Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Free Trade, Brexit and the European Union

Throughout the EU referendum and the subsequent wranglings over what form Brexit should take, one of the arguments put forward by opponents of the European Union has been the assertion that the EU is an enemy of free trade. Tariffs that the EU imposes on certain types of goods imported from non-EU countries, eg. agricultural produce from African countries or clothing from China, are cited as examples of a protectionist policy that both helps to perpetuate poverty in the developing world and to punish European consumers by denying them access to cheap goods. The need for Britain to strike free trade deals with growing economies across the world has been pushed as one of the main arguments for Brexit, with cheaper food, clothing and footwear being touted by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg as some of the tangible benefits that will accrue to the ordinary British shopper.
With the looming possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, this depiction of the EU as an essentially protectionist institution seems to have grown in popularity, and I have heard it used frequently in recent weeks as a way of urging the complete disassociation of Britain from the EU’s single market and customs union. Outside of these institutions, it is claimed, Britain will be able to thrive by slashing or completely removing all tariff barriers with the rest of the world, to the benefit of consumers and, ultimately,the UK economy as a whole.
Just this morning I heard someone on the radio (I didn’t catch who he was, probably a spokesperson from some think-tank or other) putting the case for free-trade as a way of generating economic growth and national prosperity, and framing it as an argument for leaving the EU and not remaining a part of the EU customs union. In other words, an attempt is being made to use the powerful and persuasive economic arguments about why free trade is superior to protectionism, in the service of a hard-Brexit stance.
This approach is, in my opinion, either dishonest or mistaken. One of the reasons that I voted for Britain to remain in the EU, and that I would, even if Brexit happens, like us to remain in the customs union and, ideally, the European Economic Area as well,is the fact that I am a supporter of free trade. I’m sure this is true for many, if not most, of those who voted Remain in the referendum. And, of course, the party which is most strongly associated with the Remain position, the Liberal Democrats, is also the party which – both in its current form and as the Liberal Party - has historically been most strongly associated with advocacy of free trade and opposition to protectionism.
The European Union is the largest single market on the planet, and provides for completely tariff-free trade between all member countries. This freedom of trade is further assisted by a common regulatory regime which serves to minimise ‘non-tariff barriers’ such as differences in product standards, food safety regulations etc. It also provides a common minimum set of standards in workers' rights and environmental protections in order to prevent a 'race to the bottom' which could, otherwise, be a downside to the benefits of international free trade.
As well as freedom of movement for goods, services and capital, the EU guarantees the free movement of EU citizens across all internal European borders. This is crucial, because the same logic which demonstrates the harm caused by the erection of barriers to free trade in goods and services, and to the free movement of capital for investment, makes it inevitable that barriers to the free movement of that other factor of production, labour, will also be economically damaging. Yet many of those who ostensibly champion the benefits of free trade in order to bolster support for a hard Brexit are the same people who argue that Britain needs to 'take back control' of its borders.
As well as its internal free trade, the EU has free trade deals with many other countries, all of which will cease to apply to the UK after Brexit. And even if the UK were to unilaterally apply zero tariffs on imports after Brexit, this would not prevent other countries applying tariffs against Britain which would, of course, have a damaging effect on our exports and, therefore, on the British economy in general.
If Britain really is a champion of free trade then it would seem to be a very retrograde move to be about to leave such a gigantic and well established free trade block which also happens to be literally on our doorstep, while simultaneously opting out of all the existing free trade agreements hitherto negotiated on our behalf by that block, and having to begin again, from a much weaker starting point. To claim to be doing it in the name of free trade seems positively deluded.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Brexit and Proportional Representation

