Post-brexit trade delusions: Africa edition

Theresa May is starting to remind me of a 80’s film, weekend at Bernie’s, the plot of which was how two low level employees are stuck with pretending their boss isn’t dead, or else assassins will kill them. Not a great film (it has one joke that wears thin pretty quickly), but an apt metaphor for Theresa May dragging around her Chequers deal, unwilling or able to admit its bleeding demised and joined the choir invisible, because if she does that will be the end of her.

But for brexit to work both she and the hard brexiters still have to prove that life outside the single market can bring benefits to the UK. That we’re better off out than in, a question Corbyn refused to answer last week – six times!

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Theresa May’s Chequer’s deal, its just resting!

So, having realised that the kebab model ain’t going to work and having googled the south sea bubble and realised that South America isn’t a mysterious continent full of riches, that idea too has been ditched. And with New Zealand, the US and Australia leading opposition to the UK’s WTO proposed quota’s post-brexit, that suggests no empire 2.0. As a result now they are pinning their hopes on Africa, with May and Fox jetting off to set up trade deals….with the world’s poorest continent….which has a combined GDP less than that of France. Hardly sounds like they’ll be buying many UK cars! And via the EU of course the UK already HAS a host of trade deals with Africa that it will lose at the end of March 2019.

Furthermore trade with Africa is something that presents a bit of dilemma. On the one hand it is generally agreed that trade is the best way Africa can grow its economy and develop itself out of poverty. However, the issues with corruption in the continent means there is always a risk that money won’t trickle down to the people who need it the most. And least we forget a lot of Africa’s problems stem from past trade deals which screwed over the locals to the benefit of Western countries and a handful of the wealthy elites in Africa. So the devil is very much in the detail in any trade deal with Africa.

However, the hints coming from the brexiters seem to indicate that they plan the very worst of the exploitative trade deals of the past. They are talking about using aid for example as a carrot to subsidise the sale of British goods. What’s wrong with that? Well because it means locals (again, some of the poorest people in the world) paying over the odds for equipment they might be able to buy cheaper elsewhere, with corrupt local politicians often creaming off their share of the take (or simply sell the equipment on to a foreign buyer and pocket the profits). And it often comes with the further price tag of the locals having something thrust upon them (e.g. they lose their water supply to the benefit of a foreign owned farm growing cash crops).

And the brexiters also talk about getting “cheap food from Africa. Or to translate that into practical on the ground consequences, they want to take the food out of the mouths of starving children just so UK shoppers can save a few penny’s. If the UK starts buying more food, be it cash crops or worse the very food the locals rely on to survive, then this pushes up food prices in Africa. And it doesn’t have to go up by much to become unaffordable to locals.

Furthermore, there’s a number of practical reasons, why most countries are restrictive in their trade with Africa. For example the issue of disease, most notably foot and mouth. As I pointed out before its endemic in certain parts of the world, most notably Africa. If the UK starts trading in meat products (or feed) with Africa we’d lose our disease free status meaning UK farmers would lose access to many international markets. And recall a past outbreak of foot and mouth in the UK, an event the farming sector is still reeling from, was caused by someone violating these very rules. So all in all it doesn’t sound like a great idea.

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Foot and mouth disease is endemic in most of Africa

And hand in hand with free trade goes freedom of movement. If a African entrepreneur who wants to say, set up a new car brand (I met someone at a conference a few years ago and this was his goal) and he wants to export to the UK, or get finance through UK banks, he and his staff are going to be able to get in and out of the UK without having to apply for visa’s two months in advance (after filling in an 85 page form and paying £500 a pop) and having them turned down or delayed for no apparent reason. So any such trade deals would only work if the UK is prepared to open up its borders with Africa.

And the UK will not have Africa all to itself. Both China and India are actively investing in Africa and they can both make far better offers than any deal the UK could offer. Indeed, one of the brexiters big ideas is to lower the import tariffs into the UK to zero. Ya, ok but you do realise that under WTO rules all the other countries are legally obliged to keep the tariffs on UK imports at the WTO levels until an agreement can be reached. If the UK has already lowered its tariff’s what possible incentive do these other countries have to negotiate the lowering of their tariffs?

The brexiters seem to forget that the “exciting” trade deals they got in the past, which they signed on the deck of the Royal yacht Britannia, they only got those because they had the Royal Navy backing them up (and pointing the guns of warships at the city!). These days its a little different. Go into a trade negotiation now, even with African countries, and you are facing off against an army of lawyers and expert trade negotiators. Many of these negotiators will be Western educated (Oxford, Harvard school of law, LSE, PSE, etc.) and grizzled veterans of multiple past trade negotiations (of which the UK has almost no recent experience). The idea that the UK is going to get a better deal than the EU has managed, even against smaller African countries, is somewhat dubious.

And if the plan is to resort to the robber baron tactics of the past, Empire 2.0 and all of that, well like I said China and India are now backing these countries up. You’ll be facing off against global economic powerhouses….with two of the world’s largest armies.

