Saturday, 24 December 2016

Brexit: Six months on

This article originally appeared on United Politics on 23/12/2016

It’s six months to the day since the historic vote for the UK to leave the European Union. The intervening months have been, by the expectations set during the campaign, rather uneventful.

Sure, we’ve lost one Prime Minister and gained another (our second female leader to boot), the Government’s been dragged through the courts, Labour had it’s annual leadership election, UKIP ripped itself to shreds and the Lib Dems did, well, whatever it is they do these days. But the British landscape has been curiously devoid of recession, world war three, or the collapse of western civilisation.

Of course, far from having actually left, we have yet to begin the exit negotiations that commence upon the triggering of the notorious Article 50. Some of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Vote Leave. Whilst it was ultimately a successful campaign, it contained no more substance than Stronger In’s doomed efforts to keep us tied to Brussels.

There was no Brexit plan laid out whatsoever, and whilst it allowed for more maneuverability during the campaign, enabling them to paint Brexit as whatever it’s current audience wanted it to be, it means that there’s been plenty of flapping around since.

This has actually played into the hands of continuity Remainers who wish to see the referendum result ignored.  The lack of any sort of plan allows them to indicate that we’re woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead, and/or push for a Brexit so close to continued EU membership as makes no difference.

The vacuousness of some of Vote Leave’s campaign messages has left Leavers wide open to these criticisms. Touting the £350m figure was a spectacular own goal, as the same point could just as easily be made using the net figure, or even the savings to be gleaned from an EEA/EFTA position.

Not that all of the blame can be laid at the feet of Vote Leave. They were after all only a campaign group, and regardless of how detailed or otherwise any plan of theirs may have been, they were not being elected. A point seemingly lost on Chuka Umunna and his meaningless ‘Vote Leave watch’ outfit.

David Cameron on the other hand, when he called the referendum, should have put more effort into ensuring government and the civil service was prepared for either eventuality, rather than enlisting the machinery of government to campaign for his favoured outcome. The lack of preparation for a Leave vote, and the arrogance that signifies, should mean history sees him vilified, regardless of his other achievements.

This is why, despite the calls to invoke Article 50 immediately, there has been a necessary delay whilst the government finds it’s feet. They’re certainly taking their time, but slowly but surely they seem to be coming to grips with what can and can’t be achieved during the two year Article 50 negotiation period.

But if Vote Leave has been shown to be the shallow campaign it was, Stronger In’s entire case for remain has been utterly obliterated. In the immediate aftermath of the vote they pointed to the fall in sterling as proof positive of the economic ruin that awaited a United Kingdom sans EU membership.

But economists have long been arguing that the pound was overvalued, and a devaluation was necessary and desirable in order to rebalance the economy. This has been demonstrated in both the FTSE 100 and 250 which have soared since the vote in June, now sitting comfortably above their pre-referendum levels.

Nor has there been an exodus of investment. A cursory glance at the ironic #DespiteBrexit hashtag on Twitter unveils a litany of, shock horror, good news in the wake of the referendum result. From car manufacturers (plural), to banks, to supermarkets, a litany of companies have committed to the UK for the foreseeable future.

This is because the UK still remains an attractive place for businesses to invest. Forbes yesterday moved the UK from tenth to fifth in it’s list of the best places in the world to do business. Couple this with the OBR predicting further growth of 1.4% in 2017, returning to the long run average by 2019, as opposed to the -0.7% recession predicted by the Treasury, and the foretold economic armageddon looks as likely as Jeremy Corbyn becoming PM.

All this is taking place alongside a sideshow of various challenges to UK democracy. The high court battle on whether Parliament should vote on triggering Article 50 seems somewhat of a red herring, and has wrongly been shouted down by Brexiteers worried about the result being overturned.

Their fears aren’t completely unfounded, given the ‘March for Europe’ demonstrations in London (they would be much more accurately entitled ‘March Against Democracy‘), the various petitions for a second referendum, and the numerous MPs and political leaders, celebrities, and academics calling for another vote or for the vote to be ignored outright. It’s been quite a spectacularly worrying admonition of democracy.

Those that would seek to subvert the result in this way should perhaps be careful what they wish for, considering the latest poll shows that we’d still vote to Leave were there a second referendum. Given the largely positive economic news since the vote, negating Stronger In’s entire shtick, it’s not exactly difficult to see why.

We’re still three months away from Theresa May’s stated timetable for Article 50 notification. Ministers appear to be catching on to the inevitability of an interim EEA or ‘Norway’ option, as we begin unpicking 40 years of political integration with mainland Europe. Brexit was never going to be an event, it was always going to be a process.

Post-Brexit politics has made the last six months utterly enthralling. But it’s mostly been white noise thus far. Once the Article 50 ball comes loose from the back of the scrum, and negotiations with the EU begin in earnest, things will start to get really interesting. Roll on March 2017.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

REVIEW: Super Mario Run

Back in 2011 late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata proclaimed that Nintendo would 'absolutely not' be making mobile games, and that any moves to do so would see Nintendo 'cease to be Nintendo'. Cut to five years later and, following a more off-the-wall experiment with Miitomo, we have our first fully fledged Nintendo game on iOS.

Super Mario Run sees the portly plumber stripped of everything but his core mechanic: jumping. Mario runs automatically across the screen, with a simple tap making him jump across ravines, onto enemies, and over obstacles. It's a perfect adaptation of the Mario franchise for mobile devices and, being a bespoke offering, is much more welcome than say, a straight port of the original Super Mario Bros.

Contrary to Iwata's prediction, the level designs are classic Nintendo. Initially accessible yet fun to vault your way through, with the challenge escalating across the 24 stages. Whilst I never had any real difficulty in finishing a level, it certainly got more satisfying to do so, especially in the single screen levels. These stages see Mario change direction when he reaches the right hand side of the screen, or run straight through to appear on the left once again a la Mario Bros. These involved a little more brain power to figure out and broke up the pace nicely from the standard 'run to the goal' levels.

Not that those outings are in any way monotonous. Classic Mario levels with green hills and mushrooms, haunted Boo mansions, Pokey infested desert settings, and of course Bowser's nefarious castles are all here and vary massively from course to course. They often have a unique mechanic to help - or hinder - your progress through the level, from enemies throwing huge spiky balls at you from every direction to utilising a well timed shell to clear your path. Every level on offer was a fun and unique experience. Throw in some mechanisms that allow Mario to somersault backwards, or stand still for a moment to time his way through a moving obstacle, and there's enough variety to stop the game ever getting repetitive.

As mentioned, it's fun if relatively easy to power through the 24 levels on offer here. The real challenge comes in collecting the special coins. Each level has five pink coins to locate. Doing so unlocks an ever so slightly modified version of the level with five purple coins to gather and if you can manage that, a further change up gives you a final challenge of five black coins. The pink ones can be collected on your first playthrough of a level if you're switched on enough, but by the time you reach the black coins the challenge can be fiendishly difficult, with the need to perfectly execute a series of jumps across multiple enemies to reach that one coin that's otherwise out of reach. It's a great excuse to keep coming back to the main 'World Tour' mode and there's a few bonus levels available as an extra challenge for those that manage to find them all.

Further replayability can be found in the high score mechanism. By adding friends, either directly via friend codes or by linking your Facebook and Twitter accounts, you can see who has managed to gather the most coins in any given level. It adds a cool competitive element and offers a further challenge to increase your high score.

Competition is the name of the game in the second mode, Toad Rally, which sees you compete against the ghost data of other Mario Run players in order to gain the approval of onlooking Toads. Collecting coins and pulling off sweet jump combinations will boost your score, and the winner will attract more Toads to their kingdom. As well as acting as a 'high score' in your friends table, gathering more Toads for your kingdom unlocks further items in the game's third mode; Kingdom Builder.

A much more serene affair than the other two modes, Kingdom builder lets you spend the coins you accrue in the other modes on buildings, items, flora and fauna, to customise your very own mushroom kingdom. The Toads you unlock in Toad Rally come in various colours, and various buildings require different combinations in order to unlock. It's mostly cosmetic, but there are extra playable characters you can unlock this way with their own unique traits that may help you reach a few elusive black coins back in World Tour mode.