As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe that the main reason for the impasse we have arrived at in regards to the Brexit situation is Teresa May’s conviction that she has to deliver a Brexit that matches what she (rightly or wrongly) perceives to be the expectations of the majority of Brexit voters (ie. an end to Freedom of Movement and a withdrawal from the Single Market and customs union or, as she often puts it, “taking back control of our borders, our money and our laws”), rather than trying to find a compromise solution that honours the referendum result while taking into account the wishes of the majority of voters from both sides of the debate (eg. leaving the EU while remaining in the Single Market and customs union – the so called Norway option).
I believe this was a fundamental mistake on her part, but it is possible that it stems from the nature of our electoral system itself. We are used to a First Past the Post system of elections in which the winning side has complete power to implement it’s agenda. So a concern to establish, and act in accordance with, the views of the majority of the majority (rather than simply the majority of the electorate) on specific issues, comes naturally to a politician who is used to working within the First Past the Post paradigm.
This type of of ‘winner takes all’ mentality would, perhaps, be less likely to afflict politicians used to working within a system based on proportional representation, which is yet another argument for introducing PR for UK general elections, something that I have previously argued for on this blog.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

We must have a second referendum

I've not posted on this blog for ages, as I became very busy finishing off the MA in History that I was studying via distance learning. Now that is finished, and we are facing probably the most tumultuous few weeks in British politics since the second World war, I feel I ought to post something about Brexit, starting with the political events of the last few days.
Last week, various parliamentarians, including the Speaker, Jon Berkow, were accused by elements in the media, as well as many on social media, of hatching a coup to thwart the "will of the people", when the Speaker allowed an amendment to be added to the government's finance bill which would force the government to come back to parliament within three working days, in the event of Teresa May's withdrawal agreement being defeated, with a statement about how they now wished to proceed. This accusation was utter nonsense. In a matter of such vital importance, it was quite right for the speaker to allow parliament (which represents the whole country) to put some pressure on the government (which, being a minority government, represents less than half of the electorate). During the referendum campaign, many brexiters opined that parliamentary sovereignty was the very thing which they felt was threatened by the UK's membership of the European Union, so it is hard to see why they would complain about parliament trying to exercise some kind of check over the executive in these circumstances. (Some brexiters even called this an unprecedented seizure of power by the legislature over the executive. I would suggest that Charles I, were he still around to comment, might not agree with them on that.)
Last night Teresa May's withdrawal agreement Bill was defeated, by 432 votes to 202, the largest defeat for any government in parliamentary history. Jeremy Corbyn has tabled a vote of no confidence in the government, which will be debated and then voted on today, although the government is expected to survive thanks to the support of the DUP. After last night's defeat, Mrs May said that she would reach out to other senior parliamentarians across the house to try to find out whether there was some form of deal that could be supported by a majority in the house, which could then be put to the the European Union.
However, in this afternoon's Prime Minister's Questions, she stated that any new deal must involve an end to freedom of movement. This shows that she is either in total denial, or is being completely insincere in her offer to listen to other parties. The EU have made it very clear that the current deal is the only possible deal on offer if the UK insists on leaving the single market and customs union, and there is no way that Britain would be allowed to stay in those institutions if it does not accept freedom of movement.
For the past two years, Mrs May has let herself be guided by the misguided notion that it is her duty to take Britain out of the single market, out of the customs union, and to end freedom of movement, because, apparently, that was what most leave voters wanted when they cast their vote to leave the EU. This was a fundamental mistake because, as I argued in this post shortly after the referendum, even though many Brexit voters may have been opponents of immigration, the fact that the leave vote was only 52% means that the anti-immigrant brexiters were undoubtedly only a minority of the those who actually took part in the referendum. There is, therefore, no mandate for insisting on an end to freedom of movement or membership of the single market or customs union. Mrs May's inability to see this could potentially lead this country to disaster.
There has been talk recently of a move within parliament to come together around a Norway style deal (something I argued for in the post just referenced), but if Mrs May is intransigent on this then there is no real possibility of it coming to fruition. If she survives today's no confidence vote, then we are left with only two options. Either a 'no deal' Brexit, which almost all forecasters say would be disastrous for the country, or no Brexit at all. Until a few weeks ago, I was opposed to the idea of a second referendum, but since these seem now to be the only two options (unless, against all predictions, today's no confidence motion succeeds) I have now become a supporter. I do not believe that there has ever been a majority for a 'no deal' Brexit. Indeed, the latest polling indicates that staying in the EU is now the "will of the people". It would, in fact, be an affront to democracy if the government were to take us out of the European Union with no deal, without first checking if that was what the majority of the British people wanted.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The transgender question