And speaking of which, on brexit related matters, we have stories about how impractical and expensive stockpiling medicines and food will be, of the massive drop in nurses (the nurses union are now so worried about the shortfall that they are backing a 2nd referendum), farm workers (as well as fears of food shortages) and the likely impact of brexit on research (as well as the fact the UK will be frozen out of the Galileo navigation system). As experts have pointed out the government’s recent post-brexit advice is to go away and buy software (which doesn’t exist), hire a bunch of lawyers to fill out the tons of documents you’ll need to export (hardly practical for a small business)….then bend over and kiss your arse goodbye. Oh and if you live in Northern Ireland, talk to the Irish government (which is kind of like getting on a BA flight and the pilot saying “I have no idea what all these buttons do, you might want to find someone from Ryanair”).

Plus we now have clashes between French and UK boats over fishing rights (worth noting the boat actually doing the ramming below is a British registered trawler who has been found guilty of fishing offences before), probably a foretaste of what’s to come post-brexit.

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A British boat rams a French fishing boat off the coast of France as the Scallop wars start

And what’s the government’s solution to all of this? The go-to Daily Mail/Express solution to every problem, call in the army! Who’ll be parachuted in to protect fishermen (who again are the ones doing the ramming!), distribute food, fuel and medicine post brexit….and presumably pick fruit, staff hospitals and do scientific research (while riding on Unicorns one assumes!). I think Tories played with their action man figures a little too much as a child!

And I just got back from Ireland and it came up in idle conversation how a number of the UK chain which have gone belly up recently are actually still up and running in Ireland, including Maplin and ironically enough Poundland (ya while they’ve gone broke in the UK, they are still in business in Ireland even though we joined the Euro two decades ago!). The media agonises over what could possibly be causing this crisis in the high street, the internet? The weather? Changing tastes?…or maybe its because some dickheads decided to vote for brexit, causing a 25% drop in the value of the pound, which if your importing stock from abroad, means your costs just went up 25% pushing many firms into the red.

Like I’ve said before brexit is now the official state religion of the UK. The CEO of a company could jump off the roof of a building wearing a sweatshirt that said brexit killed my business and land in front of a UK journalist or politician and they’d put his death down to an unfortunate accident with gravity.

But all in all it appears even the brexiters are resigned to the fact that brexit is going to render the UK worse off. Its an unspeakable heresy they can’t dare speak, so they need to at least make sure there’s some positives they can point too. So when all the factories closing and millions are unemployed and certain food items have become harder to find than in Venezuela, they can at least point out, oh but look pork is now 3p cheaper per kg, aren’t we reaping the rewards of brexit…. just ignore the stories about food riots in Africa or a foot and mouth outbreak in Sussex and eat your brexit tripe.

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Should we abolish exams?

University students from King's College London, sitting exams

Tis the season (or one of them anyway!) where we are marking. The summer exam period is particularly important for those who might have failed in the spring (or been forced to defer) as its the last opportunity for final year students to graduate this year or for the rest to progress into their next year of study. So it can be quite a stressful time for students.

Which does raise the question, are we stressing out the students unnecessarily? In other words, should we give them marks at all? Or indeed should we abandon exams and assessments in their present form altogether?

Its not quite as crazy an idea as it sounds. In many professions you don’t do an exam. And if you do it tends to be more of a pass/fail type exam. And the minimum passing grade (if it exists) is a lot higher than 40%. I mean would you want the pilot who has you at 30,000ft to have passed his pilot’s exam having gotten 60% of it wrong?

In most professions, instead, its a competency test. The obvious example is a driving test. Yes, you sit a theory element, but that’s more about making sure you know what a stop sign is before you take the tester out on an open road (and drive into the path of an 18 wheeler!). But the driving test itself is a simple case of either you pass it, or you fail it. There’s no middle ground.

And some tests are intentionally hard and decidedly unfair. I was told once by a pilot that many of the tests (written, in simulators or in light aircraft) that they do are excessively hard or even impossible. Sometimes they can be presented with Kobayashi Maru type scenario. In other words they are set up to fail. Which sounds unfair, but then again the whole point of such tests is to push the students and see how they react under pressure (if you can’t take the heat in a nice safe simulator, how well do you think you’ll hack it in a real emergency at 30,000 ft!). So how academia handles assessments, is very different from how industry handles it.

A lot of students these days are obsessed with their marks. When I was a student, we just accepted what mark we were given. We might go get a bit more feedback if we hadn’t done as well as expected, but that’s about it. We didn’t take it personally if we happened to get a lower than expected grade. But these days some them seem to want to challenge everything and wail like a banshee if they get anything less than an A. And some are taking to min/maxing the system. If you want to send students into a deep coma (before an operation for example), tell them such and such a thing isn’t on the final exam, but it is important stuff you’ll do next sems…..oh wait, they’re already asleep! And of course if they’ve got the slightest cough or cold within a month of an assessment (even if its after the hand in!) they’ll be looking for a deferral.

Some of this can be blamed on the defacto privatisation of UK universities, with students (and their parents) seeing a degree as a commodity that they are buying. And this is leading to students becoming increasingly perfectionist, which can lead to issues such as depression.

