Tag Archive: Labour

Brexit means hard Brexit: the UK is running out of options

The 8th of June 2017 is a landmark that I shall always remember. Against all expectations, the British General Election delivered a hung Parliament as well as a bloody nose for the incumbent Conservative government. Their expectation of a 100+ majority in Parliament is in ruins and, with this unexpected development, the tide of history may have turned but it is far from clear. Perversely, it could well be that Brexit means Brexit has been superseded by Brexit means hard Brexit.

Since the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016, the Conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May has been marching remorselessly towards “hard” Brexit. This means not just leaving the European Union (EU), as required by the referendum outcome, but also exiting the European Single Market, the European Customs Union and the European Court of Justice to boot. By contrast, keeping all three yet still exiting the EU would be “soft” Brexit and would carry the least amount of risk for the UK and the EU-27 countries.

Although the option of hard Brexit was never part of the referendum (it was a straight “in” or “out” choice), this is exactly what a Conservative Government stuffed to the gills with Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, David Davies, Liam Fox, etc. has been working towards. Mrs Theresa May, a former (albeit reluctant) Remainer, quickly became the conductor-in-chief of this process. A hard Brexit would have been difficult to achieve with a small majority in Parliament, so Mrs May decided to ask the country for a mandate for hard Brexit (having previously strenuously denied the need for another General Election), the terms of which was hardwired into the Conservative manifesto.

The expectation among the political establishment and media pundits alike, was that the Conservative Party would increase its working majority from 13 to possible as many as 100-200, some predicting the evisceration of Jeremy Corbyn´s Labour, the second largest party in the country. With a predicted crushing majority and thus a crystal-clear mandate from the electorate, hard Brexit would have been as good as guaranteed. Theresa May´s political calculation was that the House of Commons would no longer be an obstacle to the process and that the House of Lords would not dare to stand in the way of the will of the electorate. Traditionally, the Salisbury Doctrine/Convention dictates that the House of Lords does not oppose the second or third reading of any government legislation promised in an election manifesto. The previous General Election in 2015 had enshrined a commitment to hold an EU Referendum but given no guidance on the type of Brexit to follow, no doubt assuming that this just would not happen. Obviously, the Conservative government was not sufficiently convinced that it was capable of ramming the necessary Brexit legislation through Parliament, so it felt the need to go back to the country for a hard Brexit mandate.

But it turns out that the British electorate had other ideas and decided not to give any party any meaningful mandate at all. Instead of rubber-stamping a one-way ticket to hard Brexit, it delivered an enigma. A hung Parliament means that instead of a majority of 12, the Tories have no majority at all (317 seats, 13 fewer than before), even with its unexpected gains in Scotland, where the number of Conservative MPs increased from 1 to 13. Interestingly, since the Scots are extremely pro-Remain, these new Scottish Tories are unlikely to toe the party line and support hard Brexit. Indeed, it is conceivable that their leader, Ruth Davidson, could seek to defy the Conservative´s plans for a hard Brexit and even create a separate party.

If that was not bad enough, the only way the Tories can cobble together a slim majority in Parliament is via some sort of coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. The Eurosceptic DUP is willing to enter into a confidence and supply arrangement and Theresa May announced on 09 June 2017 her opportunistic intention to form a new government with support from the DUP, the potential King Makers.

There are only two flies in Theresa May´s DUP soup:

  • This goes against the grain of most Tories, since the DUP are considered to be a sectarian, nationalistic, militantly Protestant party which is known to be anti-same sex marriage, anti-abortion, in favour of creationist teaching at schools, etc. In other words, “taking back control” from Brussels apparently means passing it straight off to a bunch of swivel eyed-loons (as term applied by David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister to Conservative activists) from Belfast. Moreover, the DUP will insist upon a soft border in Ireland, which effectively means that the Conservative mantra of hard Brexit/”no deal is better than a bad deal” is impossible to maintain with the DUP on-board. In any case, it is still far from clear that any sort of agreement can be reached between the two parties;
  • Everyone, except for the Mrs May and her new government, which is actually pretty much the old government except for the addition to the charming, dependable and loyal Mr Michael Gove, is warning that it is not credible for the Conservatives to enter into either a formal coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement without endangering the Good Friday Agreement. Under the terms of the latter, the UK government must demonstrate “rigorous impartiality” but, as has been pointed out by several people, including IRA representatives and various former Conservative Prime Ministers, it is far from clear how this could work if the Conservative government were to invited the DUP to prop it-up in gaining a working majority in Parliament. You can bet your bottom Euro, sorry Pound Sterling, that DUP support will come at the price of a pound of flesh (politically and financially) to the Conservative party. Undeterred, Mrs May(hem) ploughs on in her cynical determination to create the most shamefully incoherent British government that I can recall. It is far from clear that she will succeed, in which case she will (surely) have no choice but to resign post-haste.

Clearly, the general election result threw a huge spanner into the Brexit works.

With one fell swoop, all the certainties of the past year have been overturned, starting with whether there will be a working majority in Parliament, let alone a workable one with the new Scottish Tories and the DUP in a rudderless boat. Moreover, the certainty that the country was heading straight for hard Brexit has been blown out of the water. By far the most likely course correction to be set, assuming the Tories manage to cobble together a working government, is for the DUP and the new Scottish Tories (together with the majority of the rest of the Conservative MPs, Labour and the Lords) to push for a soft Brexit. Rather than the General Election eviscerating the Labour Party as a political force, it is a reinvigorated party, despite defeat. Instead the most likely bet is that adjusting the course from hard to soft Brexit will be the catalyst for a schism in the Conservative party.