Some may balk at paying £7.99 for a mobile game, but what you're getting for that is the full experience. There are no annoying adverts popping up after every level, no prompts to go and buy extra coins or jewels or any other nonsense. There is no 'pay to win' mechanism. The expansion of your Mushroom Kingdom relies solely on your platforming skills, and for a game that's so well built, packed with this many features and replayability, eight quid is a very reasonable price tag.

The biggest drawback to the game though is the requirement for a constant internet connection in order to play. If you're at home or at work that isn't necessarily an issue. But once you're on the move it can start to scupper any platforming fun you might have. City dwellers won't have too much of an issue, but those of us that live in more rural areas may find that their bus ride into town won't be as Mario centric as they may have hoped. It seems a daft requirement, when the game is ideal to play on a commute, but if you have an unstable 3G connection, or say, a tube journey to undertake, you may find yourself reaching for other games.

All in all, Super Mario Run is an excellent first foray into the mobile gaming market for Nintendo. It's well built, plays excellently, and offers plenty of replayability for it's price tag. The need for a decent internet connection may mean that some won't get to play it when they would ideally like to, but it's nevertheless a great take on the Mario franchise that works perfectly for mobile devices.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Does Brexit really mean leaving the single market?

This article originally appeared on United Politics on 05/12/2016

“Brexit means Brexit.” If there’s one soundbite that exemplifies Theresa May’s premiership thus far it’s that. Once a reassuring riposte to those that seek to subvert our democracy by ignoring the referendum result, or in true EU fashion, making us vote again until we get the ‘right’ answer, it has quickly become a source of frustration. Yes, Brexit must mean Brexit, but what exactly does that entail, besides an increasingly infuriating ouroborus-like argument?

Different leave voters checked that particular box for varying reasons, and varying priorities. Although Brexit does indeed mean different things to different people, there are a few broad areas almost all Brexiteers agree on. We wish to repatriate our trade policy and regain the freedom to strike trade deals with whomever may want one. We wish to see an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over UK affairs. We wish to have far greater control over immigration than we currently enjoy, and we wish to see an end to obligatory EU budget contributions.

The main point of contention it seems is whether or not we can achieve these various goals by remaining in the single market, otherwise known as the European Economic Area (EEA). This debate is an incredibly important one and has been completely undermined by an unholy combination of hard-headed Brexiteers, Remainers in denial, and clueless politicians.

One point of confusion is the difference between the EEA and the customs union. Far too many politicians and commentators are either wilfully conflating the two or are completely unaware of the differences, or even who is involved in each one.

It’s now been five months since the referendum result, and over a year and a half since the Tories won the general election thus ensuring that a referendum was coming. Despite this, only last week the Guardian has incorrectly reported that Switzerland is a member of the EEA and the BBC erroneously asserted that members of the single market cannot strike their own trade deals. It is no wonder confusion is the order of the day when our media is so woefully uninformed.

Switzerland of course, whilst a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) is not a member of the EEA, and instead has a series of bilateral trade deals with the EU. Meanwhile the remaining EFTA members, Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein, are also members of the EEA, yet remain outside the customs union. This gives them maneuverability in pursuing their own trade agreements with the rest of the world.

There is an assumption amongst some politicians that remaining in the customs union is essential to ensure that barriers to trade and customs checks are not erected between the UK and the EU. This too is wrong. The customs union, following the signing of the Treaty of Rome was fully established by 1968, yet internal border checks between member states were still commonplace until the 1980s.

It was the establishment of the single market, and the signing of the Single European Act in 1985, that eliminated these internal border checks, and thus continued EEA membership, not participation in the customs union, is what ensures smooth trade post-brexit.

Furthermore, it is not the customs union that limits our ability to pursue our own trade deals, but rather the EU’s common commercial policy. It is possible to remain in the former and outside the latter, as these areas are covered separately in the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) by Articles 28 and 206/207 respectively, and therefore not reliant on each other.

Turkey of course has an arrangement of this nature, participating in the customs union whilst remaining outside the EU, and having the freedom to pursue it’s own trading arrangements with third parties. Rules Of Origin regulations mean that the duty is collected once the goods move to another member of the customs union.

But this scenario, post-Brexit, would merely serve to add further complications when negotiating trade deals elsewhere. With internal customs checks covered by the single market, there is no discernible advantage to remaining in the customs union, so leaving it must be a part of Brexit.

Turning to the EEA, much of the misinformation can ironically be traced back to Remain advocates trashing this option prior to the referendum. It was commonplace to hear Remainers, including David Cameron, preface their economic doom-mongering with ‘if we leave the single market…’. It was a cunning strawman argument, and a key part of Project Fear, but ultimately irrelevant.

The false conflation of the EU and EEA was the most erroneous aspect of the entire campaign and anyone who did so was rarely pulled up on it. This dishonesty (as well as the voices seeking to usurp the result) has of course now come back to haunt them as they try to make the case for continued membership of the EEA.

Given that the EEA agreement, to which the UK is a signatory, is separate from the EU treaties, it is entirely possible that even if we reached the end of Article 50 negotiations with no deal, we would still remain members of the EEA. Withdrawal could require the separate triggering of Article 127 of the EEA agreement, which can only be done unilaterally. There is no precedent for a country remaining a member of the EEA whilst not also a member of either EFTA or the EU, but it nevertheless remains somewhat of a legal grey area.

These issues would be best overcome by the UK applying to rejoin EFTA. Whilst a contracting party to the EEA agreement moving from the EU side of the two pillar structure to the EFTA side has yet to be done, Austria, Finland, and Sweden all moved in the opposite direction without the need to reapply to join the EEA. The UK could easily pull the same trick in reverse, assuming the other EFTA states were on board. We should be exploring this alongside Article 50 negotiations, and fortunately there has already been some encouragement from the other members.

On a related note, countries that have joined the EU do not automatically become members of the EEA. They must apply to the EEA to acquire contracting status and ratify the agreement accordingly. These differentiations alone technically means that leaving the EU doesn’t equate to leaving the EEA, but let’s explore it further.

Opposition to the EEA option is predicated, primarily, on the desire to limit immigration and the belief that this can’t be done whilst remaining a member. On the contrary, the precedent set by Lichtenstein demonstrates that members can have quantitative restrictions on freedom of movement whilst remaining party to the EEA agreement. By utilising the safeguard measures set out in Article 112, the principality has limited the number of migrants crossing it’s borders since it joined the EEA in 1995.

Moreover Iceland utilised the same safeguard measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crash to restrict the flow of capital. These instances give lie to the notion that the ‘four freedoms’ are non-negotiable, despite what Merkel and EU officials may assert.

Similarly, remaining in the EEA does not mean continued subordination to the ECJ. As the EFTA site points out: “the EEA EFTA States have not transferred any legislative competencies to the EEA institutions and they are unable, constitutionally, to accept direct decisions by the Commission or the European Court of Justice.” This could not be clearer and should be proof that EEA membership is perfectly compatible with the re-establishing of British sovereignty, the number one issue for Leave voters.

What’s more, arbitration for EEA/EFTA states is conducted by the EFTA Court, and unlike the ECJ, it’s rulings are advisory rather than binding, given the UK further flexibility when it comes to single market regulations.

The EFTA site also describes how EEA/EFTA states take decisions relating to EEA legislation by consensus, rather than by majority vote as in the EU, meaning the UK could have a greater say over single market regulations than it currently does, enjoying a de-facto veto at the EEA Joint Committee.

Coupled with regaining an independent voice and veto on global regulatory bodies such as the WTO, UNECE, Codex Alimentarius and a whole host of other industry specific institutions from which the EU increasingly takes it’s cues, the threat of having no say over the rules is an empty one.

This just leaves the matter of budgetary contributions. As well as having no say in the rules, it was often claimed by advocates of the EU that Norway still paid into the EU budget. Like the ‘no say’ assertion, the ‘still pay’ one is also wildly inaccurate.

Norway’s expenditure relating to the EEA consists of several factors. Firstly there is the ‘Norway Grants’, aid paid by Norway as a form economic rehabilitation of post-Communist countries. There are also the EEA grants, for which Norway currently provides 95% of the funding. Crucially, not a cent of these grants goes into EU coffers.

Norway does participate in several EU programmes, including Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus research programmes, and pays towards the specific budgets for these programmes. These costs though are essentially for services rendered, and nor is the funding one way.