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However, the truth is that students don’t seem to realise is that your marks aren’t as important as you think. Certainly for your first job, when you’ve nothing on your CV but your degree, it makes a difference. Having a 2.1 makes it more likely you’ll get that first foot in the door than having a 2.2. But beyond that first job, its relevance diminishes with each iteration of employment. Case in point, is there anyone reading this who has hired someone in the last year or so? Assuming they aren’t a recent graduate, can you honestly remember what was their final grade? And follow up question, did it make any difference to your decision to hire them?

And I bring this last point up because it does highlight just how silly it is to obsess over grades. Recall the story I mentioned last year, where an Oxford graduate sued his uni over only getting a 2.1 (fortunately he lost!). Note that he did this 10 years after graduation. Needless to say, if your career is still in the tank after 10 years, its not your degree that’s the problem! You want to know what it is? Go look in a mirror!

Because the truth is we in academia have increasingly been found out by employers. They know some students are gaming the system. They know that some uni’s are caving in to pressure from students and going easy on the marking. (not in mine uni, but if you’ve been following the grade inflation recently its clearly happening in other uni’s). And they know all about contract plagiarism and all the other tricks.

So they are responding with more detailed an exacting interview processes. This can include several rounds of interviews including a technical interview, as well as exams and other competency tests. Other companies will recruit several people as interns for the same job and basically whittle them down one by one survivor style. Now needlessly to say, any student whose been min/maxing the system, you ain’t going to last long in an interview process like that. Regardless of what grade you got (such as our Oxford graduate), you’ll be found out pretty quickly.

And its worth noting that in the secondary or primary school sector, some schools, under similar pressure to ourselves, are experimenting with abolishing marking. Instead they just give feedback. Of course, in academia, we’d need some sort of pass/fail system. However, that could take the form of some sort of competency test.

I’m told by lecturers in other countries how in addition to all the usual assessments students face, they’ll also have to do a viva every semester, where you go into a room and face off against a panel of lecturers who can literally grill you on any question about any topic you’ve learnt that year. And if you don’t pass mustard, they don’t let you proceed into the next phase of study.

Now while some students would breeze through tests like that no problem, others would struggle, which would mean more exam stress for them, plus probably a higher failure rate. So while it would cut out students obsessing over marks and cut exam stress for some, it won’t entirely solve all of the problems. Although it would prepare them better for the real world.

So, in the absence of any other plausible alternative, perhaps we have little choice but to keep exams.

Asgardia, the CubeSat Solar Empire

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I’ve discussed before the issues that would arise in terms of establishing any space based settlement, and how that might prove a lot more challenging than those pursuing such colonisation efforts assume.

In short, travelling into space is expensive and dangerous and there are no real silver bullet solutions to get around this problem. Therefore, it will be some time before we build any space colonies. And, given that there’s no proof that humans can survive in conditions of zero (or low) gravity and heightened radiation for extended periods, its likely the crew on these colonies will not be permanent residents. Instead, they’ll likely be rotated back to earth every couple of years. Hence its a bit early to start talking about mass migrations into space or how any sort of space based government would work.

However, a group called Asgardia have recently attempted to do just this. Under the…

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UCAS and British red tape

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It was recently the big day when students found out their exam results and got to know where they were going to end up going to uni next year. So a busy time for universities. And with numbers down, and this is before the big drop we anticipate next year thanks to brexit, its a worrying time for universities. While we academics are generally insulated from admissions, we do get involved with enquires from prospective students. Which for me meant reminding myself how the UK’s universities admission system (UCAS) works again.

The trouble I find with UCAS is that its just a massively overly complicated system. You fill out a UCAS application form and list the courses you are interested in. You then have to get in contact with the universities who send you their conditions for offering you a place (i.e. what grades you need). Some may even call you to interview first or require you attend an open day event. You then have to select two places, a primary and backup offer as your uni places.

After the results come out, ideally you’ll end up with either your preferred course or the backup. However inevitably a lot don’t. They either didn’t do as well as they’d hoped and have to go through clearing (which is best described as organised chaos) or if they did better than expected, they apply for a better place with an unconditional offer retrospectively.

Contrast that with for example Ireland’s CAO system. You fill out one form (online) and you list the university courses that interest you in order of preference (as I recall you can put down up to ten courses, but its been years since I filled the form in, so given its all online I suspect you could put in an infinite number now)…..that’s it! On results day, the computer goes through your list in order and the first positive it hits (i.e. you have the minimum compulsory grades and enough CAO points) that’s you.

Now granted, the CAO system isn’t perfect, notably its not idiot proof. It assumes you’ve done your research, that you are only putting down courses you are actually interested in studying and you have some chance of actually getting on them (e.g. if you ain’t studying biology you ain’t going to get medicine in Trinity) and that you’ve put them in the right order. But either way, its reasonably straight forward, egalitarian and it helps ensure students at least get something, while on the other hand ensuring as many uni places as possible get filled (so we don’t end up teaching to empty lecture halls).

All in all, I’m forced to conclude the only reason why the UCAS system is so complicated is that its true purpose is to make sure the toff’s get to go to Oxbridge and the riff raff get sent to the community college down the road (so they can learn how to keep the master’s jag up and running). And just this last year, there are clear signs of how the UCAS system is being played, with a sharp rise in unconditional offers made to well placed students going to the right schools (so they get a place regardless of their marks). And I bring this up because its something you see a lot in the UK. Systems that are overly bureaucratic, not to make them fairer, but often quite the opposite.

