Brexit post-mortem 1 : the Comedy of Errors

A lot of things had to go wrong.

“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” (Adam Smith). The (pro tem) United Kingdom is bent on finding out how much, with Boris Johnson sweeping to a large election victory on a mendacious promise to “get Brexit done”.

In fact, all that’s certain is that the withdrawal agreement (text here) he negotiated will be signed and on January 31 the UK cease to be a EU member, and I an EU citizen .

But under this agreement (Articles 126 – 132) there will be a transition period in which all EU laws and rules still apply. For all practical purposes except decision-making the UK is still in, for a while. The period is set to end on 31 December 2020 (§126), but may be extended for up to two years by common agreement (§132) – but only before 1 July 2020. Johnson has promised not to ask for such an extension – but since neither the EU Commission nor independent experts believe a trade agreement can be finalised in 11 months, there are plenty of Perils-of-Pauline cliffhanger deadlines coming up. The risk of a No Deal crashout is still very much present.

Who’s to blame? There is a lot of it to share, in a corollary to Smith’s aphorism. Here is Inspector Wimberley’s short list of suspects, in rough chronological order.

1. Press barons: Murdoch, Dacre, etc. For decades, they have fed the British public a consistently biased diet of news on Europe, painting the Brussels institutions as a hostile foreign Them not the framework for a competitive common project like the World Cup. They have kept this up to the present day.

2. The BBC, failing out of cowardice and bothsideserism to act as a corrective to the biased press.

3. Farage and UKIP, who supercharged euroscepticism with nativist propaganda against refugees and immigrants.

4. David Cameron, who called a second referendum on EU membership in a bid to silence the UKIP threat to Tory heartland seats; worded it sloppily, as a vague unicorn aspiration not a concrete policy choice; and made no effort to extend the franchise to a million Britons abroad, excluding me and two of my children.

5. Putin’s FSB and its useful idiots who manipulated the referendum by exploiting social media for propaganda.

6. The British electorate, by falling for the con, three times.

7. Theresa May, for invoking Article 50 and triggering a withdrawal countdown without a negotiating strategy.

8. The DUP (hardline Ulster Protestant Unionists) for supporting May’s Article 50 invocation. You can’t blame them for not foreseeing the exact course the complex Irish border issue would take, but you can blame them for not realising that withdrawal inevitably sets up a clash with the Good Friday Agreement and creates grave risks to the Union – the main reason they are in Westminster.

9. Sinn Fein, for not taking up the seats in Westminster they regularly win, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty required of all new MPs; so the DUP’s folly went unchallenged.

10. Remainer backbenchers in the Commons, both Tories and Labour, and their ultimately ineffective leaders (Grieve, Soubry, Kyle, Umunna, etc). They had a clear majority, and managed to score one tactical victory in the Benn anti-No-Deal bill, but never got their act well enough together to secure a second referendum. Both Tory and Labour rebels were wiped out in Thursday’s election. Consolation prizes for principle and effort, but in politics, as Yoda said, “there is no try”.

11. Jeremy Corbyn, whose personal hostility to the EU prevented Labour from ever taking the clear Remain stance that large majorities of its members, MPs and voters wanted, and for pursuing the impossible dream of an electoral mandate for a hard left agenda at the expense of an entirely winnable second referendum. Also for being a sanctimonious North London 1970s lefty pacifist vegetarian stereotype and sucker for anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

12. Jo Swinson, leader of the LibDems, for not making an electoral pact with Labour at the start of the campaign out of a reasonable distrust of Corbyn and an unreasonable hope in an election triumph. She lost her Scottish seat to the SNP, and her party half its previous seats (though it increased its vote).

13. Boris Johnson, liar, womaniser, fat cat, and completely unprincipled demagogue. And his mad Svengali Dominic Cummings.

It strikes me that most of these are but-for causes. Leave out 2 (BBC), 9 (Sinn Fein) and 12 (LibDems), which are unlikely to have made a critical difference. The election wasn’t a close result. The Remainer backbenchers (10) at least tried and morally can’t be blamed. That leaves eight causes, for each of which you can make a strong but-for claim. If any one had gone very differently the UK would not be in this mess.