A thorough breakdown of what Norway contributes, and what similar arrangements for the UK would be, can be found here, but scaled up, total UK expenditure with relation to single market participation would equate to around £8billion. This is still a substantial haircut on the £13bn we paid last year.

Hard Brexiteers may cry foul at this, but participation in any market does not come free.
Customs co-operation costs money and the various decentralised agencies that facilitate the free movement of goods across our continent and with our closest neighbours are essential. Any money saved by extracting ourselves from those arrangements would have to be spent on duplicating them here, as well as beefing up our own border and customs controls. This is as nonsensical as it is inefficient.

The point that the likes of Canada don’t pay for access to the market is also a red herring as they do not co-operate in these customs agencies. Both the US and Canada both spend huge amounts of money on customs co-operation with each other to smooth the movement of goods across their border. This is for exactly the same reason the EU does.

Article 50 gives us two years in which to negotiate our withdrawal settlement from the EU. Given the vast complications that have arisen after 40 years of political and economic integration, a bespoke deal cannot be constructed within that time frame. This is why an interim option, maintaining single market membership for the time being, is a sensible one.

The reticence from some Brexiteers for this option is based upon the fear that there would be attempts to keep us in the EU via the back door, rejoining fully further down the line. The egregious attempts to subvert the largest vote for anything in British history is incredibly troubling. The little faith the public has in it’s politicians, and politics in general, would be wiped out with lord knows what consequences, were the likes of David Lammy successful.

This is why we should have a longer term plan, perhaps based on the Swiss model, for our relations with the EU. The beauty of the EEA option is that it gives us the time and breathing room to evolve our position, whilst freeing us up to pursue trade with the rest of the world, reducing our budget contributions and repatriating multiple policy areas including home affairs, employment, justice, foreign, and defence, as well as ditching the appalling Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries policies, ditching ECJ jurisdiction in the process.

The main goals of Brexiteers of all stripes can be achieved whilst remaining in the single market. The confusion stems from the repeated false conflation of the EU and EEA during the referendum campaign by Remainers.

Those that called that nonsense out at the time, now find themselves making the exact same arguments to Brexiteers who are rightly sceptical. They see the same dishonest people who wanted us to remain in the EU, now make similar statements about leaving the single market, against a backdrop of anti-democratic MPs, commentators, petitions and demonstrations calling for the decision to be overturned.

But provided Theresa May’s government continues to honour the referendum decision, we can trigger article 50, leave the EU, and take back control whilst still remaining party to the EEA agreement. Leavers should not characterise this as a betrayal, but as proof positive that Project Fear’s central tenant – that the EU and the single market were one and the same – was as false as they always claimed it was.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Austerity is stillborn

Yesterday, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond delivered his first major fiscal presentation to parliament. Overall it was a somewhat underwhelming event, opting as he did for a 'steady as she goes' approach, rather than seizing the opportunities afforded to him by the referendum result. Nevertheless there were a few key areas that stood out.

Firstly, as has been leapt upon by some Remainers, are the OBR projections that the economy will be £122bn worse off compared to George Osborne's projections in March. They claim that this is proof of the damage the Brexit vote has done to the economy, but fail to take into account several factors. To begin with, the OBR attribute less than half of that extra borrowing, £58.7bn, directly to Brexit. But in doing so, the OBR have had to make several assumptions, namely that Brexit will lead to increased barriers to trade, lower productivity, and lower investment.

It's difficult to blame the OBR for making such assumptions, given the Government are still coming to grips with Brexit and formulating a plan for our withdrawal, but nevertheless, these are incredibly pessimistic assumptions based on a rough hard Brexit scenario. As this blog has argued repeatedly, such a scenario would be madness and is thus very unlikely to happen. Despite the panic induced by May's speech at the Tory party conference, there have been no indicators to suggest the government intends to press ahead with a hard Brexit.

Those assumptions were based on May's stated desire to limit immigration, and jumping to the wholly false conclusion that this cannot be achieved if the UK remains a member of the EEA. What's more, we're increasingly hearing reports of an interim deal, which would see the UK remain in the single market in the short to medium term. Given this, the barriers to trade the OBR assumes in it's forecasts will fail to materialise and thus investment and productivity will be unlikely to fall too. In fact, given the safeguarding of our single market participation, coupled with the opportunities Brexit will afford us globally, there is the distinct possibility of these increasing, rather than falling.

Even taking the OBR forecasts as read, they are still predicting economic growth, from 1.4% next year rising every year to 2.1% in 2020. This is hardly catastrophic and still a far cry from the 'instant recession' proclaimed prior to the referendum result. Most leavers acknowledged there may be a short term economic impact of leaving the EU. These projections show that, and also demonstrate that growth will return to normal after a couple of years. By then we'll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

The biggest takeaway from the chancellor's autumn statement though is that austerity has been stillborn. George Osborne painted himself as the man taking the tough decisions to get the country's finances back on track, yet his cuts amounted to just 0.2%, the national debt now stands at £1.7 trillion and he missed every single deficit reduction target.

Far from correcting this, Hammond has abandoned his predecessor's tentative plans to balance the books, announcing more spending and more borrowing. The jump will see the UK borrow £68bn in 2016/17, then £59bn, £46.5bn, £21.9bn, £20.7bn, and £17.2bn, with government spending representing, a still far too high, 40% of GDP. Moreover, the national debt will break an eye-watering 90% of GDP next year.

The chancellor needed to be far bolder in his approach to a post-Brexit UK. His abandonment of fiscal prudency means that we will run a current account deficit for 22 consecutive years, and will still be living beyond our means 13 years after the financial crash. This saddles future generations with higher debt and higher taxes.

His top down approach to dealing with economic uncertainty is a risky business. It would have been far better to implement tax cuts, rather than spending rises, to boost productivity. The continued freeze in fuel duty was welcome, as was going ahead with the reduction in corporation tax. But there was still a missed opportunity. A further reduction in corporation tax would send the message that the UK is truly open for business, and would help ease the inevitable uncertainty around Article 50 negotiations.

Similarly, the chancellor has taken the wrong approach to the nation's housing problem. Abolishing stamp duty, liberalising planning laws, and reclassifying small sections of the greenbelt would do far more to help those struggling to get onto the property ladder than his announced spending plans. As Hinkley Point and HS2 demonstrate, the Government is woeful at picking projects with decent benefit to cost ratios. Far better to make it easier for the private sector to invest that money where it would be more effective.

All in all, the Brexit costs are at worst, in line with what some Leavers said before the referendum, and still nowhere near the catastrophe predicted by Remainers. But the big take away is that between a far left Labour party and a Conservative party apparently fully wedded to Gordon Brown style 'investment', those voters who want simplified, low taxes, a vast reduction in state spending, and a fiscally prudent government, currently have nowhere to turn.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sorry Donald, but your victory is the antithesis of Brexit.

Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election is the biggest political upset since, well, only June as it happens. A completely unexpected result, Trump's victory has been likened to the UK vote to leave the EU on June 23, not least by the man himself, who earlier this week described the possibility of him winning as "Brexit plus plus plus."

There's no doubting that both results gave the establishment a bloody nose, but the comparisons between the Donald's rise to the White House and Brexit have been massively overblown. In fact, putting aside the rejection of the status quo, the two are practically antithetical.

For starters, Trump's platform railed against free trade. He constantly denounced NAFTA, and threatened to pull out of the agreement if Canada and Mexico were unwilling to renegotiate it. On top of this, Trump also threatened an all-out trade war with China, suggesting the introduction of tariffs, the bringing of trade cases against the country at the WTO, and labelling it as a currency manipulator.

Compare and contrast those protectionist instincts with the Leave campaign's message on trade. The cornerstone of the Brexiteer's message was the ability, freed from the EU's common external tariff, to sign our own trade deals with countries across the globe. Campaign literature, both official and otherwise, was awash with statistics showing where the current growth was in the world, which emerging economies would be the powerhouses of the future, and how our share of exports with the rest of the world was increasing, whilst that into the EU was in decline. Trump sought to be elected in order to make trade with China as difficult as possible. We voted to leave the EU in order to make it easier.

