Politics: to guarantee failure


I haven't taken much note of the government/parliament online petition system before. In general, I don't actually approve of the concept, specifically, where people can demand action to be taken by government to address a particular ill – and especially not where creating new law is involved.

In our Harrogate Agenda, I write that compelling legislatures to frame laws in response to popular demand is problematical.

At the very least, it can create inconsistencies and anomalies within the legal code, and contravene treaties. And, although some problems can be avoided by requiring proposals to be compatible with the constitution (which would have to be codified), the greater handicap is that the process is prone to abuse by well-funded or dedicated single-issue groups, and by the popular press or television.

We can see this in the currently most popular petition on the system at the moment, adding signatures yesterday evening at the rate of over a thousand an hour as it approaches its deadline of 30 October. This is the so-called "Valerie's Law" petition, which seeks to impose compulsory training for agencies supporting black domestic violence victims.

The petition was created by Ngozi Fulani, darling of the progressive press. And, although at the time of writing had attracted over 75,000 signatures, it may still fail to meet the 100,000 hurdle which will entitle it to consideration for a parliamentary debate.

It has already had a government response, though, which might best be described as "dusty", and rightly so in my view. The petition is overtly racist, demanding special treatment for black women, as a separate and identifiable component of British society – yet not Asian women, interestingly. And what about Chinese women?

Once you go down this path, there is no stopping, and the very idea that actions of the type set out in this position could be mandated by popular action goes against what we regard as a fundamental principle of governance – the very simple idea that, once elected, a government must be allowed to govern. That includes working, and framing its own laws.

Otherwise, as I write in the THA pamphlet, the system would expose law-making to rule of the mob. Giving the public direct access to the law-making process can end up in petty tyranny.

However, I also write that we still need checks and balances to avoid the system becoming oppressive, and it is in that context that our petition is framed, demanding that the government hold a referendum on whether to keep the 2050 "net zero" target.

Here, we are treading the fine balance between the right of government to govern and the sovereignty of the people, which we regard as absolute. In short, we agree that the government should be able to create laws – as it is doing here in mandating its "net zero" targets – but we argue that the people must have the final say on such laws.

The essence of this is that we must have the right to say "no". Interestingly, on Twitter, we have one response to my request to readers to sign our petition, asserting that "net zero" is "a step in the right direction" and "a step that must be taken now whatever the general population may think". We are, the writer says: "Out of time".

Therein lie the roots of tyranny. Against a policy that has only a forelock-tugging acquaintance with an electoral mandate, we are supposed to bow down to the "greater wisdom" of our masters and accede to a crass, technically unsound policy, just because we are told to do so? I think not.

In the context, the concept of a formal "people's consent" provision is eminently sound. In the first instance, there would be considerable hurdles to prevent it being exercised frivolously.

Using the referendum as a medium for expressing that consent, there would be a substantial number of signatures before a petition for a referendum could be raised, and I would entertain the idea of a minimum turnout and even, under certain circumstances, the requirement for a super-majority, where more than 50 percent must vote in favour of a proposition.

But the key point is that a government faced with the prospect of having to seek consent for its laws would undoubtedly have to spend more time and effort publicising and explaining it proposals, bringing the electorate along with it at all stages.

As it stands, I would hazard a pretty sound guess that, if you conducted a vox pop in the high street of any British provincial town, to ascertain what people understood by "net zero" – and what it entailed - you would get some very mixed results.

And if you were to make it very clear that the policy involved government measures to shut down the domestic natural gas supply, and coerce people into purchasing at great cost a generally inefficient heating system – which mostly was more expensive to operate than the equipment it replaced – I am sure you could invoke some pretty negative responses.

The only way you can really get such a policy into place is by having the majority of people unaware of the precise detail of what is involved, slipping it in on the basic of general ignorance conferring some kind of implied consent. Whatever that might be, it certainly doesn't accord with any idea of democracy that I would be comfortable with.

However, while that issue is fairly clear-cut, other parts of the "net zero" policy are less so: the decarbonisation of electricity generation comes to mind. On an inherently technical subject, it might be difficult to frame a referendum question that could be properly addressed by a lay electorate.

When one sees the Welsh government offering though, it isn't as difficult as might seem. What is on offer is that greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will be "virtually" eliminated by 2035, with new fossil fuel plants banned and gas generation phased out, unless linked with carbon capture technology. The vision, we are told, is for a "high renewables system" - so more wind farms, solar power and tidal schemes.

A very real outcome of this is that the accent on intermittent renewables could dangerously destabilise the grid, leading to a very high probability of a collapse of the generation system. Should that outcome be put to the British public, it does not seem untoward that people might vote against this corner of "net zero" unless given categoric assurances that the stability of the grid will not be prejudiced.

And will all that in mind, I am certain our referendum petition is a sensible way forward, even though it is less powerful than I would prefer. I would have a system where a vote would be mandatory, of the petition was successful, and the outcome binding on the government.

With that, we are where we are – to coin a phrase. We have to use the tools available to us, no matter how imperfect. As of yesterday, we gained just over 2,200 signatures, adding 1,500 to our launch total. If we can keep up a steady momentum, with the possibility of a surge later in the six-month period we are allowed, the 100,000 target is attainable, even if it is difficult to achieve.

One thing for certain, if we do not even try to make our voices heard, failure is guaranteed. Then we will have only ourselves to blame.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 29/10/2021 link

Politics: the people's consent


The fate of the nation is already miserable enough but, according to some, the intervention of Rishi Sunak is likely to see any economic recovery delayed as the state spends a greater proportion of our wealth, and levies an increasing burden of taxation to feed its insatiable appetite.

But those pundits who hold out for a better future as we seek to chart our way out of the abyss do not seem to have not taken account of prime minister Johnson's attachment to his irrational "net zero" policy. Left unchallenged, this is likely to choke off any chance of economic recovery, keeping us colder, darker and poorer than any of us deserve.

Thus, there can be no question that the Telegraph was on the ball yesterday, running the results of a YouGov survey on attitudes to a referendum on Johnson's "net zero" plans.

It turns out that 42 percent of adults said they supported a vote on the plan, whilst 30 percent opposed it, and 28 percent did not declare a preference. When the "don't knows" are excluded, a majority of 58 percent wants a ballot on the issue.

The findings, writes Lucy Fisher - who has authored the piece for the Telegraph - will come as a blow to Johnson "just days before the start of the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow on Sunday". While he is preparing to convince global leaders to take tougher action, she adds, "the survey suggests more work is needed at home to convince voters that reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 is necessary".

In this context, the idea of a referendum is entirely appropriate. Even those who currently support Johnson's plan acknowledge that, for it to succeed, it must have the people's consent. And there is no better way of demonstrating consent than to put the proposition to the people by way of a referendum, in order to seek their permission to proceed – which is the essence of consent.

Arguably, as it stands, Johnson could claim that he has an electoral mandate for his policy, as the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2019 general election did commit to leading "the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change".

But, at several levels, it would be entirely disingenuous to assert that this constituted a mandate. Currently, it has taken Johnson's administration 367 pages to articulate the substance of his plan, so the short paragraphs set out ibn the manifesto on climate change could not be taken as setting out the detail of his policy.

That goes to the single, all-important concept of informed consent – the electorate should have been fully advised of the nature and consequences of such a policy. A brief, opaque mention cannot be considered sufficient.

At another level, it has to be said that the 2019 election was not fought on climate change. The defining issue of the election was, indisputably, Brexit, with Johnson campaigning on the promise that he would "Get Brexit done". And there will be few who would disagree that he won the election on that promise.

But, had climate change been an issue in the election, there could have been no meaningful choice for the electorate. In its manifesto, Labour committed to kick-starting "a Green Industrial Revolution", aiming to "achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030". Although the term "net zero" was not used, the effect of the policy, had it been implemented, would have been little different to the Conservative offering.

Nor were the Liberal Democrats any different, with an explicit commitment to achieving the "net zero climate goals" set by the 2020 UN climate conference in Glasgow.

In many respects, this mirrored the situation on the European Union, to the extent that no general election could be taken as a public endorsement of our membership as all the major parties were in favour of staying in the union. The only way this question could be settled by the electorate was by the mechanism of a referendum – which indeed it was.

In her piece, Lucy Fisher alludes to this dynamic, citing Lois Perry, director of Car26.org, who says: "We must not let political consensus drive us into carbon poverty. Let the people take control of the wheel". Perry accuses an "arrogant, remote elite" of "charging ahead in pursuit of costly and futile carbon policy" without due consideration for the families that will have to pay the price.

Basically, this is where the fault line shows up in our system of governance, where the general election – and non-binding manifestos – are treated as a carte blanche to adopt all manner of policies even though the mere mention could hardly be taken as invoking informed consent.

It is this weakness, we felt, struck at the very heart of our pretentions to be a democracy, when we framed The Harrogate Agenda, after our inaugural meeting in July 2912. At the very heart of our six demands, framed in the manner of the original Chartists, is the concept of the people's consent.

No law, treaty or government decision, we wrote, shall take effect without the consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that none shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people.

The "positive vote" in the particular circumstance of "net zero" is the referendum, addressing a crucial deficiency in our system: the absence of restraint on legislative incontinence. Johnson is making laws without our consent. We need a mechanism to get rid of those laws that we do not want, if that is the wish of the majority.

To that effect, Niall Warry – who is director of The Harrogate Agenda – has launched a petition on the UK government and parliament website, calling for a referendum on whether to keep the 2050 "net zero" target. Writes Niall:
I believe net zero target lacks legitimacy and without a referendum the current climate change policy lacks the explicit consent of the people, as argued by The Harrogate Agenda. This exposes a massive democratic deficit in our system of government.
It took the parliamentary petitions committee a week to vet and approve the wording of the petition which, with minor amendments, was posted yesterday here. In a remarkably short time, and without any media publicity, it has attracted nearly 700 signatures. Readers of this blog should easily be able to add a couple of thousand.

At 10,000 signatures, we are guaranteed a government response to the petition and, at 100,000 signatures, it will be "considered" for debate in parliament. This is a far from perfect mechanism, but it is a start.

Furthermore, if we do get the requisite number of signatures, it is a win-win situation for us. If we get a referendum then, once again, the principle of people's consent will have been tested and we are closer to making it the norm.

On the other hand, if a referendum is refused, we can rightly say that the "net zero" policy lacks democratic legitimacy, leading to what will undoubtably become a widespread popular rejection of those parts which require public participation.

And, as long as Johnson insists on pursuing a policy which leaves us colder, darker and poorer, I have no doubt that, should we actually be given a referendum, it will be decisively rejected.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 28/10/2021 link

Politics: the democratic deficit


To a considerable group of people, the advocacy of anthropomorphic climate change seems to have more in common with a cult than it does the pursuit of science. But, whatever might be an individual's standing in the debate – such that it is – some parties need to be reminded that, notionally, the UK is a democracy.

Although that status is increasingly being exposed as a hollow fiction, there nevertheless exists a residual belief in the principle that we should be governed by consent. In that context, as Philip Johnston writes in the Telegraph of prime minister Johnson's latest policy announcement on "net zero":
An absolute essential for any government pursuing a policy carrying such enormous costs and implications is that it has to bring the country along with it. That requires a compelling argument to be made for its achievement, a realistic timetable for doing so and widespread acceptance that it will make a difference and is not just being done for show or bragging rights at a summit.
Even those who accept some of the basic assertions relating to climate change might then also accept that there are different policy responses which might be made to the perceived problems. It might further be accepted that the actual direction we take as a nation might be influenced as much by the politics as the science of the issue.

For my own part, given that – at the very least - there is room for policy diversity, I certainly reject any idea that we should be railroaded into a single policy corral by a scientifically illiterate prime minister, who has clearly not thought through the implications of his proposals.

With that, if we explore the range of policy options available to us, there are probably three anchor points which could set the parameters for discussion. The first might be the "do nothing" option; the second might be the "minimum necessary", and the third might take us into Johnson territory where we cast ourselves as leaders, doing far more than strictly necessary, as an example to the rest of the world.

Depending on where one stands in the climate change debate, one of those points might define a reasonable starting point, on which to base a series of practical initiatives (or not, in the event of the first option), which might then be rolled out as a consequence of the initial policy stance.

The point here, though, is that whatever policy line which is to be chosen, the choice is not one that should be made unilaterally by the government or its leader. For a matter of such importance, there should be a very clear electoral mandate.

Yet here we have a situation not dissimilar to that which pertained to our membership of the European Union, where all three main parties supported the status quo. For the electorate, there was no meaningful way in which a preference could be expressed in a general election.

The only way to resolve the "consent" issue, allowing the electorate to decide on EU membership, was by arranging a referendum. Similarly, it would seem, the only way we, the people, could give our wholehearted (or majority) consent to a particular climate change policy would be via the mechanism of a referendum.

This is a device, the greater use of which we have long advocated through The Harrogate Agenda and now the need is greater than ever. Without a referendum, the current climate change policy lacks the explicit consent of the people and exposes a massive democratic deficit in our system of government.

There are some, however – like George Monbiot - who argue that the climate change issue is so important and the need for action so pressing, that we should mobilise society's resources on a wartime footing, leading people to accept the requirement for radical changes in their behaviour (and reductions in wealth).

Others, like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard asserts that, far from being a burden, "net zero" would deliver an economic windfall, based on "unstoppable leaps and bounds in known technology".

The net gain, he writes, is $26 trillion (£19 trillion), or $14 trillion under cautious assumptions, and the faster it happens, the bigger the benefit. It can be achieved in 25 years, beating the global target of 2050. Most changes, he adds, do not require lavish state funding any more than public money is needed to make mobile phones.

Both of these propositions are arguable. Their merits and weaknesses could easily fuel a vibrant public debate and significantly influence public attitudes to, and support for, a strongly proactive policy stance. But neither protagonist suggests that their views should be framed in the context of a referendum.

And yet, Philip Johnston's dictum is unarguable. Without the country behind the climate change policy, there is very little chance of the ambitious targets being met. Already, we see the emergence of public opposition, where a YouGov poll has 76 percent of respondents expressing concern about climate change, but with 27 percent indicating opposition to a ban on new petrol or diesel vehicles.

In the way of things, as the date of the ban gets closer, and more people start to focus on the practical implications (and the costs), attitudes will polarise and resistance may stiffen. At the point at which maximum support for the policy will be needed, the lack of popular consent may be decisive.

And while the UK car manufacturing industry might have been bludgeoned and bribed into producing all-electric cars, there will be plenty of foreign suppliers willing to fill the gap as the British government of 2030 – when the ban is due to come into force – is compelled to order a suspension.

Notably, the YouGov poll doesn't ask about heat pumps and the abolition of natural gas boilers. Presumably, with this issue only just coming into the public domain, the pollster might have thought that it was too early to seek a settled opinion on such a technical subject.

Certainly, greater public debate would help define the issues, and expose some of the considerable weaknesses in Johnson's position. At the moment, we are moving towards a ban on gas boilers in new houses, from 2025, and an ambition that all new heating systems installed in UK homes from 2035 should be "low carbon".

Bearing in mind that it is unlikely that hydrogen as a domestic fuel will be ready for a nation-wide roll-out until at least 2050 – if then – the only alternative on offer before then might be one form or other of the heat pump, at eye-watering costs to the average consumer.