Yesterday, on LBC radio, I listened to an interview with a woman who is involved in helping schools to deal with the question of transgender students. I began listening after the interview had started so, unfortunately, I don’t know who she was. Apparently, she has recently been vilified by the Daily Mail for “telling teachers not to use the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’”. The reality, as she explained, was that she advises teachers to address large groups of students as “people” rather than by using gender specific terms, since there might be some present who would feel excluded by such terms.

The presenter (James O’Brien, of course) opened up the phone lines to callers who might have questions they wished to put to this woman about her field of expertise, or areas of confusion she might be able to clarify for them. Unfortunately, I was listening from work so was not able to call the show, but had I been at home I would have been very tempted to call, since transgenderism is an area that I do have some confusion about and I would appreciate being able to discuss my questions with someone who knows more about it than I do. In the event, I had to tweet my question, which was, “If there were no socially prescribed gender roles, would there still be people who felt they were trapped in the wrong body?” Unfortunately, JO’B did not read out my question, but I did receive a number of “likes” and “retweets”. On investigating the twitter profiles of my likers and retweeters I found that the majority of them were women who identified as feminists and considered transgenderism as a threat to the safety, privacy and rights of women. My tweet, however, was not meant to be a condemnation of transgenderism. It was a genuine question which I have never heard properly addressed and would very much like to know the answer to so that I can formulate my own stance on transgender issues, particularly now that such issues have become so topical and politically relevant, with the government considering making it easier for people to legally change their gender.

If the answer to my question is 'yes, there would still be people who felt they were trapped in the wrong body even in the absence of socially prescribed gender roles' - in other words, if the reasons for people being transgender are not predominantly related to their identification (or lack of identification) with societal expectations of masculine or feminine behaviour - then what that would appear to indicate is that transgenderism is not actually about 'gender' at all. Rather, it is about biological sex and the straightforward desire to have a body of the opposite biological sex to that with which one was born. If that is the case, then what does it mean to be a man trapped in a woman's body, or vice versa? Wouldn't that seem to imply that being male or female is an ontological reality that goes beyond mere physical 'plumbing'? That there is something like a male or female 'soul' - a kind of gendered "ghost in the machine" - completely unrelated to either socially defined gender roles or to ones biological reproductive equipment, that resides within each one of us and occasionally finds itself residing in a body of the 'wrong' sex?

In other words, if transgenderism is something more than just people reacting to societal pressures for men and women to behave in certain ways (by changing their own bodies instead of trying to change society's prejudices), then it follows that the distinction between femaleness and maleness, far from being merely skin deep, must exist at a level that is deeper and more fundamental than mere physical differences in body shape or even brain structure.

It would seem, then, that when someone born female claims to be male, or vice versa, anyone who agrees with that claim is effectively taking the view that there is a real difference between a female and a male on a level which is far more fundamental than the obvious differences in bodily organs.

To put it another way, if someone with a female body is actually male, what part of him is it that makes him male? His soul? His mind? His personality? Is there a gene that determines someone's gender? (This seems plausible to me. Animals seem to have gender roles which, presumably, are genetically determined.) Is there such thing as a male brain and a female brain? (I have read that there are structural differences between 'female brains' and 'male' ones but, if true, I assume these are just rough differences between the 'average' female and male brain, rather than a genuine binary distinction). This question of what it is about a transgender person that makes them the opposite gender to that of the body into which they have been born is one to which I do not, currently, know the answer - but I would genuinely like to understand this issue.

