Category Archives: Brexit

Scottish independence, Brexit and Trump: Similarities and differences

2016 is continuing to surprise and shock people, and the election of Trump is definitely going to overshadow the Brexit referendum in many people’s minds.

Some people started to comment on Twitter that the No vote in the Scottish independence referendum is starting to look like the exception in that the result was the one expected by the elites. For instance, here’s Kenny Farquharson from The Times:

Tweets like this one have upset many independence supporters, because it makes an implicit link between the Yes campaign on the one hand and Brexit and Trump on the other.

Of course, there are some similarities, but there are also several important differences. Perhaps it gets clearer if we look at some of them in a tabular format:

Yes Leave Trump
Mainly appealed to older voters? No Yes Yes
Xenophobic? No Yes Yes
Internationalist? Yes No No
Did they win? No Yes Yes
Opposed by tabloids, Fox News, etc.? Yes No No
Opposed by broadsheets, the BBC and all that? Yes Yes Yes
Strong appeal to voters ignored by the elite?

Yes Yes Yes
Strong social-media campaign? Yes Yes Yes

So the similarities are basically that all these campaigns were opposed by the elite media (the broadsheets, the BBC and so on), appealed strongly to voters ignored by the elite for years, and ran strong social-media campaigns that to a large extent broke the conventional rules about how a successful campaign should be run. In most other regards, the Leave campaign and Trump were very similar to each other, but very different from the Yes campaign.

Interestingly, if we were to add Bernie Sander’s unsuccessful campaign and the Greek party Syriza to the table, they’d tick almost exactly the same boxes as the Yes campaign.

So did we lose two years ago because of some of the differences? I’m sure we would have won if the tabloid press had supported us, but if the price had been to turn the campaign xenophobic, it simply wouldn’t have been worth it.

If we had appealed more strongly to older voters, that would have pushed us across the line, too. It was hard to do without mainstream-media support, though, and this is something that we need to get right next time.

Perhaps Kenny Farquharson is right, and the independence referendum simply happened too early. Everything else was right, but people weren’t desperate enough yet for what was perceived to be a leap into the dark.

Perhaps the time is ripe now, and things will be easier next time. However, it’s likely to be a finite window of opportunity before people tire of insurgencies, either because the elites get better at listening to voters again, or because the future disasters caused by Brexit and Trump will scare voters away from audacious experiments.

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.

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!

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?

The walled city state of London

I’ve been really puzzled by recent reports that the UK government is thinking about “making future payments worth several billion pounds to the EU to secure privileged access to the single market for City firms to continue trading across the continent.”

It’s all a bit vague, but as far as I know, the City of London depends on many parts of the Internal Market, such as financial passporting, the free movement of people (to allow key personel to move around the EU easily), the free movement of capital, and probably also being within the Customs Union. In other words, we’d probably be talking about something approaching full EU membership (albeit without voting rights) for the City of London – which is, of course, also why they’re expecting to pay a lot of money for it.

I can see several problems with it, however.

Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why the EU would agree to it. Most of the member states are probably already salivating at the thought of poaching valuable financial companies from London.

Secondly, I’m not entirely sure where they would draw the border. Many financial companies are located outwith the boundaries of the historical City of London, so surely they’d want to pick a larger area – perhaps even the entire Greater London area.

Thirdly, this only makes sense if the government is expecting the rest of the UK to be outside the Internal Market – otherwise there wouldn’t be any point in going through a lot of hassle setting this up. However, how is this going to work? If EU citizens can freely move to the City of London but need to go through passport controls to travel to the rest of the UK, how will this happen? Will the government build a wall around London?

I really cannot for the life of me see how this can possibly work. Are they perhaps just trying to calm down the City of London while they figure out how hard a Brexit they want?

The Red Tribe of Scotland

I thought I’d have a closer look at the four tribes of Scotland as described in my two earlier blog posts.

I defined the Red Tribe as being “made up of the 23% of voters who are pro-UK Brexiters [mnemonic: red as the cross on the English flag]”. Politically they’re probably most like to identify with the Tories or with UKIP.

From a pro-independence point of view, it’s the least interesting group because it’s so unlikely any of them can be convinced to support Scottish independence, especially when it comes with the prospect continued EU membership.

It’s worth noting that although they make up less than a quarter of Scottish voters, they have a majority south of the border (or at least they did at the time of the Brexit referendum). They also hold political power in the UK, and as the only tribe they have won two referendums in short order, which means they’re feeling confident and bullish.

And yet – they can also be angry and touchy, because they were in a minority for so long on the question of Brexit, and they’re fearful others will undo their achievements. Of course they hate the SNP leadership, who represents the polar opposite of their views.

The Red Tribe has won some temporary allies in the Yellow Tribe, who don’t really want a new independence referendum before Brexit is done and dusted, and their relationship with the Green Tribe is now rather uneasy, because these pro-UK Remainers can suddenly see the attraction of Scottish independence within the EU.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the Red Tribe decides to rebuild their relationship with the Green Tribe (for instance by opting for a softer Brexit) or whether they end up scaring them away by being far too extreme. Whether we get independence soon depends on the answer to this question.