Politics @ Surrey

The blog of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey

How to read the Brexit White Paper

Today’s White Paper on “The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union” fulfils a government commitment to provide Parliament with its considered opinion about how to manage the process of Brexit.

Quite aside from the timing issue – coming as it does a day after the second reading of the EU(NOW) Bill – the White Paper is important as its lays down something of a benchmark for the government that it cannot move away from too easily.

However, unlike the vast majority of such documents, this relates to a negotiation, with the EU, its 27 other member states and its own parliament.

Thus matters, because it means that the government is not in a position to deliver whatever it feels like saying, but instead can only offer its hope for that negotiation.

The upshot of this is that the White Paper makes minimal advances on Theresa May’s speech two weeks ago: it’s structured on the same 12 principles, it uses much of the same wording and – most importantly – it offers as few concrete positions as it is possible to imagine.

Beyond reaffirming the desire to stop free movement of people, and accepting that this means the other freedoms must also be halted, there is still no established plan or approach. Indeed, the majority of the White Paper should be read as a list of the points that the UK government believes need to be covered in Article 50 negotiations, rather than as what particular outcome on each individual point should be.

In short, the White Paper is a roadmap, rather than a set of directions. With the latter, you are heading somewhere in particular; while with the former, you’re just aware of what might be here and hereabouts.

Actually, the White Paper doesn’t even really do this. The most glaring omissions relate to the financial aspects: there is passing reference to the budget and liabilities, but nothing at all on how big these might be or how the government wishes to tackle them.

On the generous interpretation, Theresa May is trying to keep her options open as much as possible, rather than making promises she can’t keep in a negotiation in which the UK has only limited power to secure its aims.

However, even in this view one has to wonder whether ‘keeping options open’ is just cover for ‘we still don’t know what we want to achieve’. For the sake of all sides in the coming negotiations, we should hope that this isn’t the case, because there is nothing more difficult than trying to reach an agreement with someone who doesn’t know what they’re aiming for. The clock continues to countdown to March.

We’re on our (Brexit) way!

2maxresdefaultEppur si muove. A scant 7 months after the referendum, last night Parliament passed the second reading of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill* by a clear 498 votes to 114. Job done, Parliament no obstacle, what could go wrong?

As usual – in accordance with Usherwood’s law – plenty can go wrong, no matter who one is.

To be clear, the first and second readings are on the principle of a piece of legislation, not its detail. While there might be broad consensus on that principle, there is much less doubt about the operationalisation of it. From the government’s perspective, it will be the committee stage, where amendments are considered, that will be much more consequential and challenging. Seen in that light, the size of last night’s rebellion will be cause for much concern.

Despite a three-line whip, Labour still had almost 50 rebels, including several members of the frontbench and whips (who are supposed to be keeping order in the party). If there is this much indiscipline on the principle of withdrawal, then that indicates a strength of feeling about the issue that might translate into determined amending next week.

Of course, Labour is powerless, unless and and until it works with the other opposition parties in the Commons, as well as Tory rebels. The past two days have not given a clear indication of how many of these latter exist, nor of how far they are prepared to go against Theresa May. Essentially, their power will depend on their ability to find common cause – logically articulated through language of Parliamentary sovereignty – and to use May’s fundamental desire to pursue Brexit to secure their objectives.

At the moment though, the government doesn’t appear to be in the mood to make any concessions at all. As Mark D’Arcy notes, even when amendments might strengthen its hand, the government has resisted them. Everything looks like the thin end of a wedge these days, especially as the full scope of Article 50 negotiations starts to unfurl before a government that still doesn’t have a plan, or the resources to handle the situation.

In short, yesterday doesn’t change much in the scheme of things.

The government is still groping around in the dark, while making bold sounds about how they’re not worried, sounds that convince less and less each time they are made.

The opposition is still in disarray: right now it is as likely that Corbyn suffers a mass revolt on the third reading as it is that amendments can be secured in the second. And there’s the Lords to deal with too.

The legal situation remains unclear: as several have pointed out, the Bill doesn’t actually make a decision about withdrawal, only gives the Prime Minister power to notify under Art.50(1), which means neither the advisory referendum (according to the Supreme Court) nor Parliament have actually made a binding decision. Legal challenges ahoy, if someone’s feeling picky (and surely someone will be). And that’s before we even get to the question of reversibility.

The unavoidable conclusion is that before we get to Article 50 notification – on 9 March, apparently – we will have a lot more fun and games, all of which will feed the sense that the UK is adrift in the Brexit sea, to be battered about in Article 50 negotiations and free trade talks. Time to batten down the hatches.