Hallelujah; a deliberately engineered and catastrophic hard Brexit is off the cards.

But do not rejoice too soon.

None of this necessarily means that hard Brexit will not occur. The chances of a deliberately engineered hard Brexit may have gone but is still remains the most likely witting or unwitting outcome, rather than soft Brexit. The reason that hard Brexit will probably occur, regardless of a hung parliament and the new political dynamic, is not hard to divine.

The 2-year deadline post invocation of Article 50 is ticking away and the UK has just fritted away 3 months of it holding a totally unnecessary General Election that has delivered an outcome that has totally muddied the Brexit waters.

Even the 2-year period is not what it seems; all commentators agree that, in reality, only 14-18 months are available for “negotiations”, followed by at least 6-8 months of ratifications by 28 governments, as well as others, such as EU Parliament and regional governments.

Moreover, whereas the EU-27 have been ready for negotiations for months, the UK is not even close to being prepared for hard, soft or any other type of Brexit. So far, there has been little but empty bluster of the “Brexit means Brexit”, “Red, Blue and White Brexit” and “No deal is better than a bad deal” variety emanating from the British government. Even a General Election ostensibly about the biggest challenge facing the country since the Second World War, namely Brexit, brought precious little debate let alone any more clarity about the government´s intentions.

The EU´s Guidelines for Brexit Negotiations have been submitted to the UK, the UK has not yet reciprocated, though the “talks about talks” started on 19 June 2017. The only thing that exists is the UK´s official letter triggering Article 50, which is vague and is effectively superseded by the new reality since the General Election. Following the one-day talks about talks, the Brexit Minister, Mr David Davies, promptly caved in to the EU´s demands, for example to settle the broad terms of the “separation” (i.e. citizens’ rights, financial settlement and the Irish border) before trying to negotiate a future trade deal. The key plank of the UK´s negotiations has been removed before the real negotiations even start.

This reinforces the point that while the 27-EU countries have agreed a unified negotiating position in a relatively short period of time, the UK government has not been able to agree a negotiating position of any description one year since the EU referendum. This speaks volumes about the parlous state that Britain finds itself in as the negotiations starts. There is not a single good omen that bodes well for the UK. The best Brexit cards are firmly in the EU´s hands, starting with the fact that time is on their hands. All the waffle, bluster and wishful thinking will be remorselessly blown away by the more experienced EU team.

This parlous state of affairs is not in the least bit surprising. Although the Brexit game has been in play for a year, the only strategy there ever was, namely hard Brexit, has been scotched by the electorate. A coalition / supply and confidence arrangement has not yet been negotiated and may fail to materialise.

The Conservative party is in total disarray and is increasingly split. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Philip Hammond has recently stated the failure of talks would be “very, very bad” for Britain in direct contravention of what the Conservative party has been claiming (“no deal is better than a bad deal”) for the last year.  Whichever way the Brexit cookie crumbles, the mother of all internal wars will break-out within the Conservative ranks if they start back-pedalling towards soft Brexit.

To add fuel to the fire, the Grenfell Tower fire fall-out is occupying much of Theresa May´s attention and could lead to her downfall. If she came across as being wooden and robotic (the Maybot) during the General Election, she now comes across as callous and heartless on top. If Grenfell Tower does not do it, her own party will topple her sooner rather than later: May is not just damaged goods, she is toxic political goods. The steady stream of concessions since the General Elections will not save her. A downfall is only a matter of time for a leader who is patently neither a strong nor a stable leader. Everyone can see that the reality is in direct contravention of the facile PR.

What a mess for a country (previously) admired for its pragmatism to find itself in.

The real danger is not that the imminent implosion of the Conservative party. It is that the EU has been deprived of a meaningful negotiating counterpart, let alone one that can deliver whatever is negotiated and agreed. This is as far removed from a “strong and stable” leadership as it is possible to imagine and poses major risks for the UK as well as the EU-27.

One option is for the British government to withdraw Article 50, but this will not happen. Both leading parties are committed to some form of Brexit in response to the EU referendum. There is no way to close Pandora´s Box without holding another referendum and that is an option that neither major party is willing to countenance at the moment. Voter fatigue is palpable in the UK and a general election is in the air. At this rate, the UK is in danger or rivalling Italy and Greece for the title of re-elections champion. But even if this option were somehow to occur, it would still be to Britain´s disadvantage. Senior EU members are on record that nothing will ever be the same again for Britain, not least its generous EU rebate and the opt-outs that it now enjoys. There may be a way to row back from Brexit, an option left open by Germany and France, but it would come at a heavy political price in the UK, apart from the sheer humiliation of such a U-turn.

Another option is for the UK government to accept the Norway option (European Economic Area), which means leaving the EU yet being part of the common market, making a financial contribution to the EU and accepting freedom of movement of people. At the moment, it is hard to see how either the Conservatives or Labour could square this with the sentiment of the UK electorate, where the continuing desire to stop EU immigration remains a red line. It is interesting that here, too, Mr Hammond is querying Mrs May´s target of reducing new migration to the tens rather than hundreds of thousands by wondering whether post-Brexit immigration controls would apply to EU workers who are highly skilled and highly paid.