This isolationism can be found elsewhere in Trump's policies too. The president-elect has described NATO as 'obsolete', and has suggested he would look at pulling the United States out of the agreement. Compare and contrast, once again, with the Leave campaign. On security, one of the main tenants of the Leave position was that the EU's expansionist policies, and plans for an EU army, threatened to undermine NATO. When Remain supporters suggested that peace in Europe since the second world war had been secured by the EU, leavers pointed out that this had much more to do with the North Atlantic alliance than Brussel's bureaucracy. A desire to ensure NATO is maintained as the strongest military alliance in the world, not weaken it exponentially by pulling out of the agreement, was a core part of the Leave position.

Even on immigration Trump and Brexit are worlds apart. Yes, there was a strong part of the leave campaign that wished to control immigration, but the key word there is control. No-one on the leave side advocated closing the borders completely, but rather sought to ensure that the level of immigration into the country was manageable. Moreover, in the wake of the referendum result, Leavers have been just as aghast as Remain supporters at May's refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK to remain here. How diametrically opposed is this to Trump's call to deport 11 million people and ban all Muslims from entering the United States? The equivalency is a spectacularly false one.

There is no doubt that both Brexit and Trump were unquestionably votes against the status quo. Both campaigns rightly tapped into an anger at the ruling orthodoxy that for too long had been ambivalent about the concerns of ordinary voters. But that, bar the occasional appearance of Nigel Farage, is all the two events have in common. Trump is a bigoted isolationist, advocating the very worst forms of protectionism. Brexit on the other hand, was always about looking beyond the parochial borders of the EU, and engaging fully with the world, pursuing a free trading, global agenda, working constructively with our friends and allies, both in Europe and beyond. Far from Brexit plus plus plus, Trump is Brexit minus minus minus.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Dear Democrats, by all means denounce Trump, but respect his voters.

In the wake of the UK's referendum on EU membership, one would be forgiven, reading Facebook and Twitter, for thinking that the sky had fallen in. The outpouring of grief was spectacular, and what was most disconcerting was the way Leave voters were labelled by those who had not gotten the desired outcome.

Stupid, ignorant, racist, backwards, bigoted... all characteristics assumed by Remain supporters to be possessed by those who disagreed with them. Whilst no-one is suggesting there wasn't a minority element who did indeed vote to Leave the EU for those reasons, the overwhelming majority voted to leave because of concerns about sovereignty and democracy, and to embrace a more outward, globally free trading Britain than the protectionist EU would allow.

It was incredibly disheartening to see vocal Remainers lump in the vast majority of Leave voters with the few bigots who happened to vote in the same way.

And so, this morning, against all expectations, Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. There is no denying he is thoroughly unsuitable for the job. A megalomaniacal, misogynistic, vacuous human being. But I would implore my American friends, and indeed everyone else, not to assume that the majority of your country is as bigoted as your president.

There will of course be some voters who opted for Trump because they are racist. But not all. There will be some who opted for Trump because they are misogynistic. But not all. There will be some who opted for Trump because they are ignorant. But not all.

Do not despair and denounce your fellow countrymen who may not have voted the same way as you. Whilst I'm of the opinion that she would have been the lesser of two evils (though Gary Johnson would have gotten my vote), there's no denying that Hillary had some spectacular shortcomings of her own. The fact that both of these candidates were far from ideal is reflected in the lowest vote turnout since 2000, with 18 million fewer people going to the polls than in 2012.

Trump's election is ultimately a rejection of business as usual. It's a shame that that message could not have been attached to a more pleasant individual, but that is the message nonetheless. So I urge you not to chastise, belittle and condescend those that voted against you. Don't assume that just because someone voted for Trump that they themselves are as backwards as the man himself.

In your visceral reaction to the election result, don't lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people are good, kind, and tolerant, regardless of whose name they might put a check mark next to. Alienating and belittling those who vote a different way to you only further entrenches division. The American Republic is designed so that it's democratic institutions act as a check on it's Commander in Chief. Work with your fellow countrymen, and practice the tolerance and humanity you preach.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

MPs should vote on Article 50, provided they represent their constituents

This piece also appeared on United Politics and Conservatives for Liberty.

Today's supreme court ruling that the government can't use royal prerogative to invoke Article 50 and instead must put it to parliament has, by and large, been met with consternation from Brexiteers. Given the outpouring since the result from Remain supporters for the result to be ignored or overturned, one can understand why Leavers are worried about this recent development.

There has been a worrying display of anti-democratic sentiment since June 23rd. From petitions calling for a second referendum, to public protests (neither of these garnering anything like enough numbers to match the 17.4m who voted to leave mind you), to outright defiance from MPs such as David Lammy, calling for the biggest vote for any one thing in British history to be ignored by those in power.

That said, the judgement this morning has been met with rather more hysteria from Brexiters than is warranted. Farage has donned the tin-foil head gear, claiming he fears 'a betrayal may be at hand', and the likes of Leave.EU are equally unhinged, with founder and UKIP financier Arron Banks stating "Why wouldn't unelected judges want to preserve an EU system where unelected elites like themselves are all-powerful?"

It's really quite spectacularly hysterical. Those 'unelected judges', as they've also been dubbed by David Davis, weren't upholding the EU system, but rather British constitutional democracy. Sure, it would've been nice if we'd had more of that when powers were being handed over to the EU in the first place, but it's good to see it's finally kicking in. The judgement today has not subverted democracy, overturned the referendum result, or said that we can't leave the EU.

The result means that MPs will vote on triggering Article 50. Or to put it another way, our elected representatives will be required to act out the will of the people. This, more than anything else, is precisely what Leavers voted to Leave for. I find myself siding with the remainer school of thought that it's ironic that those that campaigned for parliamentary sovereignty are apoplectic about a UK court ruling that parliament will be sovereign on this issue.

What’s more, the ruling means that government cannot and should not try to change domestic law without Parliamentary approval. This is a good and sensible conclusion, and one pointed out by Vote Leave’s Dominic Cummings. Those of us that saw Brexit as a step towards returning powers to the individual rather than a ruling elite should welcome the ruling. It allows us to keep our legislators in check via our elected representatives.

Now, there are of course an overwhelming majority of MPs who were in favour of Remain. But that doesn't mean that they will all be ignoring the referendum result, even if a few noisy ones wish to do exactly that. Former Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps tweeted to say that, although he backed Remain, he wont be voting to frustrate the will of the British people or his constituents. Jeremy Corbyn too has reiterated that Labour respect the result of the referendum. It's likely both parties will whip in favour of triggering Article 50.

I have another proposal though. Each MP should do precisely what they were elected to do and represent their constituents. Any MP whose constituency voted to Remain in the EU should be given free reign to vote against triggering Article 50. But those MPs whose constituents voted to Leave the EU should acknowledge the instruction given to them by those who elected them, and vote in favour of the motion.

Unfortunately, the referendum result wasn't broken down according to Parliamentary constituency, but by local authority area. However some work has been done to extrapolate these results to parliamentary level, finding that of 574 English and Welsh constituencies, 421 probably voted to leave, and of those, 270 definitely did. Conversely, 152 voted to remain, with half (76) almost definitely voting to remain, The result hasn't been converted for Scotland, but let's throw Nicola Sturgeon a bone and suggest that all of Scotland's 59 constituencies voted to Remain. Thus, if MPs vote how their constituents did, as they should in a representative democracy, Article 50 gets triggered by a vote of 421 to 211.

Remainers get to be properly represented in parliament, Leavers get Article 50 triggered, and it's all done by a sovereign UK parliament according to British constitution. Sounds good to me.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

REVIEW: The Answer - Solas

Northern Ireland quartet The Answer have been releasing albums for a decade now. From their debut Rise album they made a firm mark on the UK's rock scene, opening for the likes of Aerosmith and The Who, as well as gaining a special guest slot on AC/DC's 2008/9 Black Ice world tour. Two great albums in the form of Everyday Demons and Revival followed, but in recent times The Answer's story has stalled somewhat.

Their past two efforts, 2013's New Horizon and last year's Raise A Little Hell, whilst solid rock n roll albums, were missing a certain something. Both albums felt almost like the band were trying too hard, ticking all the boxes on paper, yet missing that certain spark and personality that made their earlier efforts so good.