* Superb trolling BTW by the Bill’s draughtsman: EU (NOW), indeed.

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?

Like everyone else I awoke on Sunday 29 January to discover that the US and the world in general was reeling from the news of the Executive Order signed by President Trump calling a halt to the US’s Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days. As I read through my Twitter feed and studied the various news websites I found myself becoming progressively more shocked and horrified at what had happened – particularly the brutal way it had been introduced without warning, at huge human cost. I also came across the petition calling for Mr Trump’s State Visit to the UK to be downgraded (not stopped); at the time it had gathered about 12,000 signatures (at the time of writing this piece it stands at around 1.75 million).

How should one react to such a situation? As someone who has spent a good part of his professional career trying to uphold international human rights law and standards – including those contained in the 1948 Refugee Convention – this felt like a seminal moment. I know something of the reality of life for refugees – especially children – and any threat to our commitment to provide them with assistance and protection is a serious matter. Like many others I had been appalled by Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but I did not seriously believe that his Administration would enact something with such a potentially destabilising effect on the international system. I also feared for the US: had the American people really chosen someone bent on sowing division between different religions and ethnicities – and what might he do next? It was hard to feel anything other than outrage mixed with despair, and my natural reaction was to fight back using the power of the pen – or rather the keyboard – via Twitter.

But. There is a big but – in fact more than one. First, the US Presidential Election – as much as our own EU Referendum last year – has revealed a deep polarisation of political views, reflecting equally deep economic and societal divides, and a lack of meaningful dialogue across them. The people I follow on Twitter, the news websites I read, all pretty well express opinions similar to my own; therefore when I broadcast my views I am – by and large – preaching to the converted. And where there is disagreement on Twitter, Facebook, or other websites it is usually of such a vitriolic nature that arguably more harm than good is done by the exchange. I did venture out on Sunday to look at the Breitbart website but almost wished I had not, such was the unpleasant nature of some of the comments people had posted. It seems that we have lost the art of political debate across the full spectrum of viewpoints, preferring instead to hurl insults at each other.

Second, I identify myself as an academic and therefore a seeker after truth rather than as an advocate for a particular political position. In an earlier part of my career I was a member of a Civil Service whose core values are Honesty, Impartiality, Integrity, and Objectivity – and these still serve as a guiding beacon for how I live my life. So to enter the fray in such a highly politicised environment where people do not listen to each other carries a serious risk of forfeiting whatever authority one might have as a reasoned and reasonable commentator. And how much “truth” can I really hope to convey in 140 characters?

In the middle of all this the outgoing Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, argued in an interview in the Evening Standard (which took place before the row over the Executive Order exploded) that our society “should rediscover the Christian tradition of reticence”. He continued: “I have learned…that condemnation belongs to the Devil…if you go around smiting people, what tends to happen is they become even more extreme than they were before”. I fear that this is exactly what is happening in the current “debate” about the Trump measures.

And yet…And yet sometimes it seems that the violation of the principles one holds dear is so egregious that one just must take a stand. Otherwise, who will, and where will it all end? That is certainly how I felt on Sunday morning, so I signed the petition and I did my best on Twitter to make the point that there is a difference between a government’s policy on immigration (which it is entirely free to choose) and its respect for international law and conventions (by which it is bound). But now there is another petition arguing that the Trump visit to the UK should go ahead as planned, and although (at the time of writing) it has far less support it still has been signed by over 175,000 people. No doubt the folk who signed that feel as strongly about their principles as I do about mine.

So, is it just a matter of moral equivalence? Is one opinion as valid as another? Is it my duty as an academic to remain neutral, recognising the legitimacy of everyone’s point of view, and contenting myself with an analysis of why people think and act the way they do? Or is it to stand up for the values I hold dear, certainly trying to observe Bishop Chartres’ warning about “condemnation” and showing respect even for those I strongly disagree with – but not taking the line of least resistance, either?

I will be honest: I find it really difficult to answer my own question. I know that I cannot stand idly by but I also know that I abhor invective and people talking past each other; my natural mode is that of a mediator, trying to reconcile different opinions. So I know I am taking a risk by tweeting on such a controversial subject, but on balance – and for the sake of the innocent and the oppressed who are the real victims of what has happened – it feels like a risk I have to take.

Conspiring to Govern: Is the World Ready for the Alt-Right Executive?

The first few days of the 45th US presidency have been mired in much the same debates as the weeks and months that preceded them. Namely a ceaseless struggle for the ownership of truth or objective reality in hyper partisan political environment.