One of the arguments in favour of brexit was for the country to “take control” and reduce the burden of EU red tape. Well firstly I’d argue that said red tape often serves an important purpose (as in making it illegal to coat children’s toys in dangerous chemicals, preventing workers being maimed at work and making sure you aren’t impaled on the steering column in the event of a car crash). And secondly, culturally the UK tends to be more of a fan of bureaucracy and red tape than the rest of Europe. Hence it would be reasonable to expect that post-brexit the UK will get more bureaucratic not less.

We often joke in Ireland that the law and rules come in degrees. In the UK its right v’s wrong. Its either legal or illegal. In Ireland it goesah, sure you’re grant”, then “careful now”, then “down with this sort of thing” and finally “right, now you’re taking the piss”. And its often the same in other parts of Europe, particularly southern Europe. In fact you could argue that the whole point of the EU is to agree some minimum standards for what constitutes as “taking the piss” (the Irish for “not complying with EU regulations”). Anyone who things the UK will become less bureaucratic post-brexit has obviously never seen English (or German) tourists abroad.

And it also has to acknowledged that there are reasons for the UK having lots of laws and rules. One of those is cultural, but the other is the UK tabloids. They have long recognised that the best way to sell papers is to scare the bejesus out of people (e.g. stories about immigrants, drugs, knife crime, hoodies, terrorism and perceived threats to children). This often leads to pressure being put on politicians to do something, which means they pass some hasty ill-thought out law to get the tabloids off their back.

But complicated rules make things fairer don’t they? Sometimes yes, but the devil is often in the detail. And as noted (with regard to UCAS) sometimes it can lead to the opposite. As another example, take the UK benefits system. In Ireland, while its not a perfect system and a little chaotic (as is always the case when dealing with Irish officialdom), there’s only a minimum of paperwork at the start. The Irish work under the assumption that most people will find work within a few weeks or months, so there’s no pointing in asking a hundred questions and means testing claimants until its clear they aren’t going to find work quickly.

By contrast in the UK, they make you dive through various hoops and means test benefits straight away, with further agro as time goes on. Because wasting people’s time and destroying their self confidence is the best way of helping them find a job. Clearly the UK system is set up in the hope that people will just give up and go away, rather than claim the benefits they are entitled too (which benefits the rich of course).

Furthermore, contrary to what the Daily Mail would have you believe, most of the EU regulations aren’t intended as rigid dictates from on high. The goal is to set the standards and to nudge people in the right direction, with prosecution or court action always seen as a last resort. And generally its left up to nation states to decide that, the EU only getting involved when its clear said nation state is failing in its enforcement duties (or to put it in Irish terms again “taking the piss”).

And the problem there is of course that UK officialdom is often much more heavy handed. After all, I’ve yet to hear anyone from the EU claim people should be arrested for rolling a cheese down the side of a hill. And the trouble with this is that red tape tends to effect small businesses more than large companies. While large multinationals can afford to hire an entire legal department to keep on top of things, many of the UK’s small businesses are hopeless when it comes to keeping track of legislation. And with that legislation about to go through the biggest changes in a generation, it does not bode well for small UK businesses.

All in all there is a danger that the UK becomes much more bureaucratic and less fair post-brexit than the other way around.

The Skripal poisoning conspiracy

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There’s been a number of conspiracies circulating with regard to the Skripal poisoning. While I’d inevitably expect Russian trolls to fall for these, alongside their alt-right allies abroad, I’ve heard a few on the left repeating them (likely because they are sceptical of anything the government says these days), so I thought it would be worth addressing the issue.

We could do a detailed analysis of the case, but that would only work if you believed in things like “evidence” or “facts” and chances are anyone who believes these conspiracies won’t. So I’ll resort to the methods often used by the police when solving a crime. Who has the strongest motive to commit the crime? The police then start by investigating them, and 9 times out of 10 you find out they did it.

Sergei Skripal was a British double agent within Russian intelligence. To Putin (ex-KGB), that’s deeply embarrassing and reason enough. And Putin has form, having assassinated former spies within the UK before, using radioactive material. Also its been suggested that Skripal was involved in the creation of the so-called Steel Dossier. This would give the Russians more than a motive to want to silence him as they attempt the close off the loops between the Kremlin and Trump.

But, the conspiracy theorists say, why use Novichok to kill him? Why not just run him over, or shoot him? Well because then it won’t be clear that he’d been killed by the Russians! The whole point of trying to kill him was to make an example of him to others, while still retaining some level of plausible deniability. Put it this way, let’s suppose you work in the Russian government. You’re disillusioned about life in Russia under Putin and you have access to embarrassing information on Putin (e.g. him with his poodle…and I’m not talking about the dog he secretly keeps in the Kremlin). Are you now more likely to cooperate with western intelligence or less?

But why did they swap him for Russian spies if they wanted him dead? Well firstly, that spy swap occurred under Medvedev at a time when the Russians were attempting to improve their relationship with the West. Killing an agent would have destroyed that process and invited retaliation upon Russian agents abroad. Much like made men in the mafia, there’s an unwritten rule in intelligence that you don’t kill the other guy’s agents, without good reason. If you do, then its go to the mattresses time, as the risk is the other side will take out one of yours.

