Brexit: a touch of indexing

Thursday 24 June 2021  

I finished writing the revised edition of The Great Deception in early February, allowing time to include a comment about the immediate effect of the end of the transition period.

Proofing a book of this length and complexity is a long and arduous process. It starts with a proof reader going through the typescript, marking up the errors and sending them back to the author for comments. At this stage, the author adds his own corrections and the sets are amalgamated to produce a final typescript which is then send to the typesetter.

Believe it or not, our typesetter is in India and, with Covid affecting operations there and in the UK – with most UK staff working at home – there were some delays in getting the typeset copy back.

This is known as the "first pass", which must be proofed again, yielding another raft of corrections which are passed back to the typesetter who is then able to produce the "second pass", carrying the final pagination. It is this copy which is used to generate the index. Corrections can also be accepted, but they mustn't change the pagination.

For reasons best known to the publisher, the second pass was late getting to me and, for some inexplicable reason, my "first pass" corrections had not been processed, some of which quite definitely impact on the pagination. Thus, I've had to re-do the corrections to avoid any such impact.

You can do them semi-automatically on the computer but I find such indexes soulless and unreadable. Writing a good index is a creative art. The author has to get inside the minds of potential readers, aiming to anticipate what they might need to find, so I do it old-school, the hard way.

Just as an illustration, here are my entries on the European constitution and the Lisbon Treaty:
Constitution (European), Blair enthusiastic for, ix, federal, 16-17, Spinelli, 23, Hague Congress, 34, Europe's first, 55, Treaty of Rome as, 73, ECJ confirms, 204, calls for, 261, Commission argues for, 328, Fischer promotes, 355, 361, existing treaties amounting to, 369, Hague 'hell-bent' remark, 372, Fischer repeats, 376, University Institute in Florence draft, 376, Schröder and Chirac propose, 377, Blair rejects idea, 380, 381, 382, proposed by 2005, 385, decision at Laeken, 385, Schröder Plan, 386, 387, Prodi announces, 393, Blair 'stranded', 394, Laeken Declaration, 395, Spinelli 'crowning dream', 396, Convention, 396-402, 409, summit plan, 414, is it necessary?, 417, 418, positions 'deadlocked', 419, work unlikely to resume, 420, accelerated adoption, 421, warnings about rejection, 422, treaty agreed, 425, Blair refuses referendum, 426, not 'constitutionally significant', 427, agrees vote, 428, text not complete, 429, new members 'bribe'; France agrees referendum, 430, leaders sign; Howard promises referendum, 431, Lithuania first to ratify, 432, Spanish referendum, 433, becomes best-seller in France, 436, French and Dutch vote 'No', 441, ratification 'dance', 442, kicked into long grass, 444, 'pause for reflection', 446, Plan D for dialogue, 448, Commission publishes, 452, 'covered in snow', 460, treaty 'dead', 461, 'Sound of Europe' conference, 462, 'back door' implementation, 464, rebranding; 'mistake to call it a constitution', 465, Merkel 'firmly convinced' of need, 467, decision to revive, 468, transformed into 'reform' treaty, 468-469, Britain on 'collision course', 469, new treaty by 2008; Blair and Balkenende join forces against, 470, new treaty being assembled, 470; 'presentational changes', 471, Blair passes 'poisoned chalice' to Brown; 'substance' of original preserved, 472; IGC convened, 472-473, constitutional concept 'abandoned', 473, leaders decide document to be 'unreadable', 474

Lisbon Treaty, 474, Giscard d’Estaing attests to similarity with constitution, 475, Cameron promises referendum; final draft signed; 476, calls for swift ratification, 477, not a 'fundamental constitutional change'; motion for referendum defeated, 478, Irish referendum: 'No', 479, Irish have to vote again, 480, UK ratifies, 481, German constitutional court, 483, Cameron: 'not let matters rest', 486, Commission's first task, 487, Irish voters say 'Yes', 487-488, Václav Klaus signs, 488, treaty comes into force, 488, Cameron pledges renegotiation, 489, MEPs allowances increased, 490
They'll be in smaller type in the book, so they'll take a lot less space.

I had reckoned on spending about two weeks (14 days) on the work – Booker did the original one - but I've found it much harder going than anticipated. It's basically the same length as the original book, but with half as much again material written into it.

Thus, by Monday last – my original self-imposed deadline, I'd spent two weeks getting just over halfway through the script, with no chance of meeting my own (I thought) self-imposed deadline. It was at this point that the publisher informed me that the absolute deadline was midday Wednesday (yesterday), leaving me two days to finish the other half of the index. My squeals of protest, however, have bought me extra time. As a special "concession", I now have until Friday midday to complete the work.

Having spent 14 hours at the keyboard on Wednesday, with the expectation of longer today, I'm not really in a position to write up the normal blogpost. This will have to do instead.

I'm sure, though, that the labour is good for the soul, and it is good to be reminded why we needed to leave the EU. Just the outline of the way we were treated on the constitution, and the Lisbon Treaty, shows the utter contempt the political elites had for us, especially in palming off the constitution as a 'reform' treaty after it had been rejected in two referendums.

There is a direct linkage between the events here and Brexit. Foisting upon us a constitutional treaty without a referendum made it a "treaty too far". The pent-up demand for a referendum became unstoppable and, as they say, the rest is history.

I'll try to do a short blogpost tomorrow night, but it'll be Friday before normal service (on my part) resumes.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 24/06/2021 link

Brexit: broken beyond repair

Wednesday 23 June 2021  

This is the fifth anniversary of the day we went to the polls and set in train the events which were to take us out of the European Union.

Sadly, though, that anniversary gives us little cause for cheer. The intervening years have been littered by incompetence across the board, from politicians to officials and trade representatives, leaving the public confused and generally unenthusiastic about the process.

A recent YouGov poll on the issue asked respondents whether they think Brexit has gone well or badly since the EU transition period ended, yielding unhappy results.

Of those in the positive category, only six percent think Brexit has gone "very well", with 23 percent prepared to concede that it has gone "fairly well". Some 28 percent are sitting on the fence, answering that Brexit has gone neither well nor badly; 20 percent mark the process as having gone "fairly badly", and 23 percent think it has gone "very badly".

What are particularly interesting here are the extremes: six percent "very well", as against 23 percent "very badly". But even if we contrast the sum of the positive and negative views, (29 vs 43 percent), we get a net -14 percent satisfaction rating.

That does not, of course, measure people's views whether leaving the EU was good or bad. Most people's views, it seems, are unchanged on that from the time of the referendum. But when it comes to the execution of the process, there is a clear vote of no confidence.

It can come as no surprise, though, that this is the case. From even before the referendum, the process has been mismanaged, with multiple missed opportunities to prepare for our departure, culminating in Vote Leave's refusal to endorse an exit plan, under the tutelage of its campaign director, Dominic Cummings.

This is the man who decided to "swerve" round the issue on the basis that any plan would be too contentious, thus missing the point of decades of campaigning. The objective was to get us out of the EU, not just to win the referendum meaning that, at best, Cummings left the job half done.