If it proves impossible to opt for a ready-made solution (e.g. withdraw from Brexit or Norway Option) and a fragmented government cannot negotiate an alternative within the 2-year timeline for Brexit, the UK will automatically crash out of everything connected with the EU. Unless the EU-27 unanimously agree to an extension of the 2-year separation period (assuming the UK requests it), the economy and much else will fall off the cliff and experience the most brutal possible form of hard Brexit.

No one seriously wants to witness the latter scenario, other than hard-core Eurosceptics. But at the moment, it appears not only that Brexit means Brexit, but that, actually, Brexit means hard Brexit.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2017, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


The Big Brexit Risk? It’s the trade, stupid!

When I have discussions with my fellow Britons about the Britain, the European Union (EU) and Brexit, sooner or later, I hear a complaint that runs along the following lines:

“We thought we were joining for trade reasons, but it has evolved into something completely different. We did not agree to that.”

The implication of course is that in making the decision to join in the mid-1970s, the British public had somehow misled about the true nature of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) and is now the European Union (EU). There is also a strong sense that the main reason for joining, trade and commerce, has become less important over time.

The simple answer is that all institutions, the EU included, must evolve or become irrelevant. This applies to NATO, the UN and this certainly applies to the EU. Still, there is a sense of Britons having being “sold a pig in a poke”. That somehow they got into something without knowing its true nature. This sense of Britons having got in bed with an EEC trading relationship in 1973 and waking up in 2016 with the EU, with all its imperfections, is important to the outcome of the EU referendum to be held in Britain on the 23 June 2016.

Therefore, this post delves into history to examine the debates that were held in Britain in the mid-1970s and to unpack whether joining the EU was just about trade. It also addresses the extent to which trade remains important to any decision about whether to remain in the EU or not.

Brexit Referendums I and II

To put it bluntly, the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 without the British voter being asked. The Labour Party’s general election manifesto of October 1974 committed Labour to allow Britons the opportunity to decide whether Britain should remain in the Common Market on renegotiated terms or leave it entirely. In 1975, the first referendum covering the whole of Britain was held. One could say that 2 years after joining the EEC, the first Brexit referendum took place. The result was clear-cut: 67% of voters supported the campaign to stay in the EEC.

If the clear result was meant to put an end the debate about Britain in the EU, it failed. On 23 June 2016, we shall have the second Brexit debate, 43 years after joining the EEC. You can be sure that it will still not end the debate either, regardless of which way the vote goes.

A reading of what took place then shows that commerce/trade was a focus of the debate on the pros and cons of remaining in the EEC or, put another way, an evident desire to ensure that Britain´s relative economic decline compared with its EEC neighbours was put to an end. It is not unusual for a particular topic to predominate in elections and referendums. But it would not be correct to suggest that commerce/trade was the only topic of discussion at the time or indeed that the political nature of the EU project was not clear to Britons at the time. Labour figures of the day, such as Simon Jenkins, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, as well as Enoch Powell on the Conservative side engaged in a debate about the possible effects on British sovereignty, among other issues. The deep fissures that were created in the Conservative Party (and to some degree the Labour Party) were not the result of a simply a debate on the commercial/trade pros and cons of Brexit. At the core of the heated difference of opinion was a possible loss of sovereignty and Britain´s place in the world, be it at the side of our European neighbours or facing towards the Anglophone / Commonwealth world. Today, there is an equally fractious debate where immigration is the leitmotif, connected with a discourse about health tourism, benefit tourism, access to housing, trade prospects and loss of sovereignty to Brussels.

The polling in the mid-1970s illustrated voters’ wider concerns, including defence, Britain’s voice, avoiding future wars, etc., though trade/commerce/economy was undoubtedly a major issue. By then, Britain had lost the empire and replaced it with the Commonwealth. The “special relationship” with the USA was stronger, not least because the Cold War was still raging. The Anglosphere relations in general (USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.) was in much better shape than today.

And yet, in 1973 the British Government under the Conservative Party still decided that it was in UK’s best interests to join the EEC after a decade of persistently trying to join the club and being vetoed by the French under Charles de Gaulle on two separate occasions. This was no spur of the moment decision on the part of the British government, but a clear recognition that it was in the country’s long term interest to do so. On 5 June 1975, a clear majority (over 67% of voters) reinforced the situation by voting to remain in the EEC, rather than going it alone again.

Those decisions were made at a time when Britain was much more dominant in global trade, prior to the rise of China and India, and before the dawn of full on globalisation. If it was the right decision then, there is no obvious reason for presuming that Britain would be better off on its own today, when the world is so much more interconnected. This is especially so because regional trade aggregations are increasingly common so as to maximise negotiation power, rather than bilateral arrangements. Examples of such regional trade blocs, apart from the EU itself, include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), perhaps soon the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), etc.

I do not subscribe to the view that a future outside the EU will be bleak for Britain. This argument is overdone by the Remain campaign and backfires because Britons do not believe it and resent those seeing to make use of the fear factor to “bounce” them into voting accordingly. Britain has an amazing economy, with dense infrastructure and packed with exceptional human capital. This is a fantastic foundation for future competitiveness. Britain is and will remain a key international economy and will continue to be a wealthy nation with quality of life and standards of living for the foreseeable future, regardless of the Brexit outcome.

So the real issue is: will Brexit help or hinder Britain´s future prosperity, since trade will play a key role in its future development.

