Sunday, 9 December 2018

The Robots Are Coming

I had a couple of welcome days off work this week so I found the time to write something. What shall I write about?  Well, today I read an article over on CommonSpace about the way in which societies could impose ethical standards on AI through the use of Citizen Assemblies. It was an interesting article but something in it made the gears of my brains start turning.  If you're interested in this topic then bugger off for a bit and read the article, then a short twitter thread with the author and then come back for a long-winded discussion.

I would guess everyone was nodding along with the author of the Commonspace article. It all sounds great, doesn't it?  We all want an ethical society, right?  The question, then, is how best to go about achieving that goal.  Will it be best achieved with a Citizen AI Assembly?  I'm afraid it won't. I actually find the idea slightly terrifying.

Before we go any further we need to nail down our terminology.  Specifically, what is AI?  I might as well pontificate on the length on a piece of string but in what follows I'm going to say that AI is any technology that can perform a specified task better than humans.  Even a traffic light blinking red/amber/green is a primitive type of AI. After all, we could employ a human with a stopwatch and a resilient finger at each traffic light.  Humans, however, fall asleep and need to go to the toilet all the time so we're much better off with a simple timing circuit.

How far can we got without mentioning Brexit?  It turns out that 3 paragraphs is the limit. After all, everything is Brexit-flavoured these days.  If you make it to the end you'll find out why I think a Citizen AI Assembly is a rather Brexity idea. There is also a weak joke about the current Labour leadership.  Do watch out for that.  Simply enjoy.

See You In Court

Let's look at an example and see how it might work with or without a Citizen AI Assembly.  Let's imagine an AI whose developers boast it can match fingerprints better than criminologists with years of experience in fingerpint matching. This is the kind of thing that might already exist but if it doesn't then it soon will because this is meat and two veg for deep neural networks working in combination with a process called supervised learning. Should this be used?  Should AI matches be admissible in court?  If expert human opinion is in conflict with the AI decision on a match what happens then? What are the ethics of this?

I want to begin by saying that nobody is saying that this technology shouldn't exist.  For example, it could be used to quickly sift through thousands of fingerprints more quickly than existing solutions and certainly more quickly than a human. In some ways this is very similar to the classification technology discussed in the CommonSpace article.  Here, the controversay centred on the misclassification of a photo of a black family having a picnic. I don't think anyone is callling for this technology to be retracted or banned. Even if that was a view, how can technology be undone?  The questions really centre on the use cases of technology. Will we use it to gather government statistics, to grant a bank loan, as court evidence, to control access to buildings, to formulate law and policy etc?  It's the use case that matters, not the technology itself.

Let's go a step further and imagine I am the developer of FingerMaticMagicMate and I'm trying to sell it to the Scottish court system.  I'm going to make all sorts of claims about its efficacy.  I'm going  to boast that in trials it was found to be 25% better than experts. What are the ethics of using this technology in court?  Just as with DNA evidence, it first has to be proved that my claims are true. Moreover, it needs to be proved that the claims remain true when deployed in the field.  More than that, it needs to be proved that the software will never suffer from maintenance bugs that intermittently derail large projects long after deployment.  Will that be enough? Not really because there also needs to be a trail of responsibility when the process goes badly wrong, which it inevitably will. Who will be held responsible for mistakes? Will it be the developers of the software or the users of the software?  What sanctions will be in place?  How do we formulate good practice? How do we interpret statistical errors and assign thresholds to the statistics of a match? These are all questions for domain experts rather than a non-expert Citizen AI Assembly.  Can we expect the Citizen AI Assembly to become experts in legal philosophy and practice as well as software quality and validation? That was a rhetorical question. 

There are more complicated issues surrounding FingerMaticMagicMate.  Let's imagine it was initially used merely to sift through fingerprints on record.  Even with this limited deployment there are still real problems in the event that FingerMaticMagicMate makes a category error, even if it makes fewer mistakes than existing technology.  We can easily imagine innocent people being called in to police stations for questioning as well as career criminals not being brought to justice. The question here is what error rate is acceptable?  Should the system favour false positives or negatives? How do we determine that the technology delivers on its strict requirements? What about the costs?  FingerMaticMagicMate is uniquely scalable in that the error can be reduced but at increased operational cost. Who decides the cost/benefit ratio? Are these questions for domain experts or a non-expert Citizen AI Assembly? That was also a rhetorical question.

Up In The Air

Every time you step on an aeroplane, software starts to fly the plane, controls the flow of diesel, and checks the on-board sensors to detect issues as they arise.  If this goes wrong people can die. What could be more ethical than that?  How can we have confidence that the software on an aeroplane successfully achieves its stated goals of not killing anyone? The answer is regulatory standards.

Standards are really complicated because they are specific to each domain.  Aerospace software has an unbelievably rigid set of standards: it must never allocate memory, it must run bit-by-bit identically on multiple hardware (RISC and MIPS, I think, but I'm open to correction) simultaneously; each change needs to be reviewed by committtee and undergo a minimum number of hours in live test without incident. A change to a single line of code can cost  tens of millions of dollars.  Companies developing and maintaining this software need to abide by internationally agreed development standards. If they don't but claim they have then they will end up broke and in prison.

The thing about domain standards is that each domain has its own particular worries. Each domain also has its own view on cost/benefit and best practice.  I doubt if medical software cares particularly about memory allocations but it certainly will care about the openness of the test regime.  That test regime will pull in complex questions concerning medical ethics.  Are we going to bring complex questions of medical ethics to the attention of the Citizen AI Assembly, too?

We've probably all read about self-driving cars. They are also being developed to standards laid down by regulators. These standards are incredibly complex and range from memory access patterns in on-board sensors to validation models to test drives covering millions of miles without incident. To be honest, I'm not keen on pulling in non-experts to any of this because I very much want to stay alive.


We can't forget politics.  I predict we will soon see smart-traffic control systems that will respond in real-time to video feeds streamed from traffic lights so that the entire system can adapt to changing conditions on the fly. No more button pressing, no more timing circuits, no more hanging around on an empty street waiting for the green man or waiting at a red in your car at 4am. These systems are going to employ all the latest terrifying AI buzzwords:  unsupervised learning, adversarial networks, data collection, cameras, server farms, and corporations. This is a heady brew.  We will need to start thinking about the impact of this: will we be "better off" with the new system than with the old one? We need to start thinking about how we assess the quality of the system. How, though, do we measure quality?

The quality of the system is how well it improves traffic management. Is that a satisfactory answer?  Well, no, it isn't because everything is a trade-off against everything else. We can minimise accidents but that might lead to slower traffic and a build-up of pollution and less time to spend money in shops.  We can relax the safety restriction to improve the general health of our city centres but how far can we go? This sounds like a politial decision.  The Green Party might prioritise pollution over commerce; the Tory Party might prioritise commerce and cars over pedestrian waiting times; Labour might worry about whether the project was developed by a Venezuelan socialist collective.  The definition of "best" and "better" is inherently political.  We already have a system for making political decisions on relative priorities: it is called the General Election (and council elections and elections to the Scottish Parliament).  Introducing a Citizen AI Assembly is an unnecessary distraction.  There is nothing inherent in the politics of AI technology that doesn't also affect the legalisation of cannabis or budgets for cancer treatments or the admissibility of speed camera evidence in UK courts.

If the implementation of "best" is inherently regulatory, then the specification for "best" is inherently political. Which role would the Citizen AI Assembly play?



I want to briefly think about the accountability of a Citzens AI Assembly with a series of questions.

  • Who will appoint the assembly? 
  • Will they be political appointments or appointed by industry or by popular vote? 
  • Will they be fixed-term or life-time appointments?  
  • Will be there be a necessary minimum qualification?  How would we assess that? 
  • How will we limit corporate lobbying when we also need their expertise?  
  • How do we stop the party system influencing the assembly?  Do we even want to do that? 
  • What if the assembly rejects or ignores internationally agreed standards?  
  • How do we stop the assembly becoming domain experts over time and merely reflecting the views of industry experts? 
  • What powers do we give the assembly? 
  • Can the assembly overrule political and budgetary decisions? 
  • How do we hold the assembly to account? 



