Category Archives: Politics

Issue not immigration, but volume

Two years ago I wrote a post arguing that England needs to build thousands of miles of new motorway. Transport infrastructure happens to be a particular interest of mine, but the same could no doubt be argued about a number of things – England needs a new airport runway; it needs more houses; it needs more health centres; it needs more schools.

Fundamentally, I believe it is this which led to the “Leave” vote in June. Interestingly, the regions of England which receive the lowest public funding per head were also those which were likeliest to vote “Leave”.

This has been presented as an issue of “immigration”, but actually it is more about “volume”. England, taken alone, ranks alongside the Netherlands as the most densely populated country (of any size) in the European Union. It does not much matter why England’s population is growing so quickly, the fact is that it is.

The population density issue is often presented as one of “immigration”, but actually it is one of population density. It should be called what it is. Of course, it will be jumped on by populist politicians who want it to be about immigration; and England does need to invest seriously in community relations. But let us deal with the actual issue – in some parts of England, the infrastructure in the broadest sense requires huge investment. We should not miss that point.

UK being bossed around by EU on “Hard Brexit”

Former Chancellor George Osborne returned to public view last week to warn that, although the people of the UK had voted for “Brexit”, they had not voted for “Hard Brexit”. As a matter of straightforward fact, he was completely correct.

However, what if “Hard Brexit” is the only type of “Brexit” on offer? I suspect that is the word from the grape vine of UK diplomatic channels, and is the reason the Prime Minister is creeping that way.

We need to be very clear. The invocation of “Article 50” merely determines the route by which the UK would leave the EU. It does not determine the future relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU; nor does it even clarify whether or not the UK may be able to retain membership of the European Economic Area (the “Single Market”) or the European Union Customs Union. Were it to become apparent – as it may already have through diplomatic and legal channels – that leaving the EU also automatically means leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union, this would mean “Hard Brexit”. That is a straightforward matter of fact; there is nothing that can be done about it.

Upon leaving the EU by “Hard Brexit”, the UK would then have the option of seeking further negotiations to soften the blow. However, any sort of association would be subject to ratification by all 27 remaining members – in each case at least through one legislature, usually through two, and in some cases via referendum (noting that the last such attempt was rejected by the Dutch in a referendum this year). At every stage, each country will seek to extract an extra concession or two, and even then it only takes one to reject it – leaving the UK firmly “Hard Brexitted”.

All the discussion so far focuses on what type of “Brexit” the UK wants or should go for. More important, in fact, is what type of “Brexit” the rest of the EU wants. The EU is bossing the UK around, and that is why there is only one type of “Brexit” available – the “Very Hard” kind. The “Very Hard” kind which is not in the UK’s interests, and that no one actually voted for…

Why an ill-considered “Brexit” could de-stabilise NI

I happen to believe, all other things being equal, that Northern Ireland could do perfectly well out of the forthcoming UK/EU negotiations. On top of its ability to seek a bespoke deal of its own given its land border with an EU member state and shared citizenship entitlement, it is well used to instability already.

However, it could also do disastrously if “Brexit” is not properly thought through.

The essential problem is an unspoken one. The 1998 Agreement entitles people in Northern Ireland to be British, or Irish, or both; but also it is predicated on making it irrelevant which one anyone chooses. Since both British and Irish citizenship is currently EU citizenship (including an entitlement to use each other’s diplomatic corps abroad, for example), and both British and Irish citizens are effectively treated as “home” citizens in each other’s country (with some exceptions), it really is a free choice.

If the UK leaves the EU, and particularly if it leaves the European Economic Area (the Single Market) and/or the Customs Union, it will then matter which citizenship is chosen. There is a very real risk that the choice of British citizenship will put people at a disadvantage when seeking out opportunities in the EU, including in Ireland; conversely, there is a very real risk that the choice of Irish citizenship will put people at a disadvantage when seeking out opportunities in the rest of the UK. This whole thing will make it matter than Northern Ireland is constitutionally part of the UK in ways in which that status is currently irrelevant. At best, that will make people think again about whether the arrangement agreed to in 1998 (power-sharing in the UK with cross-border bodies) really works for them; at worst, it will lead to an outright schism of Northern Ireland’s population along British-Irish lines, undoing much if not all of what has been achieved over the past 20 years.