Enter Solas. From the moment the swirling atmospheric intro fades in, it's clear this is not just another Answer album. James Heatley's steady beat behind the sparse guitars and dirty bass really drive home the otherworldly vibe. Most startling though is Cormac Neeson's vocals. We're used, by now, to hearing his banshee wail to kick things into overdrive from the get go, yet here he opts for a low growl, perfectly completing the picture. The chorus is a celtic gospel chant of the album's title track, the reverb drenched harmony really driving the new approach home.

This feel continues straight into the haunting Beautiful World, but the boys from County Down don't pussyfoot around for too long, the distorted guitars and a despairing wail from Neeson showing around the 1 minute 40 mark that they can still raise the volume when they need to, even if the ultimate effect is something entirely new. The acapella final line delivering the sort of spine tingling chills the band first did on the likes of No Questions Asked from their debut.

Not that it's all bleak atmospheric fare. Belfast's Streetwise Samba Band add their celtic shuffle to the upbeat Battle CryLeft Me Standing shows the band haven't forgotten how to write a catchy rock tune during their evolution, and Demon Driven Man has absolutely all of the groove, as well as some tasty guitar licks courtesy of Paul Mahon. The six stringer in particular has never sounded better than he does here. Relieved of riff duties, for the most part, in favour of the overall melody of the songs, the freedom and space he's had to work within each tune's structure means that when his lead work does come to the fore, it's all the more prominent, and thus given even more impact. Nowhere is this more pronounced than on standout track Being Begotten, a constantly building bluesy number with some just outstanding playing.

It's clear throughout the album that the band have leaned heavily on their celtic roots. Thief of Light in particular could be an old Irish folk song, and there's just as much acoustic guitar and mandolin throughout the album as there is wailing Les Paul.
Ultimately Solas feels like an album The Answer wanted to make, rather than one they thought they should. It is simultaneously nothing like the band have made before, yet the truest Answer album to date. A sterling return to form.


Beautiful World
Battle Cry
Untrue Colour
In This Land
Thief Of Light
Being Begotten
Left Me Standing
Demon Driven Man
Real Life Dreamers

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Why Remain really lost the Brexit vote

There's a fascinating piece on Politico this morning from Daniel Korski. Korski was deputy director of Cameron's policy unit, and was intricately involved in both the renegotiation of the UK's EU membership and the subsequent referendum campaign.

It's a long read, covering the renegotiation process itself, as well as the campaign. In it, Korski attempts to identify why Stronger In lost the referendum. Mercifully, it's an in depth analysis forgoing the 'frustratingly simplistic' reasons - as Korski himself points out - that have been mooted for the result thus far.

That said, it still makes some erroneous assumptions and conflations. Most of all though, it gives an incredible insight, seemingly lost on Korski himself, as to an underlying reason that Stronger In lost the referendum, namely, contempt for the electorate.

One of the accusations levelled at Cameron was that the renegotiation was a sham. I too am guilty of making this assumption, though I am happy to have been proven wrong by this piece. Korski describes in great detail the sheer amount of effort it took in order to extract the terms that Cameron did.

"Cameron was tireless; he visited every EU country and spoke to every leader several times. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Europe Minister David Lidington worked with their counterparts, and former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair were brought in to help.
In support of these high-level efforts, we designed a diplomatic campaign for every European country unlike anything the U.K. has conducted since the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Each British ambassador was tasked with taking the argument for reform into the public realm and putting forward the key points in private to the most important decision-makers."

It is clear that far from the sham some ardent eurosceptics would have us believe the renegotiation was, sincere and high level efforts were made to curry favour and to get European leaders on side in order to fundamentally change the nature of the UK's relationship with the EU. Nevertheless, Cameron found himself beating his head against a brick wall.

"Most saw the talks as a nuisance to be dealt with, dangerous to Europe, or damaging to their political careers... Officials in the newly elected Socialist government in Portugal, for example, refused to budge on any of our demands and were deeply skeptical of our motives... Sweden wanted the U.K. to remain in the European bloc, but could under no circumstances agree to what we were asking... the European Parliament saw it as a bid for special treatment and, eventually, as an attempt to violate the EU’s basic freedoms. Juncker seemed to be seeking to give the U.K. a fair deal — as long as it didn’t require too fundamental a reform."

As a result of this obfuscation Korski regards the deal Cameron got as nothing short of miraculous. But it merely serves to highlight just how averse to reform the EU really is. Whilst operating under the assumption Cameron hadn't really tried, one could make the argument that a less europhile Prime Minister may well have extracted more favourable terms for our membership and thus we would not have voted to leave.

However, it is clear reading Korski's piece that Cameron and his team really did try to get clear, fundamental reforms for the UK, and they simply weren't forthcoming. This should really lay to rest any argument that we could have voted remain, in order to reform and reshape the EU in our own image.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post though, it's the lack of respect for the electorate that really shines through. Korski describes Cameron's emergency brake on EU workers claiming in-work benefits as "too complex to explain to ordinary voters". The condescension is almost unbelievable. Whilst I'm sure no-one would argue that these things are anything but complicated, the assumption that the great unwashed are too thick to comprehend it, especially when faced with arguably the most important plebiscite this country has had in decades, is risible.

The campaign apparently made similar assumptions with regards to the protections secured for the City.

"Unfortunately, Osborne’s deal required a master’s degree in financial regulation to explain. The package was too complicated to become a key part of the campaign. And anyway we were wary of getting boxed into a position where it looked like we had mainly worked to get the bankers in the City a good deal."

Again, one would never assume that these things are anything but highly complicated, but the outright dismissal of using the concessions in the campaign as being over the heads of the electorate doesn't half rankle.

Note also the aversion of wanting to seem like Cameron had worked to secure a deal for the City. The assumption clearly being that the public would not see this as an important safeguard for the most important part of our economy and instead just scream 'ugh, bankers!' whilst ticking Leave in the voting booth.

This cynicism is also highlighted in the, ultimately abandoned attempts, to manipulate the franchise in favour of a Remain vote. There were plans to extend the franchise to 16 year olds, which were discarded for political reasons. Similarly, an attempt to resurrect the Conservative manifesto pledge to extend the vote to Britons overseas was ditched when it ran afoul of the Electoral Commission. No attempt to make the case for EU membership, just an exploration of ways in which to game the system.

There's certainly an element of living in a bubble evident in Korski's account. No more so is this pronounced than in his discussion of the economic dangers of leaving.

The biggest folly of the Remain campaign was the conflation of the EU with the Single Market. Everyone could see that there were plenty of successful countries outside of the EU, including the likes of Norway who are nevertheless members of the Single Market.

This, more than anything, was why the electorate rejected the forecasts of economic armageddon made by Stronger In. Korski claims that they 'did not have to invent the dangers', yet that is precisely what they had done. The assumptions made by their models were refuted almost as soon as they were published.

Yet Korski, and apparently by extension the remain campaign, was so far removed from reality that they believed the economic case was done and dusted. "We won the economic argument so comprehensively and so early that it was seen as a given, rather than core to the decision." The arrogance on display, and sheer detachment from reality, is as hilarious as it is terrifying.

"I think we were right to focus the campaign on the economic case. Where we went wrong was in our inability to connect the economic costs and benefits of the decision to ordinary people’s lives. The European single market was too esoteric a concept.

Meanwhile, Vote Leave happily ignored the facts and distorted the figures. Voters didn’t believe us when we told them that we had calculated that leaving the EU would make the average household some £4,300 worse off. But Leave’s argument that Britain was “sending” £350 million a week to Brussels was believed."

Once again the electorate are dismissed as insufficiently intelligent to grasp the 'esoteric' concept of the Single Market, despite almost every refutation of Stronger In's economic claims centering around the distinction between the the EU and the EEA.

Furthermore, I've yet to come across a Leave voter who didn't know that the £350m figure was a gross figure and thus not an accurate one. They saw the spin and mathematical contortions behind that claim just as easily as they did those behind the £4300 figure. But acknowledging this scuppers the Remainer argument that voters were somehow duped into voting to Leave the EU.

But this contempt with which the government and the remain campaign treated the electorate was pronounced throughout the campaign, and has been in the aftermath. Leavers have been portrayed as everything from knuckle dragging idiots to racist little englanders wanting to retreat from the world.

There's undoubtedly some unsavoury characters within the Brexiteer ranks, just as there is on the other side of the argument. But the overwhelming majority of us want Britain to look outwards to the world rather than being stuck in the parochial EU.