And, to be blunt, at the time the US had a president (Obama) and a secretary of state (Clinton) who were prepared to take a strong line with Russia….while now they’ve got a president whose tongue is firmly wedged up Putin’s ass!

Now this is not to suggest I believe that MI6 are a bunch of angels. Far from it, there’s still the big question mark about what happened to MI6 agent Gareth Williams. However, in the case of Skripal there is no obvious motive to kill him. In fact quite the opposite. This attempted murder is embarrassing for the UK. I mean if they can’t protect their own on UK soil, who in their right mind would work for MI6 overseas.

The Russian conspiracy theories will claim that killing him was a false flag operation. Well for that to be true, what was the false flag? If immediately after this, the UK, or US, took military action against Russia (or a Russian ally) or the UK and EU countries all pulled out of the world cup, or broke off diplomatic relations, well then I’d be a bit more suspicious. But instead, all the blowback Putin caught was some passive aggressive whinging from the Ghost of chequers hall, Theresa dead parrot May. If anything, it highlighted just how weak the UK is now diplomatically in the post-brexit era. If this was a false flag, then the goal appears to have been to make pro-Russian trolls online look stupid.

Certainly there is much about this incident to be worried about. Russian agents wandering around rural England spraying nerve agent around without a care in the world. An embarrassed MI6 (along with their CIA allies) who’ll now be out for revenge (what’s the bet one of Putin’s allies now has themselves a little “accident”….no wonder Trump’s so afraid of stairs!). I don’t know which is more worrying, the thought that Putin approved of this operation, or that he’s lost control of his agents to the point where they went out and did this without consulting the Kremlin.

But either way, deluding yourself with conspiracy theories that ignore the facts of the case, do not help the situation. What such theories do show is how, having cried wolf so many times in the past, people just don’t believe governments any more, even when they are probably telling the truth.

Tory towns go bust

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One of the things that annoys me about brexit is how its allowed many important issues to sneak under the radar, without any serious debate, e.g. Fracking was quietly approved, without any real parliamentary debate last month, against independent advise to the contrary.

But one big story that has been swept under the carpet is how several towns with Tory run councils are basically going bust. Northamptonshire council for example is in dire straits. In the town of Corby (which incidentally voted overwhelmingly leave) public services are being cut back to the legal minimum. This means things like rural buses services have been cancelled (meaning anyone without a car in a rural location is now cut off from the rest of the country), public libraries are being shut, day care and medical centres are closing down, public parks are at risk from developers, street lights switched off, road repairs halted, bin collections are being curtailed and so on. Even Christmas related festivities are being cancelled (yes, the Tories are cancelling Christmas).

So how did it get to this stage? Well quite simply put ideology and the legacy of Cameron’s no-so-little helper “porky” Pickles. Many of these Tory councils went about privatising public services and outsourcing them to private firms (in many cases Tory party donors and allies, e.g. Richard Branson got £2 billion worth of the NHS). And rather that wait for the magic of the market to kick in, they also froze council taxes as an easy vote winner.

Of course, as has happened any time public services have been privatised, instead the costs actually went up considerably. And a freeze in council tax amounts to a cut in taxes over time thanks to inflation. And at the same time the Tory government has been cutting the amount of money it spends on local government, as part of its policy of austerity. And the rise in inflation brought on by the brexit effect has hardly helped. So councils found themselves squeezed from multiple directions.

Worse still, some councils have responded to this crisis by squeezing any source of income available to them, notably small businesses. Hence some smaller firms got hit with massive hikes in their rates or rent. While some were able to just cope with those (generally those in more affluent areas) others simply folded (and the drop in consumer spending thanks to brexit has probably not helped here either). Of course, this creates a law of diminishing returns and councils have hunted the golden geese to extinction, decimating town centres in the process.

On the one hand, as many of these councils are Tory run (and often in areas that voted overwhelmingly for brexit) you are tempted to say, tough titty. You voted for this, you got it, if you were dumb enough to vote Tory (they ain’t called the nasty party for nothing) that’s your own luck out. However, often the people who are feeling the worse of this aren’t the ones who voted for it. Pensioners have their benefits triple locked and ring fenced. Its usually the young or those on lower incomes who are going to feel the worst of it.

What happens next is unclear. The government could step in to bail councils out. However, the danger is that if they bail out one they have to bail out all of them. And that would unleash a tidal wave. The truth is that most of the local governments in England are up sh*t creek and just about managing and have been that way for quite some time.

If we were to transfer all of those debts run up by local councils onto the UK government’s books, suddenly HM treasury is massively in deficit, worse off than they were when the started this policy of austerity. And inevitably that would mean pressure would come to cut back in other areas. Does the UK really need aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, HS2 (or a no deal brexit), when councils literally can’t afford to keep the street lights on? Because ultimately councils are in trouble because they are having to pick up the pieces that result from Tory policy of austerity (e.g. a single parent gets evicted because her benefits got cut, what happens? The council have to pay for emergency accommodation) yet they have limited means to raise money to cover those costs.