But there are considerations other than cost. There are serious technical issues in installing these devices in older dwellings, with 23 percent of houses in the private sector having been built before 1919. Furthermore, 17 percent of the housing stock (4.1 million homes) fails to meet the government's "decent homes" standard, the larger proportion of these being privately rented.

Johnson wants the change-over to be market-led, but take-up is likely to be slow. Any economic advantages depend heavily on the availability of (non-existent) cheap electricity, especially as most heat pumps will be unable to heat sufficient water for most household needs, or to safe temperatures to suppress Legionella growth.

Supplementary electric heating will be required in most houses and, in many, it will be the only form of heating if the ban goes through – unaffordable to low-income residents. And private landlords, many of whom are already failing to maintain basic standards (in the context of lax enforcement), are going to need heavy persuasion to invest in expensive heating systems.

All of this points to the need for an intensive and searching public debate, and direct approval from the people, especially those who will be most affected – with major policy modifications where current ambitions are shown to be unrealistic. And, in such matters, informed democratic consent is not an optional extra. It is an essential precondition to successful policy implementation.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 21/10/2021 link

Politics: talk now or perish later


For the first time in a while, the Northern Ireland Protocol does not dominate the Brexit-related news and, as we approach the August torpor, nothing much can be expected from Brussels. Unless there are some remarkable (and unexpected) developments, the black hole of European politics is about to begin.

Much the same can be said of the UK scene, where one of the top stories in the Telegraph is Nicole Kidman's new hair style – unsurprising in the context of the annual report from Ofcom on news consumption, which has the most popular topics for teenagers being "music and celebrity news".

As an aside, Ofcom says that 49 percent of its sample say they use social media to get news, but the likes of Twitter and Facebook perform least well among TV, newspapers, magazines and radio for trustworthiness, impartiality or accuracy.

Only 33 percent say news found on social media is trustworthy compared with 67 percent for newspapers and 68 per cent for TV – although that has to be taken in the context of less than half the population using newspapers (digital and print) as their source of news, while less than a third of adults use print newspapers (32 percent).

At least there is some hope, though when Facebook turns out to be the least trusted of social media platforms for news, with just 27 percent of people saying it is trustworthy, and only 28 per cent saying it is accurate. As for the humble blog, so far has the genre faded from public consciousness that it doesn't rate a mention, being lumped under "other websites".

What little political comment there is currently in the online media is desultory stuff, but it is worth looking in to Rafael Behr's column, if only because he is saying something akin to what we have been writing on this blog for years.

"The 'Boris effect'", runs the headline to Behr's piece "is a symptom of Britain's decaying political system", with the sub-heading telling us: "The prime minister’s unlikely alliance of voters can hold only because nothing has broken the country’s two-party mould".

Although, he notes, in recent years, "none of the above" have soared in opinion polls, when it came to the 2017 and 2019 general elections, he writes, "first past the post and the question of who should be prime minister had their usual effect. When only two parties can credibly claim to be running candidates for No 10, votes get funnelled back down the old red and blue channels".

"In the absence of electoral reform", Behr then writes, "there is no obvious reason why the pattern will change", complaining that "it is unhealthy and unstable for the country’s two big parties to be sustained only by polarising mutual animosity and a system that suffocates political startups".

That is how, he says, "we now have a Labour party where admirers of Corbyn in exile cohabit with supporters of the successor who banished him. That is how we have a Conservative prime minister whose superpower is persuading people to overlook the fact that he is a Tory".

Few might disagree with Behr's observation that, "it suits Labour and the Tories to tell people that each is the only alternative to the other", and that it also suits them "to pretend that votes cast under those conditions indicate popular support".

But, as he rightly observes, "it insults the intelligence of everyone who held their noses in 2019 and marked the ballot paper with fists clenched in frustration at the choice on offer".

The two big political brands, he concludes, "have primacy in a failed marketplace", whence he adds: "It is not easy to envisage what the force will be that disrupts their arrangement. But that is the nature of dramatic change. It is unimaginable right up until it happens, at which point everyone agrees that it was inevitable".

An inference one could take from Behr's writing is that he favours some form of proportional representation, even if he doesn't state this explicitly. It is certainly a common enough nostrum, favoured by many pundits as an answer to our political woes.

The great problem, though, is that we still end up being notionally represented by politicians who, in the nature of the system, end up representing themselves and the political establishment, rather than the people who elected them.

A more important change, in my view, is to introduce that which is lacking into the political process – the proper separation of powers, as between the executive and the legislature. To that effect, I would see an elected prime minister, who would not be an MP and who would not sit in the House of Commons – and nor would ministers.

As for parliament, in the lower house, I would abolish political parties, and redesign the Commons chamber so that there was no divide between government and opposition benches. The split should not be within the house, but between the legislature and the executive. The former should scrutinise the latter rather than act as a terrifyingly shallow gene pool to provide ministerial fodder for the government.

As for elections to the house, I take the view that the utility of the electoral process is grossly over-rated as most people vote for the party rather than the individual. Then, with safe seats forming the majority, the general elections tends to turn on which party can best manipulate the small number of "swing voters" in marginal seats.

Where, however, the blood-lust and party loyalties can be sated by electing a prime minister, I see no absolute need to elect MPs. One alternative would be to go for a form of qualified sortition, allowing for the entry to the pool of candidates to be voluntary, dependent on satisfactorily passing an examination and meeting other criteria.

In an optimal system, each successful candidate would serve one term only but, for the "upper house", a proportion of the lower house could be elected by their peers to serve a second term in the revising chamber.

It follows from this that representative democracy has had its day, and we need to be looking at direct democracy, which we examined in the form of The Harrogate Agenda.

It has to be stressed, though, that direct democracy should only be countenanced in the context of a formal, written constitution, guarded by a constitutional court and protected from interference. After all, the purpose of a constitution is to set constraints on power, and to protect the rights of minorities. This is no less important when people have the ultimate power.

However, before any serious change can be mooted, there needs to be a serious debate in this country on how we organise our politics. Away from the political class, few will disagree with Rafael Behr's underlying premise that the political system is broken.

He is also right to hint that, at some time a "force" will emerge that disrupts the two-party arrangement. He warns that it is "unimaginable" right up until it happens, but fails to say that the unimaginable could also be messy and very violent.

Thus, be either have to imagine what change would bring about better governance, or let the unimaginable take its course, the likes of which are unlikely to be an improvement on the current mess. Basically, either we talk now or perish later. That is the choice.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 29/07/2021 link

Brexit: democracy in name only


We are informed by the Telegraph (amongst others), that Britain is to accept a "flood of Australian beef" in landmark trade deal. Predictably, the prime minister is hailing this "new dawn" for relations with Canberra and, equally predictably, farmers are raising "concerns".

The greater concern, for the moment though, must reside with a more pressing concern: the final trade agreement is not yet ready to be published. Not only does no one have a clue exactly what is in the deal, says the Telegraph, "there will be no parliamentary vote on whether to accept the deal".

Technically speaking, this is correct. According to this source, Parliament's consent is not needed for the government to conclude treaties.

We are further informed that this is usually justified by the fact that international agreements that have not been transformed into domestic law have no direct legal effect. Parliament, therefore, has a role in scrutinising implementing legislation.

However, the mechanism of implementation is usually via one or more statutory instruments (Sis), under the enabling authority of the Trade Act 2021. These SIs are typically "negative" instruments. They become law on the day the ministers sign them, but they are the are "laid" before parliament for 40 sitting days.

The way, in theory, that they can be overturned is for MPs to table a motion, or "prayer", which comes in the form of an early day motion. This must be signed by a number of MPs and can then lead to a vote. But this is not always the case.

If there is a vote, the majority have to vote against, and it is theoretically possible to achieve that, if government MPs can be induced to rebel, and the opposition unites. But the vote doesn't have to be held on the floor of the House. It can be referred to a committee, which has an inbuilt government majority. There, the likelihood is that it would be passed "on the nod".

In practice, therefore, the scrutiny is largely toothless and, as the Telegraph remarks, those hoping for a new post-Brexit age of accountability, parliamentary democracy and sovereignty will be rightly disappointed. That is unlikely to prevent future deals, and sell-outs, from being hidden away from the public.

There are those who might remark, in passing, that the European Commission does not have such power. Negotiating objectives must be approved by the Council, the European Parliament has a right to receive updates on the negotiations and, once the text is finalised, the Parliament must approve it by majority vote, following which the Council must conclude the agreement by qualified majority.

In the event that the Commission doesn't have exclusive competence, in so-called "mixed agreements", the member states must also ratify the treaties, according to their own constitutional procedures, although an agreement can apply provisionally pending ratification.

In all cases, the texts of any treaties must be published before they can be ratified, but there is no such obligation for the UK government. Under Royal Prerogative, it is entitled to conclude a treaty without making the text publicly available.

Nothing of that is actually any help to UK parliament. Whether in or out of the EU, the parliament had no power to influence treaties made by the Commission. With Brexit, parliament is no worse off, but no better off.

As for the benighted citizens of this country, in theory – but only theory – we had some say over the approval of treaties via our MEPs. And some Member States have constitutions which allow for referendums. UK citizens, though, have no rights to plebiscites on trade treaties.

Thus, we are in a situation where, in effect, Brexit has given rise to a transfer of powers from the EU, but those powers largely been transferred to the executive. Parliament is barely any better off, and UK citizens have not gained any material benefits.

This is why, of course, that when I wrote Flexcit, I embodied the elements of The Harrogate Agenda in phase six of the text.

Specifically, I wrote, this stage confronted the idea that there was little point in recovering powers from the EU, only to hand them back to the same institutions that gave them away in the first place.

Further, I added, even without EU influence, the UK is an overly centralised state, so the repatriation of powers from Brussels only for them to reside in London or one of the other devolved capitals affords fewer benefits to individual citizens than might be imagined.

With a degree of prescience which is borne out by current events, I went to write that, to a certain extent, the effect of restoring a degree of "independence" would simply be to swap one ruling class for another, with very little by way of beneficial effects for ordinary people.

And here we are with the perfect demonstration of our status as a elective dictatorship – made worse by a dysfunctional opposition. There were those who were concerned that the arrangements for leaving the EU would bring is BRINO – BRexit In Name Only. But what we have, in fact, is DINO – Democracy In Name Only.

This is embodied in the THA document where I wrote that our movement was based on the premise that democracy means "people power".

The word democracy, I wrote, stems from the Greek word, demokratía, comprising two parts: demos "people" and kratos "power". Without a demos, there is no democracy. But people without power is not democracy either.

In terms of that definition, The UK has never really enjoyed a fully functioning democracy. Had we had one in the recent past, Prime Minister Tony Blair would not have been able to take us to war in Iraq in 2003 nor Afghanistan in 2006.

Nor could Edward Heath have led the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. Neither, for that matter, could any government have concluded the Withdrawal Agreement or the TCA without the direct, informed assent of the people.

Our current system of government includes the vestiges of what is known as "representative democracy", where in theory our interests are safeguarded by locally elected MPs. That system has never functional in any real sense and, in any event, embodies a misuse of the word democracy. People do not hold power so that system cannot – by definition – be a democracy. The word "representative" is to "democracy", as "wooden" is to leg.

But now, the failings of the system are shown up in high profile, naked in tooth and claw. There have been many reservations about the Australian deal, but the government has gone ahead and concluded it anyway. It doesn't need the assent of the UK peoples, and has not sought it. And it knows it can rely on its inbuilt majority to block any attempt to hold up any enabling legislation.

For marginal benefits, which may not even be noticeable in the average shopping basket, the government is prepared to put British farming at risk, and we only have its word, and the word of a congenital liar, that they will come to no harm.

All we get for our money is a glossy photoshoot that lays bare the singular fact that the UK is not a functioning democracy.

In fact, it never has been, but it has taken Brexit to demonstrate anew where the power really lies. And it ain't with the people.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 16/06/2021 link

Politics: the essence of government


It is interesting to see the numbers of articles in diverse newspapers attesting to the uselessness of the government's Covid-19 test and trace system, matched by those recounting how local authorities are taking up their own schemes to make up for the shortfalls.

But equally interesting is the government response, fronting Dido Harding to quote tractor production figures, asserting that the scheme is working well. Criticism is water off a duck's back. It has no impact whatsoever. This government does exactly what it pleases.

However, the refusal to countenance greater local authority responsibility in a systematic way seems to be more profound than just a wish to bolster private sector contractors and the next generation of quango queens. It suggests a wholesale antipathy towards local government, as a core value of the Johnson administration.

That much also is evident in the government's latest plan to butcher the local authority planning system, mistakenly paraded by The Times as a Johnsonian effort to "slash red tape".

The idea of deregulation is one that this administration seems to favour, although to treat it as an unalloyed good is a mistake. Most regulations were originally created for a purpose and to remove them without care can give rise to the very problems the regulations were intended to address.

I am absolutely sure that the very last thing on the minds of the tragic city of Beirut at the moment is the relaxation of health and safety law, especially that relating to the storage of explosive material. One might even suppose that there could be a general enthusiasm for more such law, more tightly enforced.

If this is something of an extreme example, it has to be said that, while such a major "accident" as has afflicted Beirut is rare, they do happen from time to time in poorly-regulated communities.

Yet the last time this country suffered a major industrial explosion which caused fatalities in the adjoining community was in 1974 at Flixborough in North Lincolnshire. That we have a raft of legislation specifically aimed at preventing such disasters, has doubtless contributed to our relative safety, one of which is based on EU Directive 96/82/EC of 4 July 2012, the so-called Seveso III Directive, taking its name from the Seveso disaster, which occurred in 1976 in Italy.

This has been transposed into the Control Of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 (COMAH), currently enforced by the HSE, except – it has to be said - for the land-use planning requirements, which are implemented by local authorities.

These planning laws keep hazardous processes well-separated from residential and other vulnerable areas and, one presumes, would have prevented the storage of large quantities of explosive material in a situation similar to that which caused such terrible carnage in Beirut.

To that extent, we as a society can consider ourselves fortunate that we are protected by "red tape", even if it is of EU origin. Doubtless, if the Seveso suite of directives had not been promulgated, the UK government would have produced its own legislation.

By the same token, the obsession with the removal of "red tape" for the sake of it really isn't a good thing. For sure, you can expect a newspaper such as The Guardian to rail against the reduction in controls, which it does in this case, headlining its report: "England's planning reforms will create 'generation of slums'".

In its view, the "biggest shake-up of planning for decades" will dilute democratic oversight, choke off affordable housing and lead to the creation of slum dwellings. The move has already prompted "stinging criticism" from housing charities, planning officers and architects who have warned of a new generation of fast and substandard housing.

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has condemned the proposals as disruptive and rushed, saying that 90 percent of planning applications are currently approved. And, as there are already up to one million unbuilt permissions, more relaxed law isn't suddenly going to trigger a massive upsurge in housebuilding.

Bizarrely, for a government which is so keen on reducing red tape, this doesn't apply to the current obsession of Johnson's paramour – climate change. All houses built will have to be "carbon-neutral" by 2050, which means massively increasing building costs and rendering most of them uninhabitable as fresh air ventilation is banished.

For the moment, the proposals are at White Paper stage, which theoretically means that they are open to consultation. But given this government – and British governments generally – "consultation" tends to mean announcing what you are going to do, and then doing it regardless.

Given also the weakness of our current parliament and the inadequacies of most MPs – to say nothing of Johnson's inbuilt majority – we can expect no more than token discussion before the scheme is railroaded through to become the law of the land.