One of the outcomes of Brexit is that I've become so much more aware of the way in which expertise is formally deployed to shape the modern world through domain regulators and expert committees.  The daily business of  government is rarely performed by an elected official. Instead, government is often  a function of administrative appointments, expert committees, privvy councillors, and the charity commission, to name just a few in the UK.  Brexit is a cry to bring an end to this arrangement to bring power back to the people but without thinking about the reasons why the world ended up being as complicated and expert-driven as it is.  Domain regulation and the feedback system of political accountability may be imperfect but it has done a great job at keeping us all alive.

The downside of the opaque world of expertise is that the electorate often don't really understand why the world is as it is.  Faith in our institutions is at an all-time low.  Brexit has opened up a clear divide between the centrists and a bizarre political alliance of left and right.  If you're on the far left or the far right then you likely have an issue with the established order of experts and committees and unelected bureaucrats (why would we elect a bureaucrat?).  There is a belief that they are working to a hidden agenda and their work is routinely misrepresented just as often in The Canary as it is in Breitbart.  For an unfashionable centrist like me, this is worrying. I'm prepared to have faith in our institutions because they have genuinely done a successful job at keeping us all alive and healthy.  I'm certainly more prepared to have faith in our existing institutions than to hand over the keys to a rabble of inexpert opinion. 

If you have the impression that I'm not keen on the idea of an Citizen AI Assembly, you'd be right.   If our institutions lack transparency then make them more transparent.  If they are poor at communicating then hire a PR firm to help them out. If "the people" don't understand the software maturity model then print a government leaflet laying out the principles. Let's do any of things but please, please don't appoint a Citizen AI Assembly because, as with Brexit, we should always be careful what we wish for.

Over and out,


PS We could, of course, eventually replace the Citizen AI Assembly with an AI. They would be driven by a metric that optimises for the adoption of expert opinion. Who watches the watchers, eh?

PPS I didn't mention sex robots once.  Howzat for discipline?

PPPS Imagine we let a Citizen Assembly let loose on anti-terrorist security or medical ethics or put them in charge of buying cancer drugs that have yet to prove their efficacy?  Just imagine that for a second. And relax.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Our First Act of Foreign Policy

There's a right old stooshie going on at the moment about Yessers disgust at the Peoples Vote campaign.  I want to use this post to ask fellow Yessers to look beyond the end of their nose and think about what is in their own interests and how best they might achieve the optimum result for themselves.  It probably doesn't involve slagging off a campaign that is acting in your own interest, even if it comes from a radically different perspective.  If we're going to think like an independent nation then we need to start formulating some foreign policy. Sometimes, that means holding your nose. Right, get those fingers on your nose, pinch and simply enjoy. [Previous versions of this introductory paragraph were uncharacteristically angry and impolite. In the end, I opted for a shorter edit without the anger and impolite statements. Nevertheless, I am hopping mad and there is some foul language right at the end.]

The Peoples Vote campaign had a demo in Edinburgh last Saturday (18/8/2018).   The organisers, however, made a colossal error of judgement in the way they pitched this to the assembled crowd. They forgot that Scotland is divided along Yes/No to a much greater extent than it is divided along Remain/Leave.  In doing so, they turned up in Edinburgh with exactly the same message that will have played so well in rUK:  we love the EU because we love the UK.  Speakers like Rory Bremner, Menzies Campbell and Gavin Esler were wheeled out to support this core message. Just in case anyone doesn't know, this trio were all active participants in the No campaign in 2014.  Had I been there, I'm pretty certain I would have scarpered sharpish. I wouldn't, however, have taken to social media to proclaim that I want no part in a 2nd EU ref. I would merely have stated that Peoples Vote ballsed it up because that is what they did. They royally ballsed it up to a sparse crowd.

Why do I support a 2nd EU ref?  Well, I support it because Scotland will leave the EU on 29 March, 2019.  That is in just 7 months time.  It is imminent. The clock is ticking. I don't want Scotland to leave the EU under any circumstances because it makes the lives of friends and family so much harder. There also remains a significant threat of a disorderly Brexit.  This threatens the legal order that underpins civil society.  What does that mean for my parents?  For emergency care?  For the supply of basic provisions? If that isn't enough, I have personal concerns.  There is a real possibility that travel to the country of my birth will be impossible.  Planes and trains could all be at a standstill because the established order that lays out legal obligation and responsibility will be void.  In that event, families, friends and couples will be in a hellish limbo.  What if I need to get back in a hurry? Well, I won't be going anywhere in a hurry if that happens.  Then there are the rights of the 4 million humans inadvertently caught up in this mess.  What about them?  Nobody has yet secured any rights for the 4 million.  A disorderly Brexit will trample all over them.  Brexit is a calamity.  If you're Scottish, stopping it is the right thing to do because it is going to happen to you just as it will to everyone else.

Independence is a long way off.  There are no signs that Nicola Sturgeon will disclose her intentions for indyref2 any time soon.  If she was going to kickstart the process during the October conference season then she'd be laying the groundwork right now.  She'd be making a push for the benefits of independence, softening the public mood, giving out little hints here and there.  None of those things are happening.  An independence referendum is not yet on the horizon.  Sure, if she makes a shock announcement in a few months time then Yessers ought to prioritise their time and resources.  With indyref2 on a ticking clock it makes sense to campaign for it rather than EURef2. But Nicola Strugeon hasn't yet done that and I don't think it will happen for the rest of the calendar year. In the meantime, Brexit is hanging over us. An impending calamity is hanging over every resident in Scotland. We cannot pretend that it doesn't affect us.  It is happening. Imminently.

Let's start thinking about the foreign policy of iScotland. What would we want for our neighbours that would be in our own interests?  Top of the list is that rUK remains as closely bound to the EU as possible.  The further that rUK drifts off into a regulatory mid-Atlantic, the harder Scotland-in-EU becomes.   If Brexit  threatens Scotland's devolution settlement then it sure as hell poses a risk to the practicalities of independence. A regulatory border with rUK will be a gift to Unionists in the indyref campaign.  They will wheel it out at  regular intervals because it poses a real problem and because the threats of a hard border with rUK will no longer be threats. If we get over the winning line (and let's hope that we do) then we need to deal with the very real problems at the regulatory, customs, and legal border that we will be required to erect.  To be honest, Scotland-in-EU may no longer be a practical outcome.  We might instead be looking at Scotland-in-EEA.  It is doubly hard to campaign for an outcome with that level of uncertainty.  It is in our interests for rUK to remain tightly bound to the EU.

What is the Peoples Vote really about?  Well, I don't think it's really about having a 2nd EU referendum.  There are no available mechanisms for there to hold a 2nd EU referendum before the UK exits the EU by the automatic process of law.  We can look to parliament all we like but the political capital and collective competence required to legislate for a referendum that undermines the "will of the people" is simply not there.  The outcome of the Peoples Vote campaign will be to shift the Overton window so that the general public starts to think that a clean break from the EU might not be such a smart move after all.  Despite the debacle in Edinburgh, they're actually doing a great job.  This is important because the "will of the people" mandate will expire on 29 March, 2019, when the UK formally leaves  the EU.  Parliament ought to feel able to re-exert its authority after that date.  We need to remember that the future UK/EU relationship is undecided. Discussions will only begin after the UK actually leaves the EU and enters the limbo of the standstill arrangement provided for by the Withdrawal Agreement.  There is a real chance that the UK enters a semi-permanent standstill arrangement that will solidify over the passing years.  This is exactly what Yessers want for all the reasons I described above. This outcome is more likely if campaigners successfully seed a public meme that it is ok to change your mind.

What is the ideal outcome for Yessers?  Indyref2 right now depends on the UK departing the EU.  After all, this is exactly the red line laid down by the First Minister.  She made it clear that Scotland has to choose between UK and EU membership.  The UK will almost certainly leave the EU. As a consequence, there is a political requirement for Scotland to have a say on its preferred outcome. The problem then is that independence becomes so much harder if rUK substantively exits the EU.  Our ideal outcome is that rUK formally leaves the EU but remains forever in its orbit. The Peoples Vote campaign is helping to make that happen.

Foreign policy is a brutal world.  It involves doing things you don't want to do in order to achieve higher priority goals. We may find the Peoples Vote campaign bizarrely rUK-centric but they are actually helping us achieve our higher priority goals. There is no point in deriding their tactics if the outcome is to your liking. To do so would be stupid and childish and short-sighted. Ignore them if you want, politely point out that their message plays badly north of the border, spend your time on other activities.  But saying that you won't participate in a 2nd EU referendum?  For fuck's sake, that is mindless idiocy.