The crux of Northern Ireland’s conflict was (and is) identity, and EU membership was central to making it not matter. Doing anything which makes it matter at best risks a precarious balance. Frankly, this is a very good reason for the UK Government reconsidering the whole idea of leaving the EU. The fact is that most people who voted to leave the EU are not going to get out of “Brexit” what they really wanted to get out of it – regardless of what that is. Is it really a good idea, on the basis of a very narrow referendum result, to risk decades of careful work creating a balance which works in Northern Ireland, and thus keeps the whole UK as safe as it reasonably can be from Irish terrorism? It is, at the very least, worth considering whether the desires of those who voted to “leave” can be met in other ways.

If the UK Government decides, as it probably will do for a host of political reasons, that it really must proceed to leave the EU, then the next option is a “soft Brexit”. There would be no harm is emphasising that the constitutional balance of the UK, not least with regards to Northern Ireland, is best served by maintaining as far as possible commonality and mutuality of opportunity between the UK and the EU – and this means retention of the Single Market and the Customs Union. The difficulty here is that, frankly, such a “soft Brexit” would put the UK in a worse position than if it simply remained in the EU. It is unlikely to fly in practice.

The next option is a “Special Status” arrangement for Northern Ireland, and rationally that looks tempting. Northern Ireland alone could remain within the Customs Union; it could even in theory retain up to a point its own immigration policy (uniquely in the UK, it is already the case that employment policy is devolved to Northern Ireland). Alongside mutual recognition specific to Northern Ireland of Health care arrangements, driving licences and perhaps even things such as trading standards and environmental regulations, this would have the effect of maintaining almost all the social benefits of EU membership (albeit, from a Leavers’ point of view, maintaining also almost all the disadvantages). However, it would still be seriously destabilising, because it would mean that British citizens in Northern Ireland would be disadvantaged in certain ways – quite possibly, for example, by being asked for their passport and checked for goods every time they travelled to the rest of the UK. That the DUP would have shosen a course of action which brought this about would not be lost on many of us, but that would be little practical consolation. Did we not just spend decades overcoming that sort of thing?

As with so many aspects of “Brexit”, there is no evidence the UK Government has grasped the scale of the problem here. It will take more than a quick day trip for it to be fully understood, and some time for it to be effectively tackled. It we absolutely must leave the EU, it is vastly more important to do it carefully than to do it quickly.

If State Aid rules were broken, is the State not responsible?

Away back in February, I explained why the Irish Government is quite happy to let a huge, wealthy corporation like Apple not pay any tax. The previous January I noted that this was not without penalty to the humble customer.

This August, the intervention came. Let us assume that the European Commission is right and State Aid rules were breached by Apple’s rather favourable tax arrangements in Ireland (even though I make no such assumption, personally).

Who established those tax arrangements? Was it Apple, or Ireland?

Quite obviously it was Ireland. And this is not a victimless crime. Who is to say that Apple would not have preferred the lower labour costs available in Northern Ireland, were it not for the fact that it could enjoy such favourable arrangements South of the border? In effect, Ireland applied tax arrangements which were tantamount to “cheating” within a Single Market in which other jurisdictions compete for business such as Apple’s. That is why State Aid rules exist.

So, er, why exactly is the effective fine being applied to Apple and not to Ireland?

How will the UK leave the EU

After last week’s post on “Brexit” we can now safely say Brexiteers have no idea. Literally, at least with regard to those reading this blog. Asked to come up with a proposal, none responded. Interesting, but unsurprising.

So, never mind how the UK should leave the EU (which, of course, it shouldn’t), how will it?

This is the scary bit. At heart the problem with referendums is they imply that 50%+1 get all they want and 50%-1 get nothing. As politics moves to the “right” while Labour simply leaves the field of play to others, this will only be even more markedly the case with regard to the means of exiting the EU.

David Davis may “want” an open border, but then Neville Chamberlain “wanted” peace. The fact is, as a consequence of his and his mates’ actions, the reactionary right-wing view on immigration won a referendum and will now expect its victory to be recognised before the next election. In this twilight zone of a post-factual world, that means absolutely controlling the border by May 2020.