Ironically, this is the same man who complained that the government didn't have a Covid plan, yet he was quite content to embark on one of the most significant political changes of the century without any real idea of what might happen if he won the referendum.

Cummings, as I recall, once accused me of not understanding politics – which doesn't sound so convincing from a failed political advisor who is largely responsible for setting us down the path of a botched Brexit which is attracting consistent votes of no-confidence.

The only consolation he might have is that he might have is that he has had considerable help in delivering the botch that is Brexit, not least from the recently ennobled David Frost, who was responsible for the day-to-day negotiations which brought us the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA.

Coincidentally – one assumes – he was giving evidence on Brexit to the foreign affairs committee yesterday, telling MPs that "Brexiters" did not expect UK's relationship with EU to be as difficult now as it is. People who campaigned for leave, he says, would have been "surprised" to be told the relationship with the EU would be as "relatively difficult as it is now".

Despite evidently lacking even a scintilla of self-awareness, this must be the only man on the planet with so much direct experience of the Brexit process and so little understanding of it. Given the extraordinary behaviour of the UK negotiating team and the politicians behind them, it's actually more surprising that anyone in the EU at a political level is still talking to us.

Being somewhat busy at the moment, finishing the index for The Great Deception, I haven't had time to watch the video of Frost parading his stupidity in front of the MPs, but fortunately I don't have to as John Crace was there for us.

His headline suggests that the MPs "might have got more Brexit sense out of Frosty the Snowman", which is undoubtedly correct as getting any sense at all out of Frost would have been an achievement not far distant from extracting blood out of a stone.

The one thing Frost has been able to do, though – according to Crace – is better informed us as to why the negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol have started to unravel badly. That's because, Crace writes, "every time he speaks, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator, David Frost, doesn’t seem to be quite as bright as he would like us all to believe".

It definitely does seem that Frost is one of those people who should adopt the Trappist code, with a lifelong vow of silence – simply on the basis that it is better to keep your mouth shut and keep people guessing as to whether you are as stupid as you look, or open your mouth and confirm it.

One has to concede, though, that total silence is not the most effective tool for a man who supposedly earns his living from negotiating, although, it seems, it might have been the better of the two options.

In Crace's view, by opening his mouth and actually speaking, Frost's did his best to prove why he wasn't really up to the job. The thrust of what he had to say was that it had been obvious from the start the UK had only been pretending to apply EU law in Northern Ireland as a matter of political convenience.

It was, therefore, entirely the fault of the EU that the EU had deliberately misinterpret this as if we were signing an international treaty in good faith. We had imagined that the EU would look on the protocol as mere window dressing and would take a pragmatic view of us ignoring the rules.

It should, Frost continued, have been obvious we had no intention of sticking to the letter of the law,. not least because Johnson was the UK prime minister and if there was one thing on which you could rely on with him was that he never kept his promises and would seek to bend the regulations.

Thus, Frost and his negotiating team had been totally taken aback to discover that the EU were treating Johnson as a man of his word and were expecting the UK to keep to the terms of the protocol. It was all a bit bumpy right now, Frost conceded, but no one could possibly have imagined that events would pan out as they had.

Hyperbole aside, Frost did say that the "chilling effect" on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was "quite strong", and he did assert that "nobody could know that until they started implementing the protocol" – something that only an inveterate liar or a complete ignoramus could suggest.

We can also rely on committee member Tom Tugendhat. He disputed Frost's claims that nobody predicted the impact of the protocol on trade, pointing out that the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium flagged this up. Furthermore, Gavin Barwell, Theresa May's chief of staff, has said this was why May rejected a Johnson-style an arrangement.

This, it appears, led to some furious back-pedalling on the part of Frost, who conceded that he didn't mean that no one had predicted the outcome. Simply, Johnson had failed to predict it. They had needed a deal to get Brexit over the line and the Northern Ireland protocol had looked the best bet as something that both sides could comfortably ignore.

That left the ennobled one, in the words of Crace, to repeat how astonished he was that the EU had been so intransigent in their refusal to finesse the rules to the UK's advantage, doubling down on Brexiters having been given no warning over the complexities of Northern Ireland.

Had there been any attempt by the UK to stay in the Single Market – making the whole of the UK and Ireland a common regulatory area - there would have been few problems. but this seems to have escaped Frost, as did the simply notion that, if you want to transition goods from a third country into the EU's single market, then there will be a few hurdles to surmount.

The worst of it is that the deed is none – we have Johnson's maladroit protocol, and there is no sign that he is about to backtrack and seek a more rational solution. One can only hope that, by the time we get to the tenth anniversary of the referendum Johnson will have been long gone, and sense will have prevailed.

But, while the former is likely, the latter is improbable. A system that can throw up Frost as a chief negotiator is broken beyond repair.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 23/06/2021 link

Brexit: an absence of understanding

Tuesday 22 June 2021  

On 1 February 2017, I wrote this on the problems facing the horseracing industry after Brexit. At the time I knew precious little about the industry, and cared less. To my recollection, I've only ever been to a horse race once in my life, and never felt the need to repeat the experience.

Nonetheless, I managed to get on top of the issue, reviewing the EU legislation involved and correctly predicting that the Tripartite Agreement between France, Ireland and the UK (implemented by an EU Directive) was at risk, and that its loss would create considerable difficulties.

As he so often did, Booker followed up a few days later in his own columns, which I then reviewed on the Sunday of publication.

The archived piece seems to have been truncated somewhat but, about 18 months later, Booker referred to it in another piece, which carried a more explicit headline, with the text warning of the lapse of the tripartite agreement.

This piece was couched in terms of a no-deal Brexit, but in the meantime I had been doing multiple follow-up pieces of my own, including this one, which made it pretty clear that the industry was going to have a hard time with Brexit, deal or no deal.

There were other few voices warning of problems to come, most of which I think I picked up, such as this, which had John Melville, superintending veterinary inspector at the Irish Department of Agriculture warning that Brexit presented "an absolute nightmare scenario".

At that time, I took the warning further, remarking that this "nightmare scenario" was not only about to hit the sport horse and racing industries, but also agriculture and food processing. And even if it started now, I stated, and could afford the enormous costs and turmoil that the changes will bring, there is no time to put the infrastructure in place, or to recruit and train the specialist staff.

But what struck me at the time was the almost complete absence of any discourse within the industry, which seemed oblivious to the coming threat – or perhaps fostering the unrealistic expectation that everything would be alright on the night.

As we know, though, it wasn't alright on the night and, to give it its due, the BBC was relatively quick off the mark, with a piece in January of this year retailing the effects of Brexit on a stable owner in East Yorkshire.

Although it was a pretty tepid piece, I reviewed it a few days after publication, noting that the complaints from stable owner, Rachael Williams, were all to predictable and, in fact, had been predicted on my blog.