EU and UK after Brexit: lose — lose

The EU area is the largest trade block by a considerable margin. Although trade patterns do shift over time, the simple fact is that the EU is by far the UK´s largest market: around 44% of exports went to the EU in 2014. British firms sold around £500 billion worth of goods and services to foreign buyers, according to the Office for National Statistics, and almost half (£230 billion) of those earnings came from the EU. The EU´s dominant role in the UK trade position is hardly surprising: our 27 EU trading partners are geographically close, there are no tariffs, close proximity means low transportation cost, etc. To reinforce the point, exports to the faster growing BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) accounted for only 10% of exports in 2014 according to Full Fact.

Furthermore, Britain´s trade balance is directly connected with the 50 trade agreements which the EU has signed with approximately 120 countries around the world. It is hard to foresee exactly what will happen immediately upon Brexit. What is clear for starters though is that Britain will have to negotiate a new trade deal with the 27 countries of the EU. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the EU will be willing to agree a trade agreement with the UK on a comparable basis to what pertains now. Furthermore, a trade agreement similar to the one that applies to the European Economic Area (EEA) is also extremely unlikely, since this would require Britain to accept the EU’s freedom of movement of people, paying into the EU budget and other concessions which would be impossible to justify. Such concessions would cause the British public (and everyone else) to question why they were asked to vote for Brexit in the first place.

Whatever trade agreement is reached with the EU, you can be certain that it will not be as advantageous to Britain as the above two scenarios (EU or EEA). It is also certain that the trade negotiations will take years to reach a conclusion — they always do. Moreover, it is unavoidable that the costs of export will increase for British firms. Several years to negotiation means uncertainty which in turn increases risk and thus raises the costs for British firms. This third scenario cannot possibly be an advantage to the British economy and the same applies to the remainder of the EU: Brexit will be a “lose — lose” scenario. Both the EU and Britain itself will lose in the short-term. The medium to long-term effect could go either way, including a continuation of the “lose — lose” scenario. This cannot possibly be good for the UK’s economy. After all, the Britain´s trade balance has been in deficit more or less permanently since 1990. This will only make things worse since the EU accounts for 44% of the current exports.

The Anglophone Zone: hopes dashed

The Brexiteers are well aware that in the short-term both Britain and the EU will lose out. This is precisely the reason why they have emphasised that it is in the EU´s own interest to negotiate a good deal with Britain. Perhaps, but I would not hold my breath on that account. What sounds too good to be true, usually is. There will be a price to pay for Britain undermining the “European project”. There is such a thing as vindictiveness in human nature and the leaders of the EU nation states are only too human.

Whatever they may say in public, the Brexiteers are also aware of this, which is why their pin their main hopes and expectations on other countries, not least the key Anglophone ones, to step into the breech and sign-up bilateral trade agreements with Britain.

So it came as a bitter blow to them when Barack Obama came to the UK and highlighted a few points, including:

  • The priority for the USA is the EU as it covers 28 countries and 500+ million people;
  • Britain will need to go to the “back of the queue” for a trade agreement;
  • It will take years for a trade agreement to be negotiated with Britain;
  • Being part of the EU does not moderate British influence in the world, it magnifies it.

With this, the Brexiteer Emperors (Boris Johnston, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage, etc.) were left without any trade clothes. They went ballistic in their attempts to discredit the President´s statement of fact, for that is exactly what it is. Any country would prioritize trade negotiation with the largest trade block in the world over a nation of 65 million people. The Brexiteers´ fragile trade hopes were dashed and predictably there was an unprecedented outpouring of vitriol, verging on racism, against the outgoing President of the USA, the country that Britain stresses it has a long-standing “special relationship” with. But obviously this does not extend to trade matters.

Should Brexit occur in June 2016, Britain would need to negotiate some or all of the EU´s 50 trade agreements with 120 countries, not counting the EU and EEA countries, if it expects to continue trading with them on a similar basis to today. Since it is impossible to negotiate all of those trade agreements in parallel, it will take decades to go through the trade negotiations just to end-up with the same situation as is currently the case within the EU. The UK does not have a Department of Trade but you rest assured that not only will one be created immediately upon Brexit, since the current trade competences lie with the EU. The institutional needs would arise in other areas where the EU currently has competences. The future Department of Trade will be large, it will be costly and it will be under tremendous pressure to get bilateral trade agreements done, and sharpish. When pressure exists to get things done quickly, bad deals are struck. Ask any salesman.

There is no evidence that either the Anglosphere (USA, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.) or other major countries such as China, Japan, Brazil, etc. will be willing to negotiate trade deals with Britain as quickly or as favourably as with the EU: the size and potential EU market is so much larger. Britain only constitutes 13% of the EU´s population but will be under pressure from enterprises to negotiate the new trade deals, pronto. Consequently, there is absolutely no reason for the future bilateral trade agreements to be as generous to the UK as to the regional block of EU countries.

If we accept the assumption that delays, uncertainty and risk add to the costs to doing business, then British exporting firms will experience higher costs for the years and/or decades that the negotiation process will last in replacing the existing EU trade agreements. The firms´ higher cost base will affect the level of British exports, probably negatively, though the magnitude and duration are not possible to predict without economic modelling.

The likely post-Brexit trade scenario does not look rosy for Britain… but the bad news is that it is probably the best case scenario.