We casually attribute this struggle to the advent of social media, which provides a ladder over traditional information gatekeepers for the purveyors of ‘alternative facts.’ But this ignores the pre-existing conditions of collapsing faith in institutions (including the mainstream media) as well as the media’s own long standing struggles with objectivity or balance in reporting. Moreover, it suggests that Trump’s victory is more an accident of history than an overt, and successful instrumentalisation of modern angst at an opportune moment to attain power. Simply blaming Russia for spreading fake news doesn’t account for how these narratives gained traction within the electorate. Failure to appreciate this leaves us confused as to how we got here, and ill-prepared for what to expect in the months and years to come.

While much is made of the post-truth moment, the idea of political bias in reporting is hardly a novelty. The deep unease regarding ‘fake news’ is unsurprising when seen in a historical context. After all, similar concerns arose around the early print media, and indeed the mass production of that most basic of mobile communication devices; the book. At the onset of the information technology revolution, one of the promises of techno-utopians was that popular consciousness would be freed from the yoke of an increasingly oligarchic corporate media structure. As it transpires, they were entirely right about the process, and potentially catastrophically wrong about the consequences.

The levelling effect of social media has given amplification to groups using long established propaganda tactics to new effect. From the early days of crude 9/11 conspiracy videos, to tales of FEMA’s role in the coming apocalypse, or the YouTube pastors preaching on the creeping takeover of the state by the Rothschilds, or Sharia, or both. The pubescent web has provided purchase for this heady brew of racist rhetoric and apocalyptic paranoia. That these narratives developed in a broader political context that saw the US carry out all manner of major state criminality in its prosecution of the war on terror should surprise no-one.

This primordial soup bubbled away through financial crisis, Wall Street regeneration and main street stagnation under 8 years of the Obama presidency. In that time the narratives of the right libertarian and fascistic politics of ‘the alt right’ have distilled into a slick, sophisticated online political movement. A movement that sees in every feminist a traitor, in every Muslim an extremist and in Planned Parenthood a holocaust. That its activist base is relatively small matters little as time and again they demonstrate their ability to run rings around their ‘liberal’ mainstream counterparts, much to the chagrin of the establishment media. The Clinton campaign was an almost perfect foil in this regard.

Their savviness in adopting Donald Trump as a vessel for increasing their political power proved most of us were several steps behind in identifying both their talent and ambition. We should understand that Trump’s political success owes a great deal to their development, and not the other way around.

What should worry us now is that the leading figures in this amorphous grouping the ‘alt right’ are now claiming the due reward of political appointments that either put them, or people who are willing to parrot their narratives, in a position to influence executive policy. Earlier concerns about National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s retweeting of the bizarre Clinton ‘pizzagate’ odyssey gained a tangible malevolence when it became clear that alt right figurehead Steve Bannon had a hand in authoring Trump’s inaugural address- a jaw droppingly ungracious ode to the fatherland, and an appeal to the red blood of the citizenry therein to allow for its return to former glory. The president’s voice has an alt-right twang.

We are about to live an experiment. What happens when people who peddle in conspiracy theories take control of the most powerful military in human history? Usually American foreign policy is the subject of conspiratorial narratives, for obvious reasons. It has the power to shape and destroy entire regions. It has done so on the basis ‘alternative facts’ before, and we are still dealing with the consequences.

What happens when the people who direct that machine believe (or purport to believe) that the world is in governed by shadowy cabals that aim to destroy America, that see young Muslims in the west as ticking time bombs or see fascism in anti-facism? If everywhere they look they see enemies plotting against them, how easy will it be to justify more adventures in pre-emptive self-defence?

Will that justification come in the aftermath, as seems all but inevitable on Trump’s watch, of another major terrorist attack? Who will the administration seek to blame and will any amount of evidence be enough to balance against the prejudices of the nascent Trump national security team. They have demonstrated a fixation with Iran; will we now see the Revolutionary Guard’s fingerprints on plots against America or its allies in the coming years?

And what of ISIS, the current mascot for the ill-defined macro phenomenon of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ that the President has vowed to destroy. As they have been pushed closer to military defeat in Iraq and Syria, they have vowed to maintain their campaign through the continued proliferation of their ideology online, using conspiracy and half-fact to recruit the angry and the disillusioned to their war ‘against tyranny and injustice’. Like the Neo-cons and Al-Qaeda before them, Trump and ISIS will cling to each other for legitimation in the eyes of their followers. It would almost be romantic if it wasn’t so terrifying.