A more vital question is how to fix the problem and I would argue that goes back to how councils are funded. The UK’s council tax system basically makes no sense, its the tax equivalent of a drive by shooting. And worse given how much property prices have changed since the rates were last updated its not really related to income anymore. I’ve long argued that a local income tax would be a better idea.

Yes this would likely mean those on middle incomes (like me) might see our taxes go up a little bit, while those on higher incomes would seem them go up a lot. But I’d rather pay a bit more to get good public services than not get any at all. And, given the ease with which council tax can be avoided (just put any literature from the council in the bin!), its more of a tax on honesty. I suspect a local income tax would catch out those who don’t pay council tax and it might turn out to be not as expensive as thought.

Also it is deeply hypocritical for Westminster politicians to be promoting a brexit, to allow the UK to “take control” and not send money to Brussels. Then jealously guard its own powers and insist they alone should decide how money is allocated, even to the councils who are having to pay for the consequences of decisions made in Westminster. In essence brexit is little more than a power grab and a bank raid by the government.

If a post-brexit UK is to have any future it will only survive if there is a commensurate devolution of power from Westminster to both local authorities and local assemblies (e.g. the Scottish government). Otherwise the legacy of the current Tory government will just be the disorderly destruction of most of the UK’s public sector and local government.

A 2nd EU referendum?

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With the UK parliament essentially deadlocked on the topic of brexit, it has meant the idea of a 2nd vote and tossing the decision back to the people, is now a possibility. Polls show this is increasingly seen as the actual “will of the people”. So I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss the matter.

Brexit means….deadlock & chaos

Firstly the issue for Theresa May is that she doesn’t have a majority in parliament to back her plans. There’s about 14 or so pro-EU Tory MP’s who will not vote for anything that they know will mean leaving the customs union. At there other extreme there are 80 MP’s in the hard brexit camp who also won’t vote for anything that leaves the UK tethered to Europe in any way shape or form. She needs the DUP to support her, but once they realise her pandering to the brexiters will inevitably mean a hard border in Northern Ireland, they’ll likely flip.

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There is almost no chance of May’s preferred option getting through the commons….

Normally this would be the perfect opportunity for the opposition to step in, table their own bill knowing that the rebels on the other side of the isle will support it. But as a further spanner in the works, 4-5 labour pro-hard brexit MP’s will vote against their own party. And while this is naturally pissing off the largely pro-remain rank and file party members, Corbyn isn’t doing anything to reign them in….largely because he’s also a hard brexiter, its just he can’t vote with them because A) he’d be rebelling against himself and B) His own red shirts in momentum would skin him alive.

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….although the margin against a Canada or Norway style deal is a lot closer, sufficient that just 4 MP’s flipping would break the deadlock

Should you be doing your sums and you realise we’re about 7 MP’s short, ya that would be Sinn Fein. They could easily break the deadlock, swinging the UK towards a soft brexit and avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. However, they are refusing to attend parliament. In doing so they demonstrate that they, like so many populist parties, are about as useful in a crisis as tits on a mule. When the going gets tough, the populists get going….as in they run in the opposite direction!

Either way, May can’t deliver on either a soft or a hard brexit. Now the brexiters seem to think this is a good thing, as it will mean a hard brexit by default. However, as I’ve pointed out before, its more likely that we’ll get the EU’s backstop option (a worst case scenario for the brexiters) or an open ended, so called “blind brexit.

May has enough votes to possibly force through such an option at the 11th hour, although it would probably split both her party and labour in doing so. In any event this would be the sort of situation where she could just agree to one of the backstop options without consulting parliament (they’d have to vote in an alternative agreement that was acceptable to the EU, in the absence of that, whatever the PM decrees stands). Of course at this point it would be the brexiters clamouring for a 2nd vote. Although oddly enough many of the brexiters are on record as wanting a 2nd referendum (be it on the terms of brexit or to just keep people voting until they got the result they wanted, remember they originally assumed they’d lose).

That said, I’d be wary of those who say that a no deal brexit won’t happen. Avoiding a no deal requires someone to volunteer to be the grown up in the room, and there’s no guarantee that will happen. While there’s not much Jeremy Hunt has ever said that I agree with, his warning of a no deal by accident is a possibility.

And while we’re on the subject, could someone in the leave camp explain to me how anytime a remainer (before the referendum or since then) talks about the risk of economic chaos in the event of a hard brexit, its project fear. But when brexiters start planning for how to handle such chaos, its called preparing for an orderly brexit. Or how May being forced to go cap in hand to the French and beg them for help is the UK taking control !?!

Adding into this mix is the questionable nature of the previous referendum. In most European countries you’d need a 50% majority of the entire electorate to do something this radical (leave only got 37% of the electorate, about 27% of the adult population….that’s what counts as “the will of the people”). And as we now know the leave campaign broke the law. Not only have they been fined by the electoral commission, but they’ve been referred to the police for further investigation (meaning we could see politicians prosecuted).

And since we’re talking about it, the illegality of the referendum is seriously eroding UK democracy. We now have reports of cash for access being offered to US business tycoon’s in relation to any future US/UK trade deal (do honestly think that deal will serve the needs of the masses or rich?).