Over and out,


PS Too angry for a pop video today.  Next time.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Echo's Answer

How's that campaign for another EU referendum going?  Not that any one asked me but I'd say it's going pretty well. The people behind it are doing a great job.  It's gaining real traction among Labour's membership, MPs and the general public.  It's certainly no longer a taboo. It is, however, something that leaves me in two minds. Let's find out what's bugging me, even though nobody asked.

The Peoples' Vote campaign are keen to point out that they are not suggesting a rerun of the 2016 referendum. Leavers, of course, have a valid argument when they say that a rematch is hardly democratic.  This time the referendum will be on the final settlement negotiated by the UK and the EU.  The Peoples' Vote campaign proposes that the choice ought to be between the final deal and Remain.  It sounds sensible at first but when I found out that people like John Redwood suggested this back in 2012 something started to gnaw away at my brain. What's wrong with this suggestion?  Quite a lot, as it turns out. We're going to learn that John Redwood is a certified idiot.

What is the point of having a referendum?  In a representative democracy the point of having a referendum is to let the people decide what parliament cannot.  Scottish independence is a good example.  Westminster does not have a mandate to make decisions about the future of Scotland because it represents the whole of the UK rather than a single component country.  The same is true of the recent referendum about appointing English city mayors. What else might parliament not be mandated to decide?  I suppose we might look at fundamental constitutional questions like how the public vote for MPs. The question now is whether Westminster should be throwing the final deal to the demos.  To answer that we need to look at the final deal.

What exactly is this final deal that everyone bangs on about?  Well, to be honest, there isn't very much to it.  In fact, its main function is to provide for a continuity of the UK's commitments.  The Withdrawal Agreement makes provisions for citizens' rights, it details the ongoing financial commitments the UK made to the EU budget and it lays out a set of minimum requirements to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and the all-Ireland economy.  Any real contention is limited to the standstill arrangement that will hold the UK in the EU's orbit until December, 2020.  There is nothing new here, certainly nothing that falls outside the reponsibility of Westminster. The final deal is symbolically important but the details ought to be meat and two veg for MPs.  If Westminster feels unable to make a decision about the contents of the final deal then it should throw open every decision to a public vote. 

The problem with the final deal is that it isn't the final deal.  The final deal will only emerge in about 5-10 years time, long after the UK has departed the EU. It will be insanely complex and will cover almost every area of our lives.  To be honest, I don't think there ever will come a point in time when we stare at a document and label it "the final deal". Even if that did happen, I'm not certain that asking the people for their comment is a particularly good idea. If Brexit taught us one thing it's that a sizeable chunk of the UK has no idea how their own country functions and no interest whatsoever in the rest of the world.

Let's imagine that enough MPs agreed that another EU referendum would be a good idea?  What would they do?  Well, they would push primary legislation through Westminster to hold a referendum. But what sort of referendum? Hmm. This is where it gets tricky.  As an example, there's been a lot of legitimate complaint that the franchise was too limited last time.  It failed to give the vote to UK citizens abroad and to EU citizens in the UK. There's an obvious inconsistency in that the franchise was based on neither residence nor citizenship but a weird mix of the two. This needs resolved, even though the people who messed it up last time  remain in charge of the process.

Let's try hard to imagine that the buffoons in Westminster get their shizzle together and solve the franchise question. What next?  They'll need to choose a date. It will need to be a date before the UK departs the EU.  Nobody thinks this is possible on the current timetable. Parliament will need to pass a vote forcing the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the A50 process.  In case anyone hasn't noticed, parliament is not able to make this kind of bold decision any more because it feels compelled to serve the "will of the people".

How's your imagination quotient getting alone? Please try hard, summon up your reserves.  Let's suppose that our brave MPS sort out the time limitations and the government successfully negotiates an A50 extension with the EU. I don't know about you but I'm flagging now. Onwards, let's carry on! The next job will be to legally provide for a fair and democratic referendum that avoids the cavalcade of lies and corruption that we saw last time. To do that they will need to recognise the problems of 2016. Leave MPs will need to admit to themselves that they are prone to telling lies, that they cheat, that Leave campaigners channeled Russian money to distort a democratic event, that the data privacy of UK citizens was compromised, that racism and xenophobia were dominant campaign instruments. The poor poppets are going to be emotionally exhausted with all that self-awareness going on.  Even if they recognise all of that they will need to proceed to rigorously legislate against a repeat. Crucially, that means that the outcome needs to be legally contingent on the democratic standards that lead to it.

There's a bit more work to do with the outcome of the referendum.  Will it be advisory or will it be binding?  If the referendum is advisory and Remain wins we'll just end up exactly where we are today:  the poor loves in Westminster will be in a right tizzy about what to do. As a consequence, the referendum will have to be binding, subject to legal challenges on campaign standards. What are the chances of that happening?  Hmm, close to zero.  We're going to end up with another advisory referendum followed by months and years of cowardly indecision.

Despite everything I just wrote, I support a second referendum.  I need to be honest with myself and recognise that it will be a rematch, that it will be every bit as dirty as the first. We will retread exactly the same arguments as last time because the arguments for leaving and remaining are the same today as they were in June, 2016.  It will be a dirty referendum filled with lies and racism and corrupt money because parliament is unlikely to do anything to prevent it and is anyway so completely useless that any attempt it does make will just make matters worse.  Leave will reckon they can win second time round.  After all, they overturned a bigger majority last time than the meagre few percent loss they are faced with today.  They will set out to win it using every dirty trick they can muster.

I'm not selling this second referendum very well.  It sounds perfectly awful, doesn't it? Why do I support this charade?   Well, I support it because I worry about my elderly parents in Scotland and what the calamity of Brexit means for their well-being.  I support it because I no longer care about the democratic voice of Leavers too ignorant to understand numbers and words, too obsessed with white English identity to make a rational decision.  I support it because it simplifies the question of Scottish independence. I support it because Brexit is a calamity implemented by a government intent on calamity. I support it because Parliament has abandoned reason. I support it because it can be won. I support a second referendum because there is nothing to lose. 

Over and out,


PS I can also support it because the probability of having to deal with the moral conundrums of a 2nd referendum remains vanishingly small.

PPS The distance of the "final deal" is surely the source of the First Minister's prevarication on holding an independence referendum.  Maybe this should be a separate post.  

Thursday, 26 July 2018

On Tour

You might have noticed that I am now a blogging superstar I have cast off the shackles of this tragic corner of the internet and forged ahead with publications in esteemed journals. My head has expanded to a size that prevents entry to my own place of dwelling, which, of course, is a palatial mansion commensurate with the power of the written word of Terry Entoure. I shall now demand respect to the degree that I exude authority.  You're going to need to sit up straight when you're reading this blog.  Sit up straight, goddamit!  And smarten up your attire while you're at it! Yes, I mean you!  If there's another break in blogging then it will probably be because the New York Times are on the blower, pleading for a scholarly article about EFTA/EEA. Hang on just a sec, I've got Kofi Anan on line 2. Back in 5.  "Kofi!  Thats right, I'm a superstar. Everybody wanna come up when I'm at the bar."

Ok, enough with the hilarious japes.  I wrote an article for Commonspace and duly sent it in. They went right ahead and published it, to my complete and utter surprise.  I'd always assumed you needed to be plugged into the world of campaigning and politics to get an article published there.  It turns out that was a completely false assumption.  If you want to say something, particularly now that they've turned off comments, the right of reply is in the form of 600-800 words posted to an email address.  It is impossible to fault the policy, even if a few of those 600-800 word collections are not the greatest collections of 600-800 words committed to pixel form.  I'm genuinely grateful to Commonspace for giving me the freedom to air my thoughts in their, erm, common space.

If you're a regular read of this blog then you'll know that personal exasperation comes in the form of falsehoods, misunderstandings and dissembling about the EU.  Over the last year or so I've seen serious commentators suggest iScotland should reject EU membership because
  1. Yanis Varoufakis said something in a book
  2. There is a warped perception that the EU is failing Catalonia and thereby enabling fascism
  3. The EU is a neoliberal conspiracy ran for and by German bankers
  4. Joining the EU is too hard
  5. EFTA is a much better option if we just want "access to the free market"
  6. The EU has a selective approach to human rights that is corrupted by greed
  7. The EU's accession process is unfair - membership should be automatic
  8. Scots are radical socialists at heart and we ought to build socialism in one country
  9. Some people in the SNP just don't like the EU
  10. EEA is a better solution but only as long as it provides continuity of customs arrangements
My patience snapped (again) after reading a recent article, also posted on Commonspace.  The article made 3 of the 10 points listed above in a rather confusing argument that Scotland should join EFTA. It played fast and loose with terminology, introduced its very own lexicon and made no substantive argument for its preferred choice.  At the end, I was none the wiser about what the author was advocating.  Anyone rightly confused with the dizzying array of acronyms surrounding the EU will have finished the article even more confused. After a short twitter exchange I took up a suggestion to write something in response.

I wanted to say something concrete about the choices on offer and the pros and cons of each and how the matrix of tradeoffs can dramatically shift due to circumstances beyond our control.   I also wanted to hint that we should perhaps start concentrating on selfishly achieving the best outcome for ourselves and worry less about perceived injustices that happened (or not) to others. The simple truth is that  there's not enough talk about tangible outcomes when EU and EEA are discussed in the context of iScotland. Instead of talking about what's best for Scotland, the debate quickly switches to Catalonia (?) and then the Greek sovereign debt crisis (?) and then back to Catalonia again (??).  There will probably be a cherry-picked quote from Guy Verhofstadt, avowed enemy of self determination and evil overlord of the super-state, thrown in for good measure.  If you're completely out of luck you'll be met with a barrage of tinfoilhattery about neoliberal conspiracies.  Something that ought to be transactional finds itself mixed up with misplaced identity and emotion. I find this unbelievably infuriating. It's really not many who are guilty of this but they have very terribly loud and persistent voices that bellow out from columns in national newspapers.

I also wanted to point out that, contrary to popular opinion, EFTA is not engineered to be a holding pen for countries that can't decide their regulatory future.  Countries that can't decide their future will struggle in the present - if they can't make a long-term commitment then why would anybody else?  It's ok to make the wrong decision and correct that later but it's not ok to fanny around indecisively.  That sort of behaviour has a tendency to destroy goodwill.  Just look at Brexit for thousands of corroborating data points.

When I started this blog I was clear in my mind that EU membership was the best choice. Having spent two years attempting to get my head round it, I now honestly have no idea what is the best choice.  That's Brexit progress in a nutshell: never-ending complexity and prevarication. Despite that, a choice needs to be made and we need to commit to that choice.  In order to do that we need to properly understand the problem and its immediacy. I wanted to say something about that, too. This is a very, very boring topic.  I didn't say that, though.

This blog can sometimes feel like a lonely voice shrieking in the wind.  I tried to do something.  I probably failed. But at least I tried.

 Over and out,


PS I'm not going to make a habit of sending articles to Commonspace or anything like that.   I'll be far too busy with my book deal.

PPS Nobody has ever actually said outright that we need to build socialism in one country but it is the logical conclusion of radical socialist Yessers who want to leave all "neoliberal" institutions.

PPPS At least the meme that a EU border can remain open, independent of what's on the other side, has died.  If anyone wants to find out what happens to open borders on EU accession just look at the Poland/Ukraine border.  Poland did not volunteer this.

PPPPS During my recent extended break from blogging I received some  really lovely emails wondering if everything was ok.  I'm afraid I didn't respond to them in a timely manner because I also took a break from my gmail account. Thank you all.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

To The Lifeboats, As Quick As You Can

A recent headline in a Swiss tittle-tattle newspaper caught my eye. The headline declared that sales of inflatable dinghies are through the roof. It turns out that Swiss people are buying inflatable dinghies at higherto unimaginable rates. They jump in their dinghies on hot days and float down the river. Pages 2 and 3 were devoted to the most popular dinghies, where to buy them, the most popular routes and tips for keeping your beer at the perfect temperature. I live beside a river and see this all the time. Some people opt to dispense with the dinghy altogether and just float along with the current. They float along the Limmat river to a town called Dietikon, where they board the train back to Zurich and begin all over again. Being cursed with Scottish skin I have to be super careful in the sun so I've never done this myself. On the really hot days I tend to go for hikes through the woods in the Jura hills. With everyone splashing around far away in the river it's quiet enough to hear the wild boar honking away in the distance. 

Switzerland flooded by rubber boats!
I know this is a stupid, nothingy article but it caught my attention because summer is the time for stupid, nothingy articles. We're supposed to read frothy nonsense in the summer because it is a time when our lives are hopefully filled with frothy nonsense. If I cast my eye towards the UK I see a completely different picture. What I see over there is a country losing its collective mind. Tittle-tattle newspapers in the UK are full of stories about saboteurs and traitors; violent racists are taking to the streets in numbers not seen since the late 70s; there are marches and demonstrations and political uncertainty. The unthinkable is being thought on a daily basis. How could two countries be so different?

It's summer so let's see some of those Jura hills for good measure.
Switzerland is not immune to the recent rise in populist politics. Despite that, I am not terribly concerned. There are a few reasons for this but they all boil down to the way that power is distributed through discrete and separate layers of governance and then overseen by powerful institutions. It is very hard to "hack" Switzerland because it would involve "hacking" the Community, the Canton, the Federal Government, Swiss courts, Swiss institutions and the Constitution itself. If we ask who is in charge of Switzerland then we'll be starting a complicated debate that will never come to a firm conclusion. It might be reasonable to suggest that the people are in charge in a direct democracy. However, even that would be the wrong answer because there is no legal obligation to implement the text of a referendum question. It is merely the case that the government has to respond to the referendum within a timeframe and that parliament must ratify the proposal. We saw that with a recent referendum on immigration that aimed to impose a quota on EU nationals. The outcome was an enormous fudge that signally failed to impose a quota on EU nationals. Parliament took the view that nobody voted to trigger the guillotine clause in the EU/Swiss bi-laterals because that would have led to the closing of the border and left everyone poorer. Nobody ever votes to be poorer, except in the UK.

In Switzerland no single person can be said to be in charge. In the UK, however, the Prime Minister is most definitely in charge. The Prime Minister is in charge but subject to the approval of Parliament. The system in the UK works because there are discrete layers of scrutiny provided by the two separate chambers. If Parliament is to to give or withhold permission for any of the government's actions then it can only do so if it feels that it has the power to do that. What we're seeing now is that Parliament no longer feels it has the permission or the power to do any of that. MPs are enfeebled because they are held hostage to the will of the people. This is a genuine constitutional crisis aggravated by the weakness of the UK's institutions and a sorry lack of a codified constitution.

What is the point of a referendum? Why have one at all? The point of a referendum is to let the people decide that which parliament cannot. Scottish independence is a perfect example. Parliament does not feel it has the power to make decisions for Scotland because it is configured to oversee UK-wide policy choices. What about Brexit? This is surely a job for Parliament. If Parliament does not feel emboldened to make basic decisions about immigration or foreign policy or the regulation of digital payment systems then we are in serious trouble. Hang on, that is exactly what is happening right now. We are in serious trouble.

The EU referendum took power from parliament. The result, meanwhile, stopped Parliament taking that power back. It's worse than that, though, because Parliament was a willing supplicant in all of this. Parliament voted to let the people decide on policy areas that ought to be the meat and veg of an MP's professional life. In doing so, it signalled that it no longer wanted to have power over these policy areas. The result of the referendum was a signal to Parliament that it had been habitually making the wrong decision, that it cannot trust itself to fulfill its democratic role. We are in serious trouble.

There have been many calls for a second referendum on the EU. I'm in two minds about this, if I'm honest. I actually want Parliament to reassert its authority because democracy depends upon it. We're in a situation where democracy itself is failing on a daily basis and the repercussions of that are much, much bigger than Brexit or an unwanted visit by Donald Trump. A second referendum would be another kick in the teeth for parliamentary sovereignty. It will be an admission that parliament cannot and should not decide anything. A vote to Remain might solve the immediate crisis but create another one even bigger than the first. A vote to Leave, of course, just puts up even more firmly in the mire.

We might hope that Parliament will reassert itself when the UK leaves the EU on 29 March, 2019. We might hope that because the "will of the people" ought to expire when the "will of the people" is implemented. When that happens Parliament will have its role restored. Is this likely? I don't think it is. The "will of the people" has been so bent and twisted out of shape that it now means almost anything. In the minds of ardent Brexiters a vote to leave the EU was a vote about ending human rights law, curbing immigration, new forms of fantastical international trade coupled with increased protectionism and an end to technical oversight of digital payment systems. They might have made all this up in their feverish and foolish minds but their arguments have silenced MPs. There is no will of the people to join EEA or to leave it yet Parliament feels that any decision on the pros and cons is beyond its competence. The role of Parliament will not be restored on 29 March, 2019.

Parliament will only have its role restored when it is filled with new MPs elected only after the UK departs the EU. In the meantime, the really big battle over the next few years will be about the UK's future relationship with the EU.   Leaving the EU is a process, a pre-determined procedure albeit one with theatrical flourishes. The UK will leave the EU but it can then embark on a lengthy and costly programme aimed at replicating almost every aspect of membership. It can do that if it is Parliament's will. We can be fairly certain that is Parliament's will because Parliament would never, ever have voted to leave the EU in the first place. It might be Parliament's will but there is close to zero chance that it will exercise its will. Whatever outcome transpires we can be fairly sure that it will be despite Parliament rather than because of it.  The problems  we're seeing now are that none of the available choices can garner the support of MPs because they are cautious to be seen supporting almost anything.

So, I've thought about it a bit and it turns out that I'm all for a second EU referendum. We can already see that Parliament will anyway not reassert itself when it matters. A second EU referendum will hardly make any difference to an institution already battered to death by anti-democratic forces unleashed by Farage and Banks and Wigmore. We might as well have a second EU referendum because it is the only way to avert a disaster and can barely make Parliament any weaker than it already is. If Parliament refuses to decide then we need to decide ourselves. Sure, there are pros and cons but the pros so easily outweight the cons. In snooker terms, it is a shot to nothing. 

What are the chances of a second EU referendum? They are as close to zero as can be measured by a micrometer screw gauge. They are close to zero because Parliament needs to make that decision yet it cannot make any decision lest it undermine the "will of the people". A referendum requires an act of primary legislation to be approved by Parliament. It requires ministerial judgement expressed as secondary legislation and for that to be scrutinised by committees of MPs. It requires a bold move, decisiveness, effective government. We have none of those things. None of these things are likely to emerge in the next few years, either. Yes, I know the timeframe is an issue but the bigger issue is Parliament itself. Parliament is now a casual observer of an unfolding catastrophe that it created back in 2015. We can expect nothing from it. We'll get nothing from it. It might as well cease to exist.  

I set out to consider the merits of a second EU referendum.  Along the way, we discovered that Parliament is a quivering wreck, unable to make any substantive decisions. We discovered that the only escape route is a second referendum but also that any EU referendum requires Parliament to get its act together.  That is not going to happen. There is no path to an orderly Brexit. Crucial deadlines will pass and all we'll have is Labour abstaining and Tories yelling at each other.  What a mess.

A Scottish friend is wary of independence because they look at the fools and blowhards in Scottish politics and conclude that having them in charge would be no better than the status quo.  Back in 2015 I thought that was a powerful argument but with each passing Brexity day it loses its might. If you're minded towards the same argument please cast your eye over Westminster for just 5 minutes and observe the logjam of idiocy and cowardice, xenophobia and nativism. Nothing can be worse than that, not even Scottish Labour.

I'm Scottish. I desperately want Scotland to extricate itself from this quagmire by achieving independence. My wish for Scottish independence is not a wish for anything specific, however. I don't want independence because it will be a socialist utopia and I don't want independence because it will magically unleash a latent business acumen. Right now, I only wish to be a national of a country with a functioning democracy.

Over and out,

PS One of the reasons I support EU membership is that it also distributes power. The question "who is in charge of the EU" is difficult to answer because power is shared through nation states and institutional oversight.  I'm a big fan of this model.

PPS I would hope Scotland would opt for a codified constitution. It's unthinkable that Switzerland would find itself in a Brexit-style mess - its codified constitution is a big part of that. The fixed nature of EU rule-based law is the closest the UK ever got to a codified constitution and we'll quickly learn its value after departure. Suddenly, everything will be up for grabs. Can we expect Parliament to defend our rights? No, because whatever happens we can be fairly certain that Corbyn will abstain.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Europe Is Our Playground

I sometimes wonder what my grandparents would make of my life. My grandfathers both died in the late 60s just before I was born so they never used an ATM or owned a colour television or told the time with a digital watch. They also never got to meet Switzerland's premier Brexit and Scottish independence blogger. That's something we have in common because as I only just scraped in to the top 100 of Swiss-based combination Brexit/Scottish independence blogs I never got an invitation to hang out with the premier league. Sometimes, being snubbed really hurts.

I would imagine my grandparents would be astonished by the modern world. I'm sure they'd be amazed that their offspring would go on to have children with university degrees and do all sorts of crazy nonsense for a job. They would probably wonder why anyone would ever need heterogeneous computing in their lives and I doubt they would understand why anyone would gawp for hours on end at a simulated world that doesn't physically exist.  My grandfathers were both workers in the Glasgow shipyards so it was already quite something for my parents to be allowed to stay at school to sit their Highers before entering the world of work. I know that they prized education very highly so I guess they'd be quite astounded at how quickly my family went from one end of the education spectrum to the other. Society has changed in leaps and bounds. Life today is not as it was 45 years ago. It's much better now.

When I was born the war was just 25 years distant. I would guess my grandfathers would have been pretty suspicious of Germany back in 1970. Even if they'd had the funds to travel abroad, a weekend break in Berlin would not have been on their list. I can't imagine them sipping cappuccinos in Prenzlauer Berg or travelling to Bavaria to see a German/French chanson rockabilly band sing silly songs in a multitude of languages. My grandparent's generation experienced the Luftwaffe bombing the shipyards and their kids were evacuated to farms. They could never have guessed that the spheres of our lives would grow and grow from the streets of Scotstoun until they encompass all of Western Europe, nor that Germany would one day become the de facto leader of the free world. It would have been unimaginable that Scots would look forward to German beer served by Germans in German cafes in Edinburgh and Glasgow. They couldn't have guessed that it would become normal for Scots to have colleagues and friends and partners from all over Europe. The size of our playground was unimaginable when they were alive - what was normal in the 1970s is no longer normal. We are no longer restricted to a few streets, to a handful of trades, to summer holidays in Largs. Everything has changed.

The thought that an Entoure would go to live in the beautiful city of Munich to participate in a pan-European network of quantum physicists would have been utterly fantastical in 1970. Yet that is precisely what happened to me in the mid-90s. Back then, freedom of movement of people was new and the EU had to take steps to encourage its citizens to take advantage of the new freedoms of the post-Maastricht EU. The idea that UK citizens can cross borders and take their professional skills and families wherever they want is commonplace today. Everybody's at it. It is part of our lives. I reckon my grandfathers would never have believed it if they'd been told that their grandchildren would live and work in Europe. If you were lucky in the old days you only really went to Switzerland for tuberculosis treatment. Nowadays, you can come here to hike in the mountains, cycle up a mountain pass or repeatedly bang your head against an office desk while trying to debug a complex software stack. Hah, it's not all good, you know!

Like almost everyone else in Scotland I have uncles and aunts in Canada. That must have been a huge decision because Canada is a long way away and travelling back to Scotland would have been prohibitively expensive. Moving to Canada back then meant a real break from family and friends. I can't really imagine doing that, to be honest. Even today, Canada feels far away. Even if I wanted to go, getting a work visa is non trivial and couples your rights to your employer. It just doesn't feel like my world. My world feels European, not North American. This is something that can't be said enough: we Scots are European. Despite the language difference, Edinburgh has more in common with Zurich than with Toronto. Likewise, Glasgow has more in common with Berlin than with New York.  These homes from home are right on our doorstep, just an hour away. Get it while you can.

The EU has always been so much more than a trading arrangement. It is as much cultural as it is legal and political and commercial. Maybe England doesn't feel culturally European but Scotland most definitely is. Our connections with Europe are going to be weakened when the UK leaves the EU. It will be harder for us to visit them and for them to visit us. It will be harder to live and work in the countries that most share our hopes and fears, who laugh at the things we laugh at, who have the same understanding of life/work balance. It will be harder to fall in love with the people we are most likely to fall in love with. Everywhere we look, barriers are busily being erected to human experience in all its forms. 

Brexit means Scotland can no longer face the European Continent in the way it does now. The freedoms and opportunities and connections we take for granted will simply stop when laws are struck out and treaties annulled and legal barriers erected in their place. I can't begin to express how sad this makes me. A few years ago I walked across a bridge over the Danube from Slovakia to Austria.  No checks, no barriers; just rollerbladers, walkers and cyclists.  The bridge replaced watchtowers and barbed wire that had stopped anyone crossing the border during the Communist years.  Imagine knocking down that bridge today?  Well, that's precisely what the UK is doing and it will affect Scotland most keenly. 

The devolution arrangement we've enjoyed for the past 20 years only makes sense for as long as Scotland and rUK are aligned through shared EU law. Leaving the EU opens the possibility for that alignment to be undermined if Edinburgh makes policy choices that London doesn't. That cannot happen, however, if the UK is to negotiate a post-Brexit path. The United Kingdom will need to become more united if it is to survive the post-Brexit years. After all, the sunny uplands of global trade cannot flourish if the UK has a fractured regulatory framework, if fracking concessions are regional rather than national. It cannot happen if the people of the UK cannot form a binding consensus about the kind of country they want to live in. That means Scotland will need to become more British and less European in its outlook. We will need to align more with our closest geographical partner because we will have fewer opportunities to align with anyone else. If we don't want to align, then we will be forced to do so. Westminster has already made that perfectly clear.

I'm despondent about the future. Europe was our playground but that cannot continue for much longer. Instead, our future is to be confined to the United Kingdom. Our world will shrink, rather than expand. Our world will be a country dominated by a particularly nasty and small-minded strain of English nationalism. It is a world where MPs are traitors and saboteurs, where Ministers of State appropriate unprecedented powers with barely a squeak of protest, where people are berated on the street for speaking a foreign language. It will be a world without space for new ideas, where human rights are a dirty word. It will be a mono-culture that ought to have died in the 1950s.

The freedoms and opportunities brought about by EU membership would, I'm sure, delight my grandparents. They would find it easier to understand the modern world and all of its complexities than to comprehend those who took it all away.

Over and out,


PS I rarely talk about identity on this blog but this post was obviously entirely about identity.  I no longer feel British and soon I will be excluded from the European family of states.  I feel Scottish but there is no Scottish state, I have no Scottish passport. I live in Switzerland, yet I am not Swiss, even though I love living here. Brexit has made me a citizen of nowhere.  Oh, the irony.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Beat The Clock

In the last few months of non-blogging I started to ponder buying an apartment here in Switzerland. I didn't get very far, though. The problem, you see, is that time is running out. A quick calculation revealed that buying a house is not in my financial interests because I will pay less in rent over my remaining lifetime than I would in purchasing equivalent property. It wasn't a huge existential shock or anything like that but it did make me realise that decisions have a time-frame of their very own: miss the deadline and the decision is made for you. It's also too late to become a train driver or a dentist, though neither really appeal. Being closer to 50 than 40 means it is probably too late to have a family because I don't want to be an almost codger, complaining about my dodgy knees when my kids want to be chased around the park. I don't mourn any of that but I do have to reflect that I've rarely actively taken decisions. Apart from the decision to leave academic research and then later on to move to Switzerland, I've pretty much drifted through life. I'd say everything turned out well but it isn't advice I'd pass on to the younger me because it could have been very different if luck hadn't been on my side.

Why am I banging on about life decisions and their timeline? Well, it's already too late for Brexit. The UK will leave the EU on whatever terms the EU believes benefit the EU most. That will happen because the UK has failed to reach a single decision. It has failed to make any decisions because half of the government (and the opposition) refuse to admit the trade-offs involved, while the other half are still trying to understand the issue in any meaningful way at all. The EU, meanwhile, has gone right ahead with writing up the Withdrawal Agreement. They will present that to the UK and the UK will either capitulate or repeat the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal. Given that the UK has failed to make the decisions required for no-deal we can be certain that they will capitulate. The decision will be made by the EU on behalf of the UK. This is what taking back control looks like.

Scotland also has a decision to make. It needs to decide whether it wants to remain in the UK or the EU. Is time running out? Yes, it certainly is and if we don't make a decision in time then, just as it was for my property-magnate fantasies and with Brexit, it will be made for us. It will be made for us by Westminster who will choose that Scotland remains part of the UK. They will choose that because it also involves no decision at all.

Indecision will be the undoing of independence. We're getting perilously close to the end of the countdown clock without a solution to the conundrum.  Everyone on the indy side agrees that there is a political mandate for an independence referendum during the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament had a vote on this very issue. That mandate will end when the current Scottish Parliament ends in 2021. At the time of writing, that is just short of 3 years into the future. Plenty of time, right? Wrong.

How long does it take to organise a referendum? 3 weeks? 3 months? 1 year? 18 months? We've seen quite a few hasty referendums in the last few years. First off, there was a referendum in the Crimea that was organised in around 12 weeks. Does anyone think that upheld the highest standards of democracy? Let's face it, it was a sham, the very opposite of a democratic event. The Catalonian referendum was barely better. It was a badly managed referendum with insufficient time for voter registration, poor ballot box security,  lack of voter anonymity and allowed multiple votes to be cast at multiple voting points. It cannot be said to have upheld high standards of democracy, even before Rajoy's goons came along and needlessly broke it up. I don't want any of that to happen in Scotland because stable democracy can never flourish from an undemocratic event. If we are to have a 2nd indy ref then I'd like to see it uphold the highest standards of democracy. To do otherwise is to guarantee a poor outcome, no matter which way the vote goes.

Let's imagine we were all tasked with setting up a referendum. What steps might be required? Well, the first thing we need to do is decide the question. How might we do that? Well, we might invite interested groups to submit questions they believe sum up the choices on offer. Some will want the question to be skewed towards a Yes for change, others might want it skewed towards a Yes for the status quo. "Scotland should be an independent country" is quite different from "Scotland should remain part of the UK", even if they both lead to the same outcome. "Scotland should remain in a)UK b) EU" is a completely different question. Choosing the question requires studies on the political bias of words, reports being drawn up and distributed, and rounds of negotiated compromise. That won't happen in 3 weeks.

Who will get to vote in this referendum? 16-18 year olds? EU nationals? EU nationals with permanent residence status? Scots living outside Scotland? How do we define Scots living outside Scotland? We won't decide any of that in 3 months. What steps will be made to ensure that everyone in the chosen franchise has adequate opportunity to register to vote? TV adverts? Leaflets? Social media campaigns? Should those be in Gaelic? German? Polish? We won't do any of that in 6 months.

What about democratic legitimacy? We really do need the referendum to have democratic legitimacy because without that it will be all too easily contested (or just ignored) by anyone unhappy with the outcome. To be honest, if Rajoy wasn't an authoritarian blowhard he would have done exactly that. All of this means that the referendum must be backed by the authority of primary legislation. We could easily start a debate about whether or not that can come from the Scottish Parliament or must come from Westminster. The problem is that independence is most easily achieved with the cooperation of Westminster.  For example, to be an independent nation we first need to be accepted into the UN.  That will be impossible to do if a permanent member of the UN Security Council gives us the status of a breakaway territory akin to Abkhazia or Transistria.  I am, of course, arguing that the best outcome starts with an act of Westminster primary legislation. How long will that take? I'm sure everyone has noticed that Westminster is preoccupied with Brexit and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. How's that project estimate getting along? 12 months minimum, I'd say. That sounds about right because the 2014 referendum took 18 months from its first announcement to the day of the referendum itself.

Let's say that a concerted political and diplomatic effort to stage an indy ref began with immediate effect. What dates might work? Given that the 2014 indy ref took 18 months to organise we might set the earliest date to be October, 2019.  For perspective, that will be 6 months after the UK has left the EU by the automatic process of law. The UK might already be rapidly diverging from EU and EEA membership criteria. If we're being honest, and despite the urgency, October, 2019 is an unrealistic target because both parliaments are about to close for an extended summer break. Let's reschedule for December, 2019. Nope, Christmas is in the way. We can also rule out January and February, 2020 because they would involve campaigns that overlap with the New Year. Right, then, March 2020, one full year after the UK leaves the EU. Yes, the earliest achievable opportunity to have an indy ref is March, 2020. What is the latest opportunity? To avoid interference with the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, the latest opportunity is around March, 2021. We need to be aware, though, that the proposed post-Brexit standstill arrangement will end on December, 2020. It is imperative to complete the indy ref before that date. I think we have our window of opportunity: March, 2020 to November, 2020.

If March, 2020 only happens if diplomatic and political efforts begin with immediate effect, then it follows that November, 2020 only happens if that effort begins in the next 8 months or so.  Time has already run out on Brexit.  We can no longer have an indy ref before the UK departs the EU.  We can still have an indy ref before the UK substantively leaves EU regulation but that windows closes in just 8 months time.  I wasn't kidding when I said that time is running out. 

Over and out,


PS The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe are clear that a referendum ought to have a 12 month life-cycle.  All details here.

PPS There is an excellent discussion of the Electoral Commission's formulation of the EU referendum question in "Brexit Time" by Kenneth Armstrong.  If you ever wondered why the words "Remain" and "Leave" were on the ballot paper then go ahead and get the book.  Still not convinced?  Well, if you  want to know why 16-18 year olds were denied the vote then go ahead and get the book. Still not convinced?  IT HAS AN ENTIRE CHAPTER TITLED "LITIGATING BREXIT".  I don't know why I bother with you people.

PPPS I took liberties with the actualite in my opening paragraph.  Mortgages here are effectively indefinite loans and only the very rich plan to complete repayment.  A 30% deposit is the norm and many opt for the minimum of interest repayments.  The owned portion of a house is subject to a tax on the theoretical rent and calculated as though it was extra income.  The intention, of course, is to prevent property speculation.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Whack-A-Mole Brexit

I blogged quite a while back that Brexit has become repetitive.  It is turning into a game of political whack-a-mole with the same issues turning up one after another on repeat.  Back when I started blogging the whack rate was just one or two shrews a month but as we progress to the more advanced stages of the Brexit process the game has become faster and faster.  It's now progressing at a rate way, way beyond the capacity of amateur bloggers.  The palette of issues and conundrums, however, remains exactly the same as it was back in July, 2016.  We are metaphorically bashing away at the same moles with the same word hammers.  The only difference between then and now is that nowadays we can go through several cycles of the entire mole genus before I've even written the introduction to a blog post.  It moves dangerously fast yet stands entirely still.  And it just goes on (and on and on).

Since I last blogged I had another attempt at trying to understand Labour policy on Brexit. I'm afraid to say that I had to abandon that one, too.  I need to accept defeat and admit that I have failed to decypher any semblance of rationality in their brainwrong gibberish.  More than that, though, in order to show just how off-the-chart they are on the bizarro-grotesque scale I need to bore everyone with a summary of basic rules about the WTO and and Most Favoured Nation status.  I can't be bothered writing it and I'm equally certain that nobody else can be bothered reading it. We've done all of this before on many, many occasions. Besides, anyone who reads this blog has already worked all this out for themselves. Do we need to do it again?  It's fun to have a right old laugh at the Labour Party but, as you might have guessed it, I'm not really in the mood for that.

If you're getting the impression that I'm fed up with Brexit then you'd be absolutely right.  I am fed up with it.  I got so fed up with it that I wrote about half of a post about the woeful state of journalism at The National.  Howzat for brinksmanship?  Honestly, The National suffers from utterly, utterly dreadful journalism.  Its deficiencies range from the most basic level of fact-checking all the way up to its ability to edit copy into words, sentences and paragraphs . It was kind of exciting to have a fresh topic until I remembered that I'd kind of done that already. Besides, is there value in attacking a newspaper that nobody ever reads?  I don't think there is so the post remains unfinished and unpublished. It shall stay that way.

Well, what shall I blog about?  Can I really put together an entire post about nothing at all?  Yes, I certainly can and it won't be the first time, either.  That's right, even a post about absolutely nothing turns out to be a sad repeat.  We are stuck on repeat.  We are so stuck on repeat that a link to the pop video "Stuck on Repeat" by Little Boots would be a repeat.  Even the jokes about repeats are repeats. There's a danger that Brexit will lead us into a recursive mirror world where our own reflection will eerily bounce around long after we have died of boredom.  Someone has to stay alive, though, to bash all those moles on the head.  Bagsy not me.

Everything is a repeat move in the game of Brexit whack-a-mole.  Remember the Japanese ambassador and his grave warnings about Brexit?  So much has (and hasn't) happened since then it's hard to believe it was only about 3 days ago.  Hang on, was that 3 days ago or 18 months ago?  Hah, got it, it was a repeat.  Remember cakeism? Well, it's alive and well, thank you very much, still being baked and still being eaten.  How about all those 3rd party agreements that will end for the UK on Brexit day?  Liam Fox has had a go at whacking that one with different mallets (he tried bi-lateral negotiations; he tried blaming the EU; he tried a technical note sent to all and sundry, he'll have another go soon enough).  Please, please don't get me started on the chemically washed chicken saga. It almost as though washing chicken with chemicals turns them into annoying, rubbery boomerangs. Fox encourages the hormone-injected mole out of its hole, only for Gove to give it an almighty whack in the sad hope it will make him PM.  I can't take this any longer. We need a rest.

I'm fed up. My Brexit reserves are exhausted. I have nothing to say that doesn't make me wince at the pain of repetition. Please forgive me if I spent most of the last month watching Foyle's War on ITV3. There are only a few episodes left but then the compulsion to blog will return.  What shall I blog about?  Brexit.  It will never, ever stop.

Over and out,


PS I shall probably blog about the Withdrawal Bill and how it is incompatible with the EU's guidelines on transition.  It is a tiny technical point but it is also something new (to me, at least) and not many people seem to be blogging about it (maybe because it is not very exciting but that was never a requirement for a blog post round here, as demonstrated by today's effort).

PPS I'm fed up with Brexit but I'm most definitely not fed up with life or descending into a melancholy or anything like that.  It's healthy to be fed up with Brexit.  This is a good sign. Schloss Entoure is a happy place. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

This week I mainly tried to understand Labour policy on Brexit.  I'm sorry to say that I spent many, many hours on this and came to the conclusion that it is beyond my skills as a blogger.  No, something as elusive, as paradoxical, as untamed as Labour policy on Brexit cannot be expressed through the everyday medium of sentences and paragraphs.  If I could present my findings as a dance I would do that but I'm very sad to say that I can't dance.  If my ukulele skills were more advanced perhaps I could attempt to express Labour policy on Brexit with a jaunty, syncopated strum but they're not.  If you'd ever seen my attempts at drawing you would immediately know that my woeful art skills are definitely not up to the job. Pottery? Sorry, I have no clay experience. I'm running out of options now. Let's see, what's left?  Hmm, can I express Labour policy on Brexit through the medium of poetry?  Well, we'll never know unless I gave it a go. Et voila, here is my poem about Labour policy on Brexit.  Simply enjoy.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is disappointing
to learn that your librarian
style hides an authoritarian
more interested in isolation
than international relations.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is your patrician
outlook that I despise.
Your intent of a 70s Bennite reprise
will end my opportunities
in the European Communities.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is just too frustrating
to listen to your view
that single market means EU
and the mistakes that you made
about rules on state aid.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is to my chagrin
that you reject the distinction
between tariffs and friction,
between regulation at source
and the need for a border force.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
I'm fed up with you spreading
the lie of a correlation
between low wages and migration.
These are the values of UKIP and Powell
and their dispiriting scowl.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
when you accept Mogg's position
do you not wonder
if you have made a blunder
and now must fight
the policies of the far right?

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
what is your opinion
of my rights to study, to learn
to fall in love, to earn
throughout EFTA/EEA?
You want to take those rights away?

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
this is a voter writing.
I care about facts,
not McDonnell's Momentum pacts.
Resign, retire, but stop digging trenches and
take up your rightful place ... on the back benches.