Previous presidential administrations have invited the production of conspiratorial narratives, due to their participation in things that look very much like criminal conspiracy. Many are betting that Trump’s administration will itself excel in this regard. But the President has already demonstrated an all too predictable willingness to fall back on accusations of conspiracy to distract either from his innate unpopularity, questions of his legitimacy or his basic suitability for the role. It will be Trump’s prerogative to continue this distraction. The greater danger lies in the ‘alternative facts’ of those with his ear creeping into policy areas with potential global impact. The world needs to be ready to do a better job of guarding against the American executive if it again uses lies to justify war.



Brexit is still happening, just not the way May hoped

3921112328_ede0a3f8d4_bThe British Supreme Court ruling of January 24 was a mixed result for the Prime Minister Theresa May’s government (PDF).

On the one hand, they saw their earlier defeat in the High Court defeat confirmed, committing them to passing legislation through parliament before they can start the formal process of leaving the European Union under Article 50.

On the other hand, the court unanimously agreed that the Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies did not need to be consulted, closing down what might have been a very awkward development, given the majorities to remain in the EU in both nations.

Perhaps most importantly, the case highlights the extent to which the government has failed to develop a coherent plan of how to manage and pursue Brexit, albeit having decided what substantive outcomes it seeks.

Having made a very strong commitment to starting negotiations by the end of March, May now finds herself having to squeeze a bill through parliament, something that could have been done much more leisurely if there had not been an appeal to the original ruling in November.

What’s next?

To be clear, there is no real chance that parliament will not pass this bill. Despite a majority of MPs and Lords being in favour of remaining in the EU, there is broad acceptance that the June 2016 referendum was legitimate and its result is to be respected. With a Labour Party leadership stating that they will push for support of the bill, there are insufficient rebels on either side of the House to overturn May’s majority.

What is much less clear is the price that parliament will extract for its support. Most obviously, there is very strong support for a White Paper, which would outline the government’s plans in a more formal way, before voting on such a bill, as well as many voices asking that parliament should have oversight and scrutiny of the Article 50 negotiations.

Until now, the government has only grudgingly conceded that parliament will have a vote on the final deal, but without the opportunity to shape that deal this means little.

As such we are about to see a frenzy of activity in parliament once the draft bill is published. The government will be able to avoid the more radical amendments, but is likely to find itself pushed to accept more oversight, especially if Labour can find and keep some discipline on the issue.

Once again, Jeremy Corbyn cuts an ambivalent figure here – torn between a general dislike of the EU and its works and a worry about the erosion of workers’ rights caused by the Brexit. While Tory rebels have started to build links with counterparts across the House, it remains to be seen whether they can outmanoeuvre the government.

What of the other nations in the UK?

There is an added complication to all of this, caused – ironically – by the Supreme Court judgment. The closing-down of any role for Scotland and Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations might have side-stepped matters now, but it is clear that it hands the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) a very strong stick with which to beat the drum for a second independence referendum.

While the SNP had been one of the very few parties to be prepared for a Leave vote in the referendum, they have been hamstrung by opinion polls that suggest the Scottish public are not particularly eager to leave the UK.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon moved quickly after the Supreme Court ruling to present the decision as a marker of how little control Scotland has over its own future. With a commitment to bring a motion to the Scottish Parliament shortly on the triggering of Article 50, Sturgeon is clearly working on using this as a way of getting voters behind her, as and when she decides to hold another referendum.

Regardless of the result, Theresa May will find that such a referendum will require time and effort that she can ill-spare from Article 50 negotiations.

If Scotland holds the potential for a break-up of the UK, then Northern Ireland holds the potential for the further undermining of the peace process. While the collapse of the Executive last week was not due directly to Brexit, the widespread concerns about the re-imposition of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and about the disentanglement of the EU from the Good Friday agreements have left many on edge.

The Supreme Court’s marginalisation of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a further blow, albeit one whose effect remains to be seen as new elections get under way.

Discovering the full extent of Brexit

Taken together, the overall effect of the Supreme Court has been to change the manner of Brexit, rather than the destination. The bold political reality of the referendum remains as before, but we are now seeing the emergence of different political takes on how to handle it.

The suspicion that many voters have voiced about “the establishment” trying to overturn the referendum remains unfounded, but the lack of a clearly defined plan makes it easy for politicians and commentators across the spectrum to point to actions that look dubious.

In reality, the British political system is still trying to discover the full extent of what Brexit might involve, as well as what might be done within that. Except a lot more debate about what the options might be in the coming months and years, long after this legal complication has been dealt with.


