Monday, 14 August 2017

Blog posts I did not write

Today has been frustrating in that there were two things I wanted to write about, both of which were written about by others, and more ably than I would have managed no doubt, before I had found time to set finger to keyboard.

The first was the furore about an interesting new study of voters’ preferences as to how Brexit should be undertaken which was reported by Buzzfeed last Friday. It is based on ESRC funded research conducted by LSE and Oxford academics and is a serious and important piece of work. The reporting of it, however, has been extremely misleading and in places simply inaccurate. Amongst other things, it has been reported to show that most remain voters now back hard Brexit and that 29% of remain voters support the deportation of EU nationals. The misreporting reflects a number of complexities in the research, which the authors tried to explain in a blog on Sunday and which were also explained by another very useful blog (author unknown) here. But it was most incisively explained by Ben Chu in the Independent today. His was the blog I had been intending to write and I would strongly recommend everyone reading this to look at it. Even so, the damage has been done and whatever corrections are issued it will enter Brexiter mythology as proof of public support for hard Brexit (interesting to note how Brexiter disdain for academic experts disappears when they believe that the research helps them).

My second possible topic was Sunday’s Fox-Hammond article saying that whilst they agreed there would be a post March 2019 ‘transition period’ it would be one in which the UK was neither a member of the single market nor the customs union. This is a nonsensical proposition, which categorically will not happen because it is by definition not a transition: it’s out. So what they are describing is the cliff edge that a transition period is meant to avoid. It seems to envisage a situation in which Britain somehow retains all the benefits of membership and yet has left. To call this politically illiterate would be to flatter it way beyond reason.

But this was laid bare first by Ian Dunt on and later by John Springford, of the Centre for European Reform, in the Guardian, and again I recommend both of these pieces. They make some similar points about the impossibility of the Fox-Hammond line both politically and practically (e.g. in terms of the timescale for preparing customs facilities and systems). But Dunt goes on to link this to the arguments of what he (appropriately) calls the Brexit “headbangers” as exemplified by Bernard Jenkin in an interview on BBC Radio 4 today.

Jenkin regards the cliff edge of a Brexit without agreements – not just on customs but on a whole array of other things, such as flying rights - in place as a kind of recalcitrance, if not outright malice, on the part of the EU. In this, he exhibits the Brexiter mindset that I have written about in another post in which all of the arrangements that the UK benefits from as part of the EU are a kind of natural right, existing independently of those arrangements. So that whilst, for Jenkin, leaving the EU is absolutely crucial it also makes no difference to anything – or, at least, to none of the things he regards as nice or necessary. As if, somehow, Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit.

We are going to hear a lot more of this kind of “reasoning” in the coming months and years, as the inevitable consequences of Brexit are disowned by the Brexiters and attributed to the punitive EU. I actually don’t think that the Brexiters (Boris Johnson apart) are lying in the normal sense of the term. It seems more like the brainwashing found in weird religious cults.

Be that as it may, something very peculiar, dangerous and unprecedented is happening in the British polity. We’ve all had the experience of living with government policies we thought completely misguided and pursued on the basis of faulty logic and flawed evidence. But now we have Cabinet ministers and senior backbenchers saying in all seriousness things which are meaningless and nonsensical in very basic ways that go well beyond issues of interpretation or ideological dispute. The misreporting of the LSE/Oxford study can in large part be attributed to misunderstandings of complex statistics. But what the likes of Fox, Hammond and Jenkin are saying is the political equivalent of 2+2 = 5.

It is on the basis of such nonsense that Britain is being driven ever closer to catastrophe. That will most obviously be an economic catastrophe but it will also be a political catastrophe. A report on Reuters today highlighted the frustration and bemusement of leave voters that Brexit had not yet been delivered and seemed to be mired in complexity and delay. Well might they feel that, given the constant promises made to them during the Referendum campaign that leaving would be quick, easy, and painless. Now that the campaign is over, they are still being told the same thing and the disillusion and anger will grow. The central political question for the coming years is whether that anger is directed at those who tell them that 2+2 = 5 or at those who remind them that, like it or not, 2+2 = 4.

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