But I digress! One thing to consider about a 2nd vote is that the UK might have already left the EU before it can occur. Given its findings the electoral commission have recommended at least a 6 month delay for them to stop the leave camp cheating again put in place measures to ensure a fair vote. So even if parliament passed such a bill when it sits again in September, that would leave insufficient time, unless the article 50 deadline is extended, which it might not be, as certain EU states (Hungary and Italy) want the UK to leave the EU (so when they jump they can aim to land on the UK’s corpse to cushion the fall).

The Question

An important consideration is what question gets asked. Last time it was way to open ended. This meant that the leave camp could sell their have cake & eat it fantasy. They could literally promise to end freedom of movement, stop all payments to Brussels, yet remain in the single market (positions that are incompatible) all in the same sentence.

And this was not just the brexiters being stupid or idiotic. As they’ve admitted in their post-referendum boasting, it was a deliberate tactic. Back during the Scottish independence referendum, in order to promote and honest debate the SNP (perhaps naively) published their plans for an independent Scotland. Inevitably those plans got picked apart by the opposition. I was minded to support independence, but picked a few holes in their proposals myself. But I also recall pointing out that, flawed as the SNP’s plans were, they were still more sensible that anything proposed by the brexiters (hence why a yes vote would have saved Scotland from a hard brexit).

Well the leave camp learnt the lesson of the indyref, so they intentionally went out of their way to kill the debate and focus on largely minor issues, such as fish, bent bananas or EU regulations. And they gish galloped out their land of milk and honey promises, knowing that the remain camp (and the media) would struggle to counter so many lies told in such a short period.

So it would be essential that leave is tied down by asking the right question and being clear to the public that their decision would have consequences. A sensible tactic would be to have a two tier voting system. First question, about leaving or remaining in the EU. The second (and possibly third question) about the single market, freedom of movement, customs, etc.

So for example it would be made clear (and I would put it on the ballot paper) that if you vote leave, that means you are leaving, you are no longer an EU citizen, you lose all the right that gives you (which means more paperwork next time you try to travel to the EU). Ending freedom of movement would mean no single market access, with knock on implications to industry and it would automatically trigger a border poll in Northern Ireland (forced to choose between reunification or remain in the customs union) and possibly in Scotland too.

Justin Greening suggests having three options, remain, a soft brexit or a hard brexit. I’d worry about that splitting the remain vote (or equally the leave vote). So it would only work if you had some sort of system to eliminate the least popular option, then transfer the 2nd preference votes to the other.

However that in itself highlights the problem. If the brexiters are setting the question they will do nothing of the above. They just want the public to sign the suicide note and let them drive the bus off the cliff. They’ll likely leave it at two questions and make them “Do you want to remain a slave of Brussels with hoards of migrant coming over to steal your jobs and bring knife crime from Romanian Gypsies in hoodies?” or “do you want to see the glorious British Empire 2.0 rise while unicorn’s frolic in fields of wheat, the rivers flow with milk and honey, while money rains from the sky”.

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The ponzi factor

So given that we know the leave camp lied (by their own admission), that they cheated and broke the rules, that they clearly haven’t got a clue what they are doing and the effects of brexit are already evident (78% of people think brexit is going badly), you’d think it would be a slam dunk for the remain camp. Worst case scenario a narrow vote for a soft brexit, but more likely than not a strong vote for remain. Well think again.

As comedian Henning Wehn pointed out, a lot of leave voters will vote leave again, simply because by voting remain they’d be admitting to themselves and their peers that they were wrong the last time and their ego just can’t take that hit. Its a phenomenon I’ll call “the ponzi factor”.

A key part of any con is to get the mark to emotionally commit to it (e.g. by allowing them to easily make a small amount of money). Indeed its interesting to note how much of the language of the brexiters is very similar to what you’d hear from a con artist (“believe in Britain” or “save brexit” etc.). The objective here is two fold. Firstly it reduces the chances of the mark backing out of the con when the inevitable cracks start to appear. And secondly, it reduces the chances of them running to the cops after being fleeced (either because they still believes in the con, or are too embarrassed to report it).

Charles Ponzi was the master of this. At one point he prevented a run on his company by simply going outside and handing out sandwiches and coffee to those waiting to withdraw their money, which convinced many of them to go home. Even at his trial some of the marks who he’d fleeced testified in his defence. Many hung onto his share certificates conceived that it was all just a witch hunt against him by the establishment and that he’d get out of prison, make back his money and pay them off. Such is the power of myth.

So I’d expect that a minimum of 40% will vote leave in some shape or form again.

The insurgent campaign

So it looks bleak for the remain camp, the brexiters are guaranteed a large block of votes regardless and they get to pick the question asked and the timing of the vote (and they’ll pick a time that is as likely as possible to lead to a low turn out of remain voters, e.g. in the middle of uni exam weeks). However, there are a few factors in the remain camps favour. Firstly demographics, as hundreds of thousands of leave voters have died, while there are many newly registered voters who would now back remain.

Also there is what I’d call the insurgent factor. A lot of people who voted leave did so for one reason. They hated Cameron, the political establishment and his policy of austerity and wanted to give him the two fingered salute. However, with all of the major parties now likely backing leave (including Corbyn) that turns things on its head. A lot of this voting block might well shift to vote remain, just to piss off the government.

It is for these reasons I’d argue that a successful remain campaign must be an insurgent anti-establishment campaign. Its main theme will be that the politicians don’t have a clue what they are doing, they’re using brexit as a political football to further their careers and push through an a agenda that benefits only the rich. Meanwhile the country is going to pot, the railways are in a mess, the NHS is on life support and austerity is pushing whole towns into poverty. The only solution is to wipe brexit off the political agenda so that parliament can be forced to focus on more important matters (which would require a strong remain vote to settle the question for a generation).

As a result I would propose putting a non-politician in place as the “face” of the campaign. Radio host James O’Brien or anti-brexit campaigner Gina Miller would be among my picks. Or perhaps a comedian like Marcus Brigstocke or Al Murray (aka the pub landlord). Why? Because we tried winning on facts and figures last time, that didn’t work. So I’d go for humour and satire to make the brexiters look stupid.

And I won’t hold back from attacking the EU itself during the campaign. Its not a perfect institution, its just the alternatives are so much worse. Last time around the leave camp would for example point to Greece or the undemocratic nature of some EU institutions and then the remainers would try to defend the indefensible . While my response would be yes that’s terrible, but how exactly is leaving the EU going to change that? 

And I’d argue in favour of getting personal. Brexit is to trust the brexiters with the UK’s future. And as events have shown, they can’t be trusted, I mean they can’t even agree a plan amongst themselves. So it would be worthwhile to highlighting the obvious hypocrisies of the brexiters. They want the rest of the UK to have brexit, while remaining in the EU themselves. For example, lord Harmsworth (owner of the Daily Mail) is a French tax exile. That another leaver Nigel Lawson has recently taken up French citizenship, that Farage has an EU pension (and probably a German passport), Paul Dacre is also feathering his nest (outside of the UK!) and Ress-Mogg’s hedge fund has not only got assets in the EU (in particular Ireland), they’ve been increasing their share of those assets the more likely a no deal brexit becomes (which clearly shows how much they “believe in Britain“).

A few choice quotes from the brexiters would also help e.g. Boris’s “fuck business would be something I’d post prominently near a few factories vulnerable to brexit. Mogg’s proposals to dismantle the NHS end all benefits and turn the country into a tax haven (should do well placed near a hospital or a benefits office!). And a few ironic posters won’t go amiss either, e.g. contrasting that £350 million promise with the reality that the NHS is short on nurses and country is having to stockpile medicines.

And speaking of Boris, should you need proof of how bias the media is, consider how they are sticking it to Corbyn over anti-Semitism (not that there isn’t a problem here that needs addressing) yet they ignoring worse from the likes of Boris Johnson or others in the Tory party directed at Muslims.

Inevitably immigration will come up. My solution, would be point out that we now have a pretty good idea of how post-brexit immigration will pan out. And, much as was predicted prior to the referendum numbers show a sharp decline in those coming in from the EU (mostly only coming over temporarily to work, before returning home) being cancelled out by increasing numbers coming in from outside the EU (who tend to be coming here permanently). In short leaving the EU isn’t really going to change anything, in fact it could lead to the worse of both worlds.

The reckoning

A successful remain campaign could have many benefits. Firstly it would obviously mean the UK remaining in the EU. However, I suspect there won’t be too many champagne corks flying in Brussels (truth be told, they’d rather be shot of the UK!) as they’d be aware of getting back a more emboldened UK. This could serve a as a precursor for real change in how the EU functions.

The consequences for the Tory party would be dire. My guess is they could not survive a 2nd referendum intact, even if they win. The odds are the party will split, with the centrists and hard brexiters forming separate parties (one of which will still be called the Conservative party). Its possible the hard brexit wing would eventually then merge with UKIP to form a far right party.

The labour party could also split. Basically, a successful remain vote would spell the end for Corbyn and his small faction of “muesli brexiters”. They’d likely be forced out and eventually find their way into some hard left party. Or, in some cases, notably Kate Hoey, join UKIP. This would actually be to the benefit of the labour party, there’s plenty of possible candidates with a good shot at becoming PM, including several from the left wing of the party. And with the Tories in disarray, the odds of labour winning a subsequent election are high.

On the other hand, a 2nd leave vote, particularly one that Corbyn backed would split the party in half. Those on the centre left or the Blairites would quit, possibly merging with the centrists from the Tory party to form a new centre ground party (which means a labour majority government becomes essentially impossible).

The red referendum

Of course all of the above would probably serve to explain why a 2nd referendum is an unlikely possibility, not until after brexit and the damage has been done. The two main parties have much to lose from a 2nd referendum. It would be a death match for the political classes, a Game of Thrones season finale, with a body count to match. Not until wild horses drag them to the polls will we get a 2nd referendum. Party politics will likely trump the national interest. And as for the will of the people, I think the message from politicians now is likely to be, to paraphrase Boris, fu*k the people. After all, if the reverse were true, they’d have never held the 1st referendum!

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Which is why if people do want a 2nd vote, you have to withdraw your support from the main parties. Go to your MP tell them you plan to never vote for his/her party again, even if you are in a marginal seat, you’ll be supporting a pro 2nd vote party from now on (lib dems, SNP, Green’s). Only when enough MP’s start to fear for their jobs is there any chance of another vote.