Over and out,


PS I might still post something on Labour's Brexit policy in the medium of sentences and paragraphs.  Then again, I might not.  It is hard to keep up with their collective madness and even harder to decipher it.  As it stands, my clumsy attempt merely adds to the confusion.

PPS I would love to hear other poems (on any topic you like) in the comments.

PPPS I'm aware the poem was more fun to write than to read but, hey, it's my blog so there might be more of this in the future. We amateur bloggers have a tendency towards tyranny.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Worst Thing About Brexit

What is the worst thing about Brexit? Is it the xenophobia? The nasty strain of English nationalism? The return of a colonial mentality? Or is it the growing sense of mob rule? Could it be the bizarre popularity of 19th century mercantilism? If you're Scottish might it be the threat that Brexit presents to the devolution settlement? Or maybe you feel that your voice has been completely silenced? Perhaps you're concerned about a return to a society divided by class and ruled by self-styled country gents attired in mustard cords and union jack underwear? These things are all profoundly depressing but the worst thing by far is the fire-sale devaluation of expert advice.

The Cabinet reshuffle Theresa May really wanted to implement.Got any union jack pants, squire?
If you've ever read anything posted on this blog then you'll probably not be too surprised to learn that I trained as a scientist. I am definitely someone who values facts, documentary evidence and attention to detail. In fact, I might even qualify as one of those unhelpful experts who were inexpertly dismissed by Michael Gove during the EU referendum. Should he or his department ever require advice on hardware-accelerated interactive software or any of its applications I shall point him straight to my local ukulele club. I might as well point Michael Gove to some Swiss strummers because the real prize won by the Brexit campaigners was tacit public permission to form a government driven entirely by individual gut feeling.

Gove's remarks were far more than a throwaway riposte. The reality today is that the UK government is a collection of individuals acting on their own instincts without regard for facts, evidence or attention to detail. David Davis admitted that the decision to leave the Customs Union was reached entirely on "gut feeling". He then made a series of misleading remarks over the course of 15 months to give the impression that his department had completed a sectoral analysis of the impact of Brexit. He promised that would be done before starting the Article 50 process. In reality, his department has done no work at all beyond the collation of data already in the public domain and a sparse collection of references to EU Regulations and Directives that would be well-known to anyone working in their respective field. The sectoral analyses were bulked out with filler explaining that fishing businesses were mainly located near the coast and that the space industry was collaborative. Can we conclude that evidence is driving UK government policy? Not really, no. We might as well inspect the tea leaves.

Can it get any worse? Well, there is significant evidence that Theresa May confused the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the EU. During May's time as Home Secretary she repeatedly made disparaging remarks about the ECHR as she struggled and repeatedly failed to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan. The problem was that deporting Abu Qatada to Jordan would lead to his immediate arrest for historic offences and any subsequent trial would use evidence against him gained under torture. Deporting Abu Qatada to such a fate would be in breach of Article 6 and Article 3 of the ECHR, which respectively declare the right to a fair trial and prohibit degrading treatment. Theresa May's intentions were in clear breach of the ECHR. Her response was to hire more and more lawyers, at great expense, to try to find a way to legally subvert basic human rights. She went to court multiple times but each time she failed and became ever more frustrated. Oh how she must have hated all those annoying European judges and their concerns for human dignity. Eventually, she gave up and did what expert advice had told her to do on day one of this tragic affair - she sought legal assurances from Jordan that evidence gained under torture would not be used at Abu Qatada's trial. During this sorry process there was endless chatter from government insiders that the UK would suspend its membership of the Council of Europe, that the UK would leave the Council of Europe, that the UK should be free to ignore judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. The zinger is that until Thersa May claimed the CJEU as a red line she had barely mentioned it. Oh, Abu Qatada was found not guilty, if you're interested.

Can it get any worse? Well, when David Davis took office he thought his first job would be a tour of Europe to conduct trade negotiations with national leaders around the EU. He believed he would complete this by Brexit departure day. To be fair, he doesn't say that any more so I suppose he did listen to at least one expert on at least one occasion. Having said that, he could concoct a post-Brexit immigration policy based on a series of bi-lateral agreements with EU countries. He can do this because immigration policy and the rights of 3rd nation citizens to reside and work in EU nations is not an EU competence. I'm willing to bet that Davis doesn't know this because attention to detail is not his strong point. However, he should know this because UK immigration policy was at the heart of the decision to leave the EU. Moreover, he should know this because UK businesses are crying out for highly skilled workers from Germany and Denmark and Sweden. He should know all of this but he probably hasn't bothered to find out because the UK government has not yet formulated a post-Brexit immigration policy. That's right, 18 months after a vote to amend UK immigration policy there are zero agreed amendments to UK immigration policy.

Why are there no amendments to UK immigration policy? The answer is that ministers of the UK government cannot synchronise their intestinal tracts. Liam Fox says that the UK should import chemically washed chicken from the US then Michael Gove rules it out. Theresa May talks about transition periods and financial commitments on a public stage then Boris Johnson says the EU can go and whistle. Greg Hands proposes that the EU should remain in specific EU health initiatives regulated by the CJEU, despite CJEU being one of Therasa May's red lines. Theresa May signs an agreement with the EU to conclude Phase I talks then David Davis undermines everything by suggesting the detail isn't enforceable and the whole exercise merely a shared statement of intent. Theresa May underlines her pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands then Amber Rudd initiates a study on the economic effect of reduced immigration. Let's not forget that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove failed to communicate the most basic government position on a UK national imprisoned abroad. In saner times any of these ministers would have been shown the door but here they are implementing their own policy in their personal kingdoms driven by their own gut feeling.

Instead of a functioning government with a defined set of manifesto pledges and evidence-base policies to realise them, there is a collection of mini-governments, each lording over their own fiefdom, acting sometimes in tandom, sometimes against the other mini-governments. Tory manifesto has been largely abandoned and in its place is a random number generator gone wild. The UK will seek bi-lateral trade deals with Pacific nations; the UK will join the Trans Pacific Partnership. The UK will protect the environment with bold environmental law; the UK will import hormone-injected beef and drive down costs. The UK will maintain the rights of workers; the UK will immediately repeal the EU Working Time Directive. The UK will maintain all phyto-sanitary standards to keep the NI border open; the UK will modify phyto-sanitary standards to align itself towards the US. The UK will maintain farm subsidies at CAP levels; the UK will abandon farm subsidies. The UK will strike trade deals and completely change its tariff structure; the UK will maintain its current tariff structure. The UK will be free to reduce VAT; the UK will maintain VAT at the EU minimum to keep the NI border free from VAT checks. This is not coherent governance.

Despite all this governmental chaos, the Labour Party is failing to take a lead in opinion polls. Why? Well, they are in a confused muddle very much the equal of the Tories. Their key policies change from week to week as Barry Gardiner and Kier Starmer and Tom Watson jostle for influence. The truth is that Labour have no substantive policy on the most pressing decisions to face the UK for 50 years. They would be equally terrible in power and the electorate know it full well. Does anyone buy their "jobs-first" Brexit? It certainly isn't backed by data or evidence. Once again, there's that Westminster gut feeling spewing its lunch all over partisan journalists at UK's tabloid newspapers.

This is by far the worst government and the worst parliament I have ever known. I might have disagreed with Margaret Thatcher's political philosophy, her manifesto pledges and the way she implemented them but she still ran a government with evidence and data. For example, her monetarist experiment of the early 80s was quietly abandoned when it was judged to have quantitatively failed.  It might have been abandoned far too late but at least someone was able to come to a judgement and someone was listening to it.  Are there any signs of this methodology today? Not really, no. Voters have no idea what they are voting for, the Prime Minister has no idea what her own Ministers are doing, those very Ministers are driven only by personal gut instinct. Meanwhile, expert advice has been decried as the intervention of saboteurs and rejected as unpatriotic. Everything is done with the justification of the "will of the people", yet nothing satisfies the "will of the people" because Brexit is nothing more than a battleground of ministerial influence and breakfast digestion processes.

There is no end to this. Brexit will trundle on and on for years to come, consuming logic and reason as it continues. If you're Scottish there is only one way out of this mess and that is to vote Yes in any future independence referendum. Good governance is important - it ensures prosperity, rights and opportunities for citizens. The UK is not going to experience any of that for many, many years to come. Where will it be by then?

Over and out,