One of the more fascinating and heartening things that has come from the entire debate is the consensus that has grown around removing global trade barriers and pursuing trade deals with as many nations as possible, regardless of whether one believes we are better placed to do that ourselves or as part of the EU. A welcome contrast to, for example, the protectionist instincts currently being displayed by both main candidates in the US Presidential campaign.

Korski laments that "the case that it was possible to be both independent and European was not made." On the contrary, an independant UK co-operating and trading with it's European neighbours whilst not bound by political union, is precisely the case we on the Leave side have been making for years. Thankfully, that was the argument that won out.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Remainers are paying the price for their dishonesty in the campaign

In the weeks and months following the vote to leave the European Union, much of the debate has centred around precisely what form Brexit will take. The lack of an official Leave plan, coupled with Cameron's arrogance in refusing to lay any groundwork for the eventuality of a Leave vote, means the nature of our withdrawal is still very much up in the air.

Most of this centres around whether or not the UK should remain a member of the EEA, otherwise known as the single market. As I and many others argued relentlessly during the referendum campaign, the EU and the single market are not the same thing, which is precisely why all the protestations of economic doom that the Remain side propagated were a nonsense. From Twitter's echo chamber, to newspaper commentators, right up to the Prime Minister himself, the false conflation of the EU with the single market was one of, if not the, most erroneous facet of the campaign.

Now it seems those chickens have come home to roost. So called 'soft-leavers' such as myself, who see a transitional EEA or 'Norway' style arrangement as a safe, economically neutral means of extracting ourselves from political union with Europe, now find ourselves on the same side as the likes of Nick Clegg and Nicola Sturgeon in arguing for continued single market membership. This is not a good thing. 

Had the Remain side forgone the temptation to depict leaving the European Union as an act of economic self-harm, instead focusing on the arguments predicated upon political union, then now, in the aftermath of a leave vote, they could credibly argue along with liberal leavers, that ok, we shall leave political union, but there is a strong economic case for maintaining single market membership in the short to medium term. 

Ironically, this is far and away the most popular version of Brexit too. A pre-referendum poll had a clear 57% of voters, including 79% of Remainers and 42% of Leavers, backing a Norway style arrangement. Moreover, maintaining current trading arrangements over restricting free movement is the majority opinion too, with a ComRes poll this past week showing a preference for securing trade deals over cutting immigration by 49% to 39%.

This is, as it happens, a false dichotomy. The EEA Agreement contains provisions that can be utilised to curb freedom of movement, giving lie to the need to choose one or the other. Ironically, many leavers now find themselves making this case in order to counter Remainers, our new PM amongst them, who believe their own rhetoric and have taken the Brexit vote as a vote entirely against immigration. Vociferous Kippers aside, this simply isn't the case.

Given the overwhelming support for continued single market membership, this should be an easy case to make. However, the calls by some MPs and commentators to ignore the referendum result entirely and stay in the EU, has meant that the public is sceptical of any arguments from former Remainers to stay in the single market, seeing it as an underhanded attempt to maintain EU membership by the back door. 

Their dishonesty in the campaign has trashed their credibility, regardless of whether their arguments about the UK's continued EEA membership have any merit. As a result, they now fight an uphill battle, and liberal leavers find their cogent arguments weighed down by the baggage of their former adversary's deceit. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Labour's real problem? Britons don't want socialism

This piece originally appeared on Conservatives for Liberty on 24/09/2016.

Labour will today elect their new leader, or more likely, the old one. Far from unseating Jeremy Corbyn, the coup, vote of no confidence, and Owen Smith’s leadership challenge, have merely served to galvanise the membership, all of whom overwhelmingly seem to back the right honourable member for Islington North.

Much has been made during the contest about Corbyn’s lack of leadership, and his poor handling of those of his colleagues who don’t reside on the far left of the party. There is no doubting that Jeremy Corbyn has been completely ineffectual as Labour leader. His bizarre ‘letter from Mrs Trellis’ approach to PMQs basically gave David Cameron free shots on goal, with no follow up questions to attempt to pin the PM down.

Corbyn was widely praised for his ‘best performance yet’ when challenging Theresa May over her grammar schools policy recently, yet watching it back it’s hardly an evisceration. He’s merely set the bar so low as to have any halfway competent performance seem spectacular by comparison. Where Labour has put pressure on the government, on issues like Tax Credits – aided by Tory backbenchers mind you – it has apparently been accomplished without much, if any, input from Corbyn.

Whilst this infighting and incompetence has undoubtedly helped Labour’s collapse in the polls, it merely distracts from the real problem Labour faces, namely that Brits, by and large, don’t want socialism.

Make no mistake, that’s all that’s on offer. Owen Smith has skewered himself between trying to earn the support of the PLP and the membership, leading to his entire pitch essentially boiling down to ‘I’m exactly like Jeremy, but with leadership.’ When it comes to policy, they’re very much just slightly different shades of red.

Smith pledges to borrow £200bn to try and boost the economy. Not to be outdone, Corbyn raises to £500bn. The two appear to playing economic chicken whilst the electorate at large look on in bewilderment. Labour’s own report into why it lost the 2015 election came to the conclusion that one of the reasons was that the party couldn’t be trusted on the economy. Yet they’re now deciding between two potential leaders who are so far left they make Red Ed look like the Iron Lady.

Moreover, far from being anti-austerity, voters overwhelmingly supported the cap on benefits and welfare cuts. In a Populus poll for the Financial Times back in April 2015, a massive 75% of respondents supported then Chancellor George Osborne’s £12bn planned welfare haircut. Whilst voters are in favour of a strong safety net, they’re very much of the view that one should earn your own way in the world if you’re able to do so. This flies in the face of Smith’s commitment to an ‘equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity’.

Then there’s the issue of zero hours contracts. Both Corbyn and Smith have continued to back Miliband’s policy – again rejected at the last election – of banning the use of them. This is despite a majority of people on zero-hours contracts reporting that they’re happy with the arrangement and the flexibility they provide. The same survey also showed that more people on zero-hours contracts are happy with their work/life balance than those on fixed contracts. Yet again Labour’s big statism is in conflict with the electorate’s desire to negotiate their own terms of employment.

Perhaps the biggest dichotomy on show is Smith’s stated desire, should he somehow find himself in power, to keep the UK in the EU. The vote on June 23 saw more people vote to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else in the history of this country. They did so to move power one step closer to the individual and one step further away from the state, yet, with a couple of notable exceptions, the authoritarian tendencies within Labour rejected this notion, and now Smith has decided to make ignoring this overwhelming democratic mandate a key part of his leadership campaign.

The latest bug-bear of the Left is the potential re-emergence of grammar schools. Vehemently opposed by Jeremy Corbyn, and the source of his vigour at PMQs, the policy also saw Owen Smith denounce the Tories as ‘turning back the clock’. But the move to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education is, once again, a popular one. 62% of parents would get their children to sit a grammar school entrance exam, according to Yougov, and more people are in favour of expanding the provision of grammar schools than scrapping the existing ones or maintaining the current stock. When it comes to centralisation versus liberation, Labour are once again backing the wrong horse.

It is this belief in increased state control, over the economy and much else, which ultimately dooms Labour. Despite what Corbynistas will have you believe, their man hasn’t led Labour to a lead over the Conservatives at any point during his leadership. An average of polls compiled by Britain Elects has the gap at it’s narrowest, a couple of points, in April. But Labour’s position was already deteriorating by the time Hilary Benn was sacked from the shadow cabinet, triggering the mass resignations which ultimately led to the vote of no confidence.

This is because on the whole, the British electorate wants the government to leave them alone and get on with it. This is why they rejected Miliband at the last election, rightly judging that his micro-managing economic policies could spell disaster, and why polling has shown they are consistently rejecting Corbyn. Until Labour realise this, and reject the socialism espoused by Corbyn, McDonnell and their comrades on the Left of the party, they are doomed to electoral oblivion, regardless of who happens to be leader.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Gary Johnson must be President

This article originally appeared on United Politics on 19/09/2016

“If someone had a gun to your head, would you vote for Hillary or Trump?”

“I’d let it go off.”

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s only somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer to the question many Americans are mulling over echoes the views of a huge chunk of voters. This US presidential election has churned out the two of the worst candidates the country has ever seen, boasting favorability ratings of roughly -60% each.