And that is what will happen. It will make no difference at all to immigration, of course; nor will it bring down housing waiting lists, make it easier to see the GP or reduce traffic on the M25 and M6. But apparently what the people want they must get – and they will.

The consequence, of course, of “taking back control” will mean that the UK loses free and direct access to the Single Market. With absolutely no trade deals in place, there will then be only one option open to the UK – to become a “large Guernsey”.

Using its “control” of its border, the UK will choose rich and skilled immigrants, attracting them with low taxes (immediately, for example, it expressed an interest in bringing in Apple from Ireland, implicitly on the basis of it not having to pay Corporation Tax in the post-Brexit UK). This will also be a way to protect the Finance Sector, which will lose some business but also gain some from the wealthy incomers. As a consequence, property prices will rise, meaning that those who already own property will become apparently even richer and another consumerist binge will take place, creating (an illusion of) considerable economic growth, but all while the low-tax regime strains government revenues which are increasingly being eaten up in paying pensions rather than providing services or working-age welfare.

I can see how some on the traditional “right” were and are attracted by this vision. Quite how anyone on the “left” is, is beyond me, yet they seem disinclined to do anything about it (prioritising instead the big issues like, er, post-work drinks).

I don’t suppose it’s great news for Guernsey either…


How is UK to leave EU?

My former colleague Gerry Lynch recently posted this on Facebook:

The will of the people must be respected. Which will is that? The will that the UK can get its cake and eat it with the EU more than it already had, with all the benefits and none of the costs of membership? Or the will said the UK is a great country and can thrive entirely outside European structures and has no need of the single market? Or the will that said that immigration was too high and the undoubted costs of leaving the EU were worth getting the level of immigration under control? Or the will that said immigration was great and the UK should lead the world as a tariff free, regulation free, country with the minimum possible border controls? Or the will that just wanted to stick the finger to Cameron and Osborne (both of whom have been forgotten in an amazingly short space to time)?

Too right. 

So here is a straightforward challenge to those who want the UK to leave the EU – tell us how. And here is a straightforward platform – do it right here, on this blog!

Any comment on this blog post either directly here or on Facebook will be taken as an offer of a guest blog post, next Tuesday (and Tuesdays thereafter if there are more than one). Let’s hear it!

Meanwhile, here is how I would do it. Well, of course, I wouldn’t leave at all. But here is how I would attempt to respect the will of the people without collapsing the economy or causing constitutional chaos.

I would put an offer to the heads of government across the rest of the EU stating as follows:

  • from 1 July 2017, for six years, the UK will place a cap on the number of people allowed entry to the country from the Schengen Zone for the purposes of work, announcing that cap six months in advance each year;
  • also from that date, the UK will take over the full operation of its international aid budget (knocking around £20-£30 million off its contribution to the EU budget);
  • during that seven-year period, the UK will remain a member of the EU on the terms negotiated by David Cameron, but will agree to leave the room for discussions pertinent to the Single Currency or the Schengen Zone;
  • after four years (from June 2021), the UK will negotiate with the European Council the terms under which free movement within the Single Market will work into and out of the Schengen Zone, and on the basis of that negotiation the UK will then make a decision specifically on whether or not to remain within or leave the Single Market (determining its future relationship with the EU on the basis of that decision).

What is in this for the various sides?

For everyone (the European Council, the UK Government, Leave supporters and Remain supporters), the headache of how precisely the UK goes about leaving the EU is postponed for a reasonable duration while it is worked out.

For many Leave voters, the UK reclaims “control of its borders” – forever, if it so chooses (but on the understanding that maintaining such “control” into the next decade means restructuring the economy to leave the Single Market). This should appeal at least to some of those who voted on “sovereignty”, and to almost all those who voted on “immigration”. Those who don’t much like “international aid” will also see this restored to the UK and thus some money brought back to the UK (even if this is actually somewhat irrational).

For Remain voters, the debate is shifted to where it should be – the Single Market. Ultimately the future decision is not EU or no EU, but Single Market or no Single Market. This is a recognition of the reality that the UK does not get to set the terms alone of remaining within the Single Market.