I also wrote this piece a few days later, commenting that there were "strong indications" that there had been significant "head-in-the-sand" behaviour exhibited by some business leaders and their trade bodies, with entirely unrealistic expectations of the post-Brexit/transition period.

That was certainly the case with the equine sports sector and I had to acknowledge being perplexed by the extraordinarily limited coverage on the problems, most of which had centred around the impact on the Irish end of the business.

But now, six months into the year, with the TCA fully in force, we have a "no shit Sherlock!" moment brought to us bt the BBC, with a web headline: "Brexit: Horse racing hit by rules over exports".

The text appears to indicate that "industry figures" have at last woken up to the scale of the problem, with the British Horseracing Authority finding that, from January-February 2021, compared to January-February 2020, British-trained runners in races in the EU fell by 67 percent, compared to a 23 percent reduction in races across the rest of the world.

EU-trained runners in GB races have fallen by 92 percent, with a 93 reduction reduction in runners from Ireland and 89 percent from Northern Ireland. Thoroughbred Export Certificates for permanent export have fallen by 30 percent, with a larger decrease in February, and thoroughbred BCNs (Breeding Clearance Notifications for temporary exports) have fallen by 61 percent.

Some of the problems have been obscured by Covid but the record is pretty clear. Movement of racehorses has been badly affected by the onset of Brexit – exactly as I suggested it might be more than four years ago.

In typical style, the BBC then goes to a "victim" to add human interest to the tale – the "horse's mouth", so to speak. Their chosen one is Tom Blain, managing director at Barton Stud of Great Barton, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

He alludes to the tripartite agreement, although readers are not troubled with its name. And now the UK had left the EU, Blain says, the process has changed - and not for the better.

"It's considerably harder and more complicated to get mares to France or Ireland; that, in turn, means less horses have gone," he informs us, adding that things had improved since the beginning of the year and you only have "real problems" if all the paperwork is not in order.

However, it seems that Ross Hamilton, of the British Horseracing Authority, is not quite so sanguine. "In terms of quantification of the impacts we have seen, overall", he says, "British runners in EU countries are down 51 percent for the first four months of this year, compared with the equivalent period in 2019, and runners from the EU in Great Britain are down around 40 percent".

He acknowledges that Covid pandemic had "clearly played a part", but there had also been an increase in the paperwork and administration required to move thoroughbreds. The paperwork for just one horse to travel overseas requires at least 26 stamps, each needing a vet's signature, but it could be many more.

But what really takes the biscuit is James Crowhurst, a consultant vet at Newmarket Equine Hospital. He says, "We knew we would be a third country, subject to new import rules, but we didn't think they would be so time-consuming and labour-intensive". He could have known, of course, as all the information was there and all you have to do was piece it together. But then, being a vet, sorting out his coloured crayons would probably have been as much of a challenge as he could cope with.

As always, though, the real BS comes from Defra, its spokesman saying: "To ensure movements to EU countries can continue as smoothly as possible, we have implemented a range of initiatives to increase the number of certifiers to meet demand for export health certification".

In the dead tones of the bureaucrat, he adds: "We continue to meet regularly with key industry stakeholders, and authorities in France and Ireland, to understand difficulties associated with the movement of equines as they arise".

But, for an industry that is now worth £4.1 billion annually to the UK economy, supporting tens of thousands of jobs, something a little more than understanding is needed. With smaller operators in the industry particularly hard hit, the British Horseracing Authority want "red tape" to be cut.

If it had been on the ball, and banging on the door of government from the get-go, this trouble could have been headed off at the pass. What the industry really needs is for the tripartite agreement to be reactivated.

It started off life as an intergovernmental agreement and was subsumed into EU law. A new version could exist in similar form, compatible with but outside EU law. But to get that underway would require real understanding – something none of the parties involved have displayed.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 22/06/2021 link

Politics: sending a message

Monday 21 June 2021  

I didn't intend to return to the Batley and Spen by-election so soon, but there have been some interesting development which are beginning to set this contest on fire.

Before I deal with these, though, let me make it perfectly clear that I am not going to be brow-beaten or otherwise intimidated by keyboard race-warriors – especially on my own blog comments – who seem to take the view that any critical appraisal of the behaviour of immigrant communities somehow constitutes racism.

On this blog, I reserve the right to criticise any person, group, community, nation, continent, planet or even galaxy if I think it is merited. I will do so without fear or favour. I am equally critical about a whole range of issues and the groups that espouse them. There is no discrimination – if they are part of the human race, they are fair game.

As regards the current developments, the irony of the situation could hardly be bettered as the Labour Party is now embroiled in a growing controversy which has the party accused of being selectively racist.

The Guardian's take on this is that Muslim voters are unhappy with the party’s stance on foreign policy issues such as Palestine and Kashmir, amid a perception that the party takes some forms of racism more seriously than others.

I am not quite sure what is being implied here – but it could be taken that the party should be equally racist to all comers, which is probably quite hard to do. But despite her sucking up to (elements of) the local Muslim community, Leadbetter is taking some serious stick from some of said Muslims who believe that Labour is taking their votes "for granted".

You can see the Guardian at its mealy-mouthed worse here, retailing a comment from Wajid Hussain, 35, who complains of Starmer that: "Keir took the time to condemn two idiots for being antisemitic last month but he won't condemn the Israeli government for killing innocent people", referring to an incident in north London last month where antisemitic abuse appeared to be shouted from a car.

A live link is included in the passage, which takes us here, where a group of youths in four Palestinian flag-bedecked cars drive down Finchley Road in North London, to the amplified strains of: "Fuck the Jews. Rape their daughters", captured on video and published on Twitter.

Now, just over a month later, this antisemitic abuse only "appeared" to be shouted from a car, with Wajid Hussain dismissing the perpetrators as "idiots", while complaining that Starmer called the exhibition "utterly disgusting" but failed to "condemn the Israeli government for killing innocent people".

By inference, Hussain is suggesting that the Israeli action is "racism" and, quite evidently, is looking for equivalence from Labour. For Starmer to criticise overt antisemitism, he must at the same time condemn Israel. The one is conditional on the other.

To add to the gaiety of life, Hussain then blandly informs the Guardian, "I've voted Labour my whole life but I won't be blindly giving them my vote any more. And that’s not just about Palestine. It’s everything locally. They've been in power here for 25 years but only now they're under threat do they care about Asians".

Bluntly, I really don't know what Hussain is whingeing about. Neither Labour nor the Tories really give a shit about anyone up here, but if anything in terms of spending and other aspects of public administration, the Asian communities do marginally better that the white areas.

And it has not escaped attention that the recovery rate for Council Tax is highest in the white areas, and significantly lower in the predominantly Asian areas, where enforcement seems to be non-existent.

That's the point about the race warriors, though. Discrimination in favour of ethic communities is good, even where to the detriment of indigenous white communities. But any criticism of any members of their darling ethnic communities, no matter how well-deserved, is not just baaaad. It's wacism.

But what's really giving this story legs is Dan Hodges and his Mail on Sunday, which I reviewed yesterday where, according to the Guardian's rendition, a "senior Labour official" claiming that the reason the [Labour] party was losing votes was a "backlash" from Muslim voters over "what Keir has been doing on antisemitism".

Once again, though, the Guardian can't help itself. This "senior Labour official" didn't just claim that Labour was "losing" votes. The word he used was "haemorrhaging", implying that this was an across-the-board reaction.

This, we are told, has provoked the Labour Muslim Network into writing to Starmer and others to complain that the "obvious implication" was that the Muslim community themselves harbour antisemitic views. This, it describes as a "common racist trope perpetuated onto Muslims".

Of course, this "trope" might just have been slightly reinforced by the thousands of Muslims who travelled to London in segregated coaches to demonstrate for a "free Palestine", chanting their genocidal rhetoric with no complaints at all from the Muslim elders, or from the Labour Muslim Network for that matter.

Nevertheless, this anonymous Labour official is said to have "breached the all-party parliamentary groups’ definition of Islamophobia", and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has promised an investigation into the comments.

But, in an issue replete with ironies, I noted in my piece that it was unlikely that this official was relying on first-hand knowledge, in which case he is probably relying on a recent survey which had Starmer reported as being rated "far less favourably than Labour by Muslim voters". And this research was commissioned by … the Labour Muslim Network.

If the "race" issue in Batley and Spen is a prominent part of the campaign, though, it's because the Muslims put it there. As long ago as 6 June, The Times was reporting that the Muslim Council of Britain, using 2018 data from the ONS, was suggesting that Batley and Spen "is one of the top 15 seats where Muslim voters have high impact". With turnout estimates, MCB was saying that about 8,600 voters on 1 July "will" be Muslim, more than twice the Labour majority.

In other words, the Muslim Council was doing what it always does – leveraging its bloc vote to political advantage, in this case clearly implying that the local Muslim community holds the balance of power.

Apparently, there is also discontent over how Labour handled its selection process. The party waived its membership rules to allow Leadbeater to stand and two local councillors who applied, both from the south Asian community, did not make the shortlist.

Nevertheless, the Muslim stance, perhaps, is more than a little presumptuous. It assumes the white vote is going to stay static, supporting their traditional parties. By this means, they are threatening that the bloc Muslim vote will decide on who gets sent to Westminster.

What is interesting though is that, of the Muslim community in Batley, the majority is not Kashmiri, as I had thought, but Indian. Many originate from Alipore, a village near Chikhli, Bilimora in the state of Gujarat – part of the sunni Vohra community, which is said to have originated in Hadhramaut, in the Yemen. They come most recently from Gujarat, but they are not Gujurati.

Even though I used to live in the constituency, I didn't know this when I wrote yesterday's piece. It adds another complication which may significantly alter the voting calculus. Although the Vohra diaspora share with the Kashmiris their adherence to the sunni sect, they are not necessarily going to be as worked up about Kashmiri politics, or even Palestine. Nor is it clear that they will react in the same way to Galloway's blandishments.

Here, The Times offers some clues. About 200 people were at his campaign launch, which was attended by people from Indian and "Pakistani" communities, drawing in working-class support as well as those from more affluent backgrounds. But there was just a handful of white people in the audience when Galloway delivered a rousing anti-Labour speech.

For all that, it is clear that Leadbetter, in focusing on both Kashmir and Palestine, is pitching her message at the Kashmiris. By so doing, she is chasing after the minority of a minority, presumably, presumably in the hope that this will win her the seat.

What needs to be remembered though, is this constituency is Batley and Spen, not just Batley. It takes in part of the Spen valley which has – as Wikipedia delicately puts it – "few residents from non-white heritage backgrounds". Some readers have been quoting Batley demographics, and then from the 2001 census. But in the constituency as a whole, the Muslim voting population will probably be less than 20 percent.

Amongst the white majority, it is fair to say that not a few are thoroughly sick of being branded "racist" if they even dare to remark on how the immigrants are degrading their towns. And with Leadbetter falling over herself to appease the incomers – with the London party doing likewise – this may impact on the core Labour vote.

Thus, chasing after a minority of the minority in this instance is not necessarily going to pay dividends for Labour, while the Muslim Council is in danger of over-estimating the influence of its co-religionists.

It is doubtful, though, that the political classes will take the right message from this. If the Tories do win the seat on the 1 July, it is likely that they will fail to understand the dynamics which brought them victory. And there will also be numbers of race warriors who will misinterpret the message the voters send.

The thing is that the message shouldn't be difficult to understand. Despite the West Yorkshire accent, "fuck you" is clear enough, even in Islington.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 21/06/2021 link

Politics: Batley blue

Sunday 20 June 2021  

Having been completely caught out by the result at Chesham and Amersham, the political pundits are rushing in, attempting to re-establish some of their tarnished credibility by predicting the outcome of the Batley and Spen by-election, scheduled for 1 July.

The emerging consensus amongst these cognoscenti is that the Tories will win the seat, which has been a Labour fiefdom since 1983, a view taken by the Mail's Dan Hodges who raises the "M-word" and one of the major issues.

He cites a conveniently anonymous "senior Labour official", to tell us that "We're haemorrhaging votes among Muslim voters", claiming that the reason for that is Starmer's stance on antisemitism. "Nobody really wants to talk about it", the official says, "but that's the main factor. He challenged Corbyn on it, and there's been a backlash among certain sections of the community".

It is unlikely that this official is relying on first-hand knowledge, in which case he is probably relying on a recent survey which had Starmer reported as being rated "far less favourably than Labour by Muslim voters".

This is based on research commissioned by the Labour Muslim Network after its activists campaigning in the May 2021 elections reported back to the organisation that Labour's vote was "collapsing" in traditional Labour Muslim areas of the country.

Carried out by Survation , its poll showed that while the Labour Party as a whole had a strong net favourability rating among British Muslims of +42 percent, Starmer's personal rating was -7 percent amongst these voters. His rating with general Labour was +34 percent, but he only manages -4 percent from "British Muslims" who voted for Labour at the last general election.

While Labour remains by far the most popular party amongst voting age British Muslims, rated at 72 percent as against a mere 9 percent for the Tories, Starmer is said to have a positive favourability rating of 22 percent, almost equal to that of Johnson, at 20 percent.

However, while these figures may accurate reflect the answers given to the pollsters, I am deeply suspicious of any poll which seeks to portray the sentiment of any body labelled as "British Muslims". Such a body embraces peoples who originate from Bangladesh, Pakistan, South-east Asia (Indonesia) Somalia, the Arabian peninsula and, of course, Kashmir.

In relation to Batley and Spen, the Muslim community is largely of Kashmiri origin, a group known to be close-knit, deeply religious and largely obedient to its religious leaders, the imams. With very rare exceptions, the men will obey the instructions of those leaders and, largely, the women will do as they are told by the men in their families (if they even get to see the postal votes competed in their names).

Thus, the way the community will vote on 1 July will not necessarily bear any relation to the Survation poll, nor to a more recent general poll (also by Survation), published by the Independent on Sunday.

This, like Dan Hodges, predicts that the Tories will take the West Yorkshire constituency, taking a very specific 47 percent of the vote. Labour will trail in second place with 41 percent of the vote, while George Galloway is predicted to take six percent.

That, however, may be a very brave – and even rash – prediction, as the Imams may not even have decided yet, and may not deliver their instructions to their faithful until the Friday before the election.

On the other hand, although the Kashmiris are a significant factor in this race, their votes are by no means decisive. As I remarked yesterday, they comprise a large bloc, but not a majority.

Yesterday, I mistakenly estimated them at 40 percent of the population, whereas the correct figure is 18.8 percent, based on the last census. It is likely to be higher now, although that figure represents proportion of the total population, including children below the age of voting. The actual voting age proportion may be less.

In Bradford West, where Galloway had his famous victory in 2012, the (largely Kashmiri) Muslims do comprise a majority – recording 51.3 percent in the 2011 census, and very much higher now following extensive "white flight". There, the Kashmiris can decide who goes to Westminster. In Batley and Spen, they cannot (yet), even if they might hold the balance of power.

On the other hand, Labour candidate Kim Leadbetter – perhaps influence by the Survation poll on Muslim sentiment, is making a high-profile pitch for the Kashmiri vote (pictured), pledging support for Palestine and Kashmiri independence. But, by so doing, she risks alienating her core supporters, who are none too keen on having their choice of MP decided by such issues.

There is certainly a risk, therefore, that Leadbetter's election strategy will backfire, motivating a significant proportion of her core vote to stay at home. Some may even switch loyalties and vote Tory. Turnout will be worth watching here.

With that, and if Galloway splits the Kashmiri vote, or even creams off the whole of it, the likely effect will be that the Tories take the seat, perhaps with a sizeable margin. And, in this seat, the Lib-Dems are not campaigning heavily, with Ed Davy hinting that Lib Dem supporters should back Labour.

This seems to me to be unwise. In theory, the Lib-Dems are the traditional repository for the mid-term protest vote. They need to provide a bolt-hole for disaffected Labour voters as well as Tories. Davey needs to avoid the siren call of a "progressive coalition", and provide a home for all-comers.

Given that a win for the Lib-Dems at Chesham and Amersham was unlikely, one could suppose that victory in Batley and Spen is equally unlikely – although this time the Lib-Dems aren't even trying. Nevertheless, as well as turnout, the Lib-Dem vote is one to watch.

What would then be an interesting outcome to the forthcoming election would be a narrow Tory victory, on a reduced Labour vote, and increased Lib-Dem vote and a lower turnout. The Tories would be celebrating their victory, but the underlying trend would be less positive.

However, this would still signal danger for Labour, suggesting that the party is a long way from clawing its way back to power. And if its candidates are allowed to chase the ethnic vote, espousing their causes to the detriment of the what was once the white, working class vote, then the party is paving its way to oblivion.

Whatever the result, though, the pundits should be taking note of these observations which is suggesting that the election will turn on "Palestine and Islamophobia". When the politics of a provincial town are thus dominated, we need to think very hard where we're going.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 20/06/2021 link

Politics: writing on the (blue) wall?

Saturday 19 June 2021  

In 2019, 30,850 people voted for the now deceased Cheryl Gillan, then Tory candidate for the safe seat Chesham and Amersham, where she had been the incumbent MP since 1992. Exactly 14,627 people were recorded as voting for Lib-Dem challenger Dan Gallagher, placing him a poor second. Labour came third with 7,166 votes.

For the record, 55,978 people voted, representing a relatively high turnout of 76.8 percent. With Gillan taking 55.4 percent of the vote, that means she was returned to Westminster by a mere 42.5 percent of the electorate – a minority but not as bad as some seats.

Now, for the by-election just reported, businessman Peter Fleet moved into the Tory slot, defending Gillan's 16,223 majority against Lib-Dem challenger Sarah Green, a fluent Welsh-speaker parachuted in from Wales. As an aspirant MP, her great claim to fame was to contest Arfon at the 2010 general election, finishing fourth behind Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Conservatives.

As Lib-Dem chairman Mark Pack somewhat sardonically remarked yesterday, Green's chances were not rated particularly highly in some quarters. The all-knowing Spectator, for instance, decided that the Lib-Dems would lose, "most likely fairly badly".

Earlier in the week, "waspish writer" Nick Tyrone had written for the magazine under the title, "The Lib-Dems are utterly lost", thanking God that the by-election had almost arrived.

"Hopefully", he opined, "then we can stop hearing any rubbish about how the Lib-Dems are set to tear down the Conservatives' 'blue wall' in the home counties". "As the campaign has demonstrated", he informed his devoted reader, "the Lib-Dems are miles away from being able to cause such an upset".

That must certainly have seemed the case after a surprise visit from The Great Leader on 7 June. As he walked up and down Chesham High Street handing out election material to shop owners and residents, people were shouting, "you're doing a great job, prime minister".

However, the day before the poll things looked a little different. Media sources such as the Evening Standard were reporting Lib-Dem claims that the election was "neck and neck", with party representatives insisting that it could "go down to the wire".

On the day, as we now know, 21,517 people voted for Sarah Green and only 13,489 opted for Peter Fleet, giving the Lib-Dem candidate an unexpected majority of 8,028. From the look of it, not even the Lib-Dems anticipated such a handsome win.

The one party which was not surprised at its own showing, it seems, was Labour. Shortly after Johnson's expedition to Chesham High Street, Starmer's spokesman praised the party's "fantastic candidate", but conceded, "it's obviously a very difficult contest for the Labour party".

Asked who the candidate was, there was an awkward pause: "…I will get you that name and send you details after", the spokesman said. On Thursday, this unknown candidate polled 622 votes, down from 7,166 in 2019.

That is worse showing than the National Front in 1979, and on a par with Ukip's first outing in 1997, when the insurgent polled 618 votes (as against the Referendum Party, which took 2,528 votes).

Looking at the current figures, we see that the Lib-Dems gained the seat on a swing of just over 30 percent. The Tories, on the other hand, experience a negative swing of 19.9 percent and Labour (which came fourth after the Greens), swung -11.2 percent.

On the basis of these swings, it is tempting to combine the negatives, coming to just over -30, and compare with the Lib-Dem swing which, conveniently, comes in at just over plus 30. From this, one might assume that the commination of disaffected Tory and Labour voters gave Sarah Green her victory.

However, there is another way of looking at things. In the 2019 general election, the turnout was 76.8 percent. This time round, it was 52.1 percent – relatively high for a by-election. But this means that, while in 2019, about 17,000 people stayed at home, on Thursday, that number swelled to 35,000 – an extra 18,000 abstainers.

A tenable scenario, therefore, is that nearly 7,000 labour voters stayed at home, as did around 11,000 Tory voters. With Peter Fleet losing about 17,000 votes, that left about 6,000 transferring to the Lib-Dems with the small balance coming from the reduction in the number voting for the Greens.

Is this sounds all a little too pat, it might be recalled that the reverse effect was seen at Hartlepool in May. There, the Lib-Dem vote collapsed, Labour stayed at home and, on a heavily reduced turnout, the Tories won the seat.

Transposing this to Chesham and Amersham, we again have Labour voters staying at home, with many Tories doing likewise. And, as the Tories decline, the Lib-Dems prosper, their party being the natural repository for disaffected Tory voters. They will not vote Labour, but they are prepared to vote Lib-Dem as a protest vote in by-elections.

In this scenario, the by-election is bad news for both the main parties. It would confirm Labour's stay-at-home trend, but also point to a potential Lib-Dem resurgence which could heavily erode Tory majorities at the next general election. But, whether that would make any difference is anyone's guess. It could be that Tory losses to the Lib-Dems are balanced by the Labour abstainers, maintaining the status quo.

The ambitions of Lib-Dem leader, to breach the Tory "blue wall" (pictured) may, therefore, may be unrealised, although the forthcoming Batley and Spen may give further clues as to which way the electoral wind is blowing.

This seat was a Tory target in the 2019 general, and they had hopes of winning it. Incumbent Tracy Brabin, after winning following the murder of Jo Cox, had re-taken the seat in the 2017 election with a comfortable 29,844 votes against the Conservative's 20,833. But she did not repeat that performance in 2019, her vote dropping to 22,594 while the Tories held on to 19,069 votes.

Now, there is a real chance that the seat could fall to the Tories, except that the situation is even more complex than usual. Jo Cox's sister, Kim Leadbetter standing for Labour, is apparently chasing after the Kashmiri Moslem vote, making pitches on both Kashmir and Palestine.

However, Batley is not inner-city Bradford. The Kashmiri population is sizeable, at about 20 percent, but it is not a majority. And in 2019, there was the intervention of a newly formed independent party, with the unlikely name of the Heavy Woollen District Independents.

Led by Aleksandar Lukic, who was the chairman for UKIP's Dewsbury, Batley and Spen branch until 2017, it fronted Paul Halloran who took 6,432 votes, eroding the votes of both parties but possibly saving Brabin from electoral annihilation – aided, perhaps, by the Brexit Party which polled 1,678 votes.

Some of that vote, this time, could go to a plethora of minority parties and independents, while there is another factor at play, in the form of George Galloway. He won the strongly Moslem Bradford West by-election in 2012, appealing to the Kashmiri population, and could repeat the same trick.

Equally, it is possible that he could split the Labour vote, as the Labour-voting Kashmiris have been none too happy with Starmer. It all depends on which way the imams jump. It is here, therefore, that the Lib-Dems could be decisive. While the Tories could slip between the cracks, resurgent Lib-Dems could siphon off enough votes to rob them of their victory.

The perverse thing is that this seat will not be entirely fought on local issues, but heavily influenced by the politics of the Middle East and Pakistan. That may muddy the waters for the Lib-Dems, who are said to have scored heavily on local issues in Chesham and Amersham.

But, if the Lib-Dems are back in the game, even (or especially) in Batley and Spen, we should see some signs of it. Then, it is just possible that the writing is on the wall for Johnson, regardless of its colour.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 19/06/2021 link

Covid: distorting the debate

Friday 18 June 2021  

Matt Hancock, according to The Times is set to be exonerated over claims that he lied to the prime minister, despite Cummings dropping his "totally f***ing hopeless" bombshell.

And now Rees Mogg has sprung to the defence of the health secretary, calling him a "successful genius", I suppose we must come to terms with the possibility that Hancock might only be "totally hopeless" in a very specific and limited way.

Hancock himself might have cause to worry about being labelled a "genius", though. That's what the chatterati were once calling Cummings. But now he is challenging his former master, the knives are out, with two article in Johnson's house journal, attacking the former advisor.

The first, by a couple of Telegraph staffers, runs under the headline "There's nothing worse than unpredictability: Was Dominic Cummings unfit to lead from the start?", virtually answering its own question with the sub-heading, "A maverick who marched to the beat of his own drum was never going to be a calm leader in a crisis".

And just in case you have any residual doubts about the fundamental unsuitability of Cummings for his former job, we have a contemporary telling us that, "The Dominic Cummings I knew at university should never have been handed the reins of power".

"As a student", the sub-healing goes, "he was argumentative, awkward and arrogant - it isn't much of a surprise to see him throwing his toys out of the pram now". However, given that Cummings himself admitted that it was "completely crackers" for him to be at the very heart of government, that isn't much of a call.

Nevertheless, having some direct knowledge of the man, I would completely agree with Cumming's own estimation of his worth, but recall that it was Johnson personally who went round to his flat and pleaded with him to come and work in Number 10. The decision to employ Cummings simply represents another flawed judgement to add to the many perpetrated by the prime minister.

But what is more than unusually unhelpful at this time is that Cummings should decide to have his strop, just when the Covid situation appears to be deteriorating once more. Daily cases, reported yesterday, stood at 11,007 – up 3,614 on the week, while the number hospitalised is 1,227, stubbornly above the thousand mark.

We could thus do without the distraction of this eternal soap opera as we try to make sense of a scenario where the French government has lifted Covid restrictions and the country hails a return to a "form of normal life" (pictured – football fans in Paris), while from our own government we get consistent gloom.

The latest dose of pessimism comes from the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, who is telling us that the winter will see a further wave of Covid-19 cases, adding that the virus "has not thrown its last surprise at us".

In remarkably non-specific warning, he declares that the UK is now going into "what is likely to be a third surge and possibly a third significant wave", with the scale not yet clear but with further hospital admissions and deaths.

He expects "a further late autumn/winter surge", but offers no rationale for this other than to say that "respiratory viruses found it easier to spread in colder months". How big a problem this will be, he says, "depends on the success of vaccines and how the present wave progresses".

Once social contact restrictions are lifted, he adds, next winter will also see resurgence of flu and other viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children. Therefore, in his view, the NHS should "brace for the fact that the coming winter may well be quite a difficult one".

This is, he concedes, "a slightly gloomy point". But he thinks the NHS should be "realistic" and prepared for that eventuality. And not only does he think that Covid has not thrown its last surprise, he expects there to be "several more over the next period".

But tucked into these points, Whitty also says that the illness has had the greatest impact in communities where deprivation is "prolonged and deeply entrenched", calling for redoubled action on the issue.

This evasive language undoubtedly obscures a more serious point, as the term "deprivation" in relation to communities is often used as a euphemism for groups of immigrant origin. And in this particular case, we know that communities of Indian origin are heavily involved, even though Whitty doesn't have the courage to say so.

And it actually matters that he should be more explicit. While deprivation is associated with immigrant communities, cause and effect relationships are by no means clear. But what is evident is that special measures will be needed to deal with the special problems thrown up, and it is by no means certain that these have been identified, or that there are the resources to implement them.

It is an entirely uncontentious fact, widely known in epidemiological circles, that the spread of infectious diseases with communities has a strong cultural element, so it is equally uncontentious to asset that the behaviour of Covid-19 will vary in different communities, requiring modifications to the basic control strategies.

Consideration for the sensibilities of racial equality warriors should not be allowed to prevent the acknowledgement that different communities require different measures, and some are more resource-intensive than others. The interests of us all lie in eliminating reservoirs of infection which have the potential to seed the wider community.

That said, it is not only in this respect that one sense we're not being told the whole story. And we have yet to come to terms with the effects of Covid on the disruption on routine NHS operations, with a report that hospitals completed 1.5 million fewer surgical procedures in 2020 than would be expected from trends in previous years, a drop of about 33 percent.

Overall, there have been 7.1 million fewer people referred for treatment than normal over the course of the pandemic, the lack of treatment contributing to a premature death toll which has not been properly explored. There must come a point – if it hasn't already been reached – where the allocation of resources to dealing with Covid must be costing more lives than it is saving.

Notably absent from the discourse, though, is any serious discussion of how we are to deal with a disease which is obviously here to stay. Whitty talks glibly of five years' time, when he expects there to be vaccines that would protect against multiple strains.

But there only needs to be a few unexpected glitches – in an environment where the unexpected has become the norm – for a vaccination programme to fail, wholly or partially. Then we would be back to the desperate times of the early part of the pandemic, where intensive care and lockdowns were the norm.

One would have thought by now that, with the reminder that infectious disease requires its own special management procedures, we would be starting to build custom hospitals, on the traditional "fever hospital" lines, better to deal with a disease where a significant mechanism of spread has been nosocomial infection.

Of that, though, we hear nothing – alongside only a grudging acknowledgement of the role of hospitals in spreading the disease, and no explanations for the evident failure of the Nightingale programme.

It is indeed a shame, therefore, that the focus is on the soap opera themes orchestrated by a failed prime ministerial advisor, rather than the wider issues of immediate relevance to the management of Covid, with important implications for the future.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 18/06/2021 link

Brexit: law and enforcement

Thursday 17 June 2021  

If there were three people in this world that I would not choose to carry out a study on regulatory reform, they would be Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and George Freeman. Unsurprisingly, therefore, these are precisely the three that Johnson has chosen for the task.

Calling themselves the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform, they have produced a 30-page report entitled "A Bold New Regulatory Framework for the UK". And according to the Financial Times, it will now be examined by a deregulation committee, which includes Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer, and Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary.

Iain Duncan Smith – according to the FT – considers that Brexit is a "one-off" chance for UK "to escape EU red tape", although he and his co-workers don't actually say that in their report. In fact, they say that their project is not a simplistic "bonfire of red tape". Regulation, they say, performs many crucial tasks and the nature of our regulatory systems also affect our trade relationships with other countries.

Good regulation, well thought through, they add, can give confidence to global investors, protect consumers, workers and the environment, and secure a range of crucial policy outcomes.

Then they tell us that, "Ensuring that our approach to regulation minimises competitive distortions is an important means to deliver long-term growth an prosperity, as well as putting us in a strong position to conclude free trade agreements with countries around the world".

And they also assert that we "need reform to reflect the pace of technological change which is creating new sectors, but where a lack of regulatory certainty is holding back investment".

All of this sounds vaguely promising, until one sees that they have "sought views from a wide range of businesses, academics and think tanks through dozens of roundtables and meetings with over 125 experts on how the UK can improve how it regulates, now and in the future".

But looking at their list of consultees – which includes the likes of the IEA – what is remarkable is the lack of enforcement agencies or their representatives. And it is that probably represents the greatest weakness of this study.

The importance of this should be evident. Regulation is a partnership between legislation and enforcement and the best effects come when the two are in balance: poor legislation often begets poor enforcement and even the best law can fail through lack of effective enforcement.

Here, in this report, the relationship is recognised, with the authors (with somewhat hazy terminology) remarking that, "the way in which regulation is implemented can be just as impactful as the regulations themselves". Implementation is not the same as enforcement, but we can work out what they're trying to get at.

Where the UK is rightly and proudly committed to maintaining the highest regulatory standards, including in relation to food and the environment, they say, "that does not mean we have to continue with the same, often bureaucratic and self-defeating, methods of implementation".

For an example, they cite "UK farmers" who face compliance with potentially hundreds of regulations, depending on their business, enforced by several different agencies and public bodies.

And from that apparently single example, they call for "a more integrated framework of implementation in which farmers don't have endless site visits and forms to fill in, but one framework of agri-environmental regulation prioritising the desired outcome more than the process of compliance".

Actually, we've been there before. I remember discussing this with civil servants in 1992 in the wake of John Major's deregulation initiative, when the "one-stop shop" was in the vogue, exactly the idea of "a more integrated framework of implementation" that is being suggested nearly 30 years later.

But then, it was rightly concluded that good enforcement came by using specialists who were on top of their game. The "tick-box" approach which is so derided by the current trio, comes from officials who are working to rote and don't have the knowledge to identify how to achieve desired outcomes.

Personally, I was often faced with this problem in the food safety field. The desired outcome was a negative property – the absence of food poisoning. But lacking the skill and experience to identify the factors which gave rise to the problem, many officers obsessed about issues such as cleanliness and repair.

And yet, it is common find in food poisoning outbreak reports, the premises marked down as "clean and in good repair". I actually wrote a paper once, on cleaning as a cause of food poisoning, and it is certainly the case that the amateurs tend to focus on visual appearances rather than practices.

There again, while a food safety specialist will be just the person to advise a farmer on the operation of a food business, recognition of the very special hazards involved in farming operations requires its own specialism, while pollution controls are another specialist field. The idea of an integrated framework is a fantasy.

But here we go with these born-again deregulators, stomping over the same turf without the first real idea of how to achieve their own desired outcome. In a report that mentions "regulation" in its various forms 269 times, the variations on the implementation theme run to 45 mentions, many of which don't refer to regulation, while variations on enforcement appear a mere three times.

This, in my experience, is typical of MPs and their approach to what they call "regulation", inviably equating it with legislation and only giving a passing thought to enforcement. Styled as "lawmakers" by the likes of Reuters, in the main MPs simply don't have the enforcement experience and thus fail to recognise its importance.

However, what is hugely entertaining about this report, in a perverse sort of way, is its recommendation that the "Proportionality Principle" should be at the heart of all UK regulation. This, the authors say, "is absolutely central to the new framework we are proposing".

By making regulation proportionate to both the scale of the risk being mitigated, and the capacity of the organisation being regulated, they believe this new UK framework will boost both UK economic competitiveness and UK regulatory leadership.

The irony here is that "proportionality" in relation to regulation is not recognised in English law (or Scottish, for that matter). It is entirely an EU principle, embodied in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, which requires that "the content and form of Union action shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties".

The brave new world of Brexit is looking to the EU for its inspiration on reducing the effects of EU law. In the main, though – since legislation can only address generalities, because the specific risks in relation to individual operations are unknown - the crucial application of proportionality comes at the enforcement stage, where officials have to judge which parts of their legislative toolboxes they should use to achieve desired outcomes.

Thus, with 100 recommendations listed to create their "bold new regulatory framework", the authors have not so much created a new framework, as suggested the replacement of a few pieces in a vast jigsaw of infinite complexity, the nature of which they haven't even begun to understand.

Interestingly, elsewhere we see a report on "concerns over availability and capacity of UK abattoirs", where the National Sheep Association is worried about "the steady decline in the network of small- to medium-sized, multi-species abattoirs in the UK".

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) on small abattoirs highlighted the decline of licensed abattoirs in the UK since the 1930s with the number of licensed abattoirs in the UK decreasing over the years from 30,000 registered in the 1930s to around 250 today.

The proximate cause of the most recent decline was EU regulation, from which the industry has never recovered, with Brexit presenting an opportunity to address an historic problem which was made worse by UK officials insisting on gold-plating. Now, for some farmers in the southeast of England, the closest facility has been just across the channel in France.

It is no surprise, though, that this report doesn't mention the abattoir sector, even though lifting the unnecessary regulatory burden would be one of the most effective ways of aiding livestock farmers. But then, that's what you get when you let amateurs into the field. All they do is waste everybody's time.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 17/06/2021 link

Brexit: democracy in name only

Wednesday 16 June 2021  

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

Covid: the consensus fragmenting

Tuesday 15 June 2021  

It's been such a long time coming, and predicted so widely, that there can hardly be any sense of surprise that Johnson has delayed the lifting of the final set of Covid restrictions until 19 July.

Mind you, it is so long since I took any notice of the array of confused and often conflicting rules that I cannot say, with any honesty, what restrictions still apply – much less unravel the difference between "guidance" and statutory requirements. More to the point, I don't care enough to expend the time looking them up.

Obviously, those most affected, and especially financially, by what restrictions remain will be those who will complain longest and loudest. But many people will get on with their lives and ignore most of the petty restrictions where they can.

After all, they have the superb role models of the G7 leaders who don't seem to have been troubled by masks and social distancing for most of their mini-break in Cornwall. And bluntly, when details of how to make hugging safer are being published, it really is time to give up.

Financially, the biggest losers, it appears, are pubs and restaurants, and the "live event" sector, comprising theatres, cinemas and the like, which cannot operate to capacity because of social distancing requirements.

However, even if I was sufficiently motivated to find out what the rules actually are (or will be), it transpires that the actual details haven't yet been published. The government is carrying out a series of "reviews", to work out what changes will need to be made.

This is "lockdown", but not as we know it, Jim. Actually, it's lockdown, but not as anyone knows it. Then, we can always do as the government does and make it up as we go along.

But then, when it comes to making things up, we are told that even the 19 July date is provisional. Johnson is only "confident" that a four-week delay is all that is needed, but he is not prepared to guarantee that we will see the end of restrictions then. Some pundits are suggesting that it may be next spring before they are finally lifted.

This might be more tolerable if there was any sense that we were being given the full picture, and that the people in the driving seat knew what they were doing. But it has been a long time since – if ever – that those conditions were fulfilled.

What is particularly disturbing is that, while the epidemic profile has changed – with the advent of the Indian variant, and the growing cohort of vaccinated people – the Janet & John explanations delivered by the likes of Whitty don't take this into account.

In particular, we are still pointed in the direction of hospitalisation data – as the key parameter which supposedly tells us whether NHS hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed. But "hospitalisation" is a portmanteau term, ranging from a patient presenting to A&E and being kept overnight for observation, to a critical care patient spending months on a ventilator in ICU.

There are some indications that ICU admissions are down, but data are difficult to acquire, and there is no distinction made in publicly-available figures between those who need "routine" critical care, and those who need ventilation. In terms of resource requirements, though, there is an enormous difference, so to talk simply about hospitalisation, without qualification, is misleading.

Thus, while cases and hospital referrals are on the up, numbers are still relatively low. And if the overall effect, in terms of resource implications, are now the same as, or less severe than, pandemic flu, there may be a case for winding down the covid response and focusing on reducing the NHS's dangerously high waiting lists.

Whether this is the situation, there is no way of knowing from the easily available public data – and no assurance that a deeper search will yield dividends. But it does seem that, at official level, the epidemic paradigm under discussion has not materially changed.

This especially seems to be the case when it comes to the distribution of illness. The small print is telling us of a new(ish) phenomenon, labelled "middle super output areas" (MSOAs) – small geographic units with an average population of 8,000.

There are apparently more than 6,000 of these in England, and analysis reveals pockets with very low levels of protection in every region. Without being told, we have to infer that some of these (if not most), are communities of Indian origin which, through the lax travel controls, and the equally lax quarantine rules, have become reservoirs of infection for the Indian variant.

Where there are also crowded conditions, multi-generational families in the same dwellings, and low vaccine uptake amongst qualifying groups, this creates conditions which are more than sufficient to sustain the levels of illness observed, without the rest of the country being affected.

Here, it is interesting to reflect on the severity of movement controls during the Foot & Mouth epidemic, where some parts of the country were, effectively, under martial law. Where there are known hotspots, with the potential of seeding the rest of the country, one would expect similar provisions to apply, where the stakes are so much higher.

Instead, it might seem to some that the nationwide lifting of restrictions is being held back, not because of the general prevalence of illness, but because of localised outbreaks, which are not being fully addressed with the powers government has at its disposal.

While little of this is being openly discussed, the political fallout is potentially serious for Johnson. Following the announcement yesterday, his fan club has broken ranks, with the Telegraph accusing him of giving in to "a backlash from a risk-averse scientific-technocratic class that has never appreciated lockdown's costs". The rise of the Indian variant, the paper says,
…gave licence to officials to revive their irresponsible campaign of fear. First, warnings about the effects of variants convinced the Government to go backwards on foreign travel, with suggestions from ministers that limiting our freedom to go abroad would protect freedom at home. Now even the return of freedom at home is being sacrificed, to what is being described as a sensible delay.
Now, it says, Johnson "risks being remembered not only as the prime minister who took away our freedoms, but who was unwilling to give them back again". And, even as he was speaking yesterday, crowds of protesters were assembled outside Downing Street.

Predictably, the Guardian takes the official line, arguing that delaying lockdown easing is "sadly unavoidable", basing its view on a parade of dubious and ambiguous statistics. But, while The Times is mirroring the Guardian view, talking of a "prudent postponement, the Mail conveying the "Tory fury" as "freedom is delayed".

This clear split in sentiment suggests that Covid is about to become politicised in a way that it hasn't been before, with the consensus fragmenting. Johnson's vaccine "bounce" is beginning to fade and he now treading on extremely thin "political" ice.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 15/06/2021 link

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