A worse scenario is that the EU will not rush and/or wish to punish the UK for Brexit. The worst case scenario though is that, in addition, some of the 120+ countries covered by the EU agreements that Britain is currently part of, may close their markets to British enterprises until bilateral trade agreements are negotiated and signed. If this were to happen to any extent, British firms will automatically lose market share. In this scenario, British exporting enterprises would almost certainly suffer a major contraction until they are able to replace the (hopefully) temporarily lost markets.

It does not take genius to work out the possible consequences for British firms and thus for the British economy, in terms of the loss in competitiveness, export, employment, wages, tax revenue, public expenditure, etc. There are other interpretations though, such as by those bankrolling the Brexit campaign. Peter Hargreaves has acknowledged the insecurity that would result from Brexit and stressed that “It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had”“We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.” Maybe so for a billionaire stockbroker but I am doubtful that the average Briton will see perceive insecurity in quite the same manner.

Is the Brexit trade risk worth it?

The above analysis is not based on economic modelling or other statistical analysis: it is based on the application of logic to the likely consequences of British exit from the EU and thus no longer being part of the Single Market. Voters must make a decision about whether the risk of Brexit is worth it. The facts relating to trade are not complex, even if the exact process, duration and impacts are:

  • Brexit means Britain turning its back on (in the sense of no longer being part of) the largest single trading block in the world in terms of population (500 million) and/or purchasing power;
  • British withdrawal from the EU means no longer being part of the 50+ trade agreements with 120+ countries;
  • EU countries are extremely unlikely to react immediately and offer Britain the same trade terms as the current one, which means uncertainly, risk and greater cost for British enterprises, rendering them, all other things being equal, less competitive in terms of export;
  • Britain will also have to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries, all of which will take years or probably decades to achieve;
  • Britain already has advantageous trade relations with the Commonwealth countries dating back to 1949, so cannot expect to greatly expand in its traditional markets;
  • The Anglosphere will not necessarily offer the UK preferential treatment. The USA has stated that Britain will “go to the back of the queue” in trade negotiations. None of the other Anglophone or any other countries has offered Britain accelerated trade agreements for the simple reason that they are complex and take a long time to negotiate to mutual satisfaction;
  • Even if the UK goes through a process of negotiating the current 50+ trade agreements with 120+ countries on its own (it lacks people and skills since it has relied on the EU to perform this role for decades), it will take years or decades to achieve and a nation of 65 million cannot negotiate trade agreements on a comparable let alone more advantageous basis than the EU;
  • Whether the Brexiteers care to admit it or not, Brexit will not be good for Britain´s trade in the short term. It will be bad for the EU too but it is not as reliant on the UK market as the UK is dependent on its market (44%of exports in 2014). On the other hand, Brexit could have catastrophic economic consequences if key countries refuse to make their markets accessible during the period until bilateral trade agreements are signed, which could last quite a while.

Is Brexit a risk worth taking in terms of the possible consequences for trade, export and potentially unemployment and wages? To paraphrase the well/known USA electoral saying, “It´s still the trade, stupid!”

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Britain’s post-election reform priorities: a stony path ahead

In my last post, I predicted the outcome of the British General Election and the post-election reform priorities that the resulting British government would pursue. Now that the election outcome is clear, it is worth reviewing how accurate my pre-election predictions were and whether it is time for me to eat my hat. It also presents an opportunity to reflect on some of the key reform priorities in the next few of years. It is clear to me that Britain will emerge transformed, while also impacting directly on the future of the European Union (EU).

The future is blue

In advance of the General Election, unlike the vast majority of polls and media pundits who were convinced that there would be a hung parliament, I wrote: “My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority.” For someone who normally lets his heart rule his head at election time, this was bull’s-eye!  Just reflect on what.

The pollsters are taking the heat and the leading newspapers and other media commentators are reflecting on how they could have got things so badly wrong in advance of the exit polls on election night. But this is not the first time that the opinion polls have been badly out of kilter with reality (Neil Kinnock anyone?) and it will certainly not be the last.

The blame game starts

The blame lies fully and squarely with the Labour Party’s inadequacies during the General Election. This was not an election that was won by the Conservatives whatever their post-election euphoria may suggest. The fact is that too few voters trusted the Labour Party to do better than the previous government. I wrote in my post“The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives… Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England… Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders.” These are the core challenges that Red Ed’s successor will have to grapple with, with the changes in Scotland and the attractiveness of UKIP to former Labour voters at the heart of it (but see below).

Hail the Scots

On Scotland and the Scottish Nationalist Party, I wrote: “The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.” I added that: “Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there.” There are only three non-SNP members of parliament in Scotland out of 59. This is a stunning development and is one of the three critical issues in terms of the future of the UK (see the other two below), something that is already acknowledged by the new Conservative government.

The British bulldog bites… itself

In terms of UKIP, I wrote: “… the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence.” This prediction was spot-on. The party gained almost 4 million votes, mostly in England, yet managed only to win one seat. As I have previously written, I consider them to be an anti-immigration verging on racist (and homophobic) party, which is dangerously fanning the flames of angry nativism, as the only remaining UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, famously put it. But we cannot fail to recognise that the first-past-the-post system can have seriously negative repercussions for democracy – imagine the dismay of the 4 million voters who voted for UKIP and have one MP for their efforts.