For the European Council, there is at least a window of opportunity to re-define the EU somewhat, making the “core EU” (Single Currency and Schengen Zone) distinct from the “associate EU” (the Single Market without the Single Currency and Schengen Zone). Not only might it be possible to avoid any member state technically leaving under this new dispensation (the obvious risk being if the UK goes, so might the likes of Sweden), but it may even be possible to tempt countries such as Norway and Iceland in, since the “associate” membership option is not far from EEA, but with a common and clear framework.

For the UK Government, there is the chance to reflect that concerns raised in the referendum about immigration have been fully taken into account; but also that concerns raised concerning economic reconfiguration and the difficulties with the legal changes required to leave the EU have also been given time for resolution.

For Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is at least time here to determine exactly what they would do, should the UK opt to leave the Single Market; and, presumably, to make the case not to. For the Republic of Ireland, there is also a window of opportunity to consider exactly what its interests are with regard to free trade and movement with the UK, versus with the rest of the EU.

The UK Government’s external core argument would be that it is a little rich for other EU member states to lecture on how important absolute free movement is, when in fact only the UK (alongside Ireland and Sweden) implemented it upon the EU’s expansion in 2004. It would be precisely because the UK took in so many EU citizens from that date that it would be making the case for not having to do so now; as well as being on a separate land mass and outside the Schengen Zone. Its internal core argument would be that leaving the EU takes time and needs to be subject to further detailed consideration, but that the direction of travel is now established without a reasonable counter offer towards a looser EU.

Surely, of course, the European Council would reject such an offer? Well, maybe. But maybe not. You don’t know until you try. Actually my bet is the European Council would accept the offer – after all, there is no institution in the world more expert at can-kicking-down-the-road.

Impossible? Impractical? Not actually respecting the will of the people? Well then, your turn… right here, next Tuesday…

Nonsense of “all education should be free”

In response to Owen Smith’s proposal for a graduate tax to replace student fees, one correspondent got literally hundreds of likes for the apparently brilliant notion that there should be neither student fees nor a graduate tax because “all education should be free”.

Yet such simplistic nonsense is the very problem with our democracy. It is almost impossible for anyone to dispute that line and not make themselves appear abhorrent to the world. And yet it is total nonsense.

Firstly, education as a matter of fact is not free. Teachers and tutors must be paid; buildings must be constructed, maintained, rented and heated; materials must be bought; none of this is “free”. By “free”, we actually mean “paid for by the taxpayer”. So, not free, in other words.

Secondly, if I decide for no reason other than my own amusement to do an online course in gardening, should that be paid for by the taxpayer (or “free”, as some like to call it)? Of course not. What a ridiculous notion.

So let us work back from there. If I decide to do an adult learning course, should it be “free”? Or maybe a degree in my spare time, for no reason other than I qualified and felt like it? Or maybe a degree full time…?

Basic education, and within that I include nursery, should be available for “free” (i.e. on the taxpayer) for all. That gives everyone a fair chance, regardless of background (or, at least, it should), and is a broad and wise social investment for us all (even those of us without children of our own).

But optional further education? That is an investment in yourself for which you are likely to be rewarded, and not just financially. I recommend it. But it’s for you, so don’t expect me to pay for it!

And let’s think before we trot out such populist nonsense.

Could Northern Ireland remain within the EU Customs Union?

As every week goes by, the case for “Brexit” weakens despite the referendum result. Sterling has declined markedly; the cost of administering Brexit alone is ridiculous; “Leave” Ministers are at war with each other. The only thing they agree upon is that UK passports should be blue – something which could happen anyway while remaining an EU member state (the EU has no law on passport colours).

Another issue they are divided on is the EU Customs Union, and this is crucial for the island of Ireland. If the UK were to  remain within the EU Customs Union (something which is quite possible outside the EU and would be very wise, given that it maintains the UK’s current international Trade Deals and no other Trade Deals would be available at time of withdrawal from the EU), then there would be no “hard border”. The only necessity would be the occasional spot check (easily done between Northern Ireland and Great Britain); very little else would need to change and the border could remain more or less as is.

Should the UK leave the EU Customs Union, it would not be impossible for Northern Ireland to remain effectively within it. It could be agreed that customs checkpoints would be applied only to goods travelling between Great Britain and the EU and vice-versa – but any arriving in Northern Ireland or going from Northern Ireland to either would not be subject to customs. Northern Ireland may have to offer something for this special status – for example, it could offer to maintain (as it is perfectly entitled to do at devolved level) all EU trading and employment standards.