If ever there was a role for the Harrogate Agenda, this is it. Such profound changes should not be the plaything of a narrow group of ideologues but should have the direct approval of the majority of people affected by them, by way of a referendum. There should always be the option of calling a referendum for contentious laws, breaking the grip of the elective dictatorship that this country has become.

However, to have an effective planning system does require an effective (and democratic) local government, and even without these proposals, there are signs that this government is working towards the almost total abolition of local democracy.

This, in an almost Orwellian fashion, is being perpetrated under the guise of "devolution", where two-tier local authorities such as those in North Yorkshire are being amalgamated into the County Council to form one mega-authority of over 600,000 people.

There are in this world over sixty sovereign states with populations of less than 600,000, including Luxembourg, one of the founding members of the EEC, and a full member of the EU in its own right. Anybody who wants to assert that an authority with 600,000 residents is a local authority isn't right in the head.

We saw this with the recent partial Covid-19 "lockdown" in Bradford where, with no notice at all, we were instructed by the incumbent in Downing Street that we could no longer have visitors. By "Bradford", of course, he meant the Metropolitan District of Bradford – an abortion of an administrative area which encompasses a population of near half a million.

The thing is that, although I am forced to pay my council tax to this council, I don't live in Bradford, any more than do the people of Queensbury, Keighley, Bingley and Shipley. I live in an urban village called Wibsey to the south of the city, which actually predates Bradford as an independent settlement. The instruction was ignored.

To that extent, the foundation of democratic consent, and the respect for the law, rests with strong, healthy local government. Authority should not be seen as a remote, detached entity which hands down instructions and periodically demands large chunks of money. Destroy local government and you set down the path of destroying the very essence of government.

As with so many things, this government doesn't seem to have the first idea of what it is doing. In its own way, though, it could prove to be more destructive than the 2,700 tons of Ammonium Nitrate in Beirut Port. With its incompetence on Covid-19, it's already killed far more people.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 06/08/2020 link

Politics: a constitutional affront


Cummings is a very privileged man. He has a father who just happens to own a spare house on a secluded farm into which he and his family could move at the drop of a hat.

But, if the media had really wanted to nail Johnson's chief advisor, all they had to do was ask him what he would have done if his dad's house hadn't been instantly available, from which his family could secure child care. Clearly, other people have managed situations similar to that confronted by Cummings, without the luxury of an alternative home.

When, as he would have to have done, Cummings had come up with other options which (perforce) would not have involved driving 260 miles to a vacant house, that would have demonstrated that his chosen path was not his only possible option.

On that basis, he could not then have claimed he had a "reasonable excuse" driving to Durham with his wife and child, by virtue of his need to access child care (Regulation 6 (2)(i)(I)), it would have been only his preferred option, notwithstanding that no childcare seems to have been sought.

That said, this affair has also shown up far greater fault lines in Britain's system of government than the matter of Cummings's journey north. In the greater scheme of things - the fact that Dominic Cummings, a special advisor, delivered a press conference from the garden of No 10 Downing Street is far more importatnt. This is more than unprecedented.

In this respect, Cummings was not only in breach of the code of conduct for special advisors, he was being treated as a cabinet minister, afforded the full resources of the state for the purpose of explaining himself to the public. That is an affront to the constitution of the United Kingdom.

But the fact that Cummings is even a special advisor relies on a political and constitutional innovation going back only to 1964 when Harold Wilson's first Labour government appointed party supporters to provide political advice to ministers. Since then, the special advisor (SpAd) system has been adopted by all governments.

However, in days gone by (and particularly before 1950, for reasons I will explain shortly), prime ministers who needed close advisors who – like Cummings – had executive roles, did have mechanisms for bringing these people into government.

Prior to 1950, when they were abolished, one useful mechanism was the university constituency. Some of these, effectively, were safe seats in the gift of prime ministers, who could insert persons of their choice in the confident expectation that an obedient electorate would return them to parliament.

An example of this was Sir John Anderson, a brilliant civil servant who in 1938 was elected to parliament in a by-election as a non-party supporter of the national government.

He had been proposed by the national government headed by Neville Chamberlain and, by October of that year had been appointed to his cabinet as Lord Privy Seal. In that capacity, he was put in charge of air raid preparations and initiated the development of the famous air-raid shelter named after him.

Had Cummings back in the 1930s been required to take the senior role in government that he occupies now, it is arguable that he would have followed the route taken by Anderson. He would have become an MP via one of the prime minister's grace and favour seats, and shortly thereafter he would have been made a minister.

After 1950, prime ministers who wanted to bring a confidante into government would have to choose the safe seat route but this – and especially after the shock result in Newbury in 1993 - has been considered increasingly insecure. Voters might reject what they see as political carpetbaggers.

In any event, the situation even back in Sir John Anderson's day was never really satisfactory. On the one hand, one cannot deny the right of a prime minister to appoint those people he feels he needs to run his government (although the Labour Party doesn't allow this), but there must be due process and accountability.

When prime ministers have to rely on the artefact of what amounts to a rigged election, the system is being abused. The purpose of elections is to vote for MPs who will represent their constituents in parliament – not to provide prime ministers with a mechanism for creating new ministers.

If we are to address this issue, we need to stop messing about. As set out in The Harrogate Agenda, we must separate the processes of appointing our MPs and ministers, including prime ministers. And that means separation of powers.

In the first instance, then, we need a directly elected prime minister – not a president, but a prime minister. The moment one talks about this, there will always be someone who pops out of the woodwork saying "we don't want an elected president".

Here, one can only agree. We already have a head of state – the monarch. That doesn't change. Directly electing prime ministers doesn't miraculously turn them into presidents. If you directly elect a prime minister, you end up with an elected prime minister.

Direct election would correct a manifest unfairness in our current arrangements. When I first wrote about the Harrogate Agenda, I noted that prime minister David Cameron had gained office by virtue of 33,973 votes in the 2010 general election.

All those votes had been cast in the constituency of Witney, which boasted 78,220 electors. The rest of the nation was not allowed to vote for the man. He may have been elected as an MP, but he was not elected as prime minister through a general franchise.

As to Johnson, out of 70,369 electors in the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, only 25,351 voted for him – hardly a ringing endorsement of the man, even as an MP. But, as with Cameron and every other prime minister before him, no one actually voted for Johnson as a prime minister. In this country, we have unelected prime ministers – unelected, that is, by universal franchise.

When it comes to ministers, these are not elected either. They are appointed by the prime minister from both houses of parliament. By tradition, Secretaries of State should be MPs so that they can address the Commons.

But we do not see parliament's function as being to provide a distressingly shallow gene pool from which ministers can be recruited. One antidote to the contempt with which politicians are regarded is for parliament to do its job as the protector of the people, rather than the supporter of governments and the provider of its management personnel.

Its main tasks should be preparing legislation for public approval, the scrutiny of government, and then the representation of the people to government. For that to happen, the institution has to attract the right people and be properly structured. As long as its main function is to provide ambitious politicians with the means to enter government, it can never properly perform its proper roles.

Thus we would argue for a system close to that adopted by the United States. Our directly elected prime ministers should be able to select their own ministers, who then should be ratified by parliament before they can take up their appointments. MPs would not be allowed to be ministers and any MPs appointed as ministers would have to resign their memberships.

In the case of breach of duty or alleged malpractice, such as the situation in which Cummings has placed himself, then it would be parliament which should conduct inquiries and decide whether transgressors keep their posts.

With Cummings though, there could be another route into office. In the US system, there is a formal office of White House Chief of Staff. If Cummings is the equivalent for Downing Street, then the role should be formally recognised and its scope properly defined. As it stands, in the British system of government, there is no such post as chief of staff to the prime minister.

Such a role, though, would fit much better into a system where we have a directly elected prime minister, who appoints his own staff – with suitable checks and balances. That way, the prime minister should become responsible to parliament for their conduct, and then to the electorate.

In that scenario, we would not have dominating the bank holiday news in the middle of a crisis, the self-indulgent spectacle of a prime ministerial advisor holding forth to the media on the Downing Street lawn.

To that extent, Cummings has done us a favour in illustrating quite how rotten this particular part of the British system of government has become. But whether anyone will learn the lesson from it is anyone's guess.

Richard North 26/05/2020 link

Brexit: power to the people


In a different world, it might be of some interest that the House of Lords has approved the Withdrawal Bill, having added five amendments.

But since it is likely that these amendments will be voted down by compliant Tory MPs, this will simply trigger what is known as a "ping-pong" period between the two chambers, eventually ending up in some sort of fudged compromise.

Under normal circumstances, the Lords do have some leverage because Johnson needs to get this Bill into law before the end of the month, and the Lords can run it right to the wire if they hold their nerve.

But these are not normal times, so predictions are unwise. We will just have to wait to see what happens – idle spectators witnessing the wreckage of a system that once had some pretensions of becoming a democracy.

Oddly enough, the stresses are beginning to show, as Gordon Brown pops up with some comments on how to fix our ailing political system, proposing a "forum of the regions and nations and a council of the north" as well as a council for the Midlands.

These, he argues, should gain their funds in the same way as Wales and Scotland do, labelling this extremely modest proposal "a sort of constitutional revolution". We have been a unitary state for too long, he says. "Once we bring in nations and regions you have a very different kind of UK and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would feel more comfortable".

There is something of this in The Harrogate Agenda, only we go much further in suggesting local income tax and the approval of annual budgets through the medium of local referendums. What we cannot tolerate is another layer of politicians sucking at the tit of the public purse, demanding money with menaces and telling us what to do.

This is why the most recent regionalisation movement, pushed by John Prescott, failed. We simply do not want more politicians, redistributing power between them. If there is to be a "constitutional revolution", it must involve a real transfer of power to the people.

In this sense, it really is quite wearying to see yet another politician perceive that there are flaws in our system of governance, only to come up with yet another raft of proposals which do not address the core failings. None so far have put the finger on the main defect, the failure to recognise that the essence of democracy is empowering people.

Coincidentally, we get a long whinge in the Guardian with Alberto Alemanno complaining "that the EU won't fix its democratic deficit with another top-down 'conference'".

This is a reference to Ursula von der Leyen honouring a promise she made after her appointment last year, to launch a two-year "deliberative process" tasked with overhauling how the EU works and listening to the voices of its citizens.

Alemanno's concern is that the conference is supposed to be "a bottom-up exercise where European citizens are listened to and their voices contribute to the debates on the future of Europe". What he evidently doesn't appreciate is that all the "listening" in the world will be to no avail if those listening are not required to act on what they hear.

But then, Alemanno, whose day job is working as professor of EU law at the HEC in Paris, is also the founder of an outfit called The Good Lobby, which aims to foster "collaborations between civil society and professionals (lawyers, consultants, academics)" willing to share their time and talents, "training civil society on the different ways in which we can make a change".

One of these days, one hopes, the chatterati might begin to realise that there is very little to be achieved by creating endless talking shops. Meaningful change will only be delivered when people have the power to make it happen. The trick is to enable that process without having to resort to violent revolution.

If there is an unlikely place to start looking for solutions, it might be the OECD, which at least is trying to get to grips with the way regulation works and how to make it better.

Explained in outline here, the OECD has been carrying out an assessment across all EU countries and the European Union of the use of stakeholder engagement, regulatory impact assessment (RIA), and ex post evaluation to improve the quality of laws and regulations.

With more detail provided by the OECD, we see the observation that "better regulation agendas" need "constant attention". The "set and forget", model of regulation does not work, says the OECD, just as it does not work for laws themselves.

This homes in on a particular interest of mine for, while the OECD argues for full "stakeholder" engagement before laws are made, it places special emphasis on systematic ex post evaluation of laws, leading to a review of existing regulations to determine whether regulatory goals have been achieved. This then allows for the introduction of improvements and the removal of obsolete or ineffective laws.

The issue here is that pre-legislative consultation is of limited value. Even those who will be directly affected often have difficulty visualising how new laws will work, and very often it is not until a law is in force that its faults are revealed.

In practical terms, the ability to change a faulty law is an important test of any democratic system. And it is here that not only the EU fails, but where we see a lack of flexibility in dealing with globalisation and the laws which emerge from global or regional bodies.

What we find is that, when standards and agreements are presented to national legislatures for codification as national law, texts cannot be changed and, once installed, the laws are almost impossible to change. Thus, what the OECD doesn't do, with its emphasis on ex post evaluation, is empower ordinary people.

For the next iteration of The Harrogate Agenda, however, we think we have at least a partial solution, which lies in the wider use of waivers and safeguards in international agreements, the nature of which is discussed here.

In short, our government should be constitutionally prohibited from agreeing to any treaty which did not encompass either waivers or safeguard provisions (of the nature of Art 112 of the EEA Agreement) which will permit any party to disapply specific provisions, without having to denounce entire agreements.

Where we then find that we are bound by an inappropriate or damaging law, which stems from an international agreement, the electorate should have the power to hold a referendum to demand a waiver or suspension of the relevant provisions, so that the law may be repealed or amended.

While one finds that some people manage to get extraordinarily worked up about such provisions, it is the case that both waivers and safeguards are common in international agreements, and provide vital safety valves where, otherwise, parties might feel the need to withdraw from them.

What is different here is that the people themselves are empowered to demand action, without having to go cap-in hand to the government in the hope that it might listen to their problems.

And there does lie the answer to many of our political woes. Politicians need to be aware that democracy comprises two parts, the people and power. Translated literally, democracy means people power, and without that power being thus devolved, no state can be considered to be a true democracy.

And, in the nature of things, if power is not given, it is taken. The latter is something that could be very messy.

Richard North 22/01/2020 link

Brexit: a loss of respect


I do so hate it when Guardian columnists seem to be making the most sense out of the increasingly surreal Brexit soap opera, but after Rafael Behr yesterday, we have Marina Hyde today with much the same message.

For Hyde's piece, the headline says nearly all: "'National Unity': the fantasy flick that will never make it out of development", with a sub-heading putting the verbal boot in: "Everyone has a pitch – but whether it's Caroline Lucas’s all-female reboot or Jo Swinson's Ken Clarke vehicle, they're duds".

With that, I can't even bring myself to write about or analyse the comings and goings of our increasingly irrelevant bunch of MPs. We're headed pell-mell for a no-deal Brexit and none of these Muppets seem to be able to put together a package which will both protect the nation from unnecessary damage and respect the result of the referendum.

Of course it's actually too late. Mrs May blew it up-front by not committing to stay in the Single Market (which should have meant Efta/EEA) and then, after she had salvaged what little she could from the wreckage of her own policy, parliament screwed the pooch by not ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement.

Dire though the Agreement was, it was the best of a bad job, brought to us by an incompetent prime minister, surrounded by incompetent (and largely gutless) Cabinet colleagues. But then, I suppose, to have expected competence from parliament, when it functions as the ministerial gene pool, is asking too much. Paddling in those shallow waters would scarcely wet the soles of a journeyman's boots.

Not any of them who voted against the Agreement seems to have understood that voting against the deal doesn't stop Brexit. It gets you Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and a one-way ticket to a no-deal on 31 October. Funny that, but there you go. Voting against the deal gets you no-deal. And they still haven't really worked that one out.

Another thing the MPs don't seem to have worked out is that they are no longer a sovereign legislature. Parliament gave that up when it allowed us in 1972 to join the EEC and has lost more of its power with every passing treaty, right up to the Lisbon Treaty which came into force in 2009.