Nigel Farage did the right thing by resigning for UKIP’s disastrous performance. He then did the wrong thing by un-resigning immediately afterwards. This takes UKIP beyond the “almost” into the “wilful self-destruction through incompetence” territory. The key issue is whether Farage can emerge phoenix-like from the resulting ashes. Even if he does re-emerge victorious from the unedifying in-fighting, he will not remain unscathed and neither will UKIP as a party. The thin patina of “being different from the rest of the political herd” has worn off and voters will take notice. This is not to imply that UKIP will not be a powerful force to reckon with, especially in relation to the forthcoming EU referendum. It will play a crucial role with or without Nigel Farage as their leader; indeed, UKIP might be even more powerful without him. Despite his “I am just an ordinary guy downing his pint and puffing his fag” routine, his impulsive style of leadership may prove to be difficult to convert into a coherent and consistent campaign against remaining in the EU. Others might well do better.

Reinventing the Brand

I wrote very little about the LibDems – it has been clear for quite a while that it was a party in meltdown. They are in many ways the party with the most realistic reform package and I would have considered voting for them (were it not the for 15 year rule which robs me and others of our democratic rights). I only wrote: “… the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country” in another coalition government, that is. As expected, the LibDems have taken the brunt of the political punishment meted out by the voters while the Conservatives have taken the prize of running the country on their own. This was hard and unjust in my view, but such are voters and such is politics. The LibDems face a bigger challenge than the Labour Party, namely of reinventing themselves (once again) and re-establishing the trust of the voters.

I also discussed the two main post-election reform priorities for the new British government (I could have added the Scotland issue as a third, but did not). Judging by the political pronouncements made and the media reporting so far, both predictions appear to be on-track to be implemented.

To leave or not to leave… that is the question

The Conservative Party’s promise of holding a straight in/out EU referendum has been the subject of various posts in this blog. The Conservatives remain committed to holding the referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest. In my previous post I floated the possibility of it being held in 2016 in the context of a coalition with UKIP: “… the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017.” Now a referendum in 2016 is an increasingly realistic scenario, rather than 2017. It is increasingly clear, now that the election is over, that it might destabilise the government and the economy to have an ongoing debate for two years on the pros and cons of Brexit. I have little doubt about the economic, social, environmental and political benefits of continuing EU membership. To my mind, Britain would emerge a vastly diminished nation from a no vote.

My prediction was that: “The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU.” I did not predict this because of an economic study or other. If you were to hold the referendum today, I think the majority of Brits would choose to leave. I predicted a small majority for remaining in the EU principally because: “If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.” I stand by that assessment.

I also predicted that: “The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP.” Upon stepping into 10 Downing Street he immediately announced that he will not contest a third term as Prime Minister. Perhaps my gut feeling is not so outlandish that: “Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.” With a sound majority, Cameron can face-down the Eurosceptic wing and finally lance the Conservative Party’s long-festering EU boil.

Regardless of whether the Conservative Party has the balls to declare its position on the EU or not (as opposed to allowing MPs to follow their own convictions), I maintain my prediction that: “The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto.” UKIP and other Eurosceptics have been kicking the hell out of the EC and EU football with little or no opposition. As I have previously argued, far too few prominent Britons have stood up to be counted in this debate so far. Such a state of affairs could not be imaginable in any of the 27 other EU countries. This is finally changing and the pro-EU cavalry is beginning to rally around. But the counter-charge is long overdue and forthcoming battle will be a close run thing.

Death by a thousand cuts

As someone who has lived and/or worked in around 35 countries, I can state what most Britons take for granted or have forgotten. Britain is a marvellous country in part because it has a welfare state courtesy of the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, which sought to counteract the “five giants” namely Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Since 1945, the welfare state has become established and was for a long period of time the model for others. But it is apparent that the welfare state has experienced a long drawn-out decline and no longer performs adequately against the five giants despite energetic efforts to reform it and ensure financial sustainability.

With some sadness I wrote: “The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society.”  There is no doubt about the need to reform the welfare state. The concern is that the agenda is driven almost entirely by the Government‘s austerity agenda, resulting in predefined targets of how much to cut so as to balance the national budget by a certain deadline. This does not amount to a serious attempt to reform the welfare state.

Furthermore, the evidence is that the working poor and non-working segments of the British population were not the cause of the economic and financial crisis that plagues Britain and most other European countries. (As an aside, neither was it the EU, the euro, the Labour Party, the EU or non-EU immigrants, the asylum seekers and any of the other convenient scapegoats that keep being bandied around by the politicians and large segments of the British media). But in reality it is the working-poor, the unemployed and other benefit recipients, including the disabled and vulnerable in society that have paid disproportionately the price of austerity, compared with the wealthy (who have done rather nicely during the same period), the retired (who have maintained their standards) and the middle-income families (segments of which are certainly feeling the pinch, but not nearly to the same extent).

In this context, I predicted that this trend is set to continue: “The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.”

Somewhat gloomily, I also predicted that: “… some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration… Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire.” I certainly hope that this prediction misses its target by a proverbial country mile.

What is already apparent is that the Chancellor, Mr George Osborne, is not wasting his time in continuing the process of financial and fiscal reform, otherwise known as austerity (but see Paul Krugman’s piece on The Austerity Delusion). He has announced that there will be a further Budget on 8 July 2015 to set out how the Conservatives will eliminate the gaping national deficit. He stressed that it will be a budget for “working people” but the centrepiece will be how £12bn can be shed from Britain’s welfare bill. It is almost certain that this Budget will usher in a fresh wave of austerity measures that will presumably not be so good for the “non-working people” of Britain.