There would be certain quirks to this. For example, this somewhat nerdy post from two years ago would suddenly become relevant – it would probably be necessary to distinguish clearly Northern Irish vehicles from those elsewhere in the UK, best done by adopting the system I proposed then (with the initial letter “I” in all cases) in order to avoid confusion around personalised plates – all vehicles moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or vice-versa would now be re-registered obligatorily, not just optionally.

These are the types of things we have to consider to maximise our opportunities over the coming years and months.

Ludicrous “Greenland” fantasy doesn’t help the “experts”

The now gloriously forgotten Michael Gove became famed during the referendum campaign for the line that “People are fed up with experts”.

It was nonsense populism from someone who should have known better, and who was thus buying into the ludicrous notion that one person’s ignorance is equal to another’s knowledge. It isn’t. This notion is destroying democracy.

Sometimes the experts do not do themselves any favours, however. Since the referendum, one fanciful idea has been doing the rounds, backed by some academics who should know a lot better, that somehow Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU while the rest of the UK leaves.

This notion is so idiotic, politically and practically, it is hard to know where to begin with it.

Firstly, the idea is based on Greenland leaving the EU while Denmark remained in during the 1980s. However, they tend to miss the point that Greenland is not part of Denmark! Although it does send representation to the Copenhagen Parliament, legally and practically Greenland’s relationship to Denmark is almost identical to that of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to the UK. There is simply no parallel to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are actually part of the UK.

Secondly, the UK voted to leave the EU. The ridiculous “reverse Greenland” idea means that in fact the UK would remain a member state, with England and Wales leaving the way Greenland did. This is ridiculous in theory because European and foreign affairs are not devolved; and in practice because it is just ridiculous. Nicola Sturgeon and Martin McGuinness going to European Council meetings to represent the UK?

Thirdly, it is practically nonsense anyway. Outside the EU, England and Wales could choose to leave the customs union and single market, meaning border checks and separate immigration policy within the UK. If you have to show your passport and open your boot every time you pass through Gretna Green, what exactly would be the point of the UK existing?!

The fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain is relevant. The task for Leavers is to come up with a realistic proposal to withdraw from the EU without breaking up the UK. There is a case to be made for the UK remaining within the EU on the basis that the proposal to leave was not carried in a majority of constituent countries of the UK. However, ultimately, either (all of) the UK withdraws from the EU, or it doesn’t.

And if the UK withdraws from the EU, the only route for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is to leave the UK.

Let us just be clear about the basic practical political and legal facts. (And beware of people posing as “experts” who lack even basic expertise!)

Labour debacle remains far more serious than most realise

The Conservatives got a jibe in during the week that they were trying to unite the party while Labour was splitting up even among itself. We will see just how cocky the Tories are a year or two from now when they have collapsed the economy pursuing a completely pointless exit from the EU, but their point stands.

What is happening in the Labour Party is being described in terms of “splits” and “realignment”) – standard political talk, in other words. However, it is far from standard. The party’s MPs, activists and supporters are now three entirely different sets of people and the consequence is that the party has ceased to be a serious competitor for government.

Corbyn’s Labour is a mere left-wing pressure group now. This has serious ramifications for the Left, and for politics in the UK in general.

The failure of the Corbynites’ analysis is simple: they believe Labour is a left-wing party. However, it was never that. It was a centre-left party – i.e. a home for everyone from centre to left, not just left. Once it ceases to be that, it cannot seriously compete for office at Westminster. This does not mean it loses relevance completely – it will continue to compete for urban city halls across England and Wales and perhaps for office in devolved government in the latter – but it does mean it is not a political influencer at the same level as the Conservatives.

Indeed, as the Conservatives fail to deliver the “Hard Brexit” many thought they were voting for, UKIP will make a comeback to the same level of influence as Labour – and with a similar level of coherence.

The game has changed. Quite what the outcome of that change is, is anyone’s guess. But it will be a long time before anyone even slightly to the left of centre will be occupying Number 10 – and all democrats should be concerned about that.