And is it any surprise? Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been dogged by various controversies revolving around the FBI investigation into her emails. Although they proved her innocence, she did not survive well. She was portrayed as either incompetent, a liar, or both.

During her time as Secretary of State, Clinton used 8 different blackberries and 5 ipads. None of them could be found for inspection and this seems suspicious in these circumstances. Add to that the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and the allegations of ‘pay to play’. It’s little wonder she is struggling.

Also, there is the general sense that Hillary believes that being President is somehow her entitlement. This only causes animosity amongst people.

Some of that ties into her declaration just a few days ago – now partially retracted – that half of Trump supporters constituted a ‘basket of deplorables’. She dismissed almost a quarter of the electorate as xenophobes. We witnessed how effective that kind of condescension of the disenfranchised was during the EU Referendum.

Recent health scare stories have hindered her credibility. No-one, bar the most ardent of Republicans, would begrudge her getting ill. She’s only human. But after first playing off the concerns about her health as a conspiracy, then claiming she collapsed due to heat exhaustion, it emerged that Clinton was in fact suffering from pneumonia.

The sheer amount of campaigning she managed despite her illness would be impressive had she acknowledged it immediately. But by dismissing it and then down-playing it, Clinton did nothing to alleviate the perception that she is fundamentally deceitful.

Even on policy, she’s not exactly warm and fuzzy. In terms of her approach to military interventions, Clinton would make some Republicans blush. In a campaign even at Dartmouth college last July, she said: “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m President, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”

This is the sort of ridiculous, war-monging statement one would expect from Donald Trump.

Speaking of whom, where to begin? It’s difficult to tell whether the vitriol Trump has espoused are sincerely held beliefs or whether or not he just believes whipping up that kind of hatred, and playing into that kind of fear, represents his best bet at becoming Commander In Chief.

Because make no bones about it; Trump couldn’t care less about the plight of working class America. Much like Hillary, he just wants to be Mr President.

But what an appalling path to take to the White House. Besides being completely incoherent, the man has, in no particular order:

Advocated bombing the families of terrorists
Called for the deportation of 11 million people from the US
Suggested punishing doctors who perform abortions
Said that most Mexicans who cross the border are drug dealers, criminals and rapists, albeit with the caveat that some, he assumes, ‘are good people’

Throw in the litany of misogynistic remarks this nutter has uttered during the campaign, and it’s small wonder Americans are despairing at the choice before them.

Which is precisely where Gary Johnson comes in. He and his running mate, Bill Weld, are both former Republican governors who served in traditional Democrat states, getting re-elected with increased majorities. He’s running on a ticket of fiscal responsibility and social inclusion. He wants to cut taxes and legalise pot. What’s not to like?

But let’s leave policy to one side for the moment. The biggest difference between Johnson and the candidates put forth by the two main parties is that the guy is a decent human being.

He committed a rather sizeable gaffe last week, completely blanking when asked what he would do about the situation in Aleppo. But a subsequent interview later that day on The View (where he answered the Trump or Hilary question), and his official statement shortly afterwards, showed a humility and reasonableness that is completely missing from the other two candidates.

“This morning, I began my day by setting aside any doubt that I’m human. Yes, I understand the dynamics of the Syrian conflict — I talk about them every day. But hit with “What about Aleppo?”, I immediately was thinking about an acronym, not the Syrian conflict. I blanked. It happens, and it will happen again during the course of this campaign.

Can I name every city in Syria? No. Should I have identified Aleppo? Yes. Do I understand its significance? Yes.”

He explained the gaffe as just a momentary brain-freeze that everyone experiences, and he’s right. But equally he acknowledged that he should be held to a higher standard. There was no excuse for the error, no attempt to blame the media. Just an honest ‘mea culpa’.

This humility is a running theme with Johnson. Several times when discussing the principles that underpin his politics he can be heard saying the phrase ‘I could be wrong’. How many politicians do we hear saying that? There is surely no greater sign of intelligence than being able to admit when one has erred and change tack. That is precisely the kind of quality we wish to see in our leaders, rather than grandiose pig-headedness.

Throw in his policies on being pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-free trade, anti-regime change and military interventions, and wanting to make it as easy as possible for immigrants to acquire a work visa to enter the country, and there’s a strong thread of humanity that runs throughout his politics.

His campaign stands apart, too. Whilst Trump and Clinton’s campaigns consist mainly of slinging mud at each other, Johnson’s thus far has been overwhelmingly about his own policies, his own philosophy and what he can offer. It’s less “look how awful they are”, and more “here’s what I think we should be doing.”

Sure, he’s not perfect. But all this culminates in the sense that Gary Johnson wants to be President because he wants to serve his country, not because he just wants to be President.

And, gun to your head, doesn’t that make him the best choice for the job?

Monday, 12 September 2016

UKIP elect their new leader this week, but does it matter anymore?

This article originally appeared on United Politics on 12/09/2016.

This Thursday sees the election of the new UKIP leader. Arguably one of the more difficult jobs in politics, considering the admiration Farage receives from the party faithful. Whoever takes the role will have big shoes to fill.

Replacing Farage will not be a simple task, especially in light of all the controversy that has surrounded this leadership election. The two candidates most favoured for the job aren’t on the ballot paper. Suzanne Evans, who was suspended by Farage back in March for ‘disloyalty’, and Steven Woolfe, who many saw as the obvious successor, was controversially kept off the ballot by UKIP’s NEC.

This act has caused huge consternation amongst UKIP members and supporters. A mixed race, northern working class boy done good with a charismatic presence and professional media style, he was seen by the membership as the ideal candidate to take the party forward to fight Labour in those northern working class constituencies it has long taken for granted, and avoid a slide into irrelevancy in the wake of the referendum vote.

That was how Woolfe positioned himself too. At his leadership rally in Manchester – a few days before the application deadline closed, he spoke of the need to professionalise and detoxify the party.

This is an issue recognised by much of the membership too. All parties have their lunatic fringes, but UKIP are not the swivel eyed loons many make them out to be, just working class people who feel abandoned by the two main parties.

They are well aware of their toxic image, and many of the questions aimed at Woolfe during that rally were on that topic. When asked by one black man how he proposed to shed the party’s racist image Woolfe responded, to cheers and applause, ‘by getting you elected.’

But after Woolfe failed to get his application papers in before the deadline, blaming technical failings of UKIP’s submission system, the NEC ruled that he was ineligible to stand. This has caused uproar within the membership. Branches across the country have been holding votes on whether or not to call for an EGM to discuss constitutional reform – one imagines code for ‘abolish the NEC’ in light of the decision.

Their dismay has been further confounded by reports that Lisa Duffy, a UKIP councillor standing for leader, had her application bankrolled by an NEC member who failed to declare a conflict of interest prior to the Woolfe vote, and news that the Gambling Commission was investigating a large bet placed against Woolfe becoming leader, before the NEC result was known.

This internal warfare means that UKIP have gone from being perfectly placed to capitalise on the Brexit vote and professionalise their image in the post-Farage era, to disappearing into the irrelevancy some predicted would befall them in the event of a Leave vote. Woolfe garnered a lot of media coverage for his fledgling bid, but the contest has been all but ignored by the mainstream media since his exclusion.

The current favourite Diane James does possesses the same media polish that Woolfe has, but being a southerner, will struggle much more to connect with those working class communities up north. This will prevent a steeper uphill climb for UKIP to increase their vote share and really take the fight to a Labour party in equal disarray.

With a less than optimal new leader, and a membership divided and railing against the party machine, UKIP run the risk not of unseating Labour, but following their lead to electoral irrelevance.

The ship Farage steered to a win at the European elections, over 4 million votes at the general election, and ultimately to their finest hour of the referendum win, risks hitting the rocks just as it picks up steam. We will soon find out whether or not the new skipper can successfully steer them to a new course, or whether they will sink to the bottom of the ocean of British politics.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

REVIEW: Alter Bridge - The Last Hero

This review was originally written for

Alter Bridge are now no longer young upstarts, or indeed middling metal bands, but are making the transition into arena rock behemoths. Whilst in many ways The Last Hero picks up from where Fortress left off, there's no sense of complacency, and in playing to their strengths they've laid a blueprint for upscaling their music to suit the live environment they now find themselves conquering.