Although some of them occasionally mouth the words, they haven't really sussed the fact that, if EU law is supreme, their laws ain't any more. And when they ratified the Lisbon Treaty, they allowed into force Article 50 which set the default criteria for a departing nation to leave the EU.

Thus, while they continue to prattle about taking a no-deal "off the table", or otherwise blocking it, they clearly haven't come to terms with the fact that they blew their best chance when they blocked the ratification of the deal. Now, apart from deposing the man occupying the post of prime minister – which they're not going to do – they've run out of options.

Short of a witch riding into the House of Commons on a broomstick and waving her magic wand, Johnson is going to let the clock run down and we'll be out on 31 October with no-deal. And since Harriet Harman didn't complete her witch-school diploma (perhaps Kings Cross was closed again), the MPs are fresh out of luck.

Yet another thing they're not getting is that Johnson wants and needs a vote of no confidence. That's his best and surest route to a general election, and puts him in the driving seat to recommend a post-Brexit contest, which he is sure to win if he gets the timing right.

The very last thing he wants to do is to be stuck with a minuscule majority, having to ride out the storm when his no-deal Brexit finally goes belly-up. That will leave him to face a general election that he cannot possibly win. If Corbyn – or the people around him - had any tactical acumen, he would make sure he loses any vote of no confidence (without making it too obvious), leaving Johnson to hold the baby.

Matthew Parris writes that this week's "half-hearted intervention" by Corbyn suggests "he's happy to watch Britain crash out of the EU", but perhaps the opposition leader has at last understood that his best bet for long-term office as prime minister rests on keeping Johnson in-place for as long as possible.

Looking at the broader picture though, one is minded of a number of recent news stories asserting that criminals are no longer afraid of the police. But, when scruffy, loutish constables hit the streets – where the dustbin men are better-dressed – it is not so much fear that is the issue, but lack of respect.

And when ordinary, law-abiding citizens find that the main outcome of any contact with the police is either a shed-load of grief or a severely depleted wallet (arising, for instance, from predatory speed camera fines), and when they are needed, they are as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard, they are in danger of losing public support just when they need it most.

The point of making this point is that public bodies, including (or especially) parliament, rely on the respect of the people they supposedly serve in order to function in an effective manner. Yet, in the Marina Hyde piece, we see her referring to politicians indulging in "weapons-grade wankery".

This may only be a straw in the wind, but such disrespect – amusing though it is – also illustrates that parliament perhaps has a bigger problem than it cares to acknowledge. And when MPs complain of thousands of abusive e-mails, tweets and other communications, this seems to be an institution which is suffering exactly the same problem that the police are confronting.

There are those who will make a direct link between the increase in violent offences against the police and the erosion of respect, in which case MPs need to be asking themselves whether their rougher handling is a symptom of the same thing. And, given that, how long will it be before MPs are needing police protection in order to go out canvassing during election campaigns?

Never in my long career, which has kept me close to Westminster politicians for many decades, have I known such a mood abroad. And three years ago, Pete would not have dreamt of writing this piece which asserts that the [political] "system has failed", with him concluding that:
If MPs had been sincere about wanting to avoid a no deal Brexit they'd have voted for the withdrawal agreement, but every time I catch an MP wailing about no deal, it's usually the ones who voted it down all three times. They've had every opportunity to organise and shape the process but since 2016 their whole runtime has been devoted to nullifying my vote. That situation is far more serious than a no deal Brexit. This is now a constitutional matter and we have to put these people back in their place - whatever the cost.
Interestingly, yesterday saw the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, where British soldiers slaughtered and maimed peaceful protesters gathered to demand political reform. The efforts of those protesters paved the way for the Chartists who were responsible, directly and indirectly, for the universal suffrage – and in whose footsteps The Harrogate Agenda follows.

But even with that, democracy in this country has always been work in progress, and while the direction of travel for the last two centuries has been encouraging, of late we seem to be regressing. Not only do we have an unelected prime minister, we have a cabal in parliament plotting to replace him, again without an election, to frustrate the democratic outcome of the 2016 referendum. And neither the prime minister in office nor his putative replacement(s) have any popular mandate for what they propose to do. Says Pete on this:
This we cannot afford any longer. We need the decision making back where we can see it and we need to re-engage the public. We need the public in charge because our politics is incapable of delivering. Of course there will be those who fight tooth and nail to avoid having to take up this responsibility, who don't want their self-indulgence and privilege disturbed - usually the liberal middle classes, but they're the ones who did this to us in the first place so we don't owe them anything.
The one thing we certainly don't owe this motley lot is respect. Over the last three years, our ruling elites – in government and in parliament – have forfeited both the respect and the trust of the population at large.

To be honest, I don't see them getting it back. Without realising it, they've crossed the Rubicon, headed for a destination from which there is no return. Some commentators would even suggest that this opens the way for a repeat of Peterloo, but the élites need to ponder over whether, this time, they might be the target.

Once respect is lost, what follows is not easy to control, if indeed control is possible.

Richard North 17/08/2019 link

The Harrogate Agenda: a package of reforms


Amid all the negatives, there is one possible positive outcome from the selection of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as UK prime minister. Once the full horror of this creature hits home, people may rebel against the system that put him there and move towards a directly elected prime minister.

Before we get there, however, we have a lot of thinking to do, from which needs to emerge a degree of clarity about the nature of democracy which currently does not seem to exist.

A classic example of the muddle we're in comes this weekend from Nick Cohen who writes a piece lamenting the decay of democracy. In this, he puts much of the blame on what he calls "party democracy", asserting that it is the "enemy of representative democracy".

In this, I am of the view that the moment you have to qualify "democracy" with an adjective, it is no longer democracy. Thus, I have long asserted that, as wooden is to leg, representative is to democracy. The same must be said of party democracy – neither can qualify as a meaningful form of democracy.

To that extent, the UK is not and never has been a democracy. Rather like Brexit, which I defined as a process rather than an event, way before anyone else thought of doing so, democracy in the UK has never been a fixed state. It is more a direction of travel, an aspiration to higher things that we will eventually achieve.

Nick Cohen, in his dissertation, relies heavily on historian Robert Saunders to guide him through the matrix, thus displaying the bad habit of many contemporary columnists and journalists in hiding behind the opinions of others instead of asserting his own.

Thus, after a dissection of the demerits of the role of political parties – and especially with reference to the election of our next prime minister – Cohen still manages to confuse himself with the contradictory assertion that, "we are a democracy and power should flow from the people, not from a privileged caste in a private club".

The contradiction, of course, is that unless power flows from the people, we cannot be a democracy and if – as is most definitely the case with the selection of the prime minister – we are in the grip of a party clique, we cannot by definition be a democracy.

It is there that Cohen brings in Saunders to suggest remedies. Either, he says, we return to MPs choosing leaders, and thereby accept that no one can become prime minister without first holding an election, or we move to a presidential system with a directly elected prime minister.

For our money, though, all we're getting is another element of confusion. Like so many, Saunders seems to believe that the process of electing a prime minister somehow turns it into a presidential system.

Yet, as I keep pointing out, presidents are heads of states. Prime ministers are heads of governments. To directly elect prime ministers does not miraculously turn them into presidents. If we have a system of directly elected prime ministers, then that is what we get – a system of direct election, not a presidential system.

As to having our MPs elect prime ministers, this goes back to the electoral college system. And if that has some merits, they are vastly overrated. I cannot see the need (at least in the UK) to interpose another layer between the people and the leader of their government. If the prime minister is to be elected, let the people do it, and cut out the middle man.

But there is more to the process of direct election than simply the selection of a prime minister. With this system comes something we do not have in this country – a proper separation of powers, where MPs are elected to scrutinise government, not to become part of it. A prime minister should not be an MP and neither should ministers. Government should govern, and parliament should scrutinise.

In his attack on the party system, though, Cohen does have a point, where he calls in aid Saunders once more to say that control of politics has passed to unelected and irresponsible members of the respective political parties. Says Saunders, "Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt needs the support of about 70,000-80,000 Tory members to become prime minister. That's roughly the size of one parliamentary constituency".

The thing is that political parties are primarily election-fighting machines. Without them, we would be even more prone to the situation where money buys elections, with the rich being the only people who could afford to stand. If one is to reduce the role of parties, therefore, we need to change the way elections work.

For my money, I would abolish general elections altogether, as a means of choosing MPs. The big electoral event should be directed at picking the prime minister. For MPs, I have argued that there should be a means of tying constituency boundaries to those of local authorities, allowing local communities to take control.

It should be for each local community to decide the terms and conditions of the appointment of their MPs, and the money to pay their salaries and expenses should be raised locally rather than paid from central funds.

For accountability purposes, MPs should be required to publish annual reports and (audited) accounts, which would then be subject to a vote of approval from the constituents. If the report or accounts were rejected, then there should be a by-election. Otherwise, the MPs continue to stand for as long as they get affirmative votes.

For by-elections, one possible antidote to party dominance would be to have prospective candidates vetted by an independent (or cross-party) panel, appointed by the local authority. A finite number who pass the selection process might then be awarded grants from public funds, with which to fight their elections, that becoming the absolute spending limit. Party sponsorship should be prohibited and candidates should not be allowed to join political parties.

The intention here is to turn MP elections into local events. The big weakness of the current system is that people tend to vote for the party rather than the person, thus cementing in the dominance of the parties. But when there is no party to vote for, and the election is for an MP rather than for a government, one hopes that the focus would be on the people standing for election.

Here, there is also another element. Currently, many of us are appalled by the low grade of MPs in the Commons, typified by their inability to grasp the technical issues of Brexit – and much else. Yet, if we have learnt anything, it is that the scrutiny of government is a tough and demanding job. Before standing for election, candidates should at least show evidence of an ability to perform the necessary functions.

This, though, cannot be all. In his earlier piece, Saunders argues that other changes are needed. Like the buildings it inhabits, he says, parliament needs urgent renovation. The first priority, he thinks, is a new voting system that more accurately represents the spectrum of national opinion. The second of his changes is to replace the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which allows zombie governments to linger on when they can no longer pass their major legislation.

Thirdly, he says that parliament should radically reduce its workload, distributing more of its powers to local and devolved government. Party members are right to prize the immediacy of a smaller, more responsive democracy; but that should be open to all, and not just to a fee-paying minority.

It is interesting how many people think that tinkering with the voting system is an answer to anything - as if other systems have solved the dominance of political parties elsewhere in the world. But Suanders's third idea is very much a core part of The Harrogate Agenda (THA), where we see central government doing far too much. The larger part of the system of government could be devolved to local authorities, with the spending ambitions of local politicians constrained by annual referendums on local authority budgets.

And that was the key lesson we learnt from our work on THA – that piecemeal measures were not enough. We crafted a package of six demands which work together as a whole. The last one, incidentally, was the creation of a constitutional convention with a view to drafting a written constitution. No longer is it safe (not that it ever was) to allow either governments or MPs untrammelled power to decide on constitution issues.

If power is to flow from the people, so that eventually we get closer to being a functional democracy, then the people must be the constitutional authority who decide on the allocation of powers in this land.

Richard North 14/07/2019 link

Brexit: it's a little late for big visions


Guest post by Pete.

Us Norths have taken our fair share of Flak for slamming the Farage Party over the years. Primarily we have focused on the total absence of an intellectual foundation - and from that negligence flows all of the subsequent unforced errors. But somewhere along the line, it lost sight of the objective by taking too many shortcuts.

We always took the view that Farage sacrificed steady movement building for rapid growth, hoovering up the BNP votes in the process by pivoting to immigration. This was always a mistake. For all the hard work in establishing Ukip as a non racist party, it was only ever going to end up being tarred with that brush by banging on about immigration. The longer it went on, the more gaffes came to light revealing the party to be made up of Muslim-obsessed "gammon".

Now you can very easily argue that we wouldn't have had a referendum were it not for this shortcut, but it didn't take a genius to work out that winning the referendum would only be a foothold and the movement would need to maintain a vehicle to hold the government's feet to the fire. Having soured the brand, not least by appointing an entourage of quarterwits who wouldn't threaten him, there was nothing salvageable after June 2016. Farage very much wanted it that way. He engineered it so no-one could follow him. 

And now, we are here, in yet another extension, necessitating a new vehicle for the eurosceptic vote. Enter The Brexit Party. A fresh start. The dregs were left behind in Ukip, very possibly kept running as a scapegoat and as a receptacle for the dregs now cast off by Farage.

Being generous, we can say it made a respectable impact at the Euro elections, but then it would struggle not to being that we have not actually left the EU, turnout was only marginally better than the usual low turnout, and Theresa May had lost all of her credibility. With PR being what it is, The Brexit Party would have to spectacularly screw up not to have scored a win.

And then we can say that it most certainly is holding the Tories' feet to the fire. It has them in such a panic that it's almost a dead cert that Boris Johnson will take the leadership. Both remaining candidates are pledging to leave without a deal and both believe the Tories are looking at extinction if we do not leave by November. As far as the Brexit Party is concerned, that's then mission accomplished and their MEPs can stand down. 

This exposes the fundamental breakdown of the eurosceptic movement. This is now less about political outcomes as it is simply having our Brexit day. Brexit for its own sake. The party will then expire as Ukip did or retreat to the margins once more.

But that is far from "mission accomplished". We have long criticised the leave movement over the absence of a plan for Brexit, which has its own consequences, but now there will be no voice to shape what comes afterwards.

Though the immediate future is highly unpredictable, there are certain facts of life that will shape events. Primarily that the UK needs a comprehensive trade and cooperation relationship with the EU, our nearest and largest single trade partner. All the questions we kick into the long grass by leaving without a deal will come back to haunt us. This blog warned from the beginning that a botched Brexit could see us sucked into an associate membership or worse, reabsorption into the EU.

That is why the leave movement needed a long term strategy and a domestic agenda to further incentivise and to leverage the Brexit momentum into more meaningful change. This is why The Harrogate Agenda was rolled up into Flexcit. It was a good idea then, and after three years of our political dysfunction exposed to the light of day, it's an even better idea now.

But who needs a plan huh? Farage is the man who delivered the referendum and will take us over the finish line. Even if we accept that, the bigger question of what next becomes all the more urgent. If we are to leave the EU only for the Westminster establishment to limp on in damage control mode then it is difficult to see what we achieve by any of it. 

But hold your horses! BP's Richard Tice tweets "I’ve just announced at our #BigVisionRally a few of our direct democracy policies: Scrap the vanity project HS2, Halve our bloated foreign aid budget, Don't pay the Brussels bureaucrats £39bn, Cancel interest rates on student fees (including historic rates)". That's right! The Brexit Party is poised to race to the rescue with this visionary package of ideas to take Britain in a whole new direction. This, apparently, is why we fought four long decades to take us out of the EU - to save chump change and implement diktats we were never prevented from doing in the first place. Big vision indeed. That it has taken them this long to realise they need one is telling. 

This is where it becomes abundantly apparent that the Brexit Party is little more than Ukip 2.0, scraping the bottom of the barrel of crowd pleasing populist policies, devoid of any strategy which in the end amounts to much the same sort of managerial tinkering that currently governs us. This reduces the Brexit Party to grubbing around on the fringes for votes with nothing fresh on the menu - and as the party is gifted more publicity the gloss will fade and the usual incompetence and cronyism will creep back in.

As the Tory party is mired in its own identity crisis, a coherent movement with even half a clue could take advantage of the political vacuum, but come the next election, if the Brexit Party is even capable of mounting a nationwide campaign, it will struggle to do any better than Ukip in 2015, while swing voters desert the right entirely. The agenda is then almost entirely in the hands of remainers who will sign us up to anything the EU puts in front of us and will grovel while they're doing it.

There are two basic misapprehensions at work here. Firstly the belief that Brexit is an event and not a long term process, and that Brexit day of itself is not the final objective nor a destination. As ever, Farage has taken another shortcut, preferring the instant gratification of a no deal Brexit where yet again he can walk away and wash his hands of it.

At every stage the Brexit movement has handed the initiative to opponents of Brexit. They could have worked toward a settlement that would have seen the ultra remainers reduced to a petulant fringe - but by embarking on a sustained campaign of no deal propaganda, the entire weight of parliament and the media has turned against them. And rightly so. Even now, in saner corners of the leave camp, they are privately saying they would prefer a delay or even no Brexit than a botched Brexit. It is very possible that sentiment could find a voice before November. The game is not over yet.

As it happens, we don't see any way to salvage it. Johnson's Brexit plan (if we can call it that) is sure to fail, not least because any UK contingent of negotiators sent back to Brussels will be sitting in an empty room twiddling their thumbs. All that's left is the high drama and the exchange of bitter words. That may well be a win for Farage, but it's a body blow for the UK, and in the end, may see the movement's work undone and their political aspirations turn to ashes. That will be the ultimate legacy of Farage.

Pete North 02/07/2019 link

Brexit: time for change


"If MPs can't be interviewed on College Green, that's bad for our democracy", said Harriet Harman yesterday during a session of the House of Commons human rights committee.

And there we see that familiar lack of self-awareness that besets our political masters. For most people, a significant reduction in the number of MPs being interviewed would represent a welcome improvement in the quality of television news.

More to the point, given the shanty town that has sprung up on the Green (pictured), with free passage obstructed by self-important media personalities babbling to politicians, a total prohibition of MP interviews would be in order. This would allow the area to be returned to its former state as a public green space.

On a more serious note, the committee was hearing evidence from Metropolitan police chief, Cressida Dick, that criminal abuse and harassment of MPs were running at unprecedented levels, reflecting "polarised opinions" in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. According to official statistics, the number of crimes committed against MPs had more than doubled to 342 in 2018 from 151 the year before.

That is the Guardian's take on the session, but there are several ways of looking at these data. A more objective – i.e., less self-centred – view might be that MPs have so disgraced themselves by their actions on Brexit that they have lost the respect of the public they supposedly serve.

That is not to say that threats against MPs are in any way to be condoned, but our elected representatives surely have no good cause for being surprised. It would be naïve to expect that there would be no consequences arising from their misdeeds.

Clearly, though, the political classes are incapable of recognising or understanding how far their standing has fallen with the public. But, if they needed another measure, the opinion polls on Farage's plaything party tell a similar story. Had they truly appreciated the significance, they might even now be pressing Mrs May and Mr Corbyn to reach a deal, so that they could get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified.

The odd thing, though, is that MPs don't seem to be able to connect the dots. But if they hide themselves behind increased layers of security, the situation can only get worse. They will get more and more detached from ordinary people. As it is, the Houses of Parliament have become such a fortress that it is tiresome visiting people there.

It would be a great shame, therefore, if we stood by passively and allowed the situation to deteriorate or, at best, were content with the status quo. The loss of public confidence in our political classes creates a good opportunity to promote fundamental political reforms, establishing real change to the political system.

Here, I note with some wry amusement the aggressive defence sometimes offered for Farage in terms of "at least he's doing something" – as opposed to us lowly mortals who spend our time at our keyboards, devoting endless time to the excruciating task of defining possible solutions to our predicament.

This strikes at one of the particularly unwholesome characteristics of this country – a general lack of respect for intellectual effort. Thus, a vacuous demagogue can tour the country delivering meaningless speeches which offer no solutions to anything, yet be applauded for "doing something", while those who are constructively seeking to provide answers are ignored – that is when the sneering classes are not simply trashing our work.

Long before the likes of Farage got in on the act, on 14 July 2012, a group of 33 of us assembled at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, the same hotel in which Agatha Christie re-appeared after she had gone missing in December 1926, with a view to addressing what we regarded then as a failing political system.

The object of our conference was to frame six demands in the manner of the "People's Charter" produced by the Chartists in 1838. We noted that the original aim of the Chartists had been to reform the political system to make it more democratic, something which we also sought to do.

And, although five of the Chartists' six demands were eventually conceded, their work was not done: the system, we felt, was still very far from being democratic. Thus, following in their footsteps, we eventually conceived another six demands, which we then intended (and still do) to be the focus of a new political movement.

The fact that this is a slow burn does not dismay us. It took more than 60 years for just five of the six of the original Chartist demands to be fulfilled. When looking at political reform, everything has its own momentum and the pace cannot be forced. We have settled for a slow, steady process of introducing people to what we call The Harrogate Agenda (THA), in the expectation that our ideas will eventually prevail.

On the other side of the coin, if people can't be bothered to pursue a genuine grassroots movement, and take no interest in the products of a number of keen and experienced minds, they have only themselves to blame. Let them chase after the demagogues and see how far that gets them.

With that, we see a very real prospect of one of our six demands taking root in the relatively near future, our third demand where we call for the executive to be separated from the legislature, allowing the latter to perform its tasks that much better than it does at the moment.

The other half of this demand is that we end the obscenity of political parties treating the leadership of the government as their own personal plaything, to do with what they please. After Blair handed over the premiership to Brown, and then Cameron walked away from the job, for the Tories then to give it to Mrs May, we are again facing a situation where we get another prime minister imposed on us, with absolutely no say in his or her appointment.

To that effect, we argue that prime ministers should be elected by popular vote. Thus, if a prime minister resigns or otherwise vacates their post, we have to have a new election so that the people can decide who they want as prime minister.

When confronting this, however, an awful lot of people get rather confused. We are not talking about electing a head of state, but a head of government. Electing a head of government does not turn them into a head of state, or create a president. Powers, and the title, remain the same.

Furthermore, as head of state, the monarch stays in place with unchanged powers, including the right to appoint the prime minister. But, after our reforms, the monarch would do so on the basis of the people's chosen one being willing and able to form a government.

In that context, we do borrow from the US system, and have our prime ministers appoint their own cabinet, and their other ministers. All appointments, however, have to be approved by parliament, and can be dismissed if they lose the confidence of parliament. On the other hand, no prime ministers or their ministers are allowed to be members of parliament or any devolved legislative assembly.

At the time I did the evaluation for THA, there were, typically, around 140 ministers, whips and other office-holders in the Commons. Collectively, they are known as the "payroll vote", people who may be assumed to vote with the government, and to defend its policies and actions.

But the problem is far worse than this basic arithmetic would suggest. Add the Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) and the "greasy pole climbers" who have hopes of preferment but have not yet been promoted, and the number climbs to 200 or so on the government benches. When it comes to holding the government to account, all these people are compromised.

Even then, this is by no means the full extent of the distortion. The fact that the Commons is the main pool for recruiting ministers - and the only prime ministerial pool – also changes the dynamics of the institution.

A goodly number of people who enter parliament have no intention of remaining MPs for their entire careers. They want to join the government. For them, parliament is not an end in itself, but a means to a different end, the first step on a career path which ends up in ministerial office. This should not be the case.

It is no part of parliament's function to provide the gene pool for governments, and nor do we want people becoming MPs just or mainly because it affords a route to power. We want MPs to do the job for which parliament was created – to scrutinise the government and to act as a constraint on its power, all in the name of the people.

And in that role, there develops an alliance between parliament and the people. MPs are specifically excluded from being part of the government so, if any are appointed as ministers or other office holders, they must leave the Commons.

Such changes are real changes, presaging a different way of doing politics – not the ersatz changes being proposed by Farage and his motley crew, much less Change UK which firmly stands for maintaining the status quo. Since we are going through the trauma of Brexit, we might as well get something useful out of it.

Richard North 09/05/2019 link

Brexit: living in hope


We're getting to something of the same situation that we've seen with the referendum. The people have voted and now the pundits are moving in to decide what they meant by it all. Whatever was actually meant by it all, the pundits will know better and will decide for us what we did (some of us) last Thursday.

As it is, the central facts are clear enough. The Conservatives took a drubbing, losing 1,334 councillors and 44 councils. This was far worse than they even imagined and, in the normal scheme of things, a significant proportion of their losses might have gone to Labour. Instead, the main opposition party lost 82 councillors and six councils.

UKIP was also a loser, dropping 145 seats but, by contrast, the Lib Dems gained 703 seats. Independents grabbed 612 and the Green Party managed to pick up 194 seats. And had there been "none of the above" boxes, that vote might have swept the field, especially as we are getting reports that as many as 30,000 voters may have spoiled their papers.

Beyond that, everything else is speculation. The BBC, in its report helpfully tells us that the Lib-Dems and the Greens are "pro-EU", allowing an inference that this was an anti-Brexit protest vote, with the inference reinforced by the poor showing of Ukip.

But one can also recall that the Lib Dems in 2015 were suffering from the fall-out from being part of a coalition government and did particularly badly, losing 411 seats. Likely, they were going to recover some of their lost vote and they are naturally the party of protest, which possibly gave them an added edge.

As for the Greens, they have been high-profile with their "climate emergency" schtick, which may well have translated into votes. Ukip, in disarray, failed to field as many candidates as it did in 2015, so it was always going to do badly in these elections. The independents, being independents, are going to be hard to read, so there can be no specific Brexit inference, but it is interesting to note that in 2015 they lost 125 seats.

What comes over loud and clear this time, though – that which was evident the moment the results started coming in – is that the voters in substantial numbers are turning away from the two main parties. And, if we allow Brexit-related issues to be the cause, then the most obvious inference is that they are dissatisfied with the failure of the two parties to do a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Mrs May certainly seems to have got the message, interpreting the election results as a message from voters to both main parties to "get on and deliver Brexit". She adds: "This is a difficult time for our party and these results are a symptom of that".

She may well be right on this as, when the results are translated into national shares of the vote, the Conservatives and Labour are level-pegging at 28 percent. This could suggest that Mr Corbyn has little to gain by holding out on a deal in the hope of precipitating a general election. Constructive ambiguity is not a vote-winner.

When one thus puts Corbyn's options together, his best interests might be served by reaching a deal with Mrs May as soon as possible. This would not only help to detoxify Brexit, but also avoid giving Farage's Brexit party a platform at the European elections. The very last thing he needs to do is give it a launch pad for its general election campaign.

For the rest, the pundits can come up with whatever explanations for the results that please them – as they always do. But if the strongest signal to emerge tells Corbyn that he has nothing to gain from dithering over Brexit, the net effect of these elections may be to expedite our withdrawal.

The crucial thing here is whether either side has sufficient control of their own MPs to be able to give effect to a deal. It is one thing the two principals agreeing between themselves to support the Withdrawal Agreement (against promises on the political declaration), but whether the rank and file will obey their whips is not something which is easy to predict.

Inevitably, the focus of late has been on the splits in the Tory party, but it is the case that Labour is also irreconcilably split, with plenty of the party's MPs potentially prepared to defy Corbyn if he takes them in a direction they don't like.

Yet, following Thursday's vote, there is a possibility that more than a few Labour MPs may change their views. The general thrust of the Brexit calculus is that a no-deal Brexit will be so destructive to the Conservative Party that the way will be opened for a Labour landslide along the lines of 1997.

But if both the main parties are going to take the flak, and there is going to be the added complication of the Brexit Party and Change UK, party interests may then be focused on getting Brexit out of the way as fast as possible, and reverting back to the two party dominance that has been a traditional feature of British politics.

The question then is whether we are seeing a long-term break-up of the de facto two-party system or whether – once Brexit is out of the way – politics will return to normal. This is a question that the big parties would like answered as much as ordinary voters. Certainly, at the moment, the resurgence of the Lib Dems looks more like traditional politics reasserting themselves.

Nevertheless, on occasions where we see big shifts in voting patterns, the ritual cries go up for reforms of the electoral system, with some sort of proportional representation being favoured. Others see salvation in the emergence of new parties, hoping that changes in allegiances will make the different.

In many respects, this is disappointingly superficial. Mostly, proposals represent trimming round the edges of the system, rather than accepting that it is so flawed that it needs fundamental revisions.

This notwithstanding, there is some merit in looking to the introduction of a "none of the above" (NOTA) system, where ballot papers give that as an option. The theory of that system is that, if NOTA gets more votes than the leading candidate, the election is declared void, requiring it to be re-run with different sets of candidates.

On top of this, I would like to see much more. Having an elected prime minister would be a good start, splitting the executive from the legislature (the first demand for The Harrogate Agenda). And elected prime ministers should be able to appoint their own ministers – subject to approval by parliament – drawn from outside the two Houses.

As for MPs, I would abolish the general election for parliamentary seats. Instead, I would have parliamentary constituencies share boundaries with local authorities, and have MPs paid from Council Tax. MPs would then submit annual reports and accounts, which would have to be approved by local votes. If MPs failed to get their approvals, they should be required to stand down and a by-election is called.

Necessarily, we will need to introduce a form of electronic voting. In the 21st Century, we should not be closing down schools for the day for people to stand in plywood booths and mark pieces of paper with pencils tied to bits of string. If the National Lottery can create a secure computer system for handling tickets, then there should be no great difficulty in computerising the election system, delivering results within hours of polls closing.

Of course, this would make referendums that much easier and quicker to set up - and much cheaper. We should not be spending £100 million or more every time we need to conduct a popular vote, much less be turfing children out of their schools.

For the moment, though, we just need to revel in the prospect that Brexit might just have come a little bit closer. This could be wishful thinking to an advanced degree but, for a few days at least, we should be allowed to live in hope.

Richard North 04/05/2019 link

Brexit: ye of little say


One of the most misleading mantras to find its way into the general Brexit discourse is the assertion that, outside the warm embrace of the European Union, the poor, impoverished and weakened United Kingdom will have "no say" in the making of the rules which govern international trading.

To make such a statement, unequivocally – i.e., without any qualification – simply transforms it into a meaningless slogan, useful for the gullible but really a hopeless waste of time when it comes to understanding how the global system works.

Crucially, though, the real issue is not the balance of power between the EU and the UK. This is something we addressed in formulating The Harrogate Agenda (THA). In actuality, powers in the hands of either Brussels and London represent an unhealthy degree of centralisation that puts law-making outside the reach of ordinary people.

Yet, even in pursuit of the most perfect form of democracy – whatever that might be – I would not aver that ordinary people should have the power to make laws. The process of law-making requires specialist skills and capabilities that rest, rightly, with dedicated legislatures. Rather, ordinary people should be able to approve the laws made on their behalf.

The interesting thing here is the necessary use of the plural form, "legislatures". In no democratic society or system could one countenance a single legislature. A guiding principle should be one of diversity, a multi-tiered system with laws being made at the lowest level practicable.

But that begets another, and quite obvious, principle – that law will necessarily be multi-tiered. There will be laws which quite naturally apply at international, national and local level – or even a multiplicity of local levels, from region, district and parish.

In this, one of difficulties we face is in defining the boundaries, much of which relates to the degree of mobility within society. A classic example is the weights and measures system. In more primitive societies, there would be multiple definitions of even basic measures, but as trading communities expanded it became more and more necessary to standardise over wider areas.

The advance of metric is a case in point, but it also points up some of the infelicities of standardisation. Opponents of its universal use would argue that there is no reason why there should not be a two-tier system, with traditional units used locally and in oral culture.

At this point, the definition of boundaries is one of the central issues – one at the heart of the Brexit debate. But it can be a false debate. In some respects, it doesn't really matter who makes the laws. Furthermore, the detail of those laws might be irrelevant. In some instances, it may be more important that there should be laws, and that they should be adopted universally.

An excellent example of this is GHS, the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. Looking at it from the perspective of international traders in chemicals, none of them will dispute the need for hazard symbols on their packaging, and there is no cost implication in requiring them. They would have to be provided anyway.

What traders do need, however, is consistency and predictability. They want to be able to package their goods and dispatch them to customers anywhere in the world without finding them held up on some obscure dockside, because of non-compliance with some arbitrary local ordinance. A universal law gives them that – the law creates the freedom to trade.

This brings us to another important area. So much of our technical law, effectively, makes itself and is largely uncontroversial. In that context, I am fond of citing the legal definition of jam, and the requirement for a minimum sugar content. This, in fact, is defined by the laws of nature – more specifically microbiology. The sugar content is defined by the level required to suppress fungal growth.

As it happens, the jam "law" was defined by Codex Alimentarius, only to be adopted by the EU and then to be translated into UK law. But, as I have pointed out many times, we would have adopted a very similar law even had we not joined the EU. And, when we finally leave the EU, we will keep this law and many like it.

In terms of technical law – effectively, our international trading rules – largely, these will continue to be made in much the same way that they are at the moment, by global bodies of various description. Where they go through the process of being adopted by the EU before being applied downstream, there is little flexibility to change them through the legislative system.

After many years of deliberation through the global system – with inputs from a huge variety of sources – when a standard arrives in Brussels, it is turned into a COM(final) by the Commission and is then presented to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers).

In the parliament, there is a great deal of grandstanding when it comes to amendments, but very few of these survive and most are rejected by the Commission. Some minor changes, seen as improvements, will be accepted. But, if the parliament pushes its luck, the Commission will "pull" the law and resubmit it at a later date.

As regards the Council, by far the bulk of the laws going through the system are agreed between officials to become "A points" which are approved automatically by ministers without discussion or a vote. The few that get past this level are largely QMV, and are rarely opposed, being agreed by consensus.

In effect, once a proposal for a law reaches the Commission, it is largely cast in stone. From thereon, there are all sorts of rituals in place to give the impression of debate, but in truth, no one really has a "say". The die is already cast.

In my view, this really doesn't matter. Again, I've said many times that I'm not going to be manning the barricades over the percentage of sugar in jam, or the many other technical standards to which we are bound. We are, I rather feel, looking in the wrong place.

So very often in the process of law-making, at whatever level, we make laws without any real idea of the consequences. Most of the time, that isn't a problem because there are few adverse side effects, or those effects are tolerable.

What does matter – again in my view – is when unacceptable consequences materialise and there is a need to change the law, or mitigate its effects. In an intergovernmental system, that is quite possible.

In most systems, a nation can simply opt out, accepting the consequences of that decision. But, in the supranational system of international governance that defines the European Union, that is not possible, The system is change-proof, guarded by the Commission – the guardian of the treaties. And that is why our membership of the EU is so objectionable.

That said, many of the international laws to which we are already bound are not likely to change in the foreseeable future. The fact that we had "no say" in them when they were made is of little importance. We've lived with them for many years so we can afford a few more years.

The day before the referendum, I wrote a piece entitled "correcting an historic mistake", in which I suggested that Brexit would not mean us leaving "Europe" – nor even travelling in a markedly different direction.

To that effect, I conjured up an image of multiple trains travelling on roughly parallel tracks. Each would be free to travel at its own speed and to stop at stations of their choice. Some may share the same destination, others may not. Still more may share part of the journey, diverging only as they travel on to reach their final destinations.

In an ideal world, the day after Brexit should be no different from the day before we left the EU. Initially travelling down parallel tracks, only gradually would our paths diverge. And even then, as we share many values and objectives, in many policy areas our divergencies may only be slight.

As we get used to this, we can build on our strengths and project our voice onto the international stage. But it is never going to be the case that we are going to dictate the international laws which define global trading. And it is hard to lament the loss of "say" when we had very little in the first place.

What we will need to do is find out – and for many, for the first time – how the international system actually works and how best to influence it. That - much to the chagrin of many Europhiles whose knowledge of the system is embarrassingly slender – does not involve throwing one's weight about in the couloirs of Brussels.

Rather, it requires a more nuanced approach which some of our neighbours have mastered better than have we. We can bleat about "no say" but our lack of voice will be the least of our problems. First, we must learn what we need to say, to whom and how.

Richard North 21/04/2019 link

Brexit: one small step


You might have thought that former foreign secretary Johnson might have learned something about the EU in his long journey from Telegraph hack to backbench MP and Telegraph columnist. In his latest column, though, we see a parade of the most extraordinary ignorance about the nature of the Withdrawal Agreement and the embedded backstop.

Clearly, Mr Johnson simply does not understand some key facts that lie at the heart of our post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Both rehearsed many time on this blog, the first is that, once we leave the EU, we become a third country. The second is that the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland becomes part of the external border of the European Union.

Since it is an undisputed shared objective of the EU and the UK that this border should be "frictionless", this creates a unique situation where a back door via the Irish Republic is opened into the EU's Single Market, potentially compromising its integrity to such an extent that it puts the whole concept at risk.

To avoid this, the European Union has no option but to insist as part of our withdrawal agreement on a series of measures which will secure the integrity of the Single Market. And it is from this that stems the so-called backstop – the protocol on Ireland attached to the formal Withdrawal Agreement.

The backstop, of course, is not intended to take effect, leaving the period afforded by the transitional period for the UK to negotiate a long-term agreement which would secure a "soft" border while maintaining the integrity of the Single Market. Only if this agreement is not concluded does the backstop kick in.

Although this was initially agreed by the UK government, the MP collective has rejected it and now Mr Johnson tells us that our negotiators "have done their best to explain UK democratic and constitutional objections to the Irish backstop". But, he adds: "They might as well have been talking to the wall".

Therein is the essential problem. No more can the EU back down from its stance than, if Mr Johnson has it correct, the UK can retreat from its. This leaves us with an insoluble impasse. The EU cannot give in and, if the parliament will not back whatever is presented to it on Tuesday, there will be no deal. It is as simple and complicated as that.

There is simply no point in churning out the tiresome rant which forms Mr Johnson's column today, and if it was only his personal opinion he was projecting, we could ignore it completely. Sadly, that luxury is not given to us as his lamentable views seem to be shared by the entire ERG sect and many other Conservative MPs.

But even then there is no point in arguing with the man, or in dealing with his many technical errors and misperceptions. Come Tuesday, the MP collective has to decide whether to go for the Withdrawal Agreement (complete with backstop), or prat around with ideas of their own, the net effect of which will be a no-deal Brexit – with or without a delay.

At this time, most of the ordinary public – if there is such a thing - have ceased caring, a situation which has been with us long since. It has even got to a state where people such as myself can't even be bothered to address, yet again, the arguments put by the likes of Johnson. It is time to put up or shut up. And if the choice is no-deal, by act or default, then Johnson and his mates will be responsible for the consequences.

Should the collective elect for the Withdrawal Agreement, it isn't the end of the world. Johnson and his band of intellectual pygmies are vastly overstating their case. To ward off the backstop, we need to adopt either the Efta/EEA option or, failing that, what I've described as the "shadow" EEA option. This replicates the substance of the Efta/EEA option without rejoining Efta.

From there, I don't think anybody in their right mind would take this as the final cover. And nor is the traditional free trade agreement an answer. This would be going backwards, not forwards.

But it is here that there is an extraordinary lack of vision which melds into a distressing timidity, where so few people seem prepared to think outside the box. Yet, in fact, in terms of broad principles, there are only three possible options: unilateral action, bilateral agreements, and multilateral action.

Within the latter category, though, we have the ability to broker sector-specific deals, either within the WTO framework – such as the agreement on trade in large civil aircraft – or under the aegis of the UN or allied bodies, such as the globally harmonised system (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals.

For all the blather about free trade agreements, the greatest potential for advancement lies in multilateral, sector-specific agreements, which have the great advantage of releasing parties from the curse of conditionality, where non-trade related clauses are attached to trade agreements.

As with the WP.29 system, on the global harmonisation of vehicle regulations, we can also get away from the "big bang" approach to trade negotiations, and embark on a process of incremental development, where parties can opt in and out, according to their wishes and needs.

But there is another issue, one which has been almost (if not actually) totally ignored in the pursuit of freeing up world trade. That is the vexed question of the need for democratising trade deals, so that we don't have trade agreements over-riding domestic law when this is felt to be against our national interests.

To that extent, it can be – and has been – argued that even the WTO agreement is anti-democratic, differing in some respects from the EU only in the matter of scale rather than principle. Either way, domestic law has to give way to international accords.

The impact of this, of course, can be overstated. I have been known to remark that I would not be prepared to man the barricades over an international standard for the sugar content of jam – especially when this is determined by the characteristics of spoilage organisms.

However, there will always be areas of friction between domestic and international laws, and a way must be found to deal with them, in a way that maintains the integrity of the international order, while protecting democracy at the local level – the only level where it has real meaning.

Thinking this through, it has occurred to me that a combination of strategies could suffice. First, we could adopt the EEA Agreement device of safeguard measures – allowing opt-outs from treaty provisions on certain grounds. Then we could employ The Harrogate Agenda referendum system, together with specific restraints in a written constitution.

The way these would work together is that the government would be constitutionally prohibited from signing up to any treaty unless it embodied formal safeguard measures – or waivers, as in the WTO agreement.

Then, at any time once a treaty is in force, a referendum can be called (subject to THA restraints) on whether any specific treaty requirement should be struck out by invoking the safeguard measures or a waiver. If a majority voted in favour, then the government would be obliged to invoke the measures, opting us out from the relevant part of the treaty.

Given that safeguards are a common part of treaty law, such a device would maintain the integrity of the international order. It might also provide a vital safety valve, that would keep us attached to certain treaties. Imagine, for instance, whether we would have had a referendum on leaving the EU if we could have had a referendum on whether to modify the freedom of movement provisions.

In terms of taking back control, where the population of a country feels it has the final say as to whether any particular treaty provision should apply, there might be considerably less resistance to developing international cooperative agreements.

Doubtless, though, there are endless queues of people who would be only to keen to sneer at the idea of injecting real democracy into the international system, rather than the sham democracy represented by EU systems. But, above all, we have people who see it as their role in life to sneer at anything which differs from their perceptions of the norm.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the thinking on trading relationships and treaty systems has slipped into a rut, lacking in imagination and innovation. From the likes of Mr Johnson and others, we get the same tired mantras, based largely on 18th Century ideas which have progressed little since their inception.

As far as Brexit goes, we desperately need some new thinking, but also the urgent recognition that the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement is only one small step for man. More than anything, we need a sense of perspective.

As long as the deal gets us out of the EU, nothing is forever. We can come back again and again until we get closer to what we want. With our closest neighbours, though, there will never be a time when we are not negotiating about something. One could say that the Brexit process is not just for Christmas, but for life. Once started, it will never, ever end.

Richard North 11/03/2019 link

Brexit: misdirection


A small piece of information has emerged from the Seaborne Freight controversy which has such massive implications that one begins to wonder whether the whole "ferrygate" affair is really misdirection, to steer us away from confronting the real predicament.

The information comes via the Financial Times, a beguilingly simple claim that Ministers believe that under a no-deal Brexit, the Dover corridor (port and tunnel) could run at just 12-25 percent of normal capacity for up to six months.

This, in itself, does not tell us very much, but once we look at some relevant figures on trade an alarming picture starts to emerge. We start with the latest estimates for trade (in goods) with continental Europe which passes through the corridor.

In 2017, this was valued at approximately £220 billion (allowing for currency conversions) - the split roughly £120 billion to the port and £100 billion to the tunnel. And with total trade in goods with the EU recorded at £422.6 billion, this means the proportion of trade with Europe handled by the corridor worked out at about 52 percent by value.

If we then take the Minister's worst case scenario for the corridor running at 12 percent capacity for six months, trade levels drop from the expected £110 billion in the period to a mere £13 billion, representing a loss of throughput of just short of £100 billion – roughly equivalent to twice the value of the six-monthly traffic through the Tunnel.

This, then, is the crunch. The purpose of the £107 million ferry contract, of which Seaborne is part, is route substitution. But when we look at the figures, we see the scale of the problem. Ministers are faced with a need to provide capacity equivalent to twice the throughput of the Tunnel. Yet the entire (shipping) capacity bought by the contract is only about five percent of the corridor throughput.

If we do the assessment a different way, in terms of vehicles handled, a similar position emerges. Dover Port claimed to have handled 2,601,162 lorries in 2017. The Tunnel handled 1,637,280, making a combined total of 4,238,442 lorry movements in the year.

Worked out on a weekly basis, movements are running at 81,500. If we lose 88 percent of that traffic, the corridor will end up moving less than ten thousand vehicles a week (in both directions). That leaves more than 70,000 to find, while the combined capacity bought by Mr Grayling's £107 million is 3,700 movements a week.

In short, the additional shipping capacity provided by the Department for Transport will hardly have any measurable impact, while any contribution that Seaborne Freight might offer, through a Ramsgate service, is infinitesimal.

That points to a single, inescapable fact. The attempt to provide a back-up for the Dover corridor is fruitless. As senior officials in Dover Port warn, there is simply no substitutable capacity elsewhere in the UK to handle the trade volumes that might be displaced by a "no deal" Brexit.

And if there really is no point in faffing around looking for alternatives. we have to accept that that price of a "no deal" Brexit is massive short-term trade perturbation, with a loss of trade of around £100 billion from just one port complex. The question which thus has to be addressed is whether the UK economy could take a £100 billion hit in a period of six months. We must then address the question of how fast trade volumes would recover, and whether recovery would be complete.

As to the immediate effects, I can't think of any circumstances where a developed nation has had to face such a situation. For sure, we got this sort of thing with the declaration of war in 1939, and more so with the German invasion of France in 1940. But then effort was shifted to producing war materials so there was no fall-off in economic activity.

In this case, if goods are not being imported into the country to sell through retail stores, or as components or ingredients so that manufacturing operations are unable to produce their goods for sale at home and abroad, there will be knock-on effects on the economy which might be difficult to deal with in the short-term.

To take the famous crankshaft example, if all (or a substantial part) of our engine manufacturing capacity depends on these components being imported, then without them, there will be no engines produced. And, if there are no engines, the car production plants that rely on them will also shut down.

With no cars to sell, the dealers who are franchised to the marque will have nothing to do, while the demand for vehicle distribution, service centres, loan providers, advertising and much else will be reduced. This brings to mind the proverb: for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the rider was lost; and so on, until the kingdom was lost.

It is readily acknowledged that job losses in primary industries can have a cascade effect. One job in an enterprise such as car-making might support as many as ten or more people making components. In the wider community, one job lost could trigger the loss of twenty or thirty more in the retail and service sectors.

Such is the complexity of our economy though, that I would warrant that there is no one person, nor any group, who could predict the effect of such a massive perturbation.

Here, it is the famous essay by Leonard Read, entitled I, Pencil, that comes to mind. Written in the first person from the point of view of a pencil, the pencil details the complexity of its own creation. It lists the components (cedar, lacquer, graphite, ferrule, factice, pumice, wax, glue) that go into its making, and the numerous people and skills involved, from the lumberjack who took the chainsaw to the tree, down to the sweeper in the factory and the lighthouse keeper guiding shipments essential to the manufacture of the article into port.  

The core thesis is that, for even such a simple, everyday article, as the pencil asserts, "not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me". By that same token, not a single person on the face of this earth knows what the impact of a "no deal" Brexit might be.

That in turn begs the next question. If one accepts that the effects of a "no deal" Brexit are impossible to predict, and could range from short-term disturbance from which we could easily recover to a catastrophic domino effect, who has the right to take the gamble which could so easily do so much damage to so many people?

One is entitled to take risks on one's own behalf, accepting the consequences whenever they arrive, but it is quite another matter exposing others to risks that they themselves would not take, over which they have no control.

The same might be said of Brexit as a whole, which then opens up the entire debate about the role of referendums in a democracy, and whether there should be a distinction between decisions taken by the collective, and those imposed on us by our representatives in parliament.

Arguably, whether to accept the withdrawal agreement or not should have been the subject of another referendum, except that there is no provision for one within the framework of the Article 50 process. Ironically, that points to a defect in the treaty that many of us didn't want to accept in the first place, and we voted to get rid of in the 2016 referendum. And from that stance, had there been a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves.

For better or worse, however, such questions are not on the table. And the only one that is can only be addressed by our MPs who may or may not respond to lobbying from their constituents who are themselves divided.

If that is a situation that should never have arisen, it is also one about which it is too late to do anything. We will not be able to re-write the constitution between now and 15 January. But it should give us pause for thought about how we got here, and whether we should be seeking long-term changes to prevent anything like it happening again.

That is the true meaning on the vote on the 15 January. With MPs effectively voting on our future, the outcome of which could deliver us into the hands of untold misery, we have to ask ourselves how it ever came to pass that such a misbegotten group was given such power over our collective destiny.

In asking that question, it may transpire that we decide that decisions of such importance should never be left to the vagaries of our elected representatives. If our futures are to be put at risk to such an extent, then surely we are entitled to make such decisions for ourselves.

Equally, when we are confronted with decisions of such complexity that it is not possible to make an informed judgement, we are effectively being caught up in a lottery which will shape our own futures. To have such a lottery where only the privileged few get the tickets seems to me to be unconscionable.

There we have it. In two weeks, our MPs will be making a decision about a deal that many of us don't want, where the consequences of rejection are as undesirable as the deal itself, and which may cause long-lasting injury. That it is MPs who will be making that decision is a historical accident.

And if accidents happen, they should not be repeated. This should be the last time we are ever put in such a position. And we know where to look for our answers: The Harrogate Agenda is ready-made for this occasion.

Richard North 02/01/2019 link

Brexit: Armageddon on hold


I wonder if there could be anything more dispiriting than watching Andrew Marr interview David Davis on his show – other than having to go back and read the transcript afterwards?

Between the soft questions and stupid answers, you end up no further forward and, at the end of the programme, just an hour longer. As far as the Irish border question goes, for instance, Davis is still prattling about Authorised Economic Operators and the use of technology to avoid a hard border, and even calls in aid the European Parliament report produced by Lars Karlsson, the former head of the World Customs Organisation.

By coincidence, this was picked up by Booker in his column yesterday (no paywall) when he noted that "our more reckless Brexiteers" have since last November waxed lyrical about the report.

To them, it seemed to offer a miraculous solution to an intractable problem, more so as its author was able to claim impeccable credentials. In one fell swoop, he presented the answer to the Irish riddle, arguing that it lay in a version of the system that allows goods to flow pretty freely between Norway and his native Sweden.

Helpfully, to a wider audience, Booker recorded how, last Wednesday, Dr Karlsson had been attentively received by the Commons Brexit committee, to lay out his plan for a "smart border" between the two parts of Ireland, which could resolve the impasse that for months has threatened to derail Brexit talks.

The only snag, he tells his readers, was that, as a customs man, Dr Karlsson focused entirely on "customs controls", completely failing to address those other "border controls" which are by far the more serious part of the problem.

Nothing he said would do anything to avoid the need for Border Inspection Posts, where, under EU rules, all live animals and "products of animal origin", from milk to fish, will require inspections by officials wholly unconnected with customs.

The same applies to the Designated Points of Entry required to inspect all plant and vegetable products (right down to the wooden pallets used in transporting them).

All these items, Booker says, "form a very significant part of the currently "frictionless" cross-border trade between the two parts of Ireland, worth billions of pounds a year. But leaving the EU will make a "hard border inevitable".

The terrifying thing, though, was that not a single MP seemed to realise that what Dr Karlsson was offering would solve nothing at all; any more than they grasped that the reason why goods can flow so freely between Norway and Sweden is that they are both in the European Economic Area, which Theresa May is determined we shall leave.

Thus, we ended up with another example of Brexit wishful thinking: the blind again leading the blind.

If it were not for Booker, though, this little episode would have got even less publicity than it did, reflecting the gradual withdrawal of the media from reporting the technical details of Brexit.

This is almost a re-run of the 1970-72 accession negotiations where Con O'Neil reported in his book that, "towards the end of the negotiations, journalists in Brussels had become so thoroughly bored with the multiplicity of highly technical subjects still under discussion and were ready to be content with fairly superficial information".

Some 46 or so years later, the media haven't even got to the halfway mark before giving up the ghost. Thus, while the newspapers this weekend should have been devoted to an analysis of Mrs May's "surrender", the main preoccupation was the Observer story on the machinations of Vote Leave.

Yet, in some instances, it's perhaps just as well that the media is taking no notice of proceedings, not least the day following Dr Karlsson's evidence when the Brexit Committee had David Bannerman in to talk about his "SuperCanada trade model".

This, presumably, is a re-worked version of his earlier EEA-lite plan from four years ago, calculated to capitalise on the latest fashionable nostrums.

Reading it, we suffer some of the same sense of depression that we get when confronting the outpourings of David Davis – yet another pompous, elderly white man who really doesn't know what he's talking about, and insists on taking every possible opportunity to demonstrate that fact.

From his evidence, what especially rings the alarm bells is his casual discussion about conformity with standards, where he expresses preference for "mutual recognition" as against equivalence, as if the former was actually on offer – or even attainable – from the European Union. But once again, we get the MPs sucking up the misinformation, in this case with the questioning eagerly led by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Behind the scenes, EUReferendum.com readers, with a far better grasp of the issues, are talking to their own MPs, but it is an uphill struggle. Against the legions of false prophets and the indifference of the media, the task of informing our representatives is almost beyond the scope of mere mortals. As I've observed before, the tragedy is that these people will have to learn the hard way.

Nevertheless, although we will be watching with interest today, so see what Mrs May reports to the House of her Brussels adventure, it looks as if we must start getting used to the idea that the "vassal state" transition will go ahead – in all probability, virtually unchanged.

The implications of this will take a while to sink in, but the most important thing it does is turn Brexit day on 29 March 2019 (or the day after) into a non-event. For all practical purposes, we will still be in the EU. As the status quo option, it will ensure that the traffic runs freely through Dover to the continent. There will be no queues, no shortages in the shops and no great drama.

No doubt, there will be those who will see in this the opportunity to dismiss our fears as "scaremongering", but if all Mrs May has got in the locker to take over when the transition period ends is a Canada-style free trade area, then she has only kicked the cannery down the road. The cliff-edge will still be there, looming on the horizon.

In many respects, though, it will be a slow-motion disaster, with Brexit casting a long shadow. The prospect of quitting the EU, says Reuters, "has hurt sentiment in Britain's finance industry for longer than the global financial crisis that plunged economies into recession and destroyed some of the world’s biggest banks".

There seems to me, though, no point in expecting either media or politicians to recognise the danger (those that might want to prevent it) – not until it's too late. Their institutions have long since shown their inability to cope with the detail required, and I can't see things improving on their own.

Yet, with Armageddon on hold, the media is free to play its shallow games and, for the next week or so we may have to tolerate still more coverage on the Cambridge Analytica / Vote Leave drama that the Guardian group is working so hard on.

There may even be useful spin-offs from this, especially if it weakens Mrs May's loathsome foreign secretary, and damages some of the figures behind Vote Leave. Even then, it is a distraction we could do without, even if we have a year or more to think about what to do when the cliff edge approaches once again.

Oddly enough, despite those who were so keen to predict its demise, Flexcit is even more relevant, as it still points the way to a workable departure. And never more has The Harrogate Agenda been necessary, if for no other reason than to escape the political tribalism about which Sam Hooper writes so eloquently.

In the early autumn, we've been thinking in terms of holding a conference in London, under the EUReferendum.com and/or THA banner. It would be helpful to have readers' observations on the utility of this, and how we might proceed. This might be a better option than simply counting down the days to disaster.

Richard North 26/03/2018 link

Brexit: the truth about our passports


The comments facility on Booker's column today is not open, which is perhaps just as well. He's writing about passports and the "familiar cry" that, on leaving the European Union, we will be able to reclaim "British sovereignty" and "take back control of our own laws".

The article is based on my post and one could imagine more than a few heads exploding by the time Sunday Telegraph readers have finished reading it.

Taking them head on, Booker asks many of those who happily intone the "sovereignty" and "taking back control" mantras have any idea just how many of the laws we imagine to have been imposed on us by the EU in fact originate from mysterious global bodies even higher than Brussels, which merely passes them on to us?

This is provocative stuff, of course – and especially to those who have been especially antagonistic towards Booker over the past months. These are the ones who have been posting increasingly acerbic comments, seeking to call into question his judgement but mainly just displaying their ignorance and bad manners.

Booker, on the other hand, is writing about laws which, on leaving the EU, we will find that, under a maze of international agreements, we still have to obey.

This then brings him to "all that excitement before Christmas" over the thought that we will no longer have to carry those widely hated burgundy-coloured "European Union" passports. As Theresa May herself tweeted: "The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty - symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation".

For additional entertainment, we also saw one newspaper front page trumpeting: "Make them in Britain", evidently unaware that we are bound by international procurement rules, not just those of the EU but also those of the World Trade Organisation.

These rules, says Booker, would require us to put out production of our new passports to international tender. Thus, we could well find our new UK passports being made by an EU country.

As for their contents, we shall find that almost every detail is also dictated by other international rules, so that they are recognised by every country in the world.

The ultimate arbiter of all these technical requirements is a UN body called the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), headquartered in Canada. It is to the ICAO we will have to submit the design of our new passports.

So it comes to pass that virtually the only detail we will be allowed to choose for ourselves will be the colour of our passports and, of course, the right to remove the words "European Union" from the front (which, according to some, we had anyway).

Thus, as far as our passports go, the only reward for all that prodigious effort of leaving the EU is to put us on a par with the independent countries making up the European Free Trade Association. And the colour we seem likely to choose is the same as that already used by little Iceland.

All of this, as Booker rightly points out, turns Mrs May's expression of our "independence and sovereignty" as a "proud great nation" into so much eyewash.

Looking at this in the round, it's as well we didn't go to all the trouble of campaigning to leave the EU just to change the colour of our passports and the wording on the front covers. There had to be something more than that.

When it comes to sovereignty, though, one of my earlier posts puts this issue into perspective. It illustrates my lack of concern over our supposed loss of sovereignty to Brussels, as I point out that the real issue is the sovereignty of the people.

There's a broader clue to this issue in that the original changes to our passport covers were triggered by a non-binding Council decision. Thus, it wasn't Brussels that enforced the changes. It was our own government.

Similarly, when it came to our membership of the EU, it wasn't Brussels that kept us tied to the treaties but, once again, our own government – aided and abetted by parliament.

Even as an EU member state, parliament was still sovereign but it allowed government, through the process of treaty ratification, to delegate much of its power to Brussels and EU institutions. At any time, it could have stopped power draining away from Westminster and ordered our government to recover the powers it had already given away.

As I was writing in 2016, therefore – before the referendum – our argument was not with Brussels. We were held in thrall to the European Union by our governments, but only because parliament allowed it. The people responsible – as a collective – were our MPs. Our argument was with them, and it took a referendum to overcome their inertia.

Now, in what amounts to the ultimate in arrogance, MPs pontificate about regaining the sovereignty of parliament and mention nothing about the people. This, of course, is where The Harrogate Agenda comes in.

What I wrote in 2016 still stands. MPs who had been so careless of their powers, and so indifferent to the prospect of recovering them could hardly be trusted to safeguard them for all time, and not to repeat their give-away. On that basis, I argued that we the people must recover our sovereignty, wresting it from a parliament which has been so reluctant to use it on our behalf.

Meanwhile, as if we didn't know already, Lord Adonis tells us that the entire system of government has become dysfunctional. "Good government", he says, "has essentially broken down in the face of Brexit. Normal standards of conduct are not being observed. Independent advice is being dismissed because remember experts were supposedly part of the problem".

In the view of the noble Lord, all the experts in Whitehall are trying to square the circle of leaving the EU, the Single Market, the customs union without undermining British trade and British jobs. But since that is an impossibility, even the best minds in Whitehall are not able to do it.

And also confirming what we are hearing from other sources, Adonis tells us that there is very low morale in Whitehall because almost no civil servants agree with the policy of the government. "I do not think there has ever been a period when the civil service has been more disaffected from the government it serves", he says.

One of those "other sources" is British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) director general Adam Marshall. Declaring that firms wanted clarity and results from the Government, he says that industry is dismayed by "division and disorganisation" across Westminster.

In the 18 months since the referendum, therefore, the only tangible thing we have to show for all our efforts is Mrs May's blue passports – her equivalent to buying off the natives with baubles and beads.

Sadly, too many people are content with the beads. The sovereignty that so many thought would be the prize from Brexit remains as elusive as ever it was.

Richard North 31/12/2017 link

Brexit: Barnier - "that is not possible"


In the wake of Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January, I wrote that her idea of a "bold and ambitious" free trade agreement with the EU inside two years was not just difficult. "It is impossible", I said. "It cannot be done. And it doesn't matter how many times it is discussed amongst the chattering classes, it still can't be done".

Just to re-emphasise the point, in March, I wrote a whole post under the title "impossible means impossible", where I reminded people of my view, that the commitment to securing a free trade agreement (signed and ratified) within two years, was akin to a British commander addressing his troops on Salisbury Plain, telling them they were to invade Iraq the next day – but they had to walk all the way from the UK.

But then who am I? Just a mere "blogger", with the best part of 40 year campaigning under my belt and 14 years devoted to writing about the EU – with the most comprehensive published exit plan yet written under my belt. Clearly, I'm a know-nothing – not even an "expert" who knows so much more than us mere plebs.

Mostly, people like me, therefore, can either be ignored (apart from the inconvenient fact that we've had upwards of 50,000 people in a day on this site). If we persist, the bubble-dwellers excel in treating non-conformist views with utter contempt.

But then, some four years after we first started writing seriously that the "free trade" option for Brexit is a non-starter (only to have the wondrous IEA, along with Lord Lawson, reject the warning), we now have somebody else pop up and say more or less the same things.

This time, though, it just happens to be Michel Barnier, speaking in Brussels to the European Economic and Social Committee. As the chief EU negotiator for Brexit, this man has a certain status – and in this man's world, status is everything. To get a hearing, you must have status (aka "prestige"), and once you have it (or been given it by the media), the media listens.

At this event, speaking "frankly and sincerely" on the theme of Brexit, M. Barnier pulls no punches, taking his line straight out of the Flexcit playbook. "There will be no business as usual", he says. "The UK will become a third country at the end of March 2019".

The number of times we've seen the Muppets on the Booker column comments and elsewhere deny this is legion. There is nothing quite so calculated to wind up the kippoid tendency as to point out this simple fact. I even wrote a post on precisely this point, but they still don't get it.

Anyhow, here we have M. Barnier stating the obvious (and not for the first time), but this time he goes further. The UK government, he says, has defined a number of "red lines" for the future relationship. Mrs May, Davis and the rest of the motley crew, want no more free movement for EU citizens, full autonomy over UK laws, autonomy to conclude its own trade agreements and no role for the ECJ.

This, says Barnier, implies leaving the single market and leaving the EU Customs Union – and he's not wrong in saying that. But he goes on to say that, "on the EU side, we made three things very clear". The particular point he and others have been making is that "free movement of persons, goods, services and capital are indivisible", on the basis that "We cannot let the single market unravel".

Not to put too fine a point on this, however, the doctrine of indivisibility applies only to EU Member States. It does not apply to Efta/EEA states, where both Iceland and Liechtenstein have modified the "four freedoms" without causing the Single Market to unravel.

Nevertheless, Barnier lays out his pitch: "There can be no sector by sector participation in the single market: you cannot leave the single market and then opt-in to those sectors. You cannot be half-in and half-out of the single market". He then adds:
The EU must maintain full sovereignty for deciding regulations: the EU is not only a big marketplace. It is also an economic and social community where we adopt common standards. All third countries must respect our autonomy to set rules and standards. And I say this at the moment when the UK has decided to leave this community and become a third country.
That is fighting talk if ever I saw it. It's also bullshit – but never mind, Barnier probably believes it. He is, at his heart, a French politician – and they have the ability to believe ten contradictory things before breakfast. They then rest until dinner, so the end of the day count is the same. But a pre-breakfast count is so much more impressive.

However, those are his red lines, and one can almost hear the echoes of Verdun: Ils ne passerons pas. These three points, he says, were already made clear by the European Council and the European Parliament. But, he says, "I am not sure whether they have been fully understood across the Channel".

That is something of an understatement, but deserves repeating: "I am not sure whether they have been fully understood across the Channel". This is what is known as diplomacy. Barnier knows full well that they haven't been "fully understood". All he has to do is tune into the drivel filling the UK media, day after day, after day.

Thus, he says: "I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits", to which he adds, with disarming frankness: "that is not possible".

He then says: "I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a custom union to achieve 'frictionless trade'", to which he adds, with disarming frankness, "that is not possible".

"The decision to leave the EU has consequences", says Barnier. "And we have to explain to them, the businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel, what these consequences mean for them". He adds: "Let me be clear: these consequences are the direct result of the choices made by the UK, not by the EU. There is no punishment for Brexit. And of course no spirit of revenge. But Brexit has a cost, also for business in the EU27".

Rubbing the salt in the wound, Barnier says that, "Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, at midnight on 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will at the present stage be a third State, which will therefore not have the same facilities and rights as a State Member of the European Union. It's its choice. Not ours".

This, apart from anything else, is as clear a statement as any that we will not have anything like the "bold and ambitious" free trade deal that Mrs May wants". All Barnier is prepared for is travail préparatoire, with no question of concluding a deal.

As to trade in general, he reminds us that Member States benefit from a "frictionless" trade for goods because they form part of the internal market. This, he says, has made it possible to harmonise the rules or to ensure their mutual recognition by ensuring that goods lawfully produced in one Member State can be sold in all the other Member States without further formalities.

He further argues that there is little use in having no customs duties if at the same time divergent national regulations prevent products from circulating freely – thus highlighting the problem of non-tariff barriers. Only the combination of the Customs Union and the rules of the internal market allows us to trade freely, "without friction". One does not go without the other.

By choosing to leave the Union, Barnier then says, the UK moves to the other side of the external border. This not only delimits the customs union, but also the space for the adoption and application of internal market rules. That is exactly the point I made in February, using the analogy of a medieval walled city. And, as Barnier says, it's our choice."

Inevitably, Barnier concludes, "a trade relationship with a country that does not belong to the European Union obviously involves frictions". For example, economic operators from third countries do not enjoy the same facilities as the Member States on VAT returns.

For another country, he says, 100 percent of imports of live animals and products of animal origin - and this is a former Minister of Agriculture who is talking - is and will be subject to controls. There it is – for the first time from a public figure, you get what I've been saying on this blog again and again and again. What price the racehorse industry now?

Barnier goes to some trouble to emphasise this point. The border of the European Union, he says, it is one of the challenges that we must face in Ireland's unique case, without recreating a hard frontier. He adds:
On the other hand, the general sanitary and phytosanitary conditions of such exports must always be established before the export of a product of this nature from a third country to the European Union is possible. We can clearly see, if I speak frankly, the constraints that are there, especially for the agri-food sector.
He then further reminds us that these constraints apply equally to all companies that derive their dynamism from the integration of production centres in Europe within the common market.

As to the "no deal", scenario, this says Barnier, means a return to the status quo. In the case of Brexit, "no deal" would be a return to a distant past. It would mean that our trade relations with the UK would be based on WTO rules. It would be a good idea to have the customs duties of almost 10 percent on an average of 19 percent for alcoholic beverages, and an average of 12 percent on lamb and also fish, for which the vast majority of British exports go to the EU.

While leaving the customs union in any case involves border formalities, "no deal" would mean very cumbersome procedures and controls, without facilitation. This would be particularly damaging for companies operating on a "just in time" basis.

In practice, he warns, "no deal" would worsen the "lose-lose" situation which is bound to result from Brexit. Objectively, he thinks, the UK would have more to lose than its partners. He is thus entirely unequivocal. "I therefore want to be very clear", he says, "to my mind there is no reasonable justification for the 'no deal' scenario. There is no sense in making the consequences of Brexit even worse".

Whether this sinks in, I don't know. But for many months, on this blog, I've been attempting to spell out the problems and consequences of leaving the Single Market, and going for the "no deal" scenario – only to be derided or ignored. Booker has had much the same treatment, with his own management undermining him in the letters pages.

Now, chickens are coming home to roost. Says Barnier: "Business should assess, with lucidity, the negative consequences of the UK's choice on trade and investment. And prepare to manage them". Of course, most of business hasn't. With some honourable exceptions, they've had their heads in the sand – or been pursuing a far more sinister agenda.

Ironically, one of my commenters yesterday posted on my article about Grenfell Tower some detail on Cameron's Damascene conversion to the Norway option. He prefaced it by saying: "to move away from Grenfell and back to Brexit for a moment…".

I can quite understand the point, but my response was that, in pursuing the truth behind Grenfell Tower, "we never left Brexit". Forces which brought us the Grenfell disaster are the key to understanding Brexit.

Note here that Barnier refers to the UK "red line" of "full autonomy over UK laws", reflecting the Vote Leave slogan of: "Let's take back control". But what we also have to recall is that Vote Leave was not a people's campaign. It was funded mainly by a small number of very rich business people, who saw in Brexit an opportunity to promote a "deregulation" agenda for their own commercial advantage.

It is no coincidence that these same people are inimically hostile to the "Norway option". In an attempt to stop it happening, they are supporting the Leave means leave campaign, the Tory "ultra" European Research Group" and, latterly, the secretive Red Tape Initiative.

These groups are supporting their paymasters who see in Brexit profit-creating opportunities which would be limited if we were still bound by the Single Market acquis represented by the Efta/EEA (aka "Norway") option.

Deregulation, of course, can be no bad thing (although I have long preferred the term "re-regulation"). But, as we've been seeing with Grenfell, the problem can just as easily be that existing regulation is not rigorous enough, with progress held back by the EU.

Thus, while returning control of the legislative agenda affords the chance to make our own laws (as long as they don't conflict with international standard-setting), this does not necessarily imply getting rid of laws. Many should stay, and be tougher – remember horse meat, anyone?

The thing is, "Let's take back control" never did mean restoring control to the people. Whether in the EU or supposedly as an independent nation, in Vote Leave's scheme of things, we don't get a look in. In the view of its wealthy business backers, control goes to born-to-rule Tories, who will look after their friends by reducing their legislative "burdens".

In this, Monbiot does have a point, except that he just wants the control to pass from "big business" to his green NGOs. He and his likes are no more interested in giving power back to the people than are the Tory right.

Thus – even if for the wrong reasons – Monbiot has correctly identified Grenfell Tower as a key Brexit battlefield. But if the question is: "who rules Britain" (or the UK) - as between business and unelected NGOs (his preferred NGOs) – he wants his green NGOs to take the prize. Nowhere in Monbiot's scenario do the people even feature.

Our battle, therefore, is in ensuring that we have a measured exit from the EU and that when powers are eventually returned from Brussels, they go back to the people, rather than just to a different set of masters. That is why Flexcit in its Phase 6, includes The Harrogate Agenda.

For the time being, though, the "mad deregulators" are driving the Brexit agenda up a dangerous cul-de-sac. It is that totally selfish agenda which is blocking a sensible approach to the Article 50 talks and is the real reason why the right is blocking the Efta/EEA option. But, as Pete points out , deregulation is not a viable option. It isn't going to happen. Thus, if we are going to make any progress, we are going to have to reclaim the agenda, and put the "deregulators" back in their box.

And that has to be possible, or Brexit will be a disaster. But then, readers of this blog already knew that.

Richard North 07/07/2017 link

Brexit: taking us for fools


Just a few days before a general election ostensibly called to settle the question of who negotiates Brexit, we should not be seeing saturation media coverage on a terrorist act that occurred on Saturday evening.

The essential response to such outrages, as even this Prime Minister concedes, it that we should seek, as far as possible, to maintain "business as usual". That must include the media. Three attention-seeking murderers should not be allowed to hijack the campaign and dictate the agenda.

Not least, Prime Minister May needs to be called to account for the presidential style of this election, where we're seeing personal letters (illustrated) with no obvious reference to the Conservative Party, telling us (Mrs EU Referendum and myself) that "your local votes in Bradford South will decide who will be the Prime Minister to lead these negotiations on behalf of our country".

This is on the edge of trashing our constitution. In this country, we vote for our local representatives. The leader of the winning party becomes the prime minister and is given the opportunity to form a government. We do not elect our prime ministers, and the person in office remains only with the continued support their party.

The irony here is that, as did David Cameron resign, leaving Mrs May to take the premiership – with absolutely no involvement of the electorate – so too could Mrs May decide to move on. Alternatively, for a variety of reasons, she could be deposed, if not immediately at some time in the future, should the negotiations stall, or go in the "wrong" direction. In either event, we could end up with Mr Johnson.

If Mrs May want to campaign to change the constitution, creating the office of an elected prime minister, then we would be happy to assist her. After all, the third demand of The Harrogate Agenda calls for the prime ministers to be directly elected by popular vote.

We would have them, in the manner of American presidents, appointing their own ministers, with the approval of parliament. Neither our prime ministers nor their ministers should be MPs, thereby allowing Parliament to perform its proper function of scrutinising and controlling the executive, without being compromised by the "payroll vote".

But, without formal constitutional change, it is presumptuous of Mrs May to appeal directly to voters for a personal vote that isn't ours to give, and which she cannot rightly claim.

What she is, in effect doing, is setting herself above the system. In theory – if not practice – we go to the polls to elect a representative who will best represent the local interest, one who supports a party which meets with our general approval.

It has been a long time since this was true, and many voters go to the polls without knowing the name of the candidate they intend to vote for. They rely on the party identifications on the ballot papers.

That said, when we go to the polls on Thursday (those of us that can bear it), Mrs May's name won't be on the ballot paper. In this strongly-held Labour seat, though, both main parties - Labour and Conservative – are fielding women, both out of electoral calculus. Because one party does so, the other follows. This is not a game I care for. It is a further abuse of the electoral process and I am disinclined to vote for either.

Nor am I inspired by the latest Conservative leaflet, masquerading as an electoral communication. It devotes most of the space to Mrs May, who tells us that "making Brexit a success is central to our national interest".

She then tells us that she has ensured that "my government" has clearly set out our approach to Brexit, though her Lancaster House Speech, the White Paper, the Article 50 letter to the European Council and the Great Repeal Bill. But since the White Paper and the Article 50 letter simply reiterate the vague 12 points enumerated in her Lancaster House speech, the lady is taking us for fools. Her approach to the negotiations is anything but clear.

Sadly, though, the legacy media has gone AWOL. Its single-issue incontinence has virtually driven Brexit off the agenda, while it indulges itself in its orgy of coverage on the latest terrorist atrocity. And while one would not expect coverage on this matter to be slight, one sees in the media people who welcome the distraction and the excuse not to cover a topic which they find overly challenging.

Thus, we have the worst of all possible worlds. Supposedly a "Brexit election" with the prime minister claiming a personal mandate, we have gone through this entire campaign with attention directed at anything but Brexit, now to finish off the final few days with focus on terrorism and related issues – such as police numbers and Mrs May's record in the Home Office.

It has always been the case though that general elections are very poor vehicles for pursuing specific issues. They are, primarily, a mechanism for choosing governments. For Mrs May to use it to define her mandate is an abuse of process.

Arguably, she should have set out her approach and put it to another referendum. After all, in terms of voter participation, there is no difference in the effort required: in both cases we go to the polling station and mark pieces of paper with crosses.

With a single issue referendum, there would have been no distraction from what are – despite their seriousness – extraneous matters. And had the mandate been rejected, then Mrs May could have resigned or sought a general election. But at least, for the time of the campaign, we would have been discussing the thing we are supposed to be voting on, rather than have politicians and media avoiding it.

Sadly, though, tradition, habit and bovine conformity will have obedient citizens lining up to vote – even if probably the vast majority of people regard this election as a charade. That, most likely – and probably more than anything – accounts for the volatility and variability in the polls. Most people may not know the details, but they can sense when they are being taken for granted or manipulated.

And when it comes down to it, it probably doesn't make much difference who is at the helm during the negotiations. Although many people – and some who should know better – seek to personalise the process, it is quite remarkable how little depends on personalities and negotiating style.

Almost all the details are resolved at official level – the famous "sherpas" - with the outcomes determined by reference to pre-determined "positions" which can only with difficulty be changed. And since the EU has very much the whip hand, most of the process will be one of conceding a series of technical points to the "colleagues".

There will be few high-level meetings, involving heads of states – and in the tradition of such events, the outcomes will be decided upon before the parties agree to meet. The process itself, is always theatre.

Given that, and my own very personal dislike of the local electoral manipulation, I am not prepared to give Mrs May a "blank cheque" for a mandate, the nature of which she has not specified – while she compounds the insult by pretending she has.

On the other hand, while the Labour pitch might be better, one can have even less confidence in the ability of the Labour team to deliver – notwithstanding that there will be little to choose between the end result, if the "colleagues" are able to drive events.

In common with many, therefore, I am struggling to decide where to place my vote. If there was a "none of the above" option, that would be my preference. Failing that, a spoiled vote is beginning to look enormously attractive.

But the one thing one must do is vote. Spoiled votes are counted, and a high proportion would send a message. And if Mrs May wants an elected prime minister system, I would be very happy to vote for that. All we need is another referendum.

Richard North 06/06/2017 link

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