Any more?

That’s a philosophically disturbing conclusion. Summing over the many possible timelines since 2000, most end up with the UK still a member of the EU. The train wreck was just bad luck.

There is another reading, though.

(Stand by for next episode)

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sandbaggers

Britain has long managed to turn out espionage films at all points along the dimension that has escapist fare like James Bond and The Avengers at one pole and grey-shaded, unglamorous, works like Smiley’s People at the other. I can enjoy the fantasies as much as the next moviegoer, but the Brit spy films that stay with me and thereby end up as my film recommendations are all from the grimy, realistic, end of the spectrum: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Charlie Muffin, Callan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this week’s film recommendation: The Sandbaggers.

Like Callan’s “The Section” this television series focuses on a small team of agents you’ve never heard of: the “Sandbaggers”. These trouble-shooting spies are led by a former sandbagger, the dour, workaholic, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden, in a magnificently austere performance). Burnside spends as much time fighting Whitehall bureaucracy and careerism as he does his opposite numbers in The Soviet Union, a process that is complicated by his ex-wife being the daughter of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office! (Alan MacNaughtan, succeeding in a markedly different role than he played in the satisfying To Serve Them All My Days).

The cast never put a foot wrong, which is a credit to their own talents as well as that of the primary directors, Michael Ferguson and Peter Cregeen. The show was produced by Yorkshire Television, and has an unmistakably Northern English chip on its shoulder about London, HMG, and people who went to Eton, which productively accentuates the cynical viewpoint of the series.

The Sandbaggers was scripted by Ian Mackintosh, a former Naval Officer who may have been in the game himself, and who (almost too perfectly) mysteriously disappeared in 1979. Every bit of the show feels real, from the civil service backbiting and hassles (I cringe in recognition at the ongoing subplot of British secret agents having to fly in economy) to the exciting front-line missions of the sandbaggers. And as in real life, virtue often goes unrewarded, many missions fail, and death does not look pretty.

As with many modestly budgeted British television shows of this era, there is no soundtrack or incidental music, only an opening and closing theme over the credits. Luckily, they got Roy Budd (who wrote the immortal music to another former RBC film recommendation, Get Carter) to compose it. As usual, Budd hit it for six.

As a complete work, the first season is the best for overall narrative arc, especially the evolution of the relationship between Burnside and the first female sandbagger, Laura Dickens (Well-played by Diane Keen). But for a single episode that gives you the flavor of the series, I would recommend from Season 2 the nail-biting Decision by Committee.

The Sandbaggers is a 40-year old show and Yorkshire Television doesn’t exist anymore, so I don’t know if it’s still copyrighted or not. But I will channel Neil Burnside and take the risk to tell you that whatever the rules are, an agent with initiative can find almost every episode of the brilliant series on Youtube.

Political Upheaval

The above chart is from Electoral Calculus, a reputable polling and forecasting firm in the UK. When I see my friends in Parliament these days, I largely confine myself to buying them drinks and telling jokes. Nothing much is happening in the policy areas I know something about, so I instead focus on providing some transitory relief of their suffering and uncertainty.

The Brexit ship of fools

A try at an update on the evolving Brexit chaos.

Eight days to B-day on March 29! For amoral political junkies, it’s sheer heaven. The last fortnight at Westminster has been the most exciting since May 1940, if not quite as important. You could only keep up by 24/7 liveblogging. I can’t manage it, so consider this a Brexit open thread.

Last time I looked (ten minutes ago) the state of play is this:

Continue reading “The Brexit ship of fools”

Condorcet’s Brexit trainwreck

Brexit as a Condorcet paradox.

Let’s stand a little back from the Brexit trainwreck – the kind you get when Dr. Evil hacks the signalling at Clapham Junction  in rush hour. I have no choice, since as an expatriate I, and a million like me, get no vote.

 

 

 

The options are:
A – Exit with no deal
B – the May deal
C – A softer Brexit (“BINO”) on Norway or Jersey lines; undefined, but probably with staying in most of the EU single market, few restrictions on movement from EU countries, and no say in the rulemaking
D – Remain.