The issue of transgenderism, what it means and how it should be accommodated by society has certainly thrown up a number of interesting questions. While I would in no way support any policy that denied someone the right to identify themselves in whatever way they please, I'm not ashamed to say that there are many aspects of this sensitive and nuanced subject about which I do not yet have a clear and fully worked out view.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

On finding one's 'political home'

I listen to LBC Radio a lot, mainly to the shows of James O’Brien, Maajid Nawaz and Iain Dale. One thing I’ve noticed that crops up in a lot of calls lately is the idea of people searching for a political home. Many callers are essentially socially or economically conservative but are not comfortable with the Tories’ approach to Brexit, or feel that austerity has ‘gone too far’. Others may be of a centre left political stance but might not feel very enamoured of Jeremy Corbyn or the more ‘hard left’ elements which seem now to have become the mainstream of the Labour party. Then there are the hard core Brexiteers who are angry at the perceived dithering of the government over the issue of the UK leaving the European Union. And, equally, the unrepentant Remainers who don’t feel that the Labour party, as the official opposition, are doing enough to fight for the pro-EU position. These people often say that they feel they have no political home. But, sometimes, a caller will announce, like an enthusiastic religious convert, that he or she has, at last, found his/her political home, perhaps in the Liberal Democrat party or, more often, as a member or supporter of UKIP.
This idea of needing to find one’s political home seems rather pointless and, to be honest, somewhat self-indulgent to me. Political parties exist essentially for the purpose of gaining power in order to enact the policies that they promote. I don’t see the point in joining a political party in order to be amongst people who have views that are as near as possible to one’s own, if there is no real prospect of getting a chance to put those views into practice. For some people, it even seems as if their party affiliation is worn as a kind of intellectual fashion accessory, in order to let people know at a glance - particularly on social media - what type of views they hold and what viewpoints they disdain, which politicians they feel an affinity for and which ones they hold in contempt.
I am a member of the Labour party, not because I believe in everything that party stands for - in fact they are not even the party whose basic views are most similar to my own at the moment – but because, of the two parties which have any real chance of coming to power in Britain at the moment, they are the one I would most like to see in government. Their policies in regard to funding the NHS and lifting the public sector pay cap, and their concerns about the cost of living and, in particular, of housing, are more in accord with my own, and relevant to the life circumstances of myself and my family, than those of the Conservatives. But politics is not sport and should not operate on the basis of tribal loyalties. Should the day come when it makes more sense to vote, say, Liberal Democrat (as I have done in more than one general election in the past) in order for more of the policies that I believe in to have a better chance of being implemented, then I will gladly jump ship and support the Lib Dems. That is the only way in which the idea of finding one’s ‘political home’ makes any sense to me.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Trump's stance on Afghanistan could prove counterproductive

President Trump - who seems to have abandoned the isolationist stance he appeared to adopt during his election campaign - announced last night that there will be a further 4000 American troops sent into Afghanistan, and he has called on the UK and other NATO countries to follow suit. This time, though, the remit of the US forces will not involve any attempt at 'nation building'. Their purpose, he says, is simply to kill terrorists.
There is a real danger, in my opinion, that this will turn out to be an extremely counterproductive move. With the US military mission being told specifically to not concern itself with 'nation building', there is a potential to slip into an attitude of disregard for the safety and well being of afghan civil society and, indeed, afghan civilians, altogether. Consequently, the US could end up making a lot more enemies in the region than it already has, thus ultimately increasing the threat to American interests and American security far beyond its current level.

Friday, 9 June 2017

First thoughts on the election result

This is a good outcome for those of us (like myself) who are opposed to a 'hard brexit'. A weakened Theresa May will be presiding over a Tory parliamentary party many of whom are surely opposed to the headlong rush to leave the single market that has been May's policy up until now, and facing a strengthened Labour/SNP/Libdem opposition. At this point I think there is hope for the possibility of the UK remaining within the European Economic Area. Indeed, that would surely be the only sensible thing to do, when the alternative is to be recklessly led out of the single market by a demonstrably weak and wobbly Tory administration in charge of negotiating an acceptable 'divorce' settlement in a limited time frame, beginning in 11 days time. Also, in terms of things like the future of the NHS, social care, workers' rights etc, it's obviously less scary to have a Tory minority government than one with an unassailable five year mandate to wreak as much havoc as it likes.