Just to be clear, there are 33 million (78%) economically active people (16-64 years of age) in the UK, of which 1.8 million or 5.5% are unemployed. There are a further 9 million economically inactive (22%) people. If you are part of this group of 27.5%, this is clearly not going to be a Budget designed to make you happy. Since very few of these people will fall into the category of “skivers”, “benefits cheats” and similar (something which the government is well aware of despite the rhetoric deployed), it is hard to see any justification for yet another assault on their already low or precarious standards of living. Why can the cuts not fall proportionately on the wealthy, profitable businesses and others that have high incomes instead, other than for the usual sordid short-term, partisan politics with a small “p”?

Britain is not is the same category as Greece. I have always been convinced that Britain is one of the wealthiest, fairest and most compassionate societies that I have come across, something which makes me proud to be a Brit. After the next five years, following the Budget of 8 July 2015, I might well have grounds for revisiting that impression.

As I wrote in my previous post, I would have gladly eaten my hat for getting these predictions wrong. Sadly, it appears as if the great majority of them have either been correct or are on-track to be realised in the next term of government. Britain will emerge from it a poorer nation in almost every sense.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Predicting the British General Election Result and the next few years

A humorous but apt Danish proverb is that “Prediction is difficult, especially when dealing with the future.” As the politicians finally stop pushing the merits of their policies and the British voters reflect on which way to cast their vote on 07 May 2015 general election, I will hazard some predictions about the likely general election result, as well as the political priorities that are likely to be pursued in the next few years in Britain. Most if not all of the predictions will probably come back to haunt me, but here goes nothing…

And the winner is…

My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority, rather than a hung parliament. The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives:

  • Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there. The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.
  • The British public, including many traditional Labour voters, remain extremely sceptical about the final Blair / Brown years, which they blame a lot of the issues confronting society, not least being drawn into recent wars, immigration trends and the state of the economy. Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England.
  • Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders. In this respect, I cannot help but experience a sense of déjà vu in respect to the Michael Foot / Neil Kinnock era which bodes ill for the Labour Party.

The Conservatives will profit from the above and will form the next government. This is particularly the case because the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence combined with persistent gaffes by its candidates that undermine the message that it is neither anti-immigration nor racist. Despite it all, UKIP retains strong support in parts of England.

My other two predictions concern the issue of austerity and its implications on British society, as well as the future of Britain in the European Union.

EU Referendum: plus ça change…

Regarding the in-out EU referendum scheduled for 2017, the Conservative Party will finally have to break cover and clarify whether it belongs to the yes or no camp. If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.

Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.  The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP. The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto. Unlike the present time where few speak up, others, such as art, culture and sport personalities will do likewise as a means of counteracting what will remain, in the main, a strongly anti-EU media.

Should a coalition Government arise, the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country. The other possible coalition partner to the Conservatives, despite protestations to the contrary, is UKIP. If the latter coalition government were to emerge, the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017. A combination of the Conservatives and UKIP running to leave the EU would be a disaster for Britain (as well as the remaining EU countries already battered by the travails of Greece and holding the Eurozone together), which would be very hard to counteract, especially with the majority of the British media supporting their position. Britain would come to regret the likely outcome in the medium to long-term.

Under any scenario involving a referendum, the EU will have to show flexibility and do whatever it takes in to facilitate the UK remaining in the EU. As I have previously argued, there will not be fundamental EU treaty amendments for the sake of keeping Britain in the EU boat, such as a reform of the freedom of movement or the other three fundamental freedoms of movement, namely of capital, services (which is extremely underdeveloped) and goods. However, the EC and the EU will be more flexible in areas such as benefit entitlement in the EU area, which in any case is almost entirely determined by nation states, rather than EU directives and regulations.

If the referendum were to be held today, I believe the outcome would be an outright rejection  of the EU. The great majority of British media is extremely anti-EU and anti-immigration and would contribute to a no vote. However, there could be up to two years for business, society and voters to reflect on the not insignificant advantages of being part of the EU, as well as the potential consequences of Britain going it alone in an increasingly globalised world. A re-orientation towards the old and new Commonwealth and North America is no longer adequate to guarantee current, let alone future prosperity. An emphasis on trade at the exclusion of everything else that the EU brings simply does not cut the mustard in the modern era, where problems such as environmental issues and tax agreements require regional or global responses, rather than national ones. Turning our back on 27 other next door neighbours around us in Europe is simply not sustainable in an economic, social, political or any other sense.

I retain great faith in the capacity of the British public to eventually do the right thing. The following Winston Churchill quotation springs readily to mind: “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” Substitute “Brits” for “Americans” and you get the gist of what I mean. The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Austerity ad nauseam

The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society. There will be a repeat of the pattern set in the previous Parliament, namely a dramatic public expenditure squeeze in the first two years, followed by a gradual let-up as the term of office peters out and politicians look to be re-elected.

The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.

There will continue to be a lot of talk about benefit scroungers (British and EU) to justify the cuts which will fall disproportionately on the working poor and non-working segments of British society. The austerity agenda continues to offer handy political cover for a significant reduction in the size of the state and the social and welfare infrastructure, including local government. This is set to continue, spreading more deeply to areas such as police, judiciary, military, etc. since the other options have been largely exhausted. The alternative would be to put the squeeze (e.g. means testing benefits of various sorts, higher taxes, etc.) on the middle classes, the retired and the wealthy; this will not happen if the Conservatives hope to be re-elected thereafter.