The estimable Simon Wren-Lewis estimates the current factional breakdown of the House of Commons (n=630) over Brexit:

Brexiters – No Deal                                               100
May loyalists – No freedom of movement       200
People’s Vote [second referendum]                  150
Corbyn loyalists                                                       30
Soft Brexit                                                               150

This leads to the following first-choice vote predictions:
     A: 100 for, 530 against
     B: 200 for, 430 against (actual vote was 202 to 432)
     C: <180 for, >450 against
     D: <150 for, >480 against

There is a large majority against anything at all. A neater real-life example of the Condorcet paradox you couldn’t get. Continue reading “Condorcet’s Brexit trainwreck”

The Brexit zombie apocalypse

A hard Brexit would be as bad as they say.

As every Brit knows, on March 29 2019, 109 days from now, the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. (Unless the remaining 27 member countries stop the clock, a well-used Brussels device). What happens if there is No Deal and the UK crashes out with no agreement in place with Brussels on anything? Inconvenience? A reduction in trade until new and better deals are made with say the USA?

Kent Council Council is responsible for the area leading to Dover docks and the Channel Tunnel. They are Tories but have studied the consequences.

A no-deal Brexit could cause major disruption across Kent, with gridlock on the roads around Dover, rubbish not being collected, children unable to take exams and rubbish piling up on streets [….] The registration service for weddings could also be affected and bodies could pile up in morgues because of traffic gridlock, Kent county council warned in an update on no-deal contingency planning.

So it’s more or less the zombie apocalypse, without weddings too. Their nightmare is that as the trucks (queuing for new customs checks at the ports) pile up on the two access highways, the M2 via Canterbury and the M20 via Maidstone, enterprising truck drivers will take to the side roads until these are jammed solid too. I suppose the council could buy electric bikes, so the plucky morgue staff can infiltrate past the stranded German trucks, in the 1940 spirit of Dad’s Army. That doesn’t help the garbage trucks, the hearses, or the wedding limousines though. Apocalypse it is.

What the council is trying to do with these horror stories is to get Whitehall to do some serious contingency planning for a truck rationing scheme that would cut in well before the vehicles reach Kent. What has Whitehall been doing these last two years? The excuse for general drift has been “we are too busy with Brexit”.

Why should the crash-out be so bad? Continue reading “The Brexit zombie apocalypse”

Royal bus wedding

Buses at the royal wedding, and the e-bus revolution.

This is SFIK the first royal wedding to feature buses. Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams and the noisy cast of Suits took up the option of the bus transport to the Harry-Meghan extravaganza provided by Kensington Palace. (Buses are surely an important cultural and political reference to black Americans.) They must have saved quite a bit on taxis, as prices were no doubt gouged on the day.

Meanwhile, the Thames Valley plod* impounded a bus used by an NGO to offer shelter to homeless people in Windsor. Can’t let sordid reality spoil the careful constructed image of multicultural bliss. I can’t find a photo of the guest buses, so the homeless one gets the RBC nod.

A-list celebrities are exquisitely sensitive to subtle shifts  in style and taste. Is the humble proletarian bus making a social comeback?

If it does, it will probably be on the back of electrification. Electric buses are much quieter and smoother than diesel ones, as well as non-polluting. The market is growing fast, led by China’s 100,000 a year (ca. 20% market share). Shenzhen, part of the Pearl River megalopolis and home to leading manufacturer BYD, already has a 16,000- strong all-electric fleet, a small part of which is pictured here.

Cities and other bus operators outside China are beginning to place serious orders, after several years of messing about with small trials. London; Nottingham; Oslo; Hamburg; Los Angeles; Schiphol and LAX airports. That’s a very incomplete list, the bandwagon is rolling. San Francisco, promising an all-electric fleet by 2035 with first orders only in 2020, comes across as a greenwashing shilly-shallier.

The dramatic shift is driven by a combination of greenery and costs. Many city halls are now aware of the devastating health costs from urban air pollution, much of it from diesel vehicles, much of that from buses. On the cost side, thanks to sharp falls in the cost of batteries, electric buses are now competitive with diesels and CNG (natural gas) on a total-cost-of ownership basis (TCO). BNEF (link to pdf):

As battery prices continue to decline, e-buses will have a lower total cost of ownership than
comparable diesel or CNG buses for all of the options discussed here, even at lower annual
distances covered. Using the same battery price projections as in the upfront cost analysis, we estimate that the TCO for the most expensive e-bus configurations – the 350kWh e-bus coupled with slow charging at the depot and the 110kWh e-bus coupled with wireless charging – will reach TCO competitiveness with a diesel bus as soon as this year (2018).

Buses are just now as important as cars in the overall battery market (BNEF, page 21, Figure 10).

So for Hizzoner or Herroner at City Hall, and the rival politicians seeking to supplant them, buying electric buses is a free move. It gains green cred with voters, for real not phony reasons, and it doesn’t cost anything using sensible accounting. And the riders and drivers get more comfort and less vibration and noise.

*     *     *     *

*Plod: Br.E. informal: a police officer; by extension (“the plod”), the police force. Probably from the character PC Plod in the successful Noddy children’s book series by Enid Blyton, 1950s.

 

Television Was Not Always a Vast Wasteland

I just stumbled across this 1990 debate between John O’Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Christopher Hitchens (so much sharper before his alcoholic decline), and am agog that anything this erudite and civilized every graced American airwaves.

Supererogation? Autarkist? Frowzy? If your SAT Verbal was less than 700 you may need a dictionary, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a good reference book on European political history at hand either. Very much worth the effort, if only for nostalgia.

Recommended reading on Brexit and the Future of the EU

Two reading recommendations for understanding Britain’s decision to leave the EU and what the future of the EU looks like sans Britain.

On the former topic, I am bit late to it as the revised and updated edition of Tim Shipman’s All Out War came out last year, but it’s an astounding feat of political journalism. He clearly had Bob Woodward-level access to all the key players in the Leave and Remain camps and he weaves together their experiences and observations brilliantly in an exhaustive (600+ pages) but never boring book. I may have found it slightly more intriguing than the average reader because I know personally some of the politicians concerned, but anyone interested in politics should find All Out War compulsively readable. Shipman captures the strategies and tactics of each side as well as the human side of the key political players. He also highlights the freakish little things (e.g., a slightly mis-typed address in an email) on which hotly contested, nail-biting political campaigns can turn. And to his credit, it’s very hard to divine what side Shipman was on personally because he works so hard to give both sides their due. For what little it may be worth coming from a D-List blogger at Washington Post, my hat is off to Shipman as a truly remarkable journalist.

On the latter topic, I recommend a new essay by Hans Kundnani, who has forgotten more about European politics than most people will ever know (definitely including me). His point of departure is the European Commission’s recent proposals for greater financial integration within the Eurozone:

…there are two quite different ways of thinking about the Commission’s proposals. For Macron, they were part of a vision for a “Europe qui protege” in which there would be greater “solidarity” between citizens and member states. In the context of this vision, the new European Monetary Fund would be a kind of embryonic treasury for the eurozone. But many in Germany, including Wolfgang Schäuble, seem to support the same idea for entirely different reasons. They see it as a way to increase control over EU member states’ budgets and more strictly enforce the eurozone’s fiscal rules and thus increase European “competitiveness”. If that vision were to prevail, “more Europe” would mean “more Germany” – as many of the steps that have been taken in the last seven years since the euro crisis began have.

You can read Hans’ full analysis here.

My own view is that without Britain, the EU might as well rename itself “Germany and its regional branch offices”. Some French analysts would object to my characterization, having long seen their country as Germany’s peer or even master in the EU (“France riding a German horse”). But I find that perspective rather arrogant and delusional. The golden rule of politics is that he who has the gold makes the rules. Germany’s unemployment rate is 3.5%, France is excited to have recently gotten unemployment down to 8.9% for the first time in 9 years (And French unemployment hasn’t been down to the level of Germany or Britain since dinosaurs walked the earth). France also has huge and growing deficits whereas Germany is flush. The horse in short can throw the would-be rider and trample him (as well as the even smaller and poorer other Eurozone members) under its mighty hooves any time it pleases.