Opener Show Me A Leader is typical Alter Bridge, epic picking intro, complete with wailing lead, giving way to an almost Dream Theatre-esque riff before Myles Kennedy's distinctive vocals take centre stage. Kennedy is in the form of his life here, pitching beautifully between knowing snarls and soaring high notes. The chorus - bound to be a crowd pleaser when the band heads out on tour - sets a more defiant and hopeful tone for the whole album than we've previously seen.

The contrast of the darker tone and gnarly riffs with Kennedy's most optimistic and defiant lyrics yet give the album a unique vibe within the band's catalogue. The likes of The Writing On The Wall and Poison In Your Veins both boast gut-busting Tremonti riffage and contumacious vocals, the listener in the latter being told "it's time for you to rise and be much more".  Meanwhile Twilight sees the band entering the realm of political commentary. 'Tomorrow is contingent on the tolerance of every heart' - clearly calling out the likes of Trump on his plethora of bullshit, and probably the most compelling of Kennedy's lyrics. Just the right side of cheesey, they're saved by the sincerity with which Kennedy tends to infuse all his songs. Not just a commentary for commentary's sake but more a venting of his psyche, dealing with a larger theme with a still deeply personal approach.

The lighter-in-the-air ballades that Alter Bridge do so well return too. You Will Be Remembered a letter to loved ones lost in the vein of ABIII's In Loving Memory. The stand out track though is My Champion. Featuring a cascading lead intro and a genuinely uplifting chorus, it's slightly evocative of Bon Jovi, albeit with a much dirtier amp. Though the title flirts with power ballade cliche, it does well to stay the right side of it and was ultimately the track I hit the repeat button on the most.

Most interesting though are the more expansive tracks. The atmospheric Cradle To The Grave deploying acoustic guitars to create a Dance of Death era Iron Maiden vibe, and This Side Of Fate is equally ambitious. Violining intro and picked verses showing a characteristic deployment of dynamics to create the desired emotional response in the listener. Alter Bridge are becoming extremely adept at telling a story through not just the lyrics, but the music itself. There's a prog like Iron Maiden middle section again and they experiment with song structure to great effect, Kennedy's vocals truly soaring. The penchant for story telling surfaces again in the closing title track.

These more impressive, experimental songs hint of the band's possible future direction. Further exploration of the more expansive material could indeed be an extremely fertile field to plow. The Last Hero is a typically accomplished affair for the band. The only minor quibble would be Tremonti's lead work. Always crisp and technically impressive, it nevertheless lacks the real soul or gravitas of say, an Alex Lifeson solo. He should break out the blues albums and heed Peter Green's advice to Gary Moore of playing 'every other lick' to avoid becoming too much of a shredder, and set off those more epic tracks with some truly soulful lead work. Nevertheless, The Last Hero is yet another sterling piece of music from the boys from Florida.


Show Me a Leader
The Writing On The Wall
The Other Side
My Champion
Poison In Your Veins
Cradle To The Grave
Losing Patience
This Side Of Fate
You Will Be Remembered
Crows On A Wire
Island of Fools
The Last Hero

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Don't panic, the delay to Brexit is much needed

This article originally appeared on United Politics on 30/08/2016.

One of the big criticisms of Vote Leave during the referendum campaign was that they had no plan for actually leaving the EU, or ‘what Brexit looks like’. Though it gave Vote Leave the campaign flexibility to advocate different positions and simultaneously none at all, it was a legitimate criticism, and one that has become all the more substantial in the wake of the vote.

That said, the same criticism can be levied at the government. It was unspeakably arrogant of Cameron to call the referendum and not lay any groundwork for the possibility of a Leave vote. This lack of preparation has been made all the more apparent by the floundering and half-baked ideas we’re currently seeing.

Top of the list we’ve got the Tory right and UKIP maintaining calls for a ‘hard Brexit’, advocating pulling out of both the EU and the Single Market and damning the consequences. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of just how entrenched those institutions are in our own operations. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance involved in, rightly, arguing that the EU had too much influence and control over our governance and believing that we can harmlessly eradicate that in one swift movement. Brexit will not be an event but a process, taking five, seven, ten years or more, and we must leave the same way we went in; gradually, and in stages.

The basis of this ‘hard Brexit’ plan is the desire to strike a bespoke Free Trade Agreement with the EU, which itself relies on several misconceptions. Firstly, negotiating a bespoke deal of the required scope simply cannot be done in the two year time frame allowed by Article 50. Advocates of doing so were the same ones who rightly pointed out the EU’s ineptitude of signing trade deals in good time. The deal with Canada for example has taken seven years to negotiate so far, and has still not been implemented, and trade talks with India have been shelved after nine years of back and forth. Yet a bespoke deal with the UK can apparently be agreed within a couple of years. There’s that cognitive dissonance again.

‘So be it’ the hardliners say, suggesting reverting to WTO rules and replying in kind should the EU impose tariffs. The irony of this position is that they clearly have no idea what those WTO rules are. They cite the rule that nations cannot impose discriminatory or punitive tariffs, apparently unaware that the EU is recognised by the WTO as a Regional Trade Agreement and is thus permitted a certain level of discrimination against non-members. Under such a scenario the UK would acquire ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status and, under those WTO rules, the EU would be obliged to impose tariffs. The UK however would not have RTA status and thus would fall foul of those WTO rules preventing discrimination should we seek to impose tariffs on EU exports.

Tariffs though, are much of a red herring. It is regulatory harmonisation that is the key issue, and why we should not be looking to pull out of the single market, at least not during this first Brexit step. Meeting regulations is one thing, but proving you’ve met those regulations is something else entirely, and this is where the Single Market comes in. Without the required paperwork exports into the EU must go through various customs checks to ensure they meet those standards. This would mean our EU trade would grind to a halt with dire economic consequences.

“But China and Australia don’t have free trade deals and they trade with the EU easily enough.” That’s because whilst they don’t have comprehensive FTAs, they, and others, have a multitude of Mutual Recognition Agreements, smaller deals that facilitate trade in various areas by adopting common standards.

This brings us onto the Swiss option, which the chancellor is now reportedly advocating. More realistic than the ‘hard brexit’ option, it is not without it’s challenges. The EU has little appetite for replicating Switzerland’s model of multiple deals and the two year Article 50 timeframe again represents a significant stumbling block. The latter problem could be overcome by going into the negotiations and requesting an immediate extension to the negotiating period before even putting our cards on the table. However, as any extension needs the unanimous agreement of the remaining 27 member states, it’s a risky strategy.

Finally the Norway option is under great misconceptions from both sides of the debate. The Financial Times reported that the City had rejected this scenario in favour of the Swiss option as Norway has to ‘accept all the rules without having a say in them’. Merely reading the EEA agreement itself puts this one to bed. Through the EEA Joint Committee, Norway and the other EFTA states, have significant input into the formation of Single Market regulations and even have a de facto veto over their implementation. This veto has never been used precisely because of the extensive consultation process they are involved in.

Furthermore, it makes the false assumption that the EU is the top table. On the contrary, it is increasingly a middle man between it’s member states and the actual top tables of global trade. It is here where Norway wields significant influence in forming regulations before they get anywhere near the single market. Far from having no say, it arguably has more. Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to be the architects of a global single market and leave behind the parochialism of the EU’s arrangement.

Nor does the EFTA/EEA option mean accepting freedom of movement. Lichtenstein has set a precedent, through the measures set out in Articles 112 and 113 of the EEA agreement, of having quantitative restrictions on free movement. There is no reason why the UK cannot follow this precedent in order to gain greater control over immigration. Moreover, it’s important to remember that this EEA move is merely the first step. Once this transitional arrangement is in place, there would be added clout to negotiate free movement reforms for the EEA as a whole.

The dearth of informed people involved in this process, Remainers and Leavers alike, has been incredibly depressing. Whilst the think tanks that usually exist to instruct the government on how to do everything have been missing in action, there have been some who have been doing the necessary research. The Flexcit plan from the Leave Alliance – whose sterling work informs much of this article – should be shoved into the hands of every civil servant and government minister remotely associated with getting the UK out of the EU.

The upcoming French and German elections are a good reason to delay triggering Article 50 until we know who it is we shall be negotiating with. In the meantime it offers the opportunity for those involved to do the necessary research so as to go into those negotiations with a clear picture of what we want, what we need, and what is possible.

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