In the meantime, some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration. These are simply not great priorities for the Conservatives. Their traditional supporters are capable of by-passing any current or future shortcomings in state provision and directly accessing the highest quality services that money can provide, though the phenomenon of the “squeezed middle” will ensure that political capital and financial resources will still be devoted to these fundamental themes.

Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire. After all, if housing is unaffordable and private renting is insecure, the normal response in a modern wealthy country would be to stimulate significant additional supply and/or ensure that appropriate protections are enacted. This will not happen. If there are not enough school places or hospital beds, then public investment should deliver greater supply while still maintaining standards. This is highly unlikely to happen either. Yet it is Westminster that is responsible for recognising, responding to and securing these changes over the medium term, not individual citizens looking to access these services, regardless of their nationality, race or creed.

We shall know the result of the general election soon enough. I sincerely hope that most of the above predictions prove to be wrong, in which case I will gladly eat my hat.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Europe is a litmus test: Britain and a possible EU Referendum

As expected, a key battleground of the British General Election due on 07 May 2015 concerns whether Britain should remain in or out of European Union (EU). The position of the main political parties is now clear namely that Labour, the LibDems and the SNP are all fighting the election on the basis that they wish to remain in the EU, whereas the Conservatives are fighting on the basis that if re-elected, they wish to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or leave the EU. The Ukip party´s position is to leave the EU as soon as possible, preferably before 2017.  The manifesto positions are summarised here.

I have written about this the possible Referendum in 2017 before (British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?), namely that it does not actually rank highly in the the average British voter´s list of priorities.  When the Ipsos MORI poll of January 2015 asked British voters about their top concerns, four issues predominated: healthcare (almost half of voters), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (one-quarter) and education/schools (one-fifth). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is very low in the UK. Indeed, less than 10% of potential voters consider it to be of importance in their list of priorities. The same post also examined the full list of British voter priorities and concluded that they had very little to do with the EU, since they the vast majority of them, with the exception of EU immigration are largely or entirely the responsibility of the British government. In other words, voting for the Conservatives in order to have a referendum resulting in leaving the EU would change precious little in relation to the state of the NHS, the economy, the education system, the housing system and much else besides. The responsibly for these rests squarely with the British government, not with the EU.

There is, in my view, little or no point to quote research and studies regarding the economic and other consequences of leaving the EU. The fact is that both sides of the debate use the assumptions that best suit the conclusions that they they wish to arrive at. Ultimately, each voter will have to weigh up the pros and cons of staying and leaving the EU. The British voter had to do so in 1975 and chose to join the EU. I shall trust them to arrive at an appropriate conclusion in 2017, should the Conservatives regain power after the General Election.

I would note, however, that the Ukip has been simplifying the pros and cons of leaving the EU and, as I have previously discussed, have made strenuous efforts to conflate the issue of migration, use of the NHS, etc. with the EU which also underplaying the consequences of leaving the EU as soon as possible. By contrast the Conservatives have understood perfectly the consequences of leaving the EU but have simply pandered to their Eurosceptical wing while at the same time seeking to stop the hemorrhage of support in their traditional voters which have, until recent months, been increasingly warming to the dubious charms of the Ukip party.

The Labour party, unlike the LibDems and the SNP, initially gave the impression of sitting on the fence on this issue but have ultimately decided to stay in the EU, while reforming the EU budget and ensuring EU migration does not lead to workers’ wages being undercut.

On 07 April 2015, a leading British political figure waded into the debate and, for a change, it was not to denounce the EU, EU immigration, benefit scroungers and all the rest of the anti-EU rhetoric that has become common place in recent British politics. The person in question has this to say about the possible EU referendum, should the Conservatives be returned to power following the General Election:

“For me Europe is an important litmus test. I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation. It would be a momentous decision….

A decision to exit Europe would say a lot about us [United Kingdom] and none of it good: that an adventurous country has become a timid one; that one with global ambitions has opted to be a parochial bystander; that a country known for its openness to the world shuts the open door nearest to it; that a nation which has built its history on confidence towards others defines itself by resentment to others; that, with all the challenges of the world crowding in upon us, demanding strong and clear leadership, instead of saying ‘here’s where the world should go’, we say ‘count us out’. “

At last, a notable politician has the courage to stand up and be counted in relation to the importance of the EU to the UK and vice versa. The speech by this politician has been prominently reported but alas has also been widely dismissed for the simple reason that it was said by none other than Mr Tony Blair (Europe – a very good reason to vote Labour, 07 April 2015).

This is a terrible pity. Tony Blair has gone from being the darling of the left and the person that brought about Cool Britannia to achieving political pariah status in the years since he resigned in favour of Gordon Brown. The main reason for this is that he was he was blown off course by 9/11 and committed British troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Of course, many seem to find his ability to amass a personal fortune since leaving public office galling, though it is entirely his right to do so and simply mirrors what other ex-Prime Ministers have done.

Personally, I believe that because of the so-called special relationship with the USA, almost any other British Prime Minister would have made the very same decisions that he did at the time and that, just like Margaret Thatcher before him, not only has he defined British politics since 1997 but his legacy continues to do so today.

I admire his capacity to communicate and I respect his political courage for making this speech on the UK and Europe.

 Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU