Ending the anarchy

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Back in the 12th century the UK went through a traumatic period in its history, known as “the Anarchy” where two factions of the ruling Normans fought for control of the country, each supporting rival rulers. In this 18 year period, the many commoners were left to fend for themselves, as the lords fought, brigands ravaged the countryside and “the saints slept”. Well brexit has now driven the UK into another anarchy, as effectively the country does not have a functioning government.

The latest nickname for May is LINO, leader in name only. Hard to nail down, but easy to walk over. She sits surrounded by a cabinet of fools, which she is not the leader of. The traditional UK policy of cabinet collective responsibility having been abandoned some time ago. Hell at one point last week the brexit secretary gave the cabinet’s speech in support of a bill, then voted against it! Ministers are united in their incompetence, for which none are at the slightest risk of being sacked over (like Chris Grayling, aka Failing Grayling, Calamity Chris whose cost the country over a billion through shear incompetence and still in his job).

And can you blame them. May spent the last few weeks going around, threatening her party, the ERG and the DUP with a long delay if they didn’t vote for her deal. But to no avail. And parliament then subsequently voted to rule out no deal (which makes sense as it might not be legal to implement it) and request a long extension from Brussels. Then came her cabinet meeting last week in which a bunch of her brexit supporting minsters shouted at her and threatened to resign. And rather than fire them all on the spot (as any actual PM would have done) she just sat their nodding and saying nothing, turned around afterwards and said, we’ll only ask for a short extension (so in other words the ERG & DUP now have absolutely no reason to vote for her deal), then tried to turn the people on their own MP’s, blaming them rather than her and the hard line brexiteers for the mess the country is in.

No wonder the EU thinks she’s lost the plot. I mean they tell her to show up with a plan to the summit in Brussels and she basically shows up looking like a kid whose dog actually did eat her homework, forcing them to come up with a plan for her. And while the grown ups did the hard work, she was forced to sit in windowless room waiting for several hours while the UK’s fate was decided by the EU (that’s taking back control!).

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And not to be outdone in incompetence, Corbyn, walked out of a meeting with the PM because Chuka Umunna happened to be there. That’s how childish things have become. I ain’t sitting in a room with him, he called me a big fat meanie…and he smells. Corbyn will sit in a room with Hamas or Sinn Fein, but coffee with Umunna is a bridge too far.

And Corbyn (plus most of the labour front bench) were not only absent from yesterday’s rally (biggest demo in UK history, I’d have been down too but that would have involved using Chris Grayling’s railway service!), but according to labour party members he sent a sneaky notice out to them advising them to work on local party affairs this weekend. I’ve never heard of a labour party leader advising his members not to show up to a protest…well other than Tony Blair of course!

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Such a large show of support for remaining, a million people, the largest protest in UK history (contrasting that with support for leave consisting of a few hundred following Farage on a pub crawl), should have politicians sitting up and taking notice. Not to mention the article 50 revocation petition which has attracted over 5 million signatures. Well think again.

Politicians are by nature very slow to change course. I’m reminded of the story of how in the command economies of the soviet union, they’d set up committees to decide on the latest fashions, but by the time they actually got around to producing the clothes, nobody wanted them, as they were now out of fashion. The only difference with the UK parliament is that its probably easier to unseat a member of the soviet politburo that it is a UK MP in a safe seat. Such is the unfairness of the UK’s FPtP voting system.

For any UK politicians looking to advance their careers, best to ignore the people (what have they got to do with anything? Hell many of them voted leave in the first place!), hooking themselves to the brexit wagon is the best way forward. You want to be a future Tory leader/minister? You’ve got to join the hard brexiteer gang. And in labour, you’ve got to join Corbyn’s cabal, proclaiming lip service to the idea of a people vote, while actively working to undermine such a possibility (he had his party members abstain from a vote on a people’s vote the other week).

And the only way this is going to change if MP’s are faced with the threat of losing their jobs, or seeing their party destroyed. This unfortunately is how UK politics works. Unless you are prepared to go all the way, you’ll be walked all over, just like PM LINO. The reason why the ERG and the DUP are commanding so much attention in the brexit process isn’t that they command a majority (even amount Tories), its because they are prepared to burn the house down to get their way. So remain supporters need to be willing to do the same.

Everyone in that rally, or anyone who supports a people’s vote, needs to go away and figure out who their MP is and consult their voting history. If they are a leave supporter, then you need to tell them (I’d show up in their constituency office) they have lost your vote, not just for the next election but permanently, unless they succeed in reversing brexit.

Consider that over 26,000 have signed the article 50 petition in Corbyn’s own constituency that’s not far off his majority of 33,000. Yes, if enough people in his constituency were to commit to it, one of the safest of safe seats would suddenly become a marginal seat. Corbyn could actually face a Michael Portillo moment of being unseated over brexit. And any labour party members need to quit the party (ideally by cutting your membership card in half in front of your labour MP). Doesn’t mean joining TiG, or the lib dems (although the greens are a close match), you can always rejoin later. But so long as you support labour, you support leaving at any cost, even if it means leaving with no deal. Only when confronted with the reality that they are going to get annihilated next election can we expect to see any change of course from either the Tories or labour.

And the sort of action needed? That means parliament needs to take control of the situation. Neither May or Corbyn can be trusted anymore. They’ve made promises and broken them, even going against decisions already made by parliament (which would technically put them in contempt of parliament) or votes at party conferences. And while I’d prefer a people vote, arguably the window of opportunity for that has now closed. I’d argue the only realistic option left is to simply cancel brexit altogether. If, after he’s finished his pub crawl, Farage wants to have another go, let him win a general election first and then have a 2nd referendum.

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The fall of the Roman Republic: Lessons for the modern world

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I stumbled on this youtube channel, Historia Civilis which, amongst other things, presents the fall of the Roman republic in quite an interesting and entertaining way. Worth a look, if you are a history buff. It occurred to me however, that the downfall of the Roman republic presents several valuable lessons for us in the modern world. As one can see parallels with current events and those leading up to the fall of the republic.

At the heart of the matter were three men, Julius Caesar (who presumably needs no introduction!), Pompey (the veteran general, not the football team) and Crassus (the richest man in Rome and victor over Spartacus). These three men formed the a loose alliance known as the Triumvirate in order to help push their various political agendas through the Roman parliament, the senate.

Key among there demands was money. Pompey and Caesar needed financing to maintain their armies (Crassus was also keen on various tax reforms), but also there was the issue of looking after their retiring soldiers (after all if they didn’t look after them, nobody else would sign up and pretty soon they’d have no army and a lot of angry ex-soldiers gunning for them). There was also the issue of land reform, putting land the republic owned to better use (possibly by settling the former soldiers and commoners of Rome on it). Caesar was also keen on making northern Italy a formal part of the Roman republic (many of his soldiers came from here, which means they’d all become voting citizens and would likely give him control of a vast voting block).

So a lot of their demands, weren’t that unreasonable……unless you were a member of the Roman upper classes of course! They formed a conservative faction within the parliament, the Optimates (or conservatives, think the GOP), who were opposed by the Populares who favoured the commoners or plebs (think the democrats). The triumvirate really didn’t care who was in charge so long as they got their way. But there was a tendency, particular with Caesar, to favour the populists.

In essence friction caused by the conservatives attempts to block the triumvirate’s demands led to an increasingly hostile and partisan mood in parliament, ultimately eroding support for the senate. This eventually spilled onto the street, with political debate becoming increasingly tribalist, hostile and eventually violent. Then fighting began between the triumvirate members, which led Pompey to align himself with the conservatives.

Towards the end the two factions morphed from populists v’s conservatives to Caesarian’s v’s Pompeyan’s, with both sides effectively backing a dictator, while accusing the other faction of being autocrats tying to put a dictator in charge. After Caesar’s victory the senate basically became a rubber stamp facility for him to get his way. After his assassination by senators, things got even worse, leading to the rise of the first Emperor (Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son and chosen successor), upon which it eventually became little more that a debating club.

The “will of the people” can be used to justify anything, even dictatorship, slavery and genocide
Beware of anyone who cite’s “respecting the will of the people” as the justification for their actions….but then seems suspiciously reluctant to allow the people’s wishes to be confirmed in some sort of free and fair vote. This went on all the time in ancient Rome, where it was used to justify pretty much anything, murder, ignoring the law, violating parliamentary procedure, genocide, slavery, burning down of temples or public buildings, theft and ultimately dictatorship.

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Roman legions enact the “will of the people” by enslaving non-Romans

In short, the many checks and balances we have in society exist to stop autocrats doing this. Part of why the Roman republic collapsed was because many choose to ignore those checks and balances, in order that they could “respect the will of the people”.

And another factor was how populists manipulated the public. While the Roman republic was a democracy, it wasn’t a very fair one, it decidedly favoured the rich (even when we ignore the corruption and bribery that went on). Part of the reason why the plebs began backing extremists was probably out of a certain level of frustration with how the upper classes treated them (why does that sound familiar). They also backed Caesar, in part because some of his policies did appeal to them. But mostly because the Optimates hated him.

Beware of ideologues bearing grudges
Good politics is about good compromise. And there were several ways that the disputes between the populists and conservatives could have been resolved. But passions ran high on both sides and eventually the senate descended into partisan politics, where bills were passed more as a means of scoring points against rival factions, rather than any real purpose (such as you know like maybe running the country!). And needless to say, filibustering and numerous acts of skulduggery were rife. In effect the senate stopped governing Rome, which created a power vacuum and it was inevitable something else would come along to fill the gap. And the void was filled by the autocratic rule of first Pompey and later Caesar (then later on an emperor, important to note that at no point was Caesar appointed emperor).

Again, one can draw direct parallels with modern politics. On any topic, healthcare or gun control in the US, brexit in the UK, there are a number of ways a compromise could have been reached to resolve these issues. But the parties (notably the conservatives) have refused to compromise. Again, this leads to a government that doesn’t govern. One that misuses procedures to ensure nothing gets done (or railroad through legislation that clearly doesn’t have majority support). Parliament fiddles while Rome burns. As Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

God is a busy person, he seems to be always on everyone’s side….and always against your opponents
Modern day politicians, particularly those on the right, are always banging on about religion. Being very quick to say how their policies are inspired by Jesus….which leads one to wonder how they managed to skip the bit in the bible about Jesus throwing the merchants out of the temple, or claiming that it would be easier for a richman to ride through the eye of a needle than get into heaven. Well, misusing religion to justify your policies aren’t a new phenomenon. It happened regularly in ancient Rome.

For example, at one point Julius Ceasar managed (by which we mean bribed) to get himself elected to the post of Ponitfex maximus, effectively the Roman equivalent of the Pope. He then set about exploiting this for political gain. And his opponents would do likewise, getting legislation they didn’t like or elections they disagreed with overturned on the basis of “bad omens”. Naturally this proved to be a major problem as it led to a general breakdown in the rules of the house.

Beware of “spontaneous” street protesters turning violent
Like I said, the tribal politics on the senate floor quickly spilled out onto the street and political debate took on a darker more tribal tone. While pushing, shoving and maybe the odd punch up were not that uncommon in Roman politics, gradually this fighting became worse and worse. Eventually, people started carrying weapons to political events. And it was only a matter of time before they started using them, leading to much violence and blood on the streets of Rome.

One can draw direct parallels with, for example the tea party types showing up with the guns outside polling stations, or the recent harassment of politicians in the UK outside parliament. Hence why its important that this behaviour gets nipped in the bud, presumably by making it illegal to use violence to pervert the political discourse (or the threat of it and I don’t see how showing up with a gun to a rival political rally, or a polling booth in a predominantly black distinct can be interpreted any other way). Its worth noting that under the laws of the Roman republic you could be executed (or banished) for showing up armed at political events (or so much as laying a finger on certain government officials). While that’s probably going a bit too far today, but some time in the clink to cool their heels would seem appropriate.

Not least because this violence in Rome wasn’t initially as random as it seemed. Its quite clear that many of these thugs were working on behalf of various members of the triumvirate. Similarly, call me paranoid, but I find it more than a little coincidental that the tea party’s stated goals just happened to meet those of plutocrats in the GOP (and its strange they seem to ignoring the fact they’ve reneged on a number of the tea party’s stated goals and nobody’s making a fuss about it). Similarly, are we to believe that these yellow vest protesters in France are a “spontaneous” anti-government protest….which just happens to align itself with the goals of the far right.

The problem in Rome was that this violence soon ran out of control. Which should hardly come as a surprise, that’s kind of what happens with a brawl. Its easy to throw a punch, what’s harder is getting everyone to stop. Those behind the violence were soon fighting each other, with Roman citizens, the senate and triumvirate getting caught up in the cross fire. Things came to a head with two factions, one led by Milo (from the conservative faction) and the other mob led by Clodius (of the popular faction) fighting each other in the streets of Rome. This violence eventually led to Clodius being murdered by Milo’s gang and Milo being expelled from Rome.

Eventually this violence on the streets forced first Pompey and later Caesar to move armies into Rome to put down the violence….and maybe help them rigsupervise” an election or two. This is of course the danger. Look at any other country (recently in Brazil or Venezuela for example) and once the military start getting involved in policing protests, they get involved in the politics. And its difficult to predict the outcome of that. Because in the end the Roman senate, and its inability to reconcile its own differences, left them faced the choice between two dictators.

Cooler heads don’t always prevail, smart people do stupid things and never underestimate a dumb person
One of the things we often get told, is oh don’t worry, nobody wants a no deal brexit/Trump dictatorship, cooler heads will prevail. Why our leaders are smart people, they’ll come up with an answer. Well that’s not what happened in Rome. In fact very smart people did very dumb things, leading them to be out manoeuvred by street thugs (such as Milo, Clodius) and the less than intellectually gifted (such as Mark Antony). Largely because they were too caught up in their own ideology and too busy settling petty scores with their rivals.

Take the Roman senators Cicero and Cato. I’m guessing that even if you know little about Roman history, you’ve probably heard of them. They were two of the sharpest minds in the Roman world. Yet they committed various howlers during this period that I suspect even Trump could have seen coming. At one point for example, Cato got tricked into taking up a task in Cyprus, which put him out of the senate at a crucial time. While Cicero found himself on the run facing trumped up charges. They’re own arrogance became their undoing.

By contrast, the members of the Triumvirate weren’t exactly a bunch of heavy weight intellectuals. In fact some accounts suggest Pompey was kind of “slow” and not exactly the sharpest tool. However, they managed to command armies in battle and lead them to stunning victories. And they outmanoeuvred their political opponents on several occasions.

In fact, one could argue the most sensible of the triumvirate was the one you hear the least about, Crassus. He cashed out early, gaining control of the wealthy province of Syria. So he kind of made off like a bandit. It could have ended well for him….if he hadn’t made the crass decision to start a war with the Parthian Empire and dying on the battlefield.

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Crassus died on the battlefield fighting a pointless and illegal war in what is now modern day Syria….why does this sound familiar?

The frog in the saucepan isn’t true, but the political metaphor is correct
There’s the old saying that a frog put into boiling water will jump out, while you put him in tepid water and warm it up he’ll sit there and get cooked to death. Well firstly, its not true (yes somebody has actually checked!). But the political metaphor is correct. Like I said, the decline of the Roman republic was gradual. At no point did either Pompey nor Caesar declare themselves emperor (although they were made dictators). It would be difficult to put your finger on the exact point where the republic’s collapsed.

I would also argue that neither Pompey nor Caesar set out to become an absolute ruler. They were certainly greedy and ambitious men, but I don’t think they intentionally destroyed the republic, no more than Cato or Cicero intentionally hastened the decline of the senate. It just sort of happened that way. Because once they pulled the pin on the autocrat hand grenade, they couldn’t put it back in.

One of the reasons for example, why Caesar marched on Rome, was that he was facing the risk of prosecution for his actions as consul several years earlier. Just prior to his assassination he was made consul for life (which was one of the reasons why he was killed of course), because he didn’t want events to repeat themselves (he was planning to leave the city and go off campaigning again). And one can draw direct parallels with modern dictatorships. Castro in Cuba, Maduro in Venezuela, Trump in 2020 or Putin in Russia. In other words, the boiling frog applies to the would be dictators as well.

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The Ides of March, Roman senators express no confidence in Ceasar’s rule.

Of course, Caesar’s violent death at the hand of 23 senators, several of them his friends and allies (notably Brutus), was unfortunately to set something of a precedence for future Roman rulers. Indeed, a horrible histories fun fact about Rome was the frequency with which Emperors met their doom at the hands of the praetorian guard, the men who guarded emperors while they slept. And of course, we can draw similar parallels to many recent dictators (Gaddafi or Saddam for example). In short, being an autocrat can be hazardous to one’s health.

Beware the law of unintended consequences
Which brings us to the final and perhaps most important point, it is remarkably easy to break a democratic system. Many people in the west, having lived their entire lives in a democracy, having never witnessed the sort of civil unrest or break down of the social order seen in other countries don’t seem to be aware of this fact. Hence they just don’t have any concept of life without it. We’re not even aware of the idea. Hence how Francis Fukuyama can naively proclaim the end of history, without getting laughed out of the room.

After all, think how the Romans at the time of the republic felt. Their republic was many centuries old. From Rome they controlled a quarter of the world’s population and half the known world. No doubt, they too were supremely confident that the republic would survive anything, even a little political crisis, that seem to just drag on and on. After all they’d faced similar crises in the past. If there’s one lesson we can draw from the Roman republic, its that the surest way to kill a democracy, is probably to assume it will never fail.

Now this will be something that some will react with glee to, as truth be told, many on the right (and some on the left too) want to bring down democracy. But be careful what you wish for, as you are unlikely to have any control over what replaces it.

Like I said, neither side the Optimates nor the Populares wanted the republic to become an empire, but that’s what ended up happening. So similarly, Putin in his efforts to undermine the EU needs to think carefully of the consequences. Because while he might break up the EU, NATO (which is the thing that really worries him) remains as united as ever. Does he really want NATO forces on his border, run by various populist mini-Trump’s itching for a fight, while inviting other states, such as Ukraine or Georgia to join (and basically encircling him).

Or alternatively, I’ve heard it argued that the problem with the EU is its too decentralised. A federal state (not unlike the “united states of Europe” Churchill once argued for) with a democratically elected president, plus an upper and lower house might be the solution. So anyone committed to break up the EU needs to be aware the danger is that by provoking such a crisis, the very EU superstate of their nightmares might be what replaces it. And similarly, the Tories, in their effort to create a fantasy cartoon Britannia 2.0, might end up driving the country to the extremes (a far left or far right government) or even cause the UK to break up.

And plutocrats in the GOP who want to shrink the US government and drown it in the bath thumb, ya and what will be the end game after that? I see two possibilities, an authoritarian fundamentalist Christian administration (think handmaidens tale). And if you think Bernie Sanders is anti-business you need to read the bible sometime (some of the stuff in it would make Ocasio-Cortez look like Rand Paul). Alternatively, you might find the wealthier and generally left leaning parts (Eastern seaboard, new England & Northern states) of the US cede from the union, forming either their own country, or perhaps merging with Canada (Super Canada?).

My point is, be careful what you wish for. It might come true and you might find you preferred the status quo, but by then it will be too late.

Far right terrorism

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Let me paint you the following scenario, imagine if a Muslim terrorist ran into a church in a western country, screaming fanatically, shot dead dozens of people at prayer, posting his rampage online. Then it turned out that he’d been radicalised by various radical preachers and activists online (including the president of another country sympathetic to his cause) and received training from other radicals groups via the internet. A little investigating reveals these same individuals have inspired numerous terrorist attacks in the past, both overseas and within their own country. And this against the backdrop of a rising trend of terrorist attacks inspired by the same people.

And not only do the country’s hosting these terrorist sympathisers refuse to arrest them or curtail their activities, but one or two of politicians even make speeches praising them, or blaming the attack on the victims. I suspect we’d not be entirely surprised if drone strikes start, or some of these radicals get abducted by a load of special forces and spirited out of the country to face justice.

Well basically that’s what happened in New Zealand last week, only in this case substitute the word “far right” (or “Trump supporter”) for “Muslim”. And, he probably wasn’t acting entirely alone, he had help from others and his acts were inspired by far right ideologies online, some of whom are hold office in various countries, notably the US, Australia and Europe. We need to start calling things what they are. And inspiring someone with lies, bigotry and hatred such that they go out and kill people (or training them in weapons use), that makes you an international terrorist.

Oh and rather than just sending her “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, the NZ PM is instead planning to change the countries gun laws (and I mean change them ASAP not at some ill determined future date), even thought gun control is a tetchy subject in NZ. This in effect is how a grown up politician responds to an event like this, as opposed to the spineless weasels you’ll find in the US congress.

And actions should have consequences. I’m all for freedom of speech, but that ends when you start using lies and bigotry to radicalise others into committing acts of terrorism. Now while I’d be against drone strikes and extra-judicial killings (that said, if the NZ PM decided to now authorise drone strikes or targeted killings against leading members of the US far right, it would be hard for the US to argue against this, given that they’ve done the same themselves after they were attacked), clearly some level of punishment is in order. Lengthy prison sentences would seem more appropriate. And politicians who inspire acts of terror should be removed from office immediately and barred from seeking re-election or public service.

Also the matter of how the media treat this. Back during the NI troubles it was a matter of routine that the media didn’t interview known terrorists, or those who inspired them (they might well report on what they said, but they’d put it in the proper context, rarely would they directly broadcast what they said). One has to question whether similar rules should now be applied to the far right (which to be clear would include the likes of Trump or the Italian and Hungarian presidents).

Erskine May and why no deal is so likely

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The speaker John Bercow threw something a spanner in the works as regards May’s plan for a third/fourth “meaningful vote” (which is seems to involve asking MP’s to vote on the same thing over and over again until they give the right answer). He pointed out that under parliamentary procedures (the so called Erskine May procedures) the government cannot put the same bill to parliament twice in the same session. Hence May must make significant changes to her bill (e.g. a people’s vote to verify it), hold a general election or withdraw it completely.

Naturally, this led to howls of discontent from the brexiteers about Bercow trying to abuse his position to kill off brexit, or how he’s sparked a constitutional crisis. Well actually, no. He’s doing his job, its clearly laid out in UK parliamentary procedure, in fact I recall mentioning this sometime ago on this blog. If anything one has to ask why he allowed the other votes on her deal to go through (I suspect the answer is that he knew it was a bit cheeky but was willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt just this once, but clearly not a third, fourth time). Indeed in most other EU countries, with proper written constitutions the speaker won’t need to make such a ruling, it would be automatic.

Which is what really worries me, as the reaction from May and her cabinet indicates they were clearly taken by surprise. Which implies that they simply do not understand UK law and parliamentary procedures. This has been evident from the very beginning of the brexit process, where by they have asked for things that are legally impossible or contradictory. And they’ve played fast and loose with the law, suspending votes at the last minute, offering what amounts to bribes to politicians to vote a particular way and even threatening the speaker with punishment if they don’t get their way. This in short is how we can get to within 11 days of the no deal cliff edge with no plan for how to get out of it.

And its not just Theresa May or her government, all of the brexiteers are guilty of a complete lack of understanding of the law. Take their latest obsession over the Vienna convention, which they argue allows them to violate the terms of the good Friday agreement. Well, that not what the lawyers say, if anything the opposite is true. But even if it were true, are they seriously proposing that they could renege on an international treaty on a Friday afternoon, throwing the island of Ireland into chaos, making all sorts of waves for both the EU and the US. Then on the Monday show up and expect everyone to carry on as if nothing happened and give them a trade deal. That’s not how the world works!

And with the UK’s fate now in the hands of the EU, it is all very worrying. As its possible that May is hoping she can use brinkmanship to force the EU and the EU heads of state into making last minutes concessions that they simply can’t make for valid legal reasons (their constitutions prohibit them from giving her what she wants, at least without some sort of legislation being passed….in 27 parliaments across the EU & the EU parliament in a little under two weeks…and some, like Ireland might even need to hold a referendum!). Hence why I’d argue that an accidental no deal is now the most likely outcome.

So while yes the UK now is in a constitutional crisis, its more a crisis caused by the fact the UK doesn’t have a constitution in the first place and that we’ve had a government who has taken the view that ramming brexit through overturns all laws, both in the UK and EU. That the “will of the people” takes precedence over all else, just to get May’s deal (which enjoys the support of just 6% of the public) through.

A comment on mountain safety

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There’s been a string of tragic accidents on the Scottish mountains this winter. Which is a little strange given how there’s actually been very little snow and fairly mild conditions (climate change I suppose, rather that a steady build up it all comes at once and then melts or avalanches off). A few weeks back two highly experienced climbers died on Ben Hope, while Ben Nevis has now seen three accidents with multiple fatalities, notably a fall off the ledge route and just the last few days three were killed in an avalanche in nearby number 5 gully.

Now inevitably the media position is, oh mountaineering, in particular these adrenaline junkies hanging off of cliffs, its really dangerous and should be banned. Well statistically, climbing is still safer than sports such as cycling, field sports, horse riding or water sports. So if you’re going to ban mountaineering, you’d have to ban these as well presumably. And according to mountain rescue statistics, in 2017, only 51% of call outs were for actual mountaineering related emergencies (although admittedly its usually more a 60/40 split). The rest are for things such as rescuing motorists trapped by snow or general search and rescue.

Another point is that a lot of these accidents have occurred on fairly easy routes. No. 5 gully and the ledge route are Scottish winter grade I or II, which is technically a winter scramble rather than an ice climb (easy climbing or hard walking depending on your point of view). In fact, this I’d argue is the problem, people are equating “easy” with “safe”, but that’s not the way it works.

The Ledge route for example (I’ve been up both of these routes before) is fairly exposed includes an airy scramble along a very narrow section of ridge. A grand day out, if the weather is good and you’ve a good head for heights. But certainly it comes with a certain level of risk, and that risk factor soars in the wrong sort of weather conditions or poor snow, or if the party is simply inexperienced (or poorly equipped). And no. 5 gully tends to accumulate rather a lot of snow and is thus prone to avalanches. It also tends to build up a large cornice on top and on at least one occasion I’ve been up it and we had to climb back down as we couldn’t safely break through the cornice without risking it collapsing on top of us.

Given that there was a “high” avalanche warning in effect on the north of Ben Nevis over the last few days one has to assume the climbers in the most recent accident either didn’t see the forecast. Or, as foreigners, they just weren’t aware that this particular gully is avalanche alley in the wrong sort of weather conditions.

But to be fair, I’ve seen scenarios where quite experienced climbers have gone out in bad conditions and argued, oh we can’t do Tower ridge today, lets do the ledge route or CMD arrete instead, that’s easy. And again, yes they are easy, but that doesn’t make them any safer in bad weather. If you’ve backed off one ridge because you think its unsafe, what magical thinking leads you to believe that another ridge on the same side of the same mountain (just narrower and more exposed!) is somehow immune to these dangers?

And for the record, its actually hillwalkers rather than climbers who are most likely to get into difficulty. Statistically only a tiny fraction of call outs are for climbers (94% hillwalkers, scrambling or climbing the remaining 6%), be it in summer or winter. The vast majority of accidents happen on well marked walking trails in summer (accidents being 3.5 times more likely to occur in summer than in winter). So this magical thinking extends to walkers as much as climbers, with people equating “easy” for “safe“, which isn’t always the case.

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Careful navigation off the summit of Ben Nevis is essential, particularly in winter

Case in point, the pony track up Ben Nevis (otherwise known as “the tourist route”) is probably the most likely spot in the UK for a mountaineering accident. Because while on a sunny summer’s day its a nice easy walk along a wide path (so wide many climbers call it “the motorway”), it can be very different on a bad day. Snow and freezing temperatures on Ben Nevis in summer is not unheard of. While in winter, temperatures can plunge to below -30’C and the snow can be several metres deep (hiding any waypoints or features under deep snow). And the path passes by several large and dangerous gullies as it approaches the summit. Gullies that in winter might be hidden under massive cornices. So careful navigation off its summit is essential (meaning you need to know how to use a map and compass!).

As the saying goes, the mountain doesn’t know you’re experienced. And some of that experience should come with knowing when to go down or not even to bother going up in the first place (or if and when things go south, how to get out of dodge). Hence the golden rule of mountaineering “going to the summit is optional, coming back down is compulsory”.

The supreme irony

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The UK government recently announced their plans as regards no deal and what tariff’s they’d charge. And they’ve proposed to drop nearly all down to zero, except those for agricultural products. This will disproportionally impact on Ireland more than any other country.

However, as the Irish PM noted, there’s a supreme irony here. A clause in the tariffs makes NI exempt from these, so Irish goods can cross into NI without being effected by any tariffs (and visa versa), unless they cross the Irish sea into Britain. So the customs border will now be at the Irish sea.

Of course, as you may recall, the EU’s original proposal to May was to put the customs border post-brexit, on the Irish sea. But May said no to that, in order to placate the DUP. And recall, the only reason the backstop exists, is because of this. So the brexiteers have spent the last few months arguing over something and refusing to back May’s deal, yet now they’ve essentially just caved in to the EU’s original proposals and not a peep out of either the ERG or the DUP. One is forced to the conclusion they only opposed the NI backstop because the Irish and the EU were in favour of it (which isn’t entirely true, the Irish and EU went along with it as better than the alternative of a chaotic no deal).

Of course there is a crucial difference, the EU’s proposals were carefully written by those very same Brussels eurocrats the Brexiteers love to demonise, in order to make sure that they were legally watertight (to prevent smuggling or abuse) and won’t be subject to legal challenge (at the WTO for example)….which is kind of what we need those eurocrats for! While by contrast, the Tories tariff proposals were hastily drafted on the back of a fag packet by some of the most incompetent people to ever hold public office. Hence these measures will likely prove to be wide open to abuse.

There would for example, be nothing to stop someone shipping Irish beef into NI, stamping “made in Britain” on them, then importing it all into Britain tariff free. Or cheating of cigarettes and alcohol tariffs and undercutting UK businesses. Any post-brexit immigration controls are now in name only, as the wide open Irish border makes it impossible to enforce them. And both the UK and Ireland will likely see disputes launched at the WTO claiming unfair advantage is being given. So while it stops a hard border for now, its a recipe for chaos long term and all but guarantees hard border eventually.

Meanwhile parliament has voted overwhelmingly against no deal and in favour of extending article 50, yet not providing any alternative to it. Which is like the Titanic voting for the iceberg to move out of the way. They’ve also rejected the option to vote for a 2nd referendum, largely because Corbyn won’t back it (I told you he couldn’t be trusted to keep his word). Which is a pity, because the UK now faces three options. May’s deal (which everyone hates, support runs currently at just 6%) or no brexit, or no deal by accident (which will likely lead to either of the other two once the economic consequences kick in).

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And contrary to their protestations, the real reason parliament don’t want to give the people a 2nd vote, isn’t because they feel support for brexit is as strong as ever (option polls say its faltering), or they fear the far right exploiting it (they are exploiting the chaos in parliament anyway!). No the real reason is that we’re in this mess thanks to the 1st referendum and many MP’s simply doesn’t trust the people any more. Much as I predicted prior to the referendum, the consequences of brexit are that the UK people will never be trusted by any UK government with a decision of this magnitude ever again. That in effect is what you voted for.

Apocalypse later: Brexit no deal delayed?

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There’s much talk and speculation about brexit being delayed. May suggests by a few months, Tusk even suggested by 2 years. Is this a good idea or not? Well let us discuss, because, as the expression goes, a week is a long time in politics. A month or a few years is an eternity and a lot can happen in that time.

Firstly I think we need to digress and address an important issue. Many in the UK are woefully ill-informed when it comes to brexit. Some seem to think that once we hit March 29th, or whichever delayed date we substitute, that’s it brexit’s sorted. Think again. Brexit is a process not a destination. Some seem to think that if the UK leaves with no deal this resets everything to the way it was before the UK joined. That for example, the many bilateral agreements the UK had with Ireland (which were superseded by entry into the EU) will automatically reapply. That is not the case (hence the point I made about driving licenses).

As outlined in article 50, section 3:

All the treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement” (or two years after if there’s no agreement). There’s nothing in there saying we can roll everything back to the 1970’s, no backsies, no do-overs, no Mulligans. Leave means leave, out means out, simple as that. So it would be worth going over what the UK needs to do after March 29th, assuming no further delays, before we start talking about the implications of any delays.

The withdrawal agreement merely details in legal terms how the UK is to be walked off the premises by the EU, the settlement of old bills, citizen rights, and sets out the terms of how the next phase of negotiations will proceed. This next phase, which for some reason is called “the transition phase” (even thought there’s nothing to transition too), involves negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, covering a wide number of areas ranging from freedom of movement, bilateral agreements, security and most notably trade.

Now if the UK opts for some generic off the shelf model, e.g. Norway or Switzerland, customs union, etc. then its widely accepted that this could be negotiated within 2-3 years. If not, if the UK is going to follows May’s plan of trying to negotiate some sort of “bespoke” deal, then its going to take at least a decade by some estimates. And even that assumes good co-operation on both sides. i.e. if the UK goes on another Unicorn hunt, then this date will slip even further. Hence why the NI backstop exists.

In addition the UK will also need to re-negotiate a number of that aforementioned bilateral agreements, most notably with Ireland, but also with other EU states (notably Spain) and even those outside the EU (such as with the US). Even those that are still on the statute books need a bit of a tweak here and there.

For example, strict reading of the common travel area rules with Ireland would seem to imply it only refers to movement between Ireland and the UK. It doesn’t seem to consider international flights (probably because it was written before this was an issue). Strictly speaking therefore, while a British person arriving in Dublin from London can expect to be simply waved through passport control, they could require an entry visa if arriving from New York, with the threat of deportation if they didn’t have one, even if they owned had lived in Ireland for decades. And arriving off a car ferry from France a British person could be required to pay import duty on their car (10% of its value, kind of an expensive holiday so!).

So naturally, there’s a few things to get squared away here, and the expectation is that this can be done in 3-5 years, assuming no silly buggers from either side.

The UK also needs to negotiate new trade deals with 60 odd countries around the world, whose trade access will be lost after the end of the transition period (or straight away in the case of a no deal). Again, its widely believed that these will take at least a decade or two to sort out. The UK can rush these deals, if it doesn’t mind conceding a lot. Hence its in the UK’s interests to take its time. Similarly, the other countries want to know what sort of deal the UK gets from the EU. Indeed, even some of the deals already struck are really just interim measures until those negotiations are completed.

Finally (you’re still going? when will this end!) there’s the real transition phase, where the terms of any new trade deals are implemented. One cannot simply change trade conditions overnight, that would be very disruptive to businesses (hence the issue with a no deal brexit). It would take typically 5-10 years over which any new tariffs are applied or removed. The UK will also have to finish settling all of its bills. Rather than a lump sum payment the UK opted to pay in instalments over time. This means that technically the UK will still be paying into the EU’s coffers until 2045.

So, depending on what you count as being out of the EU, its going to take the UK until 2027 to the 2040’s to actually complete the withdrawal. And that assumes good co-operation on both sides. Any funny business and this timetable slips considerably (up to infinity, the backstop kicks in and the UK never leaves, remaining tidally locked in the EU’s orbit forever).

This also explains what I mean when I say that brexit kicks into the long grass all other issues in the UK, such as poverty, climate change and public services. Case in point, there was a debate last week about climate change (due to the recent wave of climate strikes from school kids) and only a handful of MP’s actually bothered to show up. The government will be just too busy dealing with everything above to do anything else. And no, a no deal brexit doesn’t speed anything up, it would actually make things worse.

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A debate on climate change last week in the UK parliament, this is how low on the list of priorities it is thanks to brexit

So in that context, what difference would a few months make or even two years? The answer, quite a lot. Firstly May will probably not be PM. Now if she’s replaced by someone sensible, e.g. Hammond or Javid, then things could probably stick to the above timetable. If not, e.g. Boris or Mogg, then it slips considerably. There also could be a general election.

Corbyn’s decision to back a second referendum is the most sensible way for him to hold his party together. However, I’m not convinced he’s being sincere, after all he’s promised this before and reneged on it. In much the same way as May’s recent speech (promising a delay if her deal isn’t passed) was probably just her fooling her own MP’s into letting her run down the clock (so she can present them with the binary choice, her deal or no deal on the 28th of March), Corbyn could be faking support for a people’s vote, knowing it won’t be approved by parliament (because he’ll make sure enough of his pro-brexit MP’s rebel to defeat it).

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But needless to say going into an election supporting a people’s vote reduces the probability of further defections to the independent group. But it will also cost him votes. Not as many as supporting brexit would, but none the less it will cost him some support and he’s already lost some people who just won’t back him no matter what, thanks to his failure to change policy on this for so long.

So the odds are good that the UK will end up with a hung parliament, with who is ever in power dependant on either the new independent group, the lib dems or SNP (or all three!). So this will drastically alter the UK’s negotiating position (not to mention bringing the possibility of another referendum). But the UK isn’t the only place that’s having elections soon.

Ireland might also have an election post-brexit, as its only got a minority government. The odds are good that the current governing party, Fine Gael, will remain in power (but still a minority government). Or if not, then their rivals Fianna Fáil will get in under a similar set of conditions. However, one curve ball is the possibility of Sinn Fein ending up in government (probably a minority government or as a coalition partner). This changes everything. They will have one goal in all talks with the UK – a border poll. They won’t care about the long term economic or political damage of playing games in these negotiations will be. After all they, and the DUP, have shut down the NI assembly for two years due to a silly dispute over the Irish language.

And the EU is also having elections too. Both to the EU parliament and in individual EU countries. The expectation is that the far right populists might do well. For example in Italy, much as I predicted the consequences of 5S propping up fascists and helping them into power, is that once in power the League did lots of fascists things and it turns out that enabling fascism doesn’t go down well with 5 star’s left leaning supporters (nor does starting a measles epidemic). In a recent by-election for example, 5S support slumped from 40% to just 11%. So while there’s probably a resurgence of the traditional left coming in Europe, it might not arrive before the elections this summer.

Some on the right in the UK think this would be a good thing, but they are wrong. Yes, like Trump many of the far right euroskeptics will make lots of anti-EU speeches and pro-brexit sound bites (as well as pro-Putin!), but that’s about it. Their platform is my country first (well Russia first, then their country second anyway), make Hungary/Italy/Poland/Spain great again.

Hence, they’ll want some “victory” they can show off to the supporters (just look at Trump’s proposed trade deal). Now you could argue that the best thing for them to do would be arrange for a comprehensive free trade….ok let me stop you there. Big words like “customs union” or “MoU’s” are words that they (like Trump) don’t understand, nor do their supporters. The victory they’ll seek will therefore be more tabloid headline happy sorts of things.

For example Spain far right might seek the return of Gibraltar (or its removal from any trade treaty to the extent it becomes impossible to administer), the French ones might want an apology for Agincourt (or that British wine be henceforth known as du vin rosbif), the Poles argue that if the UK doesn’t want its citizens anymore, maybe you should repatriate all the tax money they paid into the UK government pension and welfare schemes while they worked in the UK. And the UK, given it set similar pointless red lines and hunted unicorns in the past can hardly complain when the other 27 start playing the same games.

Fortunately, there’s a way out for the UK – the infamous backstop. They UK just walks away from negotiations, lets it kick in and runs down the clock on the populists, returning to negotiations when someone sensible is in power again. But obviously, this delays things considerably.

So all in all delaying brexit isn’t without its risks. Hence why I’d argue it should only be undertaken when there its clear what the UK will be doing in this period. For example, a people’s vote. Or leaving, but with a clear understanding that the UK will be entering into a permanent customs union afterwards.

Blindly extending article 50 raises the risk that the process stalls and the timelines draw out considerably. Or the UK simply sliding off the cliff edge in 5 months time rather than 5 weeks time (although given the total lack of perpetration in the UK, maybe an extra few months would help). This seems to be the view shared by other EU states, they are happy to extend the deadline, but only if its clear what the UK plans to do during this period. Otherwise they’d just rather the UK gets on with it.

And given how long those timelines will be in the best case scenario (I don’t recall it being pointed out to voters during the referendum that we’d still be talking about brexit well into the 2020’s) then in the absence of any clear plan revoking article 50 and cancelling the whole thing looks like the most sensible course of action.