture, the UK will be faced with an either/or choice in every area of legislation. In banking, for example, it can either align itself with the Dodd-Frank act or the Capital Requirements Directive and Regulation issued by the EU.  It cannot do both so which will it choose?  The momentum of the current direction of travel tells us the answer: the UK will become a regulatory annexe of the EU.  The UK has to choose EU over US because it doesn't know how to change direction without suffering profound legislative chaos.  As a consequence, the UK will choose the EU.  Even if the constraints of the problem weren't forcing that choice, the EU would make it happen anyway because they seem to be the only side with a track record of writing down what they want and then working out how to get it.

 If the UK becomes a regulatory annexe of the EU what will that look like? Well, the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR and will continue to uphold human rights as it does now.  The UK will lose all democratic representation and all influence at the EU, yet will continue to follow its legislative programme. The only trade deals the UK will be able to sign will be with countries already in agreement with the EU. It will simply mop up any and all FTAs, whether they are a good deal for the UK or  not.  But, hey, there will be fewer foreigner workers in the UK so it will all be worth it, right?

Over and out,

PS Apologies for not posting for ages but I've just had too much to do at work in the past month or so. 

PPS It's almost impossible to keep up with Brexit these days.  It moves so fast yet when I look at it nothing has materially changed.   Hard times for amateur bloggers with a penchant for source documents.

PPPS Even before we get to the logical conundrum of Brexit, the current TPA expires in July, 2018, unless Trump requests and Congress approves a 3 year extension prior to the termination date.  It has come to my attention that Trump is more interested in cancelling FTAs than signing new ones but even if he changed his mind he isn't all that good at convincing Congress to agree with his proposals. Liam Fox, please take note.

PPPPS Even if the UK decided to drive on the right would that be the correct decision?  It might argue that it would reduce costs but it would really need to argue that the reduced costs at least compensate for the cost of the required change.  That's what I expected to see in the Brexit Impact Assessments (sarcasm alert)  It's astonishing (sarcasm alert) to learn that the current UK government employs no metrics at all in its decision making.  Instead, they use gut feeling.  The policy choice to leave the Customs Union was quite literally made on gut feeling and they've admitted to that in public, using the words "gut feeling".  What a mess.  All this gut feeling has given me indigestion.

PPPPPS If rUK is aligned towards the EU it makes iScotland in EU a more than credible prospect.  iScotland in EEA was always a credible proposition but EU membership might have been in conflict with maintaining trade links with rUK.  Theresa May just indicated she will remove the conflict.


  1. Another great piece, and good to see you back! The road analogy is an interesting one, as it has been done twice in recent European history: Sweden in 1967 and Iceland in 1968. Of course, that was at a time when traffic was massively sparser than now, but even then it was a huge logistical exercise which required massive planning - you'll doubtless see where the analogy fails straight away! Delightfully, this even included 'Dagen H' (H day) branding appearing on, amongst other things, underwear and milk cartons. Also very pertinently, it was funded by special taxes on motoristsm despite it being very unpopular before the event...

    1. I'd read about Iceland but didn't know about Sweden. Wow, they must have been organised to get that to work. We're a lot more health and safety conscious these days and I would imagine that any study would recommend a country like the UK with thousands of miles of motorways and roundabouts and tens of millions of cars to steer (ho ho ho)well clear. Hats off to the Swedes for making that happen.

      I'm off to look for some Brexit underwear that will warn me of the end of the UK's participation in the ECIC card.

  2. As one who moved from driving left to driving right and then back again, I can say that it is not such a big deal. Apart from a bruised hand trying to change gears with the wrong hand for a few days and hitting the window winder knob, I had no problems. These days the knob is gone and it is a button, so much less painfull.

    What I can say is that the British driving test is a piece of complete bureaucratic idiocy designed to let idiots on the road and keep the more cautious off - but that is another story.

    1. Part of the fun in Sweden's case was that it was largely the case that private cars were, for odd historical reasons, left-hand drive (even whilst driving on the left!) There was thus quite a high incidence of head-on crashes whilst attempting overtaking, particularly on the rather poor roads that were common outside of the most populated areas.

    2. Everyone here is so much smarter than me. It took me some years to gain confidence at left hand turns here in Switzerland, and that's just on a bicycle. It just felt weird and I always had a moment of panic when I thought I'd done something wrong.

  3. One that wasn't immediately obvious but was a big deal even in the 60s was car headlights - they all had to be realigned simultaneously. Part of Sweden's preparation was an intense campaign led by psychologists in the extended run-up to H day.

    1. I don't drive so I don't quite understand the issue with the car headlights. Could you explain that for non-drivers like me? This weirdly turns out to be a fascinating topic.

    2. A dipped headlight beam is asymmetric. On a left hand drive system like the UK, it's lower on the right hand side in order to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers, whereas on the left hand side it's allowed to be much broader, in order to illuminate road signs. If you take a UK car to the continent, you are required to put beam diverters onto your headlights: this is essentially what Sweden had to do instantaneously with over ½million cars and other vehicles. Modern headlights will have an area marked that needs to be covered when changing sides.

    3. Thanks! I didn't know that but it makes perfect sense now you've explained it. If only Brexit made the same kind of sense after a short explanation...

  4. Didn't Canada change from driving on the left to the right as well? But that too was in the days before the millions of cars were have now. It's almost as if as time moves on the ability to change direction becomes harder, or something. But you know, back when we had an empire we could do what wanted & they just had to accept it so I'm sure we can go back to those times again.

    1. Wikipedia seems to say that Canada mainly switched in the 1920s and completed the last bit in 1947. I'm guessing it was a much simpler switch back then.

  5. To continue with the driving stories, I heard that, given its land borders with both Norway and Finland, when Sweden was driving on the left, there was all sorts of fun to be had at the borders!

    So, back to Brexit. Am I right to say that this whole thing appears, at least for the moment, to have fallen flat on its face?

    'We' have taken back control of virtually nothing?

    Did no one consider the Irish problem when they came up with this scheme to once-and-for-all put an end to Tory infighting over Europe? Had anyone considered the Gibraltar problem, which, for the moment will presumably have been solved by the Irish agreement?

    Of course, I suspect that if they used "gut feeling" not too many Tories will have much experience of either Ireland or Spain/Gibraltar. Now if there had been a border with Juan les Pins, the Maldives, or Monaco, maybe, but Eire? Spain?

    Taking back control and handing it right back?

    I can't see this working.

    1. I am completely confused with Brexit at the moment. The EU/UK Phase 1 agreement makes explicit pledges but despite it being an agreement neither side agrees on the meaning of the pledges. "Full alignment" has been spun by the UK as something other than full alignment. Gove and Davis have both declared, with full support of Nr 10, that the agreement is not binding in any sense. The UK have failed to make a decision once again and are relying on the EU to let them kick the can down the road a bit further. Barnier is recommending that Phase 2 begins but that decision is not yet formally made.

      Nobody has even properly discussed Gibraltar yet. NI is a kind of test case in keeping borders open so it might end up that whatever is agreed also keep the Gibraltar/Spain border equally as open. Let's hope that works out.

      I also don't see any evidence that control is being taken back. Instead, capitulation is the word of the day.


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