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.