Thursday, 22 June 2017

Why so negative?

One of these days I'll actually get back to writing about defence. Ah, those happy times! But for now I want to talk about that tired, worn, endlessly repeated subject that appears to dominate the daily headlines, the conversations by the water cooler, the conversations down the pub, the conversations with the family, and just about every conversation two or more people seem to have in the UK today. 

I may be exaggerating the impact of the subject on modern conversation slightly, but it does seem like a day cannot pass without someone talking about it, so I intend to basically stuff out some of my current thoughts on the subject for you to read/ignore at your leisure and be done with it for the next few months at least, while I instead go back to talking about ships and planes and things that get blown up or blow other things up.

The subject in question is of course brexit, which dominated the Queens speech.

It is the single most important topic in the UK right now and yet - at least until some real progress has been made in negotiations - it's also probably the least worthwhile topic to discuss. At this point we're all just basically guessing about what is being said in the meetings between our respective trade reps and I doubt David Davis is scouring the Internet looking for ideas. I certainly hope he isn't anyway. In some ways then brexit is, right now, a largely pointless dead end of a discussion topic.

Yet at the same time the discussion is becoming more meaningful by the day for the simple reason that in the absence of facts the media is doing what it does best; endless, wild speculation without any supporting evidence to stoke ratings and web traffic in something akin to a knowledge death spiral. Except that with the growth of social media they've now lost their monopoly on the ability to distribute opinion, information and graphs/tables. Which means that ideas of all forms get promoted, shot down, twisted, retweeted, and a dozen other sundry things, all of which has a tendency to confuse the debate and rile up the extreme ends of the opinion, while doing little good for those in the middle who just want to make an informed choice and for it to all be over.

And I do say choice, because although the referendum is over and the great brexit machine is in motion, there does still seem to be a concerted effort in play by the remain camp to try and put the brakes on the whole thing. That now seems to have taken the form of both trying to water down any brexit into a kind of half in, half out deal, as well as stoking the flames about the consequences of brexit in order to try and trigger some kind of vote after it's all been negotiated that might nip the whole thing in the bud and allow the UK to remain in the EU, something which much of the EU doesn't seem too keen on.

Personally I'm reasonably confident that brexit will happen. I don't see any shade of future government backing out of it, nor do I see the EU welcoming us back with open arms. The matter then shifts to whether we will have a "soft" or "hard" brexit, to use the terminology of the moment. At this point I would just like to deviate off on a tangent (such is my all too common want to do) in order to hold my hand up to the remain camp and say fair play to them. I've long argued that language is an incredibly powerful tool and right now the remain side is winning in this regard by couching the argument in terms of soft, with its connotations of being gentle and forgiving, vs hard, with its connotations of being rough and inflexible. May I offer to those who support leaving the EU the use of the terms "constrained/restricted" and "unconstrained/unrestricted" to replace soft and hard respectively, which should over time help to fight back against the negative narrative that is being attached to brexit.

Bizarrely enough though a lot of that negative narrative is actually being generated by people who voted in favour of leaving the EU, but who seek some kind of accommodation in the form of either a customs union or some kind of one off deal that at least permits continued access to the single market in exchange for a variety of concessions. What is most notable about this movement right now is their use of language and terms which paint those seeking an unrestricted brexit as being fools, buffons, ill-informed idiots, etc. If you're reading that and thinking to yourself "hang on a second, I see a lot of parallels there between those comments and the comments of many remain supporters before the vote, none of which went down well with the electorate" then you madam/sir have just earned yourself a metaphorical cookie. Having berated politicians for insulting leave voters, many of those same people are now insulting, erm, leave voters. It's all starting to get a bit unseemly at times.

And frankly, just as I wasn't buying the armageddon arguments from the remain side during the referendum campaign, I'm not buying the armageddon arguments from those in favour of a restricted brexit. Not to say that they don't make good points on a quite frequent basis. I have no illusions personally that brexit will be an instant hit where all the dominoes will immediately fall in our favour. Brexit is a long term issue, not just a twenty-teens issue. But at the same time I've heard more than enough "it'll never work" type comments about things that did to last me a lifetime.

Take the vote itself. We were told that in the wake of the vote the economy would virtually collapse overnight, despite the fact that many of us gave some very good reasons why it wouldn't. When the economy didn't collapse the back tracking began in earnest and the goal posts for financial armageddon were subsequently shifted from being after the vote to being after the triggering of article 50. That financial armageddon also failed to materialise, as many of us continued to argue would be the case irrespective of any wild hyperbole from the remain side, and so it seems that now the goal posts have been moved once again to some indistinct point post-brexit. At this rate we're going to need a much, much bigger pitch.

Now many have rightly pointed out that in the wake of an unconstrained brexit there would still be a lot of work to do. Non-tariff barriers are just as important as tariffs themselves when it comes to harming the free trade between nations. But once again I would argue that hyperbole is being used as a tool to shout down the voices that are trying to promote the positive case for an unrestricted brexit. While I don't expect the UK to walk out of the EU without a deal and then by the next day have struck up accords with all the worlds nations to grant the free flowing access of goods, I am confident that the UK has a sufficient reputation for high domestic standards and regulations that it will not take as long as many believe to get UK goods moving out and other countries goods moving in.

I remain confident that necessity will continue to be the mother of invention - as it always has been - and that British ingenuity and invention will be driven by necessity to seek shorter, less all encompassing deals with many nations as an innovative interim measure. Those in favour of tying Britain's hands when it leaves the EU seem to consistently play down the fact, or even just flat out ignore it, that many nations are actually rather keen to strike up quick partnerships with the UK, partnerships that offer increased market access to both parties and open new avenues for trade.

The block that seems to exist in many peoples thinking is the idea that Britain will have to slog it out on the international stage, spending decades pouring over the minor details of every last facet of bi-lateral trade agreements. While it's true that it will take many years for the UK to conclude the more comprehensive trade agreements that it will need in the long term, the UK has already proven in its recent relations with many countries that it has the willingness, the skill and the audacity needed to quickly break down some barriers and begin taking bold strides back onto the global stage.

That I think is the essence of the difference between those who seek an unconstrained brexit versus those who seek a restricted one. An unconstrained brexit poses challenges for certain, but it also opens new avenues and opportunities. With the shackles of Brussels cast aside the UK has the opportunity to once again return to being a truly global trading nation, not simply a vassal of the EU. 

Perhaps you consider me an idealist for this view. Maybe I am. But I prefer to see myself as just not being an eternal pessimist like some, only capable of seeing the negatives and the obstacles. There are indeed hurdles to be overcome along our nation's future path, but these hurdles are not insurmountable and I believe that we as a country have the capacity to conquer them in our quest for a more open and vibrant economy.

Ultimately I believe that the UK and EU will strike a deal where everyone gets a little bit of what they want. I anticipate Britian getting passporting rights for banking for example, in exchange for certain concessions over freedom of movement, for example by giving EU citizens preferential visa treatment. Politicians have a tendency to talk a tough talk right up until the last possible moment when things need to get moving, which is right about the point when they normally do.

In the meantime expect to see an endless stream of articles on the matter from all corners, positive and negative, generating more heat than light I suspect. For now it really is just a waiting game to find out what kind of deal is being pushed and the reality is we're going to have to wait almost two years to find out what that deal involves. I hope it's as open, unrestricted and unconstrained as possible, otherwise much of the promise of brexit will have been wasted, even if the bullet of ever closer union may have been dodged.

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