This piece originally appeared on AlJazeera.com


Theresa and the awfully big adventure


That speech, earlier

Tuesday’s speech by Theresa May was a hastily-arranged set-piece. While there had been talk of further details on the vacuous “Brexit means Brexit” stance of the autumn “early in the new year”, no one had particular expectations. That there wasn’t even a time fixed until the afternoon before suggests that this was an improvisation, rather than part of a masterplan.

Certainly, when it came, the speech was designed to win any prizes from the speechwriter’s guild. 12 principles (approximately 9 too many), a lengthy and vapid opening, coupled to a bizarrely threatening peroration: the feel was of someone being told to write whatever they found on the Number 10 whiteboard after the last brainstorming session.

So why do it?

The most obvious answer is that May needs to throw some meat to the restless elements within her party and her backers in the media. Her premiership is grounded entirely on being a safe pair of hands in delivering Brexit and she cannot be seen not to do that. Hence the briefings beforehand that ‘half-in, half-out’ options weren’t acceptable: hence also that menacing tone and the assertion that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. The front pages the next day and the hearty support at PMQs suggest that she met this most basic of goals.

Moreover, May is using what little sense of a plan she has to beat Labour senseless. Jeremy Corbyn’s patent inability either to build a consistent party line or to critique May with anything more than a vague sense that she must be wrong leaves Labour representing neither the 48% or the 52%. While the 2020 general election might feel a long off, it’s never too soon to press for a more favourable situation.

Finally, May also clearly used the speech to signal her intentions to the EU27, albeit after doing the other things first. Her concession that she would not try to flog the dead horse of single market participation without free movement of people avoids a huge beartrap. Likewise, the long shopping list at least indicates her awareness of key areas for debate, in what she clearly sees as being more than just a bare minimum Article 50 agreement. The hope has to be that the closing bravura comments will be seen as just part of the public posturing, rather than genuine statements of intent.

In that May was – as always – actually very careful in what she said. To take just one example, this was one of the very few times that she has discussing financial contributions post-membership, since she knows that most agreements will imply some money changing hands. However, all she said was that there needed to be an end to ‘huge sums’ going to the EU: hardly the most precise of terms, especially from a person who found the claim on the bus as objectionable as most Remainers.

Likewise, her hedging on the customs union was more subtle than many noticed: she dislikes the common external tariff, rather than the customs union as a whole (albeit ignoring that the former is an essential part of the latter), with the implication that some cunning wheeze might be possible. Admittedly, her statement that she was ‘open-minded’ about how to square that circle did sound like a plea for suggestions rather than a perusing of well-developed options.

And this is the nub of May’s problem.

She has grasped that for many in the UK, the anxiety about Brexit takes precedence over the desire for specific and particular policy outcomes. It’s no surprise that the newspapers were all about her forthright stance on the deal, rather than any of the specifics. That’s either because the press think she’s got the right idea and isn’t going to be pushed around by the EU27, or because they are concerned about how things look and consider May to be the best port in the storm: either way, in the short-run the effect is the same, namely flag-waving and boo-yah politics (as typified, obviously, by the Foreign Secretary).

However, the abiding sense from May’s speech is that she is trying to be clever. She has defused some policy issues ahead of the Article 50 notification, and possibly obviated the need for anything more formal – like a white paper – that might tie her down. She’s also left herself a load of wiggle room for the concessions she really – and realistically – expects to make in the coming years.

The danger is that she has raised expectations. The floundering of Labour provides for a uniquely-favourable Parliamentary climate (Tory rebels notwithstanding), while her impressive skill at stone-walling over the past six months lead her to feel confident that she is riding the tiger, and even guiding it back towards the zoo.

But this feels hubristic: as we await the Supreme Court ruling next Tuesday, we are reminded that May – indeed, none of us – know what the UK’s own process for notification will look like, let alone how those Article 50 negotiations will work once begun. In addition, May has now loaded a set of expectations on an already ambitious schedule, with no clear way of meeting them.

And it is here that the incoherence of the speech really comes home to roost. Broadly speaking, May is looking at a comprehensive free trade agreement, like Canada’s but with some bells an whistles, but her approach is currently defined by what she doesn’t want, rather than what she does. Put differently, her overarching intent is unclear: if one wanted to put it into words, then her Foreign Secretary’s words on cake spring to mind.

Having raised expectations with a press and a public that barely understands the EU, May now risks a backlash as she engages with the EU27. Well she might argue later that she never promised what they thought she did, but the degree of latitude she might be accorded is very unclear, especially if it sounds like she is saying that everyone was too stupid to notice.

So far Theresa May has avoided making too many hostages to fortune, but this week may have marked the end of that. What has worked for the prelude might not now work for the main event.

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