Saying the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong way

Entrance to Oxford Union
Entrance to Oxford Union.
It’s becoming abundantly clear that Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers have rather strange ideas about what the country needs to get out of Brexit (innovative biscuits, anyone?) and how to get Brussels to agree to a good deal. I’ve been somewhat puzzled by the reasons for this, but recently several article and comments have converged to create a clearer picture in my head. I’ll be quoting several of these below.

The first piece in the jigsaw was an
article in the Financial Times by Simon Kuper, who was at Oxford with many of the current Tory politicians:

[P]olitically minded public schoolboys inhabited their own Oxford bubble. […] Their favourite hang-out was the Oxford Union, a kind of children’s parliament that organises witty debates. […] It’s no coincidence that the Houses of Parliament look like a massive great Gothic public school. That building is a magnet for this set. Whereas ordinary Britons learn almost no history at school except a UK-centric take on the second world war (as evidenced in the Brexit debate), the Union hacks spent their school years imbibing British parliamentary history. Their heroes were great parliamentarians such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. I don’t think most Union hacks dreamed of making policy. Rather, Westminster was simply the sort of public-school club where they felt at home […] [When] Margaret Thatcher gave her legendary anti-European “Bruges speech”, […] this set began obsessing about Brussels. Ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in. Tory “Euroscepticism” is in part a jobs protection scheme akin to Parisian taxi drivers opposing Uber. The public schoolboys spent decades trying to get British voters angry about the EU.

This explains amongst many other things why the Brexiteers keep going on about free trade, not realising that today businesses are more interested in not getting their just-in-time supply chains interrupted by customs officials — they have spent too much time reliving the free trade debates of the 19th century.

An old-fashioned attitude to politics also applies to the EU. In a comment on this blog, commenter bjsalba helpfully pointed me towards this comment by Chris Kendall on the CER website:

Something I observed when seconded into Whitehall from the EU was how the Bubble (Westminster and Whitehall) does not ‘get’ the EU Institutions, to the point that it seems almost wilful. What do I mean by this? I mean that Whitehall — even UKREP veterans — deploy almost all of their resources in lobbying other members of the Council while ignoring the other institutions, the Commission and Parliament. London seems to think that building alliances with other capitals is the only way to get things done in Brussels. It almost felt like wishful thinking on their part — “we want it to be intergovernmental so we’re going to pretend that it’s intergovernmental”. Yes, the Council is the most powerful of the EU institutions and yes Member State positioning counts but not exclusively so. As much as Whitehall would like to pretend that Berlin and Paris will be conducting these negotiations, they won’t be. London will have to deal with the Commission. And boy it is not going to be an easy ride. The Commission are very used to tough negotiating on behalf of EU citizens and EU Member States.

This is really shocking, but it explains why David Cameron approached his renegotiation in entirely the wrong way by talking almost exclusively to the other heads of state.

Bjsalba then followed up with this insightful comment:

It seems to me that the UK reluctantly left the era of Gunboat Diplomacy for the era of lobbying other governments behind closed doors where I would suspect double-dealing, bullying and bribery are the order of the day. I don’t think that works too well in Brussels, and the old methods would be seen as what they are, a means the UK getting its way by divide and conquer tactics.

The British Government does not understand how to operate in an organization that works by co-operation. I would suggest that they are “not genetically programmed” to do so. That they are now plan to send round the Royals does indeed smack of desperation.

I think this ties in with the first article I quoted above. The Brexiteer Tories spent their school days studying Westminster debates of the 19th century, so of course they want to revert to the foreign politics of that era, too.

On a similar topic, Cath Ferguson left this comment under a post on Facebook:

I think, ironically, English political leaders have the same thing in reverse with Scotland — a kind of projection. I’m pretty sure none of the sane ones really wanted (or want) Brexit. They just want to blackmail the EU into giving them what they want with the threat of leaving. So with Scotland and the SNP, they assume Salmond, Sturgeon et al are doing the same thing, ie they don’t really want independence, just to force more concessions out of the UK. They view both as games of poker where you “don’t show your hand” to the EU, and “don’t back down” with the Jocks — just tell them what’s what. There’s a real and horrible danger for England there that they end up out the EU on their own because they’ve mis-read both situations and assumed everyone plays daft political games the way Westminster does.

So basically, they don’t just have strange and old-fashioned ideas about how politics should be done, but they assume everybody is the same.

Their lack of cultural awareness was explained well on BBC Radio 4 (transcription from Facebook):

[In Germany] when somebody offers you something to eat, and you want it, you say “Yes”, not “No.” These well-brought up [British exchange student] ladies would usually say, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat a biscuit” the first time around and wait to be persuaded before giving in with a genteel, “Oh, go on then.” In Germany, [their teacher explained], “No” actually means “No.” You won’t be offered that biscuit again.

Last year, David Cameron tried to persuade German chancellor Angela Merkel to let the UK have a special deal to opt out of free movement of people while staying in the single market. She said “No”, and she meant, well, “No.”

Not “No, but okay if you push hard enough maybe yes”, just “No.”

When she said this again before the referendum vote, she meant “No.”

And last week to Theresa May in Brussels, the answer was “No.” She’s not quite sure how to make this any clearer.

But in the UK, poiticians and journalists are asking the question, “What does Merkel really think?” The chatter in Westminster is all about how Britain can persuade Germany to give it the best bits of the single market and amidst all the talk of red lines and not revealing your hand, there is continuous speculation about how to interpret the signals coming out of Berlin.

In fact, this is all quite simple. Merkel means what she says, and German politicians are getting increasingly frustrated by London not seeming to understand this.

Interestingly, several people pointed out on Facebook that this is perhaps only a problem for the southern English middle classes — a Scot doesn’t typically have any issues with understanding what the continental politicians are saying.

It’s very worrying, though, because it means the Brexiteers will waste everybody’s time in the negotiations.

In short, they’ll speak to the wrong people, in the wrong way, asking for the wrong things, and they won’t understand the reply. Wow.

Do we know what worked and what will work?

LeafletsThe recent anti-BBC billboard brouhaha seems to me to be founded in ignorance. The ones in favour of them evidently think they’ll move voters to Yes, and the ones criticising the effort clearly think they’ll have the opposite effect. Crucially, neither group has any firm evidence they’re right, which leads to people resorting to coorse language because they don’t have hard data to back them up.

(We saw the same during the Holyrood campaign earlier this year. Both SNP supporters and their Green counterparts were utterly convinced that giving the second vote to their own party was the right thing to do for the wider Yes movement, but the electoral system is so complex that it was impossible to settle the question logically once and for all, so instead people kept getting into heated arguments with each other instead of taking the fight to the Unionists.)

The interesting thing about the first Indyref campaign was that it was so decentralised. I don’t think anybody has a clear picture of all the campaigning efforts. We simply don’t know what happened, and we thus don’t know what worked.

What had the greatest effect? Door chapping? Yes Scotland’s billboards? Wings over Scotland’s Wee Blue Book? The TV debates? The BBC Bias demonstrations? The street stalls? Project Fear? We simply don’t know.

It would be really interesting to commission an opinion poll asking people when they moved from No to Yes, and if it happened during the campaign, what had the greatest effect on them. It might already be too long ago to get an precise answer, but it would still be indicative of the truth. The poll could also ask what was pulling them in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the poll could also ask the public about their current position. If we focus on the ones that say they might change their mind in the future, what do they reckon it would take? That the alternatives have been exhausted? A new White Paper? A recommendation by the BBC? Chatting to somebody on their doorstep?

It seems to me that we need to find out more, or we’ll descend into infighting because we all believe we’re right and everybody else is wrong. In the meantime, as I’ve said before, we should focus on converting No voters to Yes, not on criticising our own side.

There’s more than one way to do it!

Perl Camel
Perl Camel.
Some of my fellow Nats seem to be going rather mental about the crowd-funded anti-BBC billboards.

I have a few observations to make in that connexion:

Firstly, I think we all have to learn to campaign and let campaign – we shouldn’t waste our time criticising other people’s campaigning efforts but instead spend our time doing what we think is right. After all, as Perl programmers are fond of saying, there’s more than one way to do it. Also, nobody can know for sure what will work till afterwards.

I tend to think that one of the main reasons why the Yes parties didn’t do better at the last Holyrood election is that people spent far too much time arguing about the merits of “both votes SNP” versus “second vote Green”, rather than taking the fight to the Unionists.

Secondly, the main reason why some activists spent some of their hard-earned money on these billboards is that they’re frustrated so little campaigning is happening. If Yes Scotland II had already been up and running (hopefully using a better name than that!), spewing out campaign materials and putting up billboards, the vast majority of people would simply back them up and send their money to them. It’s because nothing is happening that people get frustrated and start doing things on their own.

Activists aren’t employees that can be commanded to do something different by their manager. They need to see that something is happening, especially when the situation in the UK post-Brexit is so dire and so ripe for a change for the better.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that this shows that Tommy Sheppard’s idea about paid organisers in the SNP was right. I’m not so sure. I agree community organisers would be really useful, but they’d have to work with the wider Yes movement, not just with the SNP. I can’t imagine that those Yes activists who aren’t members of the SNP would take very kindly to getting told not to undertake certain campaigning activities by a paid SNP organiser.

The two last points show why we need Yes Scotland II to get up and running as matter of priority. We need somebody to produce campaign materials (and of course the SNP cannot really do that before they call the referendum), and the Yes movement community organisers need to be employed by some organisation other than a political party.

In the meantime, we should all focus on campaigning for a Yes vote in the next referendum, not on criticising each other. There’s more than one way to do it.

In EFTA while part of the UK?

Today there have been rumours on Twitter that the Scottish Government is investigating whether Scotland can join EFTA (and thus the Internal Market) while being part of the UK:

It’s a bit like the Reverse Greenland solution, but joining EFTA instead of the EU. However, as far as I can tell, the obstacles are the same:

  1. EFTA and the EU cover a lot of policy areas that aren’t currently devolved to Scotland, so Westminster will either have to devolve a lot more to Holyrood very quickly, or they’ll have to represent Scotland and EFTA/EU meetings. (See also this blog post by Kirsty Hughes on some of the potential complications.)
  2. It’s not clear at all that EFTA and/or the EU are interested in having a non-sovereign member.

As I wrote in my old blog post above Reverse Greenland, I think it’s fine Nicola Sturgeon is looking into this, but I really don’t think anything will come of it.

Scottish independence is a better and much more straightforward solution for everybody involved. I don’t see what we’d gain by jumping through ludicrous hoops simply to postpone the next Indyref. Let’s just get on with it!

Borders, ID cards and databases

Passport, please
Passport, please.
Different countries use different means to ensure everybody and their dog don’t just turn up and use their services (such as hospitals, schools or pensions).

Some countries – such as the UK – prefer to control the border but then have very few checks on the inside.

Other countries – such as many other EU countries – prefer to have an ID card of some sort that documents that the holder is entitled to access services.

And finally some countries – mainly Scandinavian ones, I believe – have a central database that keeps track of who can do what.

Of course most countries use a combination of these factors – for instance, when you use the Scottish NHS, they ask you for some personal details so that they can find your CHI number, which is the Scandinavian approach.

The UK approach is really nice once you’re on the inside, because you don’t need to carry any ID and in general don’t need to prove who you are all the time. The problem with it is that it depends on controlling the border, which just isn’t very easy these days. After all, any person who arrives legally – as a tourist, student or business person – can become an illegal immigrant simply by overstaying their visa. It also makes it almost impossible to have different immigration policies in different parts of the country (such as making it easier to move to Scotland than to England).

The other two approaches work much better in the modern world because being in the country doesn’t entitle you to anything per se. If you don’t have an ID card or a database identification number, you won’t be able to access non-emergency health care, sign your kids up for school, or do any of the many other tasks you do as a resident.

Schengen, the EU’s passport-free zone, to some extent depends on members using ID cards or databases so that gaining access to a country doesn’t entitle people to anything. And one might argue that this is also the basis for the EU’s free movement of people. For instance, Denmark knows exactly how many EU citizens have moved there and when, because they have to register for a database identification number as soon as they move there, so there isn’t the same feeling that the government isn’t in control of immigration.

It was thus quite interesting how the Leave campaign was so obsessed with controlling the borders. Unless they want to make it illegal to be a tourist, people will arrive, and some won’t leave again, even though they were supposed to. And of course maintaining the open border with EU member Ireland will make it impossible to keep out EU citizens (because they can at all times travel legally to Ireland).

The lack of ID cards or a database is also what is making life so difficult for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit. It’s difficult to prove how long we’ve been here, and whether we actually ever ticked the boxes for being a legal resident. In many other countries, it would be an administrative piece of cake to find everybody who had been here legally for more than five years and send them a permanent residence permit, without any need for 80-page forms.

Much as I love the lack of ID cards and database identification numbers in Scotland and the rUK, I’m starting to think that what the Leave voters really wanted was a national ID card and/or a universal database, because that’s the only thing that would make it harder to be an illegal immigrant here.

Of course Theresa May’s solution works, too – namely to make the UK so unattractive and despised abroad, with a basket-case economy, that nobody in their right mind wants to move here. If she succeeds, immigrations numbers will fall below zero without any need for border controls, ID cards or databases. What a victory!

The future of English politics – and the Lib Dems

It’s now abundantly clear that English politics is a mess (to some extent this applies also to Wales, but not to Scotland and Northern Ireland because they have quite separate political systems):

  • Labour is split between the Corbynites and the Blairites, and although the latter are losing, they don’t dare start a new party because of the historical lessons from the 1980s.
  • The Tories are split between the Brexiteers and the “modernising” wing, but the latter have been used to being in power (like the Blairites), and they now have no idea how to regain command of the party.
  • The Lib Dems are down because they lost all their left-wingers due to the Coalition Government, so they’re now lingering on less than 10 percent in the opinion polls, which is a disaster under FPTP.
  • UKIP have achieved everything they wanted, so they’re collapsing.
  • The Greens are being held back by FPTP, and many of their natural supporters are quite happy with Corbyn’s Labour.

It’s quite clear to anybody who listened to the recent Brexit debate in the Westminster parliament that the Blairites, the Lib Dems and the Tory modernisers are quite similar, and they seem to agree much more with each other than the Blairites do with the Corbynites or the Tory modernisers do with the Brexiteers.

If Westminster used proportional representation, these people might feasibly form a new party together, but FPTP are keeping them in their old parties. However, even if the politicians are too feart to do anything, it seems the voters might be starting to change, by doing the only option open to them: They might start voting Lib Dem.

At least that’s what I think the Witney byelection shows. There was a 23% swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems, and Labour lost votes, too.

I don’t think the Lib Dems will ever regain their youthful left-wing voters, but perhaps they’ll souk up those Tory and Labour voters that are horrified by the way their parties have been taken over by the old radical fringes.

However, in the absence of large number of Labour and Tory MPs crossing the floor and joining the Lib Dems, this will be a slow process. The Tories will probably still be the largest party after the 2020 General Election, and I find it unlikely they will lose power until 2025 at the earliest, by which time Brexit will be done and dusted and practically irreversible.

I therefore don’t think this is anything that can possibly save Scotland from Brexit, and it’s all very speculative anyway. The only safe way for us to avoid the xenophobic-economic collapse that Brexit entails is to hold a new independence referendum soon and leave the UK madhouse.

I simply hope that England and Wales will slowly regain their senses once they’ve experienced the hard Brexit devastation and then start voting for a pro-EU party that will make them rejoin the EU, but this time as a constructive full member that leads from the front instead of being a girning passenger that never wants to do the same as everybody else. Maybe seeing Scotland being a positive and proactive EU member state from 2019 onwards will help them to see the folly of their ways. I really hope so.

Rye bread and salt liquorice

Danish rye bread and salt liquorice.
Danish rye bread and salt liquorice.
The Tories’ Brexit dreams are getting wilder and weirder by the day, as shown by yesterday’s dramatic story in The Telegraph: “British jam, tea and biscuits will be at the heart of Britain’s Brexit trade negotiations, the Government has said, as it unveiled plans to sell food to other countries to boost the economy.”

I loved @garydunion’s response on Twitter: “Is it just me or is it becoming really obvious that the Tories don’t know the difference between an economic strategy and a period drama?” Much as this is an intriguing explanation for their madness, I think the real answer lies in their provincialism, though. It’s clear they don’t understand the world we’re living in.

The thing is that we can all pine for specific products from home when we’re abroad, so when visiting family and friends in other countries it can often be a welcome gift to bring these items.

Tea, jam and biscuits is probably what the Brexiteers bring when they visit migrant expat friends abroad, so they assume these are universally sought-after delicacies.

However, having spent the first 30 years of my life outwith the UK, I can reveal that British tea, jam and biscuits aren’t that popular abroad – in fact, I think most markets have already reached saturation point.

Perhaps it’s easier to explain by imagining what would happen in Denmark adapted the Brexiteers’ economic strategy. The Danish culinary equivalent would be rye bread and salt liquorice. This is what a Dane would take to friends abroad, not butter and bacon.

So if Danish food companies tried to export mainly what they wanted to eat themselves, the Danish embassies would be busy trying to flog rye bread and salt liquorice to unsuspecting foreigners. “Don’t buy Danish bacon, buy our superior salt liquorice instad!” No, I can’t see it happening, either.

Why don’t the Brexiteers understand that the way to be a successful exporter is by selling what the customers want to buy, not to